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Stop the Myths, START Reality

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Report 8 April 2010

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Today in Prague, President Obama and Russian President Medvedev signed an historic new arms control treaty.  The New START agreement, which replaces the original 1991 agreement that expired in December 2009, is the most significant arms control agreement in nearly two decades as it reduces the amount of both countries' strategic warheads.  The treaty is part of the President's commitment to reduce that dangers posed by nuclear weapons to the world in order to advance American security in the 21st Century.  As former National Security Council Director for Russian and Eurasian Affairs Mark Brzezinski said "President Obama's signing of the START agreement is a major step toward implementing his commitment to significantly reduce the nuclear arsenals of two global powers.  It also is a major step toward achieving his vision of a world free of nuclear weapons.  This is a remarkable legacy that will create a more secure world for our children.  And it was done without trading off other security imperatives we have."

While the Administration is aggressively pursuing this goal, having just released its Nuclear Posture Review (NPR), which establishes U.S. nuclear weapons policy for the coming years, and hosting an international Nuclear Security Summit of 47 world leaders to discuss how to curb the threat of nuclear terrorism and secure vulnerable nuclear materials, the President's policies are already under attack.  In particular, extreme conservatives are already spreading myths about the treaty and seeking to undermine the Administration's broader nonproliferation agenda.  These moves even contradict the legacies of Presidents Reagan and George H.W. Bush - who were strong arms control advocates - while working against America's security interests. 

U.S. and Russia sign historic nuclear arms treaty as attention now shifts to the Senate.  Today in Prague, U.S. President Barack and Russian President Dmitry Medvedev signed a new arms control treaty.  According to the BBC, "the treaty commits the former Cold War enemies to each reduce the number of deployed strategic warheads to 1,550 - 30% lower than the previous ceiling."  "If ratified by lawmakers in both countries, the treaty will replace the Strategic Arms Reduction Treaty (START) of 1991, which has expired," said the BBC.  The New York Times reports on this historic moment: "‘When the United States and Russia are not able to work together on big issues, it is not good for either of our nations, nor is it good for the world,' Mr. Obama said as his words echoed through a majestic, gilded hall in the famed Prague Castle. ‘Together, we have stopped the drift, and proven the benefits of cooperation. Today is an important milestone for nuclear security and nonproliferation, and for U.S.-Russia relations.' Mr. Medvedev called the treaty signing ‘a truly historic event' that will ‘open a new page' in Russian-American relations. ‘What matters most is this is a win-win situation,' he said. ‘No one stands to lose from this agreement. I believe this is a typical feature of our cooperation. Both parties have won.'"

With today's signing, attention now shifts to the U.S. Senate, where the treaty must be supported by 67 Senators in order to be ratified.  At the end of March, there were already signs that the White House was shifting gears in order to push the treaty through Capitol Hill.  The Washington Independent's Spencer Ackerman reports: "At a White House briefing on the ‘New START' treaty on mutual nuclear weapons reductions with the Russians, senior Obama administration officials pressed the case that there ought to be what Secretary of State Hillary Clinton called ‘broad bipartisan support' for the accord...‘National security has always produced large bipartisan majorities and I see no reason why this should be different,' Clinton said."  In the same piece, Ackerman mentioned that as the briefing was going on Senate Foreign Relations Chairman Senator John Kerry (D - MA) released a statement, calling the treaty an opportunity to "renew the Senate's bipartisan tradition on arms control and approve ratification of this new treaty in 2010."  Subsequently Ackerman reported that Secretary Clinton's aides "are planning for her to make a speech urging ratification in Kentucky, the home state of the GOP Senate leader, Mitch McConnell." The move "marks the first sign of an aggressive push for Clinton to get the treaty the seven GOP votes needed for ratification." The treaty already has the support of Senate Foreign Relations Committee Ranking Member Senator Richard Lugar (R - IN), but support from other Republicans will be key, something which may come with McConnell's buy-in.  [BBC, 4/8/10. NY Times, 4/8/09. Washington Independent, 3/26/10. Washington Independent, 3/31/10]

As the Senate moves to offer the advice and consent of Congress, legislators need to distinguish between dangerous conservative myths and clear reality.  Here are the facts:

Myth: New START links offensive weapons with missile defense.

Reality: Senator Richard Lugar (R-IN), the Senate Foreign Relations Committees' Ranking Republican explained, "'Missile defense will not be part of the treaty, but in the preamble both parties will state their positions and there will be a mention of offense and defense and the importance of those.' He added that because the missile-defense statements were outside the main text, ‘they are in essence editorial opinions.'" [Senator Lugar via The Cable, 3/24/10]

Myth: A unilateral statement by Russia will allow Russia to veto U.S. missile defense.

Reality: Unilateral statements are not legally binding. Such statements have accompanied treaties for years and do not affect the bounds of the treaty. As the White House announced today, "The Russian government made a statement about missile defense with which the United States did not, and does not, agree.  If we had agreed to it, the issue would be put into the treaty text, or issued as a "joint" statement.  In fact, the United States issued its own unilateral statement, indicating that it plans to continue to develop and deploy its missile defense systems in order to defend itself.  Neither the Russian statement nor the U.S. statement is legally binding on the other party.  But each side is making its intentions clear -- to the other party, and to the world."  [White House, 4/8/10]

Myth: The U.S. will not be able to monitor and verify Russia's nuclear arsenal.

Reality: Chairman of the Joint Chiefs of Staff Admiral Mike Mullen said of the strong verification measures: The new START "features a much more effective, transparent verification method that demands quicker data exchanges and notifications... In other words, through the trust it engenders, the cuts it requires, and the flexibility it preserves, this treaty enhances our ability to do that which we have been charged to do: protect and defend the citizens of the United States. I am as confident in its success as I am in its safeguards." [Michael Mullen, 3/29/10]

Myth: When the START treaty expired in December 2009, the U.S. had to abandon a monitoring station for Russian weapons in Votkinsk.

Reality: The decision to end monitoring was made by the previous Administration before President Obama took office. Ambassador Pifer explains the "end of permanent monitoring at the Votkinsk missile production plant [is]something that the Bush administration had already agreed to forgo." [Steven Pifer via ACA, 4/2/10.]

Myth:  Russia and China are engaged in major modernization efforts, while the U.S. arsenal rots away.

Reality:  "Washington uses life-extension programs and stockpile stewardship to maintain confidence in the safety and reliability of its arsenal; in fact, its arsenal is more lethal today than during the Cold War. Slow-paced Russian and Chinese strategic modernization programs neither increase the threat to the United States nor threaten U.S. nuclear dominance," explains nonproliferation expert Kingston Reif.  Furthermore, when asked whether he feels that the U.S. life extension programs constrain U.S. action, General Cartwright resolutely answered, "No, I don't feel constrained in the least, really. I think we have more than enough capacity and capability for any threat that we see today or might emerge in the foreseeable future." [Kingston Reif via The Bulletin, 12/8/09. General Cartwright, 4/6/10]

Myth: The Obama administration's nuclear weapons policy maintains a Cold War state of mind.

Reality: The Obama administration's nuclear weapons policy actually addresses 21st Century challenges.  The Defense Department's newly released Nuclear Posture Review details how the Administration has enhanced U.S. nuclear weapons policy to address the threats within today's 21st Century security environment. "The growing dangers of nuclear proliferation and nuclear terrorism have altered the hierarchy of our nuclear concerns and strategic objectives. In coming years, we must give top priority to discouraging additional countries from acquiring nuclear weapons capabilities and stopping terrorist groups from acquiring the materials to build nuclear bombs. At the same time, we must continue to maintain stable strategic relationships with Russia and China and counter threats posed by any emerging nuclear-armed states, thereby protecting the United States and our allies and partners against nuclear threats or intimidation, and reducing any incentives our non-nuclear allies and partners might have to seek their own nuclear deterrents."  [Nuclear Posture Review, 4/6/10] 

Myth: The Obama administration's nonproliferation policy does not address today's challenges.  

Reality:  The Obama administration correctly prioritizes the current nuclear threats of nuclear terrorism and nuclear proliferation. As Secretary of Defense Robert Gates, originally appointed by President Bush, points out: "The [Nuclear Posture] review rightly places the prevention of nuclear terrorism and proliferation at the top of the U.S. nuclear policy agenda.  Given al Qaeda's continued quest for nuclear weapons, Iran's ongoing nuclear efforts and North Korea's proliferation, this focus is appropriate and indeed essential, an essential change from previous reviews." [Robert Gates, 4/6/10]

What We're Reading

After a day of bloody protests that forced Kyrgyzstan's president to flee the capital, a transitional government led by a former foreign minister said that it had taken power, dissolved Parliament and would remain in office for six months.

As the White House pushes for cuts in the U.S. nuclear arsenal, the Pentagon is developing a weapon to help fill the gap: missiles armed with conventional warheads that could strike anywhere in the world in less than an hour.

While Treasury Secretary Tim Geithner meets with Chinese officials to discuss a revaluation of the yuan, China has agreed to sit down with five major powers to discuss possible new sanctions against Iran for refusing to suspend uranium enrichment and start talks on Iran's suspect nuclear program.

Thailand's "Red Shirt" protestors continued to march in the streets, despite the emergency order that empowers the military to move against large gatherings.

A Qatari diplomat who was questioned by federal investigators after trying to light a cigarette on a plane has been released.

Neither of the front-runners in Iraq's election received the support of radical cleric Muqtada al-Sadr, who has emerged as kingmaker in the post-ballot jockeying; in an informal vote, his supporters picked former interim Prime Minister Ibrahim al-Jaafari instead.

A multimillion-dollar U.S. program that was started last fall to persuade Afghan farmers to plant wheat instead of opium poppies did not make a dent in the amount of cultivation in the country's Helmand province, according to a recent U.N. survey.

Elections in Sudan seem to be breaking down, as two opposition parties have pulled candidates from the race-the first multiparty election in two decades-and observers from the EU say the Darfur region is too dangerous to monitor.

Brazilian authorities say at least 200 people were buried and feared dead under the latest landslide to hit a slum in Rio de Janeiro's metropolitan area.

Russian Prime Minister Vladimir Putin made an unprecedented gesture of good will to Poland by attending a memorial ceremony for 22,000 Poles executed by Soviet secret police during World War II; but hours later he soured the mood by offering a controversial justification for the massacres.

Commentary of the Day

Joshua Keating says the unrest in Kyrgyzstan is anything but a "revolution," because it's too disorganized and spontaneous.

Spencer Ackerman revisits the "Obama doctrine."

Jeffrey Wasserstrom argues that when looking at China, observers too often pick one of two narratives-slow to change or moving rapidly-when the reality is more complicated than that.


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