President Obama has made ratification of the New START nuclear arms treaty with Russia a top priority for the upcoming lame duck session of Congress, saying the treaty is “essential to the country’s national security.” An extension of the original treaty negotiatied by President Ronald Reagan, the START treaty responsibly reduces U.S. and Russian nuclear arsenals by one-fourth. It has secured the “unanimous support of America’s military leadership,” thirty former Republican and Democratic national security officials, and almost all of the 67 votes needed for ratification in the Senate.
Despite the overwhelming support, a “tiny fringe” of right-wing “experts” are ginning up myths about the treaty. One such mouthpiece is Sen. Lindsey Graham (R-SC). Claiming to be “open-minded” on the treaty, Graham told host Christine Amanpour on ABC’s This Week today that he could not support the treaty “in its current condition” because of “two obstacles” — nuclear modernization and missile defense:
AMANPOUR: Do you believe it will be voted on and ratified in the lame duck session?
GRAHAM: I don’t know, I’m very open-minded about the treaty as Secretary Albright indicated….You’ve got two impediments. Modernization, not only do we need a START treaty but we need to modernize our nuclear force, the weapons left, to make sure they continue to be a deterrent and make sure we can deploy missile defense systems apart from START. So you got two stumbling blocks, the modernization program and how missile defense works apart from the treaty.
AMANPOUR: Would you vote for it?
GRAHAM: In its current condition, no, but [Sen.] Jon Kyl is working with the administration to get better modernization to make sure missile defense is not connected with START. If you could get those two things together, I’d vote for the treaty. I’d rather have a treaty than not have a treaty but modernization, missile defense have to be better dealt with before we get there.
The only problem with Graham’s “stumbling blocks” is that they don’t actually exist. While “security experts” like Sen. Jon Kyl (R-AZ), Sen. Joe Lieberman (I-CT), and former Bush administration Ambassador John Bolton insist that Obama is “risking our security” by supposedly not focusing on modernization of America’s nuclear arsenal, the actual rocket scientists of an independent defense advisory panel determined that not only are the weapons completely reliable, but that our current “nuclear warheads could be extended for decades, with no anticipated loss in effectiveness.” To make sure this remains the case, the Obama administration devoted $7 billion to maintain the nuclear-weapons stockpile — $600 million more than Congress approved last year and 10 percent more than what the Bush administration spent.
As for START’s impact on missile defense, Director of the Missile Defense Agency Lt. Gen. Patrick O’Reilly made it clear that the new treaty “has no constraints on current and future components of the Ballistic Missile Defense System,” and that it actually “reduces” several limitations on cost-effective testing. Thus, given Graham’s criteria for support, treaty proponents should expect his vote.
But regardless of the actual facts, Graham and his Republican comrades seem intent on lobbing unfounded myths to obstruct the treaty’s passage. Senate Minority Leader Mitch McConnell (R-KY), who has made a career on obstruction, certainly is comfortable bucking any cooperation to oppose Obama. But “given the new spotlight on the GOP,” the Wonkroom’s Max Bergmann notes that blocking START “could be a politically dubious stance” since “the treaty is seen as something that is just basic commonsense.” And with two-thirds of Americans supporting ratification of the new START treaty, the by killing the treaty, Senate Republicans will provide clear evidence that they champions the delusional interests of a few over the will and security of the American people.
Flying back yesterday from a meeting with President Dmitri Medvedev in Japan, President Barack Obama told reporters he feels “reasonably good about our prospects” for approving START. Obama said that he had a “series of conversations” with Sens. John McCain (R-AZ), Jon Kyl (R-AZ), and Graham in which they all said “they want to see this done.” On top of their reassurances, a senior Obama administration official also said Saturday that “negotiations are under way” to spend as much as $4 billion more to modernize the U.S. nuclear arsenal as part of the deal to ratify the treaty by year’s end.