This morning President Obama and Russian President Medvedev signed a historic new START treaty that will cut nuclear weapons and maintain nuclear stability by extending and updating the verification and monitoring measures in Ronald Reagan’s original START treaty. This agreement is an affirmation of the effort to reset US-Russian relations after they descended to new post-Cold War lows under the Bush administration. But this treaty is also just a first step, as it importantly lays the groundwork for a new more far-reaching treaty that deals with the thousands of tactical and non-deployed nuclear weapons that both sides continue to possess.
But with the signing of the treaty, attention now turns to Republicans in the Senate. For a treaty to be ratified it requires two-thirds of the Senate — 67 Senators — that means the fate of the US-Russian nuclear relationship and global nuclear stability rests with Senate Republicans. Even though some GOP Senators sending strong signals throughout the treaty negotiations that they would not support the treaty, as of yet no Senator has come out in opposition to the treaty. Senate Republicans may be calculating that launching an all-out fight against extending and updating a treaty that Ronald Reagan original initiated is not the right place to draw the line in the sand against Obama’s nuclear agenda.
Karl Rove, of all people, has given some more reason to think bipartisanship is possible. He appeared on Fox yesterday where he called the New START treaty “helpful” and then went on to make the case that the START treaty is just not that big of a deal.
ROVE: The other thing is this so-called New START Treaty that is going to be signed with the Russian. Now that’s helpful but let’s not it make into a big deal.
Now Rove is wrong — this is an historic treaty and the implications of his point about the bomber rule have been thoroughly debunked. But what is important about Rove’s statement is not its policy content, but its political meaning. Saying the treaty is “helpful” and not that big of a deal, is hardly rallying the troops to go to war against ratifying the treaty. What we know about the Senate GOP is that they have aggressively sought to deny President Obama any political or policy victories. On START, there are two ways to try to deny the President a “victory”: either oppose and block ratification of a treaty that almost everyone besides certain Republican members of the Senate support or claim the treaty is not that big of a deal and that it merely continues what Reagan did and vote in unison to support the treaty. In other words, the Senate GOP may attempt to kill the political significance of the treaty — not the treaty itself — by overwhelmingly supporting it and saying it is uncontroversial. Although Rove does not mention ratification specifically, that is essentially the direction his argument is going. And this is significant because Rove’s arguments/talking points — especially on a topic such as nuclear policy of which he is no expert — hardly exist in a vacuum, as they tend to reflect the thinking of the Republican leadership.
Interestingly enough, on Friday, the day after President Obama just signed a historic treaty, Secretary of State Hillary Clinton will be in all places Louisville Kentucky, sharing the stage with Minority Leader Mitch McConnell (R-KY). Clinton is speaking at the University of Louisville’s McConnell Center — named after the Senator — where she will be introduced by Senator McConnell and will certainly be talking about the New START treaty. While it is unclear if that means anything for the prospects for START’s ratification, and the speech has likely been arranged for a long time, it would however seem odd for the speech to go forth in McConnell’s front yard if he were about to organize a massive effort to torpedo the START treaty.
This may not be as odd as it seems, since arms-control agreements with the Russians have always had almost unanimous bipartisan support. McConnell in the past has been supportive of arms-control efforts, as he played in important role in passing the Chemical Weapons ban and voted for the previous arms-control treaties. Additionally, many commentators forget that every previous arms-control agreement has been agreed to under a Republican president (making Obama’s signing a bit unique in that respect) and that Republican foreign policy stalwarts like Henry Kissinger, George Schultz, Colin Powell, and Senator Richard Lugar (R-IN) have all come out in support of the treaty.
There will definitely be lots of huffing and puffing, particularly over missile defense and there will no doubt be efforts to tie the President’s hands going forward, but it may be that this treaty will in the end gather significant bipartisan support. Nevertheless, there are still plenty of reasons to be wary. The conservative movement has shifted considerably to the right and the political approach in the Senate has been built around obstructionism. Things can change quickly and the vitriol and distortion coming from the extreme right on Obama’s nuclear policy could quite easily impact New START.