Monday, November 22, 2010

Benign Motives Secondary

There may be a legitimate reason for Republicans to oppose the new START treaty, which modernizes the Strategic Arms Reduction Treaty negotiated by the Reagan and Bush 41 Administrations with the former Soviet Union. But not according to Richard Burt, chief negotiator during the latter administration.

On the PBS NewsHour (transcript here) on November 17, Mr. Burt contended

Well, again, I don't think it's because of problems with the treaty. Jim talks about ballistic missile defense.

The -- there are no constraints on this administration or any future administration's options for developing ballistic missile defense. The language in the treaty which is in the preamble is exactly the same as in the language in the treaty I negotiated and previous administrations negotiated.

Why is it getting so politicized? Well, first of all -- and, here, I can say this as a Republican -- this is the first time a Democratic administration has sought to get ratification for a strategic arms treaty. And I think that is a -- it makes -- creates a difficult dilemma for Republicans.

It's hard for Republicans to oppose a Republican administration's treaty, particularly in the current hyper-partisan and polarized atmosphere in Washington. I think it's much easier for Republicans to oppose this administration.

In a panel discussion (transcript here) sponsored by the Arms Control Association on November 8, Burt explained in greater detail this line of reasoning, as well as its potential repercussions for national security:

.... as people describe it to me, Kyl is part of a number of Republican members of the Senate that are more worried about Obama, and this almost kind of reminds you of some of the rhetoric you’ve heard over the last two years, and the argument is this: that yes, the treaty has some problems but they’re not big problems and under normal circumstances we could support it. But you know this guy Obama has talked about eliminating all nuclear weapons, and I don’t know if we could support a treaty when Barack Obama is president because we don’t know where he’s going in the long term on nuclear arms control.

That’s a tough one, it seems to me, because what you’re really saying there is you’re not so much interested in the details of the treaty, what it constrains, it doesn’t constrain. You don’t trust the commander-in-chief, and that’s sort of the augment you’re beginning to hear, and what I’m worried about is that if that argument gets traction, particularly if the treaty isn’t ratified in a lame-duck session, I think some of the new Republicans who are coming into the Senate could buy into that argument that it’s not the treaty, it’s the president, and that I think would be very dangerous and very corrosive.

By the way, it was an argument that I remember when I was a young reporter for The New York Times covering the SALT II debate because Republicans in the 1970s made a similar argument about Jimmy Carter. They said, you know, we just don’t know with this guy and it makes it hard for us to vote for the SALT II Treaty.

Burt did note, however

an old tactic that’s usually done in these arms control debates. People want money for their favorite programs and projects, and of course they dress it up as saying that this is necessary, this spending is necessary to keep the country strong under this arms control regime. As I understand it, most of the money is for basically the nuclear weapons themselves, the warheads and keeping them secure, keeping them reliable and ready....

While Republican Senators Inhofe of Oklahoma and tea party heavyweight DeMint of Tennessee (and incoming tea party favorite Rand Paul of Kentucky) oppose the treaty on ideological grounds, Arizonan Jon Kyl (as Minority Whip, in a powerful position) seems to be fronting for the nuclear-industrial complex. Having already squeezed from the President $10 billion (deficit hawks, doncha know) for nuclear weapons modernization atop the $80 billion already planned, Kyl is negotiating for more and more. Burt observes that administration officials

have clearly walked the extra mile to deal with Senator Kyl's concerns. They are talking about spending $80 billion on the infrastructure that actually makes nuclear weapons, not the missiles or bombers or so-called delivery vehicles, but the weapons themselves, that -- that ensures that they continue to be reliable and effective.

And they're talking about $80 billion over 10 years, and adding another $4 billion in the coming year to ensure that the nuclear weapons labs and the country's infrastructure is capable of maintaining our nuclear stockpile.

And I have to say that, again, not speaking for the administration, but this is a much larger amount of money than was spent by the previous administration on the nuclear weapons complex.

Digby contends that on MSNBC on November 19, host Andrea Mitchell

.... said, "I haven't seen Richard Lugar that fired up about this issue in quite a long time, and it's because, on the face of it, what is the explanation? When you read this treaty, the preamble to the treaty, what is the explanation for saying that this is bad for U.S. interests? He replied, and I kid you not, that he thinks Republicans only want nuclear treaties to be signed under GOP administrations.

Mitchell largely ignored the comment, and a transcript of the exchange seems to be unavailable except by subscription.

There is ideological opposition from a few Republicans and an appeal to Senator Kyl of increased campaign contributions from corporations poised to benefit from increased nuclear weapons appropriations. Nevertheless, there is GOP opposition to the treaty because it is being proposed by a Democratic administration, as reflected by Digby's recollection (whether or not strictly interpreted) and Burt's remark

If we can’t ratify this treaty, we are going to send a signal, I believe, of almost total incompetence to the rest of the international community. People on Capitol Hill love to talk about American leadership. Well, I’ve got to tell you, this is not American leadership. I mean, this is what J. William Fulbright in the Vietnam period called America as a helpless giant and that’s what we become if we can’t pull ourselves together to get this treaty ratified.

This would fit in conveniently with the charge of the Republican right that Barack Obama is a weak president for whom there is no respect abroad, and who is damaging the prestige of the United States everywhere. He cowardly denies, the drumbeat goes, American exceptionalism, as expressed in the demagogic words of the former half-governor of Alaska: "Could it be a lack of faith in American exceptionalism? The fact is that America and our allies are safer when we are a dominant military superpower - whether President Obama likes it or not."

The U.S. Senate may end up yet ratifying the new Start treaty. But President Obama, as with so many issues, is fighting GOP intransigence little based on substance but more so by the party's responsiveness to powerful special interests and its determination to bring this president- and with it, possibly the nation- down.

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