Nuclear regulation cannot wait for partisan politics

Posted Sept. 15, 2010, at 5:27 p.m.

Susan Collins and Olympia Snowe should know better. For all the talk of their moderate positions, Maine’s senators have allowed themselves to be lumped together with the resurgent know-nothing wing of the Republican Party over the new START treaty.

By today, the two Maine senators might have come to their senses and announced that they will support the new Strategic Arms Reduction Treaty with Russia — a treaty that is so clearly in the national interest of the United States that nearly every respected Republican leader in the field of national security has urged ratification. But what have they been waiting for?

Strong supporters of START include former Secretaries of State George Shultz, James Baker and Henry Kissinger; they include former secretaries of defense James Schlesinger, Frank Carlucci and William Cohen. All Republicans. They include the entire American military.

Only one Republican senator, Richard Lugar of Indiana, has endorsed the treaty, which is scheduled for a key vote in the Senate Foreign Relations Committee today. The treaty, which would replace the treaty in force from 1991 to December 2009, requires 67 votes for approval, or a yes vote from seven or eight Republicans.

What is crystal clear is that many Republican senators, such as Jon Kyl of Arizona, Jeff Sessions of Mississippi and James DeMint of South Carolina, are willing to ignore the national security interests of the United States to score a few cheap political points against President Barack Obama. With far-fetched arguments claiming that the treaty does not sufficiently modernize the U.S. nuclear arsenal, these senators want to block approval of the treaty and prevent any perception of a gain for the president, even in the sometimes bipartisan area of foreign policy.

Despite wholesale rejection of their views by most experts, these senators have posed objection after objection — objections they did not raise when George W. Bush gained 95-0 approval for the far less important Moscow Treaty. The Kyl-Sessions argument about underfunding American nukes is contradicted by a 13 percent Obama administration increase for America’s nuclear infrastructure.

Although not talking about the treaty specifically, former Republican Sen. Chuck Hagel excoriated Republican leaders in a recent interview with The Washington Diplomat. GOP leaders are “not presenting any new alternatives, any new options. … It’s just no, no, no,” he said.

The fact is that the proposed treaty reduces and caps Russia’s nuclear arsenal, strengthens verification procedures, toughens international efforts to block nuclear material from falling into the hands of terrorists, and lays the groundwork for further global reductions.

But Kyl, Sessions and company object to one of President Obama’s long-term goals: to eliminate all nuclear weapons. The first and foremost proponent of that view — the “zero option” — was Ronald Reagan. And Shultz, Kissinger et al.

What’s worrisome here is that two smart senators such as Collins and Snowe, not to mention other Republicans, have allowed narrow political interests to influence their decision-making on a critical national security matter. They’re being followers, not leaders.

As Shultz and other Republican luminaries note, the delay has meant that neither the U.S. nor Russia has been able to conduct inspections of each other’s nuclear arsenals since the previous treaty expired last December. That alone is a critical lapse, without the tougher new verification procedures, without the 30 percent cuts in still vast nuclear arsenals of the U.S. and Russia.

According to the Bulletin of Atomic Scientists, the United States and Russia account for 95 percent of the existing 22,600 nuclear weapons, with France, China, Britain, Israel, Pakistan, India and North Korea accounting for the remainder.

A failure by the two main nuclear states to continue reducing their unneeded arsenals would cripple efforts to restrain countries such as Iran and North Korea from pursuing nuclear weapons. It also would hurt extensive initiatives to secure nuclear material that could fall into the hands of sub-state terrorist organizations.

Approval by the Senate committee still does not guarantee a floor vote before the Senate breaks for midterm elections. But Democratic Majority Leader Harry Reid needs to show courage in coming weeks and get it done. This is not an issue that should be approved by a lame-duck session, after the November elections, before a new Congress.

Respected national security experts — across the board — see this treaty as a critical tipping point between real progress toward reducing the nuclear threat or a more chaotic future with many more nuclear powers and much easier access to nuclear material for terrorist groups.

Fred Hill of Arrowsic was a foreign correspondent for The Baltimore Sun and worked on national security issues for the State Department. He can be reached at fhill207@gmail.com.

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