By Travis Sharp and John Isaacs – May 3, 2010
Dr. James Schlesinger—former CIA director, Nixon/Ford Secretary of Defense, and the nation’s first Secretary of Energy—possesses major cachet in the security policy community, particularly with Republicans. The venerably conservative Wall Street Journal anointedhim “Yoda, the master of the universe” for nuclear strategists. This prominence explains why Republicans on the Senate Armed Services Committee nominated him to lead the conservative wing of the U.S. Strategic Posture Commission, which released its final report last year.
On April 29, however, at the Senate Foreign Relations Committee’s introductory hearing on New START, Schlesinger authoritatively refuted arguments advanced by New START critics. Was Schlesinger effusive about the treaty? No. Did he raise potential concerns about it? Yes. But he also powerfully, if subtlety, rebutted several key criticisms of New START while firmly endorsing ratification.
Let’s take this issue by issue
Ratification of the treaty
The most important question facing the Senate is whether to give its advice and consent to New START.
Sen. Jon Kyl (R-AZ) told a National Defense University audience that “I’m not convinced today that ratifying the New START treaty is in the best interests of the United States.”
Clearly Dr. Schlesinger does not agree. On the contrary, he said:
“I think that it is obligatory for the United States to ratify. And any treaty is going to have limitations, questionable areas. There are some in this treaty. We need to watch them for the future, but that does not mean that the treaty should be rejected.”
When asked by Sen. Russ Feingold (D-WI) about the downside of non-ratification, Schlesinger replied:
“I think that the principal defect, if the Senate does not ratify, lies in the political area in some of the points that have already been made by Secretary Perry. To wit, for the United States at this juncture to fail to ratify the treaty in the due course of the Senate’s deliberation would have a detrimental effect on our ability to influence others with regard to particularly the nonproliferation issue.”
Sen. Kyl has complained that the United States “did nothing to address the Russian advantage in tactical nuclear weapons” in New START, implying that this might be a reason to oppose the agreement. Indeed, Schlesinger’s submitted testimony spent a lot of time talking about the need to negotiate limits on tacnukes.
Yet under questioning from Sen. John Kerry (D-MA), Schlesinger tipped his hand:
KERRY: But this [i.e. New START] is a precursor, is it not, I mean any effort to be able to get to that [i.e. tactical nuclear weapon reductions] requires us to ratify this agreement?
SCHLESINGER:Yes. And I fervently hope that it’s a precursor.
To repeat, Schlesinger agreed that any effort to address the threat posed by Russia’s tactical nuclear arsenal requires ratification of New START. If senators are serious about wanting to reduce Russian tacnukes—as opposed to just raising the issue to score political points—then they should support New START, not oppose it, according to Schlesinger.
Furthermore, Schlesinger pointed out that other Administrations have passed on this issue:
“In this case, the Russians, as I have indicated, have been quite resistant to any discussion of the tactical nuclear weapons. This is not a problem of this administration. It goes on from administration to administration.”
When Sen. Kerry asked if Schlesinger had anticipated that this round of New START negotiations would cover tactical nuclear weapons, Schlesinger replied: “No, I did not anticipate that.”
Schlesinger commented on the complaint voiced by Kyl that the Obama administration was “disingenuous at best” when it claimed that New START did not limit missile defense. Said Schlesinger:
SCHLESINGER: It is an overstatement [for the administration] to say that nothing in the treaty inhibits missile defense. I don’t think that it inhibits missile defense in a serious way, however.
The operative word here is “serious”.
Instead of raising “serious” questions about substantive issues, Kyl keeps saying that “More important to me” is “the way they described the wording”? With all due respect, in a day and age when nuclear proliferation and nuclear terrorism pose enormous threats to the national security of the United States, Kyl’s engaging in semantics rather than raising a “serious” concern. .
Sen. Jim Risch (R-ID) tried to pursue a similar line of questioning on missile defense later, but Schlesinger wasn’t picking up what he was laying down. Here are Schlesinger’s most important points:
SCHLESINGER: I can understand your expression of concern [on missile defense], Senator. I think that the reality is that there is nothing in the treaty that is problematic. I think that the problem will exist in the continued Russian pressure on us with regards to missile defense as reflected in the preamble.
Kyl and Sen. John McCain (R-AZ) have raised concerns that Russia’s unilateral declaration that it may withdraw from the treaty if the U.S. goes too far with missile defense will “constrain improvements” by an Administration determined to keep the treaty in force,
SCHLESINGER: I think that it’s a legitimate concern. I do not think that we will be inhibited by this treaty or even by the Russian pressure with respect to defending ourselves against North Korea and ultimately against Iran because those deployments are much lower. In the case of Iran, we are dealing primarily with regional missile defenses and they are in no way inhibited by this treaty.
SCHLESINGER: For the Russians, it [missile defense] is not only a serious issue in their minds, but more than that it is a political battering ram that they have been using against us over the years and I don’t think that we will persuade them to give it up.
As Schlesinger points out, New START will not inhibit U.S. missile defenses nor prevent us from protecting ourselves against North Korea or Iran. The future challenge for U.S. missile defense is thereby political (Russia), not legal (New START). (Also technical and strategic, but that’s a whole other story)
Spending on the nuclear weapons complex
Sen. Kyl has frequently raised concerns over the level of spending on the nuclear weapons complex.
This is the topic where Schlesinger was cagiest. We will just quote his key remark and let you judge:
SCHLESINGER: It is essential that we augment the money that has been allocated for the labs, for the science program in particular. The add-on for next year looks to be significant. But I hope in the out years that it continues to be appropriate. We don’t know yet, within a few weeks at least, we should have the 10-year program recommended by the administration which will I think influence strongly the decisions of senators.
Finally, Schlesinger shared his assessment of New START’s verification provisions:
SCHLESINGER: I think all in all that the verification possibilities under this treaty, though much more limited than START I, are still adequate.
Again, was he effusive? No. But he reaffirmed that the verification provisions are adequate from his perspective. This is the same thing Secretary Gates concluded, saying that “I think that when the testimony of the intelligence community comes on the Hill, that the DNI and the experts will say that they are comfortable that the provisions of this treaty for verification are adequate for them to monitor Russian compliance, and vice versa.”