Saturday, December 4, 2010

The Politics of New START and the Echo of Jesse Helms

The New START Treaty (what should really be called START III), a treaty that would reduce the nuclear stockpiles of the U.S. and Russia to historically low levels, should have sailed through the Senate with bipartisan support. After all, most arms control treaties do just that. Politics stops at the water's least it used to. Just look at the list of arms control/defense treaties since 1963:

• Limited Test Ban Treaty, 1963 -- 80-19.
• Non-Proliferation Treaty, 1969 -- 83-15. (7 Democrats and eight Republicans voted against.)
• Latin American Nuclear-Free Zone Treaty, 1971 -- 70-0.
• Seabed Arms Control Treaty, 1972 -- 83-0.
• Anti-Ballistic Missile Treaty, 1972 -- 88-2. (U.S. later withdrew.)
• Biological Weapons Convention, 1974 -- 90-0.
• Intermediate-Range Nuclear Forces Treaty, 1988 -- 93-5.
• Peaceful Nuclear Explosions Treaty and Threshold Test Ban Treaty, 1990 -- 98-0 (to ratify both treaties).
• Conventional Armed Forces in Europe Treaty, 1991 -- 90-4.
• Strategic Arms Reduction Treaty, also known as START I, 1992 -- 93-6. (Expired 2009.)
• Strategic Arms Reduction Treaty II, also known as START II, 1996 -- 87-4.
• Chemical Weapons Convention, 1997 -- 74-26 (with 29 Republicans joining 45 Democrats in voting yes and 26 Republicans voting no.).
• Strategic Offensive Reductions Treaty, also known as the Moscow Treaty, 2003 -- 95-0.

Even divided government has not been an impediment to passing arms control treaties. As reported by PolitiFact: "Thirteen of the 14 treaties above were ratified when one party held the presidency and the other party held the Senate." Only the 1997 Chemical Weapons Convention, a treaty negotiated under Reagan and G.H.W. Bush and signed under Clinton, did not sleepwalk through the Senate and that was largely because of the opposition of Senator Jesse Helms (R-NC), the Senate Foreign Relations Chair. Few members of Congress were more ideological or partisan than Helms an the 1990s--a conservative ideologue whose hatred for President Bill Clinton was unmatched. Still, despite Helms' attempts to sabotage the treaty, it mustered a 74 votes, more than enough to pass the 2/3 threshold.

So what's the problem with New START? Actually little unless you are a sitting Republican Senator more interested in political gamesmanship than U.S. national security. There is a reason that just about every establishment Republican and Democrat has lined up in support of the treaty. Such well-respected party luminaries on both sides of the aisle as James Baker, Henry Kissinger, Brent Scowcroft, William Cohen, Madeline Albright, and Colin Powell, have publicly committed to supporting the New START Treaty and the Obama administration in this endeavor. Even Senator Richard Lugar (R-IN), the ranking member of the Foreign Relations Committee has staked his political career and opened himself up to a primary challenge for his strong support of the treaty. Why? Because Lugar always puts principle above party and it's one of the reasons why he is beloved by so many on both sides of the aisle.

All of this has not stopped Senator Jon Kyl (R-AZ), the Republican Whip, from attempting to scuttle the treaty and deny President Obama a foreign policy victory. His intransigence is a reminder that current day senators cast in the mold of Jesse Helms are omnipresent in the 21st Century Senate. In fact, Kyl was one of Helms' compatriots opposing the Chemical Weapons Convention in 1997. The real shame is that the Senate, in the eyes of James Madison, was supposed to be the body of maturity and coolness to offset the passions of the more unruly House. In 2010, however, both chambers resemble twins, dedicated to partisanship and political oneupsmanship at the expense of the national good.

In the end, New START will likely pass but not without an already unacceptable delay. Because the original START Treaty expired in December 2009, American inspectors are no longer on the ground in Russia. Every day that passage of New START is delayed is yet another day where American inspectors do not have access to Russia's nuclear stockpile and American national security is at greater risk.

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