Why 'New START' is Lose-Lose for Neocons

Do these guys look like losers to you?

I feel duty-bound to dedicate at least one real post to the ‘New START’ treaty, signed this month in Prague. This blog, after all, is called “A Good Treaty,” so it seems a little silly not to comment on the most important U.S.-Russian bilateral agreement in more than a decade.

In the words of Hans Kristensen at the Federation of American Scientists, “the New START Treaty is not so much a nuclear reductions treaty as it is a verification and confidence building treaty.” The main reason for this is a bizarre system for counting warheads that, thanks to a loophole involving bombers, allows Russia and the United States to deploy as many strategic nuclear warheads as would have been possible under the 2002 Bush-Putin “Moscow Treaty.”

That said, the treaty does reintroduce compliance verification measures – something Bush’s 2002 treaty totally ignored. If only for that, we ought to welcome the Obama-Medvedev deal as “a modestly good treaty.”

New START now heads to the Senate and the Duma for ratification. Right-wing Senators have indicated that they’re considering challenging the treaty, or at the very least hoping to delay ratification by up to a year. Suddenly, the conservative op-ed pages are littered with expedient tributes to the “advise and consent” clause, urging the Senate to “abide by the Constitution” and “not rush things,” and so on. You don’t have to search hard to find the right-wing’s list of grievances, but here is a general summary:

  • The U.S. is reducing its nuclear arsenal to Russian levels, despite the fact that Russia would make such reductions with or without American reciprocity.
  • New START undermines U.S. missile defense plans, as Russia can withdraw from the treaty if American BMD displeases Moscow.
  • New START limits America’s ability to redeploy nuclear delivery systems as conventional weapon delivery systems (aka, “prompt global strike”).
  • Ending mandatory telemetry and Votkinsk Facility monitoring will compromise compliance verification.
  • The bomber counting rule will give Russia a strategic advantage.
  • The U.S. nuclear umbrella will be undermined, leading to greater nuclear proliferation.

There are plenty more complaints and objections conservatives have raised, and you can read a comprehensive list (and a series of excellent rebuttals) here, at the Center for Arms Control.

Reading over the many explanations of how badly the U.S. loses with New START, I turned to Alexander Golts, one of Russia’s most prominent military affairs commentators, expecting to hear about what a great win this was for the Motherland. As it turns out, he thinks the treaty represents a complete defeat of Russian interests. Here’s a quick summary of what he describes as the Kremlin’s negotiations failures (pulled from here, here, and here):

  • American “undeployed” missile delivery systems (such as submarines docked for repairs) do not count toward limits, allowing them to hide capabilities outside the count.
  • The treaty doesn’t call for the destruction of delivery systems, just that they aren’t deployed. Hence, America’s strategic vehicles advantage (at about 2:1) will only improve, as Russia liquidates much of its aging arsenal.
  • Americans ignored Putin’s offer to exchange telemetry on Russia’s new missiles in exchange for the same information on America’s missile defense weapons.
  • The U.S. is allowed to reequip some nuclear delivery vehicles with conventional payloads.
  • The Russian demand to ban offensive weapons systems being placed on anti-missile systems was a pointless demand, since the two systems are incompatible to begin with.
  • Russia didn’t get any legally binding language halting American missile defense development.
  • Golts thinks the White House cunningly engaged the Kremlin on the one issue it felt comfortable: nuclear arms. By choosing the one place Russia still enjoys parity with the United States, Washington was able to “create the comfortable conditions for reestablishing mutual trust.”

So it would seem that there is a case, however tenuous, to be made that the Russia lost big in this treaty. Ironically, though, the opposite case – arguing that it was in fact the U.S. that lost big — is basically the same damned bitching and moaning.

Try to imagine a conversation between Alexander Golts and someone like John Bolton:

AG: Did you hear? Russia didn’t get any guarantee that America will abandon missile defense. Clearly Putin has suffered an embarrassing defeat!

JB: Ah, but Russia reserved the right to withdraw from the treaty, once the U.S. resumes its Eastern European BMD installations! What a ruinous shortcoming for America! Shame on Obama!

AG: Nonsense! Putin couldn’t even get the counting rules to reduce American warheads stockpiles! A few deployed warheads will be shifted to bombers or put in storage, and meanwhile Russia’s arsenal will dilapidate and fall woefully behind!

JB: Have you lost your mind!? America has shackled itself to Russia’s reduced nuclear arms capability! Rather than use Russia’s demise as an opportunity to firmly establish American nuclear hegemony and the invulnerability of the nuclear umbrella, Obama has pegged our strength to a second-rate, declining power! Impeach Obama!

AG: No, Putin must resign! Here, sign this petition!

JB: Tea parties!

And so on. One gets the distinct feeling that the various objections to New START’s design could be employed in nearly any argument – and indeed they are. Aside from using identical evidence to arrive at polar opposite conclusions, American neocons and Russian liberals have another thing in common: they’re both currently dedicated, heart and soul, to attacking in whatever way possible the integrity of their respective heads of state. The Republican Party wins the gold medal for brainless obstructionism in contemporary American politics, and Russian opposition members are seasoned veterans of the “Putin wears no clothes” school of thought.

Together unknowingly (or perhaps consciously, in some kind of awesome, emails-traceable conspiracy), these two political groups have set out to seriously pooh-pooh not just New START, but the presidencies behind the deal. In their simultaneous manipulation of the same “shortcomings” and “diplomatic failures,” we’re witness not to a reasoned analysis of costs and benefits – but a crude effort to sling mud at personal enemies, and stand in the way of any good PR for the right wing’s favorite bogeymen.