Obama exaggerates urgency of treaty action

December 4, 2010


— The Framers of the Constitution, a nuisance regretted by most modern presidents, gave the legislative branch — another indignity inflicted on presidents, as they see it — an important role in making foreign policy. The Framers did so by, among other provisions, requiring the Senate’s two-thirds (today, 67 votes) consent to treaties. The Framers’ wisdom is confirmed by Barack Obama’s impatience with senators reluctant to ratify, during Congress’ lame-duck session, the New START treaty pertaining to Russia’s nuclear weapons.

The administration’s ardor for ratification is understandable, as is Russia’s. The president needs a success somewhere; Russia needs psychotherapy. It longs to be treated as what it no longer is, a superpower, and it likes the treaty’s asymmetries.

It is more reasonable to worry about the security of Russia’s weapons than about their numbers. New START, however, pertains primarily to the numbers. It requires the reduction of strategic weapons and launchers. Concerning the former, Russia’s economic anemia is already forcing it into arms reductions. Concerning the latter, Russia already is below the levels the treaty would impose on America.

Deeply informed and rationally skeptical, Sen. Jon Kyl, R-Ariz., is arguing from the position of increased strength created on Nov. 2: Come January, there will be six more Republican senators. He implicitly — and lucidly — treats Russia itself as of secondary importance in the treaty. He is using his enhanced leverage primarily to increase the administration’s commitment to modernization of the U.S. nuclear arsenal: All nuclear weapons decay, and no U.S. weapon has been tested since 1992.

“All the lab folks will tell you” modernization is imperative, Kyl said in a telephone interview Monday. Which may be why, he said, “for significant periods of time” Republican senators were “denied meaningful contact” with weapons laboratory scientists.

The administration contends that even delaying ratification will reduce Russia’s helpfulness regarding Iran’s nuclear weapons program. This suggests, strangely, that Russia has been significantly helpful. And it assumes, implausibly, that Russia’s interest in preventing neighboring Iran from having nuclear weapons is less than its interest in modifying the strategic arms balance with an America that is no longer a strategic adversary. Defense Secretary Robert Gates says Russia is no military threat to America or America’s allies.

The administration says ratification is urgent to reinstall verification. But when the previous treaty expired last December, Obama and Russia’s President Dmitry Medvedev said they would continue “in the spirit of” the expired treaty. If verification is suddenly increasingly important, is Russia decreasingly trustworthy?

When nations are enemies, they use arms negotiations less to mutually limit arms than to channel arms competition in strategically advantageous directions. So real arms control is impossible until it is unimportant. Until, that is, dangers disappear. So, ratification of New START is possible. But to call it urgent is silly; to call it advisable would be premature, pending completion of the Senate’s advise-and-consent role, which should include clarifying stipulations in any ratifying resolution.

At Russia’s insistence, the treaty contains language that some Republicans think does — and the Obama administration insists does not — couple limits of offensive and defensive systems. If it does, Republicans should oppose New START; if the language is, as the administration says, without force, it should be deleted. The Senate made ratification of the Jay Treaty (1795) and the Panama Canal Treaty (1978) contingent on modifying some language.

The impertinence of mere senators modifying their handiwork will scandalize the Cold War arms control clerisy, who are still with us. These custodians of humanity’s salvation, these speakers of an argot (SLBMs, ICBMs, MIRVs, etc.) more arcane to the laity than Latin was to 14th-century peasants, are marvelously unimpressed by the events of 1991. If, when the Soviet Union disappeared, Russia had disintegrated until only the Moscow metropolitan area remained, the clerisy would be earnestly negotiating arms agreements with that city’s police force.

In this era of astonishing emerging markets such as China, India and Brazil, Russia is a perverse miracle of arrested development. It is receding because it still has an essentially hunter-gatherer economy, based on extraction industries (oil, gas, minerals). Aside from vodka, what Russian-manufactured export matters? Don’t say caviar; it is extracted from sturgeon.

America’s domestic policy is bedeviled by reactionary liberalism, whose adherents resist any diminution of any entitlement. Barack Obama’s tumble into a time warp — his overinvestment in an arms agreement with the emaciated Russian bear — proves that reactionary liberalism does not end at the water’s edge.

— George Will is a columnist for Washington Post Writers Group. georgewill@washpost.com


just_another_bozo_on_this_bus 7 years, 6 months ago

"The president needs a success somewhere;"

The more accurate take is that Republicans are keen to make sure that the president sees no success, anywhere, even where that success would be to the benefit of everyone except the Republicans who feel the need for "presidential" failures anywhere they can create them.

The Party of No marches on.

just_another_bozo_on_this_bus 7 years, 6 months ago

I could pose the same question to you. But what's the point?

Scott Drummond 7 years, 6 months ago

America's failure's is good for their brand & as long as they control the mainstream media, does not harm their ability to win elections

just_another_bozo_on_this_bus 7 years, 6 months ago

"Mustn't be an emergency after all."

No, they are just smart enough to recognize that Republicans intend to politicize this as long as they can.

jafs 7 years, 6 months ago

The fact that Russia doesn't mind not ratifying it doesn't mean that we shouldn't.

One provision which seems important to me is the ability to conduct inspections, which we haven't had since the treaty expired.

Flap Doodle 7 years, 6 months ago

Here's your all-purpose headline beginning for the next couple of years: "Obama exaggerates..."

beatrice 7 years, 6 months ago

Tom, he was elected by the people, not anointed. Still upset because "Whites have no power right now"?

The President is near, and that has tom all shaking and out of control with his anti-American hatred and bitter anger.

jayhawklawrence 7 years, 6 months ago

Take a look at the wars of the past century. The most horrific in all of human history.

George Will lost his credibility a long time ago by losing any pretense of objectivity. His job, as displayed by these types of columns, is simply to attack the President of the United States for which he gets paid.

We used to call them mudrakers. These were courageous journalists who gave a voice to the voiceless and fought for workers rights during the industrial revolution and the days of child labor and the exploitation of the weak by the powerful.

Now we have something like George Will who pretends to be an expert but is simply a guy who gets paid by supporting the rich and powerful to become more rich and powerful.

Lest we forget:

"I had other priorities in the sixties than military service." – Cheney on his five draft deferments, April 5, 1989

''We did not have a terrorist attack on our country during President Bush's term.'' —former White House Press Secretary Dana Perino, forgetting 9/11, Nov. 24, 2009

''We know there are known knowns: there are things we know we know. We also know there are known unknowns: that is to say we know there are things we know we don't know. But there are also unknown unknowns -- the ones we don't know we don't know.'' —Defense Secretary Donald Rumsfeld, Defense Department briefing, Fe. 12, 2002

just_another_bozo_on_this_bus 7 years, 6 months ago

"We used to call them mudrakers."

To quibble, it's "muckrakers."

just_another_bozo_on_this_bus 7 years, 6 months ago

Really. Are you really saying that there has never been any such journalist, ever?

cato_the_elder 7 years, 6 months ago

Since ratifying this START treaty would be one of the worst things the United States could do right now, it's hard to see how that could ever be viewed as a "success."

beatrice 7 years, 6 months ago

Yes, it is very important that we listen to George Will when it comes to America's policies on nuclear weapons. And Glenn Beck, of course. And maybe Sarah Palin. You know, the people who really know so much about nuclear weapons and policies about Russia, especially since these are people who wouldn't possibly think of politicizing something this important.

Besides, Palin can see the Russian nukes from her house.

camper 7 years, 6 months ago

I think it can be established that the Iraq and Afghanistan conflicts have been a terrible debacle. So if you spin the clock back about ten years and watch some of those newscasts and read some of those "bangin the war drum" commentaries, I do not trust them anymore. They even had me believin. So if George Will was so wrong back then, why should we believe his piece now? Even MSNBC was bangin the drum back in those days.

And why are some of the Republicans who formerly supported this treaty now against it? And how will the party of no vote regarding the trade agreement with South Korea? Are they going to vote no?

beatrice 7 years, 6 months ago

Remember, these conservatives are also the people who tried to tell us to buy plastic and duct tape to protect us against chemical weapons, and supported "freedom" fries. Why anyone would ever listen to them again is beyond me. Sadly, I actually think Will is one of the more rational of the conservative commentators.

camper 7 years, 6 months ago

And the same ones who would have us believe during the Clinton years we were on the road to ruin. The same ones who would probably support the John Birch society back in the heday. The JBS actually had both Truman and Eisenhower pegged as commies. No surprises here to see this "Socialisim" comparison today.

tunahelper 7 years, 6 months ago

Republicans are not the party of no. Republicans are the party of HELL NO!!! HELL NO to omabacare! HELL NO to bailouts! HELL NO to putting a withdraw date in Afghanistan! HELL NO to everything omaba, reid and pelosi!

camper 7 years, 6 months ago

Hell no to the trade agreement with South Korea?

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