The approach of some vocal Republicans to the “New START” negotiations goes something like this: suggest a dozen different ways that a new arms control agreement with Russia could be detrimental to U.S. security without actually opposing a new arms control agreement with Russia. That strategy continued last week…
On December 3, Ileana Ros-Lehtinen (R-FL), the ranking Republican on the House Foreign Affairs Committee, introduced a resolution on New START which never opposes a new treaty. True to form, however, the resolution calls on the President not to sign an agreement with Russia that could compromise our ability to deter China and other would-be nuclear powers; to provide Congress with reports on both negotiations with Russia and China’s nuclear forces; to complete the Nuclear Posture Review (NPR) before signing an agreement; and to ensure that a new agreement does not constrain U.S. missile defenses.
While the bill is unlikely to go anywhere legislatively (recall that the Senate, not the House, has jurisdiction over treaties), as The Cable’s Josh Rogin notes, it can play an important role on the level of narrative. Ros-Lehtinen’s resolution is the latest in a long list of efforts on the part of some Republicans to define New START as bad for U.S. interests. So far 57 Republicans have cosponsored Ros-Lehtinen’s bill. I’d like to see 57 Democrats (and Republicans) cosponsor separate House legislation that describes how a New START agreement will enhance U.S. security.
None of the arguments in the resolution are new, although this is the first time China has figured so prominently in the debate. We’ve provided rebuttals to them over at our START Resource Center. Below are some detailed responses to the specific concerns raised in the resolution. The bottom line: Ros-Lehtinen shouldn’t worry; the Obama administration has her back.
1. To reiterate, the resolution never opposes a New START agreement. It could, but it does not.
2. The resolution asks that a New START agreement not jeopardize our deterrent vis-à-vis China. This is puzzling. Even after a New START agreement, the U.S. will still have at least 1,500 deployed strategic nuclear weapons (as will the Russians), plus many thousands more in reserve. In contrast, China has only 240 total weapons and only 25-40 missiles capable of striking the U.S., far from the U.S. total. The resolution cites a U.S. intelligence estimate that the Chinese could have over 100 missiles capable of striking the U.S. 15 years from now. First, it’s important to note that U.S. intelligence estimates have repeatedly overestimated the speed and content of China’s modernization programs. Second, given the numbers being considered for New START, even if one assumes that China could have 100 such missiles by 2035, the U.S. would still have an overwhelming advantage.
3. The resolution calls on the President to provide Congress with reports on both negotiations with Russia and China’s nuclear forces. Clearly a report on negotiations with Russia should be doable once they are completed, as should a report on China’s nuclear forces, although such estimates already exist.
4. Perhaps the most pointed demand made by the resolution is that the administration should complete the NPR before signing an agreement. However, the Pentagon has repeatedly stated that it is satisfied that the NPR has sufficiently informed the negotiations. In testimony to the Senate Armed Services Committee on July 9, Marine General James Cartwright, Vice Chairman of the Joint Chiefs of Staff, said: “We prioritized in the Nuclear Posture Review . . . the activities and the analysis that would be necessary to support the timelines associated with the START negotiations or the follow-on START negotiations. . . . I’m very comfortable that we prioritized that analysis at the front end in order to support these negotiations.” The expiration of START I on December 5 and the close link between the New START negotiations and the NPR process mean that it is both necessary and prudent to try and negotiate a new Treaty by the end of the year without waiting for a finalized NPR.
5. Finally, the resolution calls on the administration to protect U.S. missile defenses in a new agreement. The Obama administration has already made it crystal clear that it will comply with this wish. Presidents Obama and Medvedev have stated that New START will deal only with strategic offensive arms. The offense-defense link might be noted in the preamble of the new treaty, but the text of New START will not contain any formal or legal limitations on missile defenses.
UPDATE 6:35PM: Jeffrey Lewis offers his own take.