Why Senate Republicans Should Pass the New START Treaty

Senate Republicans seem sorely tempted not to pass the New START agreement during the lame-duck session. Some simply won’t vote for the treaty. Some think the newly elected members should have a say and that there’s no need to rush. Others, such as Jon Kyl, are negotiating with the administration over issues such as modernization of the U.S. nuclear arsenal and are trying to get the best possible deal. Still others just want to deny the president a victory.

I have sympathy for most of these arguments (not the last), but I fear Republicans are missing the bigger strategic picture. New START, whatever its flaws, is not a threat to U.S. security. The three previous arms-control treaties, all negotiated by Republican presidents, cut deployed nuclear weapons from near 12,000 to around 2,000. New START reduces the totals to 1,550. Passing it will neither produce a nuclear-free utopia nor disarm the United States.

But blocking the treaty will produce three unfortunate results: It will strengthen Vladimir Putin, let the Obama administration off the hook when Russia misbehaves and set up Republicans as the fall guy if and when U.S.-Russian relations go south.

And if relations with Russia do sour, as I expect, it will be important that the record be clear as to why.

The fact is, the administration’s “reset” policy probably reached its zenith this past summer with the passage of the Iran sanctions resolution at the United Nations. That, Russia’s refusal to deliver the S-300 air defense system to Tehran and its earlier agreement to allow the U.S. military to ship material to Afghanistan across Russian territory have been the reset’s big tangible payoffs. A more theoretical benefit has been the strengthening of President Dmitry Medvedev, a purportedly reform-minded modernizer who allegedly seeks to challenge the tsarist rule of Putin.

So far so good. But the relationship promises to grow more difficult. On Iran, Russia will become less cooperative. While the United States will probably look to tighten sanctions over the coming months, Moscow has already signaled its lack of interest and has even rallied international opposition to “unilateral” U.S. and European sanctions. Other security issues, such as missile defense, tactical nuclear weapons and the continuing occupation of Georgia by Russian troops, will be much tougher to address than strategic nuclear arms reduction, which the Russians needed more than the United States did.

As for Medvedev, whatever his liberalizing inclinations may be, under his presidency the Russian government is becoming more, not less, repressive. Moreover, if Putin decides to run for president again in 2012, the Obama administration will have little to show for its Medvedev strategy.

All this could happen regardless of whether New START passes. Honest administration officials acknowledge that the second phase of “reset” was always going to be tougher than the first and that the really hard work lies ahead.

But imagine if Republicans refuse to pass the treaty before this downward trend even begins. Every negative turn in the relationship, each unhelpful Russian action, and every further blow against liberal and democratic forces in Russia will be attributed to the Republican “sabotage” of U.S.-Russian relations. In fact, administration officials have begun to set up this narrative – “U.S. Election Could Derail Relations With Russia” was the headline of a recent spoon-fed New York Times story. Under this narrative, whatever went right with the relationship was the result of the brilliant “reset.” Whatever goes wrong will be Republicans’ fault.

Setting up Republicans to take the fall for worsening relations may be cynical, but that doesn’t mean it won’t work. Moreover, there will be a kernel of truth to it. Few men are more cynical players than Vladimir Putin. One can well imagine Putin exploiting the failure of New START internally and externally. He will use it to stir more anti-Western nationalism, further weakening an already weak Medvedev and anyone else who stands for a more pro-Western approach. He will use it as an excuse to end further cooperation on Iran. He will certainly use it to win concessions from Europeans who already pander to him, charging that the Americans have destroyed the transatlantic rapprochement with Russia and that more concessions to Moscow will be necessary to repair the damage. There’s no getting around it: Failure to pass START will help empower Putin.

And it will let the Obama administration off the hook. Now is the time to see whether “reset” can deliver on the tough problems – like Georgia – as well as on the easier ones. But failure to pass New START will give the administration all the excuse it needs to throw up its hands.

All this is a big price to pay to derail such a minor treaty. Do Republicans really want to devote weeks of floor debate to this nothingburger next year? With so many pressing domestic issues, and truly significant foreign and defense issues – Iran, Afghanistan, China, the defense budget – a big set-piece debate over this little treaty would be a waste of the new Senate’s time. Nor should Republicans worry that passing the treaty in a lame-duck session will help Obama politically. No one in the United States cares, or will remember come January.

This is a moment for Republicans to lift themselves above tactics and think strategically. It’s a good first step toward governing.

Robert Kagan, a senior fellow at the Brookings Institution, writes a monthly column for The Washington Post.