The Senate’s action by approving the New Start Treaty by a strong 71-26 vote deserves to be celebrated. Two/thirds of the Senators present and voting is required for approval. With an extra-ordinary majority needed for approval a six vote margin stands as a healthy one.
Our governing institutions can produce welcome results. I want us to understand why. The outcome is a triumph of the political process over strong resistance and hardcore obstructionism from treaty opponents.
I. Here’s What’s at Stake:
The treaty re-establishes mutual on the ground verification of American and Russian nuclear arsenals. Without the treaty there is no inspection or verification. In a nutshell, no treaty means trust but do not verify.
By approving the treaty the US stands as a mature nation ready to do its part to create a workable world of nuclear stability that moves to zero nuclear weapons. By safeguarding nuclear material stockpiles and warheads, mutually cooperative efforts with Russia are strengthened.
II. Obama Administration Prepared by Carefully Laying the Groundwork
The Obama Administration prepared ahead of time by building a skilled State Department team, headed by Rose Gottemoeller as Assistant Secretary of State for Verification and Compliance and an active presence by Pentagon officials and armed services officials of high rank. After agreement was reached with Russia the State Department and the military were as one. Within the military there are savvy and caring security experts who value stability and arms control as much as anybody. Secretary Gates, and senior military officials, provided strong and unequivocal support for New Start. Admiral Mullen’s pro-treaty letter in the last few days of the debate added to the Armed Services strong and pivotal ratification efforts. Mullen reinforced the Administration’s early work as it responded efficiently and crisply to many legitimate questions that merited careful and clear answers.
New Start supporters provided clear messaging. The effect was that the argument shifted to the harmful security threats to the US if the treaty was not ratified. That argument became credible because of the solid military support for New Start.
III. Senate Politics
Senators Kerry’s (D-Ma) and Lugar’s (R-Ind) leadership trumped the polarized politics of Washington. They worked together closely based on mutual respect and a long relationship. Lugar is arguably the most knowlegable Senator on the nuclear arms reduction issue. He worked closely with Senator Nunn when he was in the Senate and since. He also helped educate President Obama on the issue when each served in the Senate. Senator Kerry exercised his leadership by being patient, listening to the concerns of his colleagues, answering legitimate questions that are part of the stuff of give and take in politics. Kerry was a convincer by being a listener to the concerns of his colleagues. Support for the treaty from Democrats was never in doubt or from the two Independents who caucus with the Democrats. With one exception on one amendment all Democrats opposed all amendments that were “treaty busters.”
For the longest time Lugar was the only Republican announced treaty supporter. But the Administration and Kerry and Lugar were the opposite of passive. They persuaded those who served Republican Presidents to come out in full force to support the Treaty. James Baker and James Schlesinger were especially important. Baker served Reagan and Bush and is seen not as a striped pants man but a hard nosed political operator who understands the substance of the issue. Schlesinger is a hawk who opposed other arms control treaties. Whatever questions they raised about the treaty they were unambiguous that New Start should be approved.
Their arguments created political space that began to sink in. That was critical. Obama did not want to postpone the vote to next year. McConnell clearly overstepped boundaries when he said he wanted to make sure that Obama would not succeed in 2012. That became a reckless reminder that he believes our national security be damned serving narrow political purposes only.
McConnell’s folly became evident when the vote to begin debate of New Start had unanimous Democratic support plus a sufficient number of Republicans to give the vote a 2/3 majority of those present and voting though only a majority was required. That provided a psychological lift to treaty supporters..
The McConnell and Kyl efforts on the Sunday talk shows opposing ratification ultimately failed. Even so, there was plenty of worry Sunday night. The groundwork that had been laid over many months began to show results. Efforts at back channel contacts with Republican Senators led to showing why New Start helps rather than hurts US security. Gradually enough Senators shifted to support ratification.
So a mixture of substance, credible outside support from former Republican officials, the solidity of the military, Senate politics among Republicans (the overreach on this issue by McConnell and Kyl), overwhelming newspaper support in home states combined to a resounding victory.
IV. Role of Interest Groups
The arms control community was as one. New Start in conventional political terms may not be a salient issue but it is an issue in which elected officials can cast an affirmative vote without political risk. To the Administration’s credit they worked more cooperatively and were welcome receivers of lobbying information from the arms control groups as well as producers of it. It was a two way street that led to a functioning two source rule on where Senators leaned and what they were thinking, what concerns they had and how best to meet those concerns. A veteran of work on these issues during other Administrations said that the level of cooperation and respectful relationship building exceeded all other efforts.
The role of Council for a Livable World became visible to me when I was standing off the Senate floor for the Sunday session and as the Senate was voting approval on December 22. Two different staff members came up to John Isaacs to thank him for Council’s timely fact sheets, credible bullet points and sharply put arguments in opposition to the Amendments that were roll called. Each of those Amendments gutted the treaty and were therefore “deal breakers” with Russia. On the merits they were unnecessary..
Being a source for information is influence and power when it comes to making decisions that are mostly out of the public eye. Council for a Livable World, and the arms control conmmunity as a whole, achieved that standard.
V. What’s Next
Ideological opposition to nuclear arms control remains. The Heritage Foundation put out a bitter statement. Senator McCain was also a bitter ender in the debate and evidenced it further by his reported surliness and physicality on the Senate floor.
Equally important there is a raging historical amnesia among Republican Senators. Let the record show that Republican Presidents negotiated START 1 ( the basis of the current treaty), the Nuclear Non-Proliferation Treaty, the INF Treaty (eliminating an entire class of nuclear weapons), the Chemical Weapons Convention and the Biological Weapons Convention. So Kyl, McConnell, McCain and others besmirch the record of Republican Presidents.
In the Cold War in 1963 a majority of Senate Republicans supported the Nuclear Test Ban Treaty. Today 69% opposed ratification of New Start without a Cold War. Expect these opposing Senators, led by Kyl and McCain, to try and weaken the New Start treaty by imposing missile defense policies on the Obama Administration.
Treaty supporters will have to play a vigilant role in protecting the treaty. It’s a role that requires public debate and argument. Otherwise progress gained will be threatened. We can kiss progress on Nuclear Non-Proliferation and the Comprehensive Test Ban Treaties, still to be approved, goodbye. We want something very different. The effort in support of New Start paves the way for a world that is nuclear free..