The announcement by a prominent Republican senator that he wants to delay ratification of President Obama’s nuclear-arms treaty is a blow to a beleaguered White House as well as to Secretary of State Hillary Rodham Clinton and Defense Secretary Robert Gates. It also has the potential, however, to leave Republicans explaining why they’re so hesitant about passing a well-regarded accord.
On Tuesday, Sen. Jon Kyl, R-Ariz., declined to support a vote in the lame-duck Congress on the Strategic Arms Reduction Treaty, or START. Because Republicans had designated Kyl as their lead negotiator with the administration on the treaty, his opposition makes the measure all but impossible to pass in the newly elected, more Republican Congress that takes office in January. Despite Kyl’s opposition to a quick vote, the administration has little choice but to try to get the measure ratified during the crowded lame-duck session—before a bevy of conservative senators are sworn in come January.
Not surprisingly, the administration took aim at Kyl late on Tuesday. Vice President Joe Biden said that the GOP was endangering national security by opposing the measure and he even went so far as to say that the failure to ratify would hinder American efforts in Afghanistan and the goal of thwarting Iran’s nuclear ambitions.
“Without ratification of this treaty, we will have no Americans on the ground to inspect Russia’s nuclear activities, no verification regime to track Russia’s strategic nuclear arsenal, less cooperation between the two nations that account for 90 percent of the world’s nuclear weapons, and no verified nuclear reductions,” Biden said in a statement.
Indeed, Republicans will need to explain why they want to sit on a treaty that the chairman of the Joint Chiefs of Staff has described this way: “I believe—and the rest of the military leadership in this country believes—that this treaty is essential to our future security. I believe it enhances and ensures that security. And I hope the Senate will ratify it quickly.”
Still, Kyl’s call for delay couldn’t come at a worse time for the White House. The treaty, which has bipartisan support, was one of the administration’s signature accomplishments, and it seemed likely to be ratified. Sen. Richard Lugar, R-Ind., the ranking member of the Foreign Relations Committee, supports it, as do Republican former Secretaries of State Henry Kissinger and Condoleezza Rice. There are risks for Republicans who follow Kyl and find themselves on the opposite side of the military and diplomatic community on ratification of the treaty.
The president has staked much of his prestige on reducing nuclear arms. The Nobel committee cited his efforts to control and reduce nuclear weapons as one factor in its decision to give Obama the Peace Prize. He has signed on to the Ground Zero movement which supports ridding the world entirely of nuclear weapons. That prospect seems even more remote now.
The White House had high expectations for the treaty’s passage, with the president mentioning START in his meeting with reporters aboard Air Force One on Sunday as he returned to Washington from his 10-day trip to Asia.
The political fallout for the White House is severe, even though it could be potentially just as severe for Republicans. The treaty offered promise at a time when the president needs to start chalking up bipartisan accomplishments. And Kyl’s move could signal a Republican willingness to scuttle other measures—something that could backfire on Republicans.
Coming after a disappointing Asian trip for the president, the debacle can’t help Obama’s standing abroad. For instance, part of the reason he failed to secure a trade deal with South Korea on his recent trip was Seoul’s concern about ratification prospects in the Senate. This kind of blow can only heighten those concerns in South Korea and in other nations that have treaties pending with the U.S.
Kyl’s opposition caught the White House by surprise. They believed that they had secured his support through promises to enhance the country’s nuclear arsenal. The flatfooted reaction doesn’t bode well for the upcoming session, in which the administration will need keen intelligence on who stands where. If the White House is to succeed in getting its version of the Bush tax cuts renewed or in abolishing don’t ask, don’t tell in the military, it can’t afford to be blindsided. On the other hand, Republicans need to avoid looking mercurial.
To fight back, Clinton will address reporters on Wednesday morning, but the affair has diminished her clout. She has no accomplishment of the stature of the treaty’s ratification to point to for her nearly two years in office.
One ray of hope for the White House is that the Kyl fiasco—and presumably the GOP opposition to the treaty that will now build—might make the Republicans appear to be overreaching and allow the administration to sound like the voice of reason. That’s small comfort if a much-vaunted nuclear-arms deal goes down in flames.
To reach Matthew Cooper email him at firstname.lastname@example.org and follow him on Twitter @mattizcoop
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