Passage of the New START treaty at the end of the 111th Congress should have been what Ploughshares Fund president and nuclear weapons expert Joseph Cirincione called a “no-brainer.” It is, after all, a renewal of a treaty originally negotiated by President Reagan and it will make America safer.

Yet the fact that herculean effort was required to win Senate ratification of a modest arms reduction treaty is a stark reminder of how tough it will be to strike needed, more far-reaching agreements — for example, slashing tactical nuclear weapons and ratifying the Comprehensive Test Ban Treaty.

The cynical Republican leadership mounted a ferocious and often mendacious opposition campaign to ratification of START. It was striking during the debate just how far this extremist GOP has strayed from common sense or rational thinking on national security. In its misguided determination to weaken the President and score political points, Senators Kyl, DeMint and McConnell, to name just a few, chose to repudiate urgent calls from scores of high level military and bipartisan political leaders, including the current and eight former commanders of the Strategic Command, the Defense Secretary, the Chairman of the Joint Chiefs of Staff and the head of the Missile Defense Agency, who all urged swift approval of the treaty.

In the end, only 13 Republicans voted to support the treaty; the majority chose retrograde party ideology over commonsense security.

New START is significant, yet modest. It restores rigorous inspections that ended with the expiration of START I in December 2009, and reduces nuclear stockpiles to 1550 warheads and 700 launchers on each side. These new limits on nukes are about one-third lower than the previous ones negotiated in the 2002 Moscow Treaty, and that’s a step forward to be heralded. After all, as General Eisenhower once observed—even as he was building up the US nuclear arsenal—nuclear weapons are not weapons of war, they are weapons of genocide. Just contemplate that one hundred warheads used against the hundred largest cities of either the US or Russia would mean the effectual end of that country and the killing of millions. The survival 20 years after the end of the Cold War of 1550 warheads that each country still points at the other—on hair-trigger alert—should lead us to take far bolder steps toward a safer world, eventually free of nuclear weapons. This is no longer a radical idea; it is the new realism.

But largely as a result of the price exacted by Republicans for Senate ratification, President Obama has had to promise billions to “modernize” the nuclear arsenal—approximately $85 billion over ten years—and commit this country to pursuit of a missile defense program that remains unworkable and unproven, and could also complicate Russian ratification which is slated to occur this month.

Indeed, missile defense is a time-bomb embedded in the treaty. During negotiations, Moscow believed the Obama Administration had agreed to respect Russian objection to putting anti-missile sites in Eastern Europe, an understanding reflected in the treaty’s preamble. But in the desperate race to get GOP votes for ratification, the President personally promised that the agreement "places no limitations on the development or deployment of our missile defense programs," which he pledged to pursue fully "regardless of Russian actions." And in a resolution added to the treaty, the Senate went even further, spelling out this intention in detail.

The irony of what has become a bipartisan fixation on missile defense was again exposed last week, when a Government Accountability Office report raised questions about the system’s cost overruns and functionality, after the seventh missile interceptor failure out of 15 tests since 1999. (This record of failure is especially significant considering the tests are conducted without even the most basic decoys and countermeasures or realistic operating conditions.) The GAO questioned a commitment to purchasing and deploying missile defense components prior to sufficient development and testing. As Dr. Philip Coyle III, a former Assistant Secretary of Defense and Director of Operational Test and Evaluation in the Department of Defense from 1994-2001, testified at a Congressional hearing more than two years ago, “Missile Defense is a procurement program masquerading as a Research and Development program.”

Still, the failure to ratify New START would have signaled a possible end to the process of disarmament by treaty (a goal of the extremist GOP since President George W. Bush scoffed at arms control treaties as "old think" and precipitously and unilaterally withdrew the US from the Anti-Ballistic Missile treaty in 2001), and unraveled an already fragile non-proliferation regime. In contrast, passing START should logically create a platform for future arms control negotiations with Russia—for example, on a tactical nuclear weapons agreement, and also the Comprehensive Test Ban Treaty which has been ratified by 35 of 44 “nuclear technology holder states,” including Russia, France and Britain. Russia and the United States cannot credibly argue for restraining the nuclear ambitions of Iran, North Korea and other nuclear wannabes unless they keep working to substantially reduce their own nuclear arsenals.

Yet these next steps towards nuclear sanity will be extremely challenging. Even though there is a virtual moratorium on nuclear testing (with the exception of North Korea), the intransigence of the GOP will no doubt increase as the party’s presidential candidates attempt to demagogue this issue. And on the tactical nukes (short-range bombs), there will be opposition from some in Russia who will want to maintain a numerical advantage in Europe, which they deem “critical to defending against a potential conventional attack by NATO or China,” according to the New York Times.

And yet, when President Obama stood in Prague’s Wenceslas Square over a year ago and proclaimed his commitment to a nuclear-free world, what was striking was how this bold idea had become the widespread view among moderate mainstream security experts and officials. This new realism proposes a vision of a nuclear weapons-free world—coupled with practical steps on how to achieve it—as the best defense against rising nuclear threats. President Kennedy had it right in 1961 when he said in an address before the UN General Assembly, “The weapons of war must be abolished before they abolish us.”

Like this Blog Post? Read it on the Nation’s free iPhone App, NationNow.
NationNow iPhone App