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Health Care, Massachusetts, and Nukes

By Max Bergmann  

"Health Care, Massachusetts, and Nukes"

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1215_obama_senatorsHealth care and nuclear proliferation seem to have little to do with each other. But right now the President’s ambitious nuclear non-proliferation agenda – the issue for which he received the Nobel Prize – is hanging in the balance.

Should congress fall into a state of paralysis or drastically scale back its ambition; should the health care bill get broken up and therefore eat up more of the legislative calendar; should Republican Senators continue to utilize the politics of obstruction with no political cost; and should Democrats cower in the face of this opposition – the President’s nuclear agenda, along with many other progressive priorities, will be in deep trouble. Strobe Talbott, the President of the Brookings Institution, said at a panel yesterday:

You might say what could Massachusetts possibly have to do with the arms control agenda? I think actually quite a bit. In so far as there is a partisan square-off on a lot the issues of President Obama’s agenda … the defensiveness of the Administration with regard to say health care is likely to tie over into additional difficulty with regard to other pieces of legislation, including the ratification of treaties.

The treaties that Talbott is referring to are a new Strategic Arms Reduction Treaty (START) with the Russians and the Comprehensive Test Ban Treaty (CTBT). Both of these treaties are critical to non-proliferation efforts not just on their merits, but also because these treaties demonstrate America’s seriousness about nuclear proliferation and arms reductions. 2010 is critical for the nuclear agenda, as there are two major international conferences in April and May at which the President will seek to convince other countries to do more to combat nuclear proliferation. But getting others to do more, requires the United States to actually take action and lead by example.

It is not just that the world won’t become safer if these conferences are unsuccessful, it is that the world could get a whole lot less safe. The great danger is that an unsuccessful NPT review conference, which happens every 5 years and will take place in May, could further erode states’ confidence in the non-proliferation regime, putting us closer to a cascade of nuclear proliferation. In other words, failing to act on these treaties could have really dangerous consequences.

It has long been clear that the CTBT would be particularly hard, since many GOP Senators remain bizarrely committed to the explosive testing of nuclear weapons (yes you read that write). Yet the expectation has been that ratifying a new START treaty would be relatively uncontroversial. A new START treaty has had significant bipartisan support, since it is after all an advancement of the original treaty negotiated under Ronald Reagan.

However, ratifying a new treaty would be the biggest tangible foreign policy accomplishment of President Obama’s tenure – a fact that may mobilize the Senate GOP to attempt to block any new agreement. Senate Republicans led by Jon Kyl have been making quite a bit of noise already and have been throwing out disingenuous arguments to undercut the Administration’s efforts. This seems to indicate that Senate ideologues like Kyl are looking for reasons to oppose a new deal. While there are Republican Senators, like Richard Lugar, that will in all likelihood support a START treaty, treaties need 67 votes.

Should Senate Republicans conclude that continuing to pursue a politics of obstruction and therefore blocking these critical treaties will have little if any political cost – and would alternatively offer some political gain by hurting the President – they will go nowhere and as a result so will the President’s nuclear agenda.

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