Do you know why the New START treaty doesn’t deal with tactical nuclear weapons?

Because it starts with a f’cking S, that’s why.

Last night, the Senate turned back an amendment by Idaho Senator Jim Risch to include a 49 word sentence about tactical nuclear weapons in the preamble of  New START — which, recall, stands for the Strategic Arms Reductions Treaty.  “The net result of amending the preamble, and thus the treaty,” as Senator Lugar argued, would be “to kill it.” The Senate will now turn to the remainder of the some 42 amendments that have been proposed to either the treaty or Senator Lugar’s resolution of ratification.

Over the weekend, as I listened to the debate in the Senate, I was reminded of what Avis Bohlen wrote about the objections to the SALT II treaty in the late 1970s. “These were phoney arguments from start to finish.”

“Phoney” is the perfect word, because treaty opponents spent a day debating the treaty the Obama Administration did not negotiate.

Several Senate Republicans took to the floor to complain that the New START Treaty — remember, S is for strategic — does not cover so-called “non strategic” or “tactical” nuclear weapons.

Of course, if the Administration had negotiated that treaty — a massive undertaking that would have been the most complex, intrusive arms control treaty in history, negotiated in less than a year — then Risch et al would be complaining that the Administration didn’t follow the recommendation of the Strategic Posture Commission to initially seek a “modest” reduction in strategic warheads and delivery vehicles that preserved basic verification measures instead.

The Administration took office with less than a year to negotiate a replacement for the New START.  Washington seemed to enjoy a broad, bipartisan consensus that, on US-Russia arms control, “the objective should be to do what can be done in the short term to rejuvenate the process and ensure that strategic arms control survives the end of START I at the end of 2009.”  That was the Strategic Posture Commission, writing in May 2009.

The Administration did precisely that — which meant not expanding the scope of the treaty in ways that would have required considerably more intrusive verification measures. Members of the Strategic Posture Commission, predictably, now disagree now about what they meant when they wrote that sentence, as well as a couple of others we will discuss in a few paragraphs.

But what the Strategic Posture Commission did or did not write doesn’t really matter.

The treaty is the treaty.  The public policy choice is between New START v. No START — not New START v. Old START, or New START v. the Phoney START that Risch asserts the Administration ought to have negotiated.  To reject New START on these grounds, one must both believe that in the near-term New START is worse than no treaty at all and that rejecting it will, in the long-term, make some other, better treaty more likely.  That’s insane.  As Senate Lugar has argued repeatedly: “Rejecting the Treaty would guarantee that no agreement on tactical nukes would occur.”

Risch et al recited, cleverly, a litany of criticisms from Democrats about the failure of the 2002 Moscow Treaty to include tactical nuclear weapons. Of course, as several Democrats pointed out, they ended up voting for the Moscow Treaty without any treaty-killing preamble changes.  Even if the Moscow Treaty was not optimal, it was better than the alternative.

The lesson that the Administration and the Russians are learning from this debate is not that the Administration should have been more bold, but that even a modest measure like New START faces determined opposition.  That is certainly the lesson I am taking away.  If the Senate were to reject the treaty, pretty much everyone will conclude that the Obama Administration is out of the treaty business.

***

Why do I bother? If you don’t already think that the opposition to New START is largely political, rather than on the merits, I am not going to convince you. There are substantive objections to the treaty, of course, but none that are worth killing it over.

Still, I might be able to convince some thoughtful conservatives that they owe us more.

Here is the problem: Risch et al are going on at length now about how the treaty ought to cover tactical nuclear weapons.  Once the New START is ratified (and the Russians follow suit), Rose Gottemoeller (or someone like her) will begin discussions with the Russians on a follow-on treaty.  If you believe Senator Risch, he wants those discussions to produce a treaty that covers all nuclear weapons, including tactical nuclear weapons.

So, let’s stipulate that Rose starts with discussions about conceptual approaches to including non-deployed weapons, begins formal negotiations sometime around the end of the first Obama term, with the goal of having either another treaty before the 2015 NPT Review Conference.  When Rose, or her successor, brings back a treaty in 2015 that limits both sides to something like 2,500 nuclear weapons, including tactical nuclear weapons, do you think Jim Risch will champion the measure on the Hill?  Nope.

Which brings us back to make to my “plea for Senate Republicans to play a constructive, engaged role, rather than being arm-chair negotiators.”  We actually agree that something needs to be done about Russian tactical nuclear weapons.  I’ve made the case that this means more, not less, arms control. That is, also, the nominal message of the Risch Amendment.  But this is going to be really tough, because it will require transparency into general-purpose military forces and, in part, test site activities — which raises the politically challenging issue of the Comprehensive Nuclear Test Ban Treaty.

I understand that Republicans have a hard time with the Test Ban, but it is going to be very difficult to verify limits on tactical nuclear weapons without some progress on test site transparency. In other words, dealing with Russian tactical nuclear weapons is going to be too complex to survive the kind of the phoney efforts to “fix” the treaty that opponents are trying with New START.

***

Senator Risch mentioned that six members of the Strategic Posture Commission — all Republican appointees, by the way — have written a letter — posted on the Republican Policy Committee website, by the way– disputing a State Department fact sheet that asserted “Deferring negotiations on tactical nuclear weapons until after a START successor agreement had been concluded was also the recommendation of the Perry-Schlesinger Congressional Strategic Posture Commission..”

The Skeptical Six — Schlesinger, Cartland, Ikle, Foster, Payne and Woolsey — have written to complain that “this does not resemble the recommendation the Commission made on Russian tactical nuclear weapons.”

How dishonest.  The State Department sentence does not, in fact, resemble the recommendation on Russian tactical nuclear weapons.  It resembles the recommendation on New START!

The letter carefully avoids quoting the Commission recommendations on New START — and for a reason!   A plain reading of the Final Report of the Strategic Posture Commission makes clear that “defer” is precisely the proper summary of what was agreed.  Let’s take a look, shall we?

First, the Commissioners completed the report after the April 2009 Obama-Medvedev Joint Statement that defined the scope of the treaty as “the reduction and limitation of strategic offensive arms.” Here is what the Commissioners wrote about the April 2009 Joint Statement:

In the effort to renew the U.S.-Russian arms control process, the first step should be modest and straightforward. It is more important to reinvigorate the strategic arms control process than to strive for bold new initiatives. Toward this end, Presidents Obama and Medvedev agreed in early April 2009 to negotiate a new arms control treaty before the expiration of START I at the end of 2009. A mutual reduction of operationally deployed strategic nuclear weapons in some increment should be achievable. This first reduction could be a modest one, but the objective should be to do what can be done in the short term to rejuvenate the process and ensure that strategic arms control survives the end of START I at the end of 2009.

Wow, that’s some tough language. (sarcasm)  The reaction to the April 2009 joint statement amounted to “good, don’t do anything bold.  You know, like trying to include tactical nuclear weapons for the first time ever.”

Second, in case that paragraph wasn’t entirely clear, the Commission explicitly stated that the Administration should undertake measures to address “complex” factors like nonstrategic weapons in the steps beyond the “modest first step” of  ensuring a successor to START I.  And, last I checked, in English, beyond is a synonym for after.  Again, here is the relevant passage:

The United States and Russia should pursue a step-by-step approach and take a modest first step to ensure that there is a successor to START I when it expires at the a renewal of arms control end of 2009. Beyond a modest incremental reduction in operationally deployed strategic nuclear weapons, the arms control process becomes much more complex as new factors are introduced. One of the most important factors will be the imbalance of non-strategic nuclear weapons.

Just admit that you want out of the deal!

There would be no shame in these six saying, “It’s nice to be on a blue-ribbon Commission, sipping orange juice with other gray-beards. But that was a long-time ago and we don’t even remember what we had for breakfast, though from Keith’s tie, Fred has deduced it was something with salsa.  In any event, we didn’t give Bill Perry our proxy, the recommendations have to be taken as a whole, and Mama Grizzly is threatening to eat us if we support the treaty, so, you know, forget we ever said anything about a modest first step.”

That would, at least, be honest.  Look, I ran one of these projects. I understand how quickly wordsmithed compromises break down as senior people forget to what they just agreed — and let’s face it, the Commissioners were seniors. (Mean age: 72) As I wrote at the time, the Strategic Posture Commission was the “appearance of consensus, not the real thing.”

The wordsmithing required to bridge deep, fundamental differences between 12 idiosyncratic members does not represent a consensus that can be transported beyond those specific individuals. In most cases, it can’t even be transported beyond the agreed text — it is ephemeral. As commissioners have started paraphrasing, the “consensus” that seemed so clear has disappeared, like a shimmering mirage.