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A Political Thriller: Congress Passes the New START Treaty on Nuclear Weapons

US Politics Correspondent Lee Haddigan completes his look at the unexpectedly dramatic session of Congress (see earlier entries on tax cuts, the DREAM Act, and "Don't Ask, Don't Tell") with a look at the passage of the New START Treaty on reduction of nuclear weapons:

I don’t believe in conspiracy theories. After taking the usual classes on the assassination of President Kennedy, and reading a few of the plethora of books on the subject, I still hold to the rather quaint notion that Lee Harvey Oswald was a lone gunman. However, I do read political thrillers for fun, spending time with the standard cast of shadowy characters plotting to subvert democracy and install a new world order, usually based somewhere near Washington D.C.

After the events in Congress over the last week, my position on conspiracies has not changed, but they remind me of the start to my thrillers: government as the tool of influential figures who, in the background, are pulling the strings of puppet politicians.

There are, of course, more prosaic reasons for the repeal of the Don't Ask, Don't Tell restriction on gays and lesbians in the military and for the confirmation of the New START Treaty with Russia on Wednesday, but this was a staggering turnaround in the fortunes of the Obama Administration in such a short period of time. Even the tax cuts of the previous week, initially presented as a victory for the Republicans holding the President hostage to their demands, have now become part of the triumphal story of Barack Obama as the Comeback Kid.

Make no mistake, the chances for the Senate's confirmation of START, signed by President Obama and his Russian counterpart Dmitry Medvedev in Geneva on 8 April, were slim two weeks ago. The proposals for the reduction of nuclear weapons were relatively modest, but the Republican leadership had magnified the issue to make it a referendum on the timidity of the President in national security matters.

The GOP lambasted START for neglecting to address the issue of tactical nuclear weapons (smaller bombs for use on the battlefield) and for failing to secure America’s right to pursue a missile defense shield in Europe. It claimed discussions on START should take place in the new Congress, where amendments to address their concerns could be fully debated, and should not be rushed through in the lame duck session. 

But on Wednesday afternoon, after a half-hearted filibuster attempt was defeated, the Senate voted 71-28 to ratify New START. Thirteen Republican supported the united Democratic caucus, and Obama had achieved the foreign policy victory that not only helped rejuvenate his political reputation in the short-term, but --- crucially for the 2012 campaign --- marked him as a President  who can get things done on the world stage.

The New START treaty reduces the nuclear armaments that can be deployed by each country --- to 1550 warheads and 700 launchers --- within seven years. These cuts followed on from the original START treaty of 1991, which expired last year, that set a ceiling of 1600 launchers and the 2002 Treaty of Moscow limiting both sides to 2200 warheads. The new treaty also established reciprocal visits by nuclear inspectors, which had ended with the expiration of the first START treaty.

Obama immediately proclaimed that the vote in the Senate was the “most significant arms control agreement in nearly two decades" that “will make us safer and will reduce our nuclear arsenals along with Russia’s”. Republicans who voted against ratification characterised it as defeat for America’s security interests. Senator John Cornyn (R-Texas) disparaged Obama for naively envisaging a “fantasy world that’s nuclear free”, and Senator Jim DeMint (R-SC) dismissed START as “a continued pattern of appeasement” by the current administration.

The more bellicose Republicans argue that New START is the first step by the President in the “further erosion of our sovereign right to self-defense.".  The Heritage Foundation, one of the conservative foundations most closely tied to the national security "hawks", warned that “further undoing the viability of our nuclear arsenal appears to be exactly what is next on the foreign policy agenda", citing the President’s election campaign commitment to re-introduce the Comprehensive Test Ban Treaty (CTBT) for a vote in the Senate. Noting that the “U.S. nuclear deterrence posture has declined in recent years through atrophy within the weapons complex”, Heritage admonished that New START and  CTBT are “misguided policy (which) will significantly increase the likelihood of the use of nuclear weapons against both the U.S. and its allies".

Some Republicans jockeying for position for the 2012 Presidential nomination, including Sarah Palin, Mitt Romney and Newt Gingrich, also condemned New START, but the treaty was backed by those with experience of national security issues in previous administrations, as well as serving military leaders. When Henry A. Kissinger, Colin L. Powell, and Condoleeza Rice all support ratification, you are left with the feeling, given their combined insider knowledge, that perhaps the treaty is in the best interests of the United States.

But conservative opponents of START have another political-thriller theory. They argue that the current GOP members in the Senate capitulated over DADT and START, and folded like a cheap suit over these fundamental issues because they are scared of the new conservative Republicans taking their seats in the new Congress. It was blatant politics as usual in Washington, these Tea Party supporters argue, with traitorous RINOs (Republicans In Name Only) in the Senate “knowing that next year they will be forced further right than they might be comfortable". In response, the Tea Party trotted out the customary threat of a primary challenge to moderate Republicans who are up for re-election in 2012.

I’ll admit my ignorance, despite reading countless books on the Cold War, about what has been so important in the reduction of nuclear weapon stockpiles, especially before the threat of "rogue" nations and groups acquiring the redundant technology came along. And I am sure that many readers are as confused as me to why, when limitations of weapons mean that nations can destroy each other only several times rather than countless times,  why New START was so crucial.

But as informed readers set my  Arms Reduction 101 homework, I'll note that this was an interesting end to the lame-duck session. The series of debates and decisions demonstrated that, despite all the bipartisan hyperbole, there are still politicians in the Senate who strive to live up to the reputation of the upper house as the home of statesmanship and fair-mindedness.

And with that I will have to await next year’s novel, authored by Glenn Beck perhaps, with the plot that some nefarious group forced an arms reduction treaty through a reluctant Senate to further their aims of global domination.

A Merry Christmas to readers and, for those who live in countries where Christmas is not celebrated, good will to all men and women.

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