Thursday, December 23, 2010

Flashback: a moment of choice

Jonathan Bernstein's Republican-eye view of the battle over New Start -- a minor PR hit for the GOP that helped run out the clock on the omnibus spending bill and so positioned them much more strongly on next year's budget battles -- is sobering but true.  It's equally true, though, that New Start was one battle that Obama could not afford to lose, though he could have fairly quietly delayed the hit by deferring (and probably dooming) the ratification effort until next term. 

By picking and winning this fight, Obama arrested the fast-hardening perception that electoral defeat at home would cripple his ability to advance U.S. interests and policy abroad.  His high-stakes, highly effective full court press on New Start also marked the end of his personal post-election remission.  I can't resist a flashback to November 18, when Obama very publicly doubled down on New Start. Re-post from that day is below.

Obama Picks his Battleground

Those of us who have watched with distress a chastened post-election Obama revert to futile bipartisan gestures and gratuitous mea culpas have wondered what he would choose to take a stand on in the lame duck session, as Republicans move to stymie all meaningful action.  The Bush tax cuts for the wealthiest? Didn't look like it, though the signals have shifted a bit in recent days. DADT?  Votes to bust a filibuster probably aren't there.

Today we have our answer. There is one battle Obama can't afford to lose -- and will lose if he defers it. That is ratification of the New START treaty with Russia.  The treaty is essential to national security, future nonproliferation efforts, United States credibility on the world stage, and, by extension, Obama's ability to conduct foreign policy.

Since Kyl's betrayal on Tuesday, I have wondered why Obama has not wrapped himself round with the six secretaries of state, seven STRATCOM commanders and five secretaries of defense who have voiced support for the treaty. Today he did that. And cleverly, he brought Ronald Reagan to the table where also sat James Baker, Madeline Albright, Henry Kissinger, William Cohen, William Perry, Brent Scowcroft, Sam Nunn, along with his current national security team:
If we ratify this treaty, we’re going to have a verification regime in place to track Russia’s strategic nuclear weapons, including U.S. inspectors on the ground.  If we don’t, then we don’t have a verification regime -– no inspectors, no insights into Russia’s strategic arsenal, no framework for cooperation between the world’s two nuclear superpowers.  As Ronald Reagan said, we have to trust, but we also have to verify.  In order for us to verify, we’ve got to have a treaty.
I think that as with healthcare reform, Obama is going to go all out and get this one over the line.  Yesterday Dick Lugar laid out the blueprint: force senators to vote yea or nay on a treaty that the entire foreign policy establishment of the last thirty years not currently holding elective office supports:
"I'm advising that the treaty should come on the floor so people will have to vote aye or nay [even if there's no deal]," he said. "I think when it finally comes down to it, we have sufficient number or senators who do have a sense of our national security. This is the time, this is the priority. Do it."
 Harry Reid picked up that cue:
“This treaty has strong bipartisan consensus in the Senate.  It has been endorsed by the U.S. military, our diplomatic leadership, and scores of former Republican and Democratic national security officials.  So I am puzzled by Senator Kyl’s announcement that he is not prepared to move forward on the new START treaty. 

“The Administration has made it clear it is prepared to work with all Senators to resolve any outstanding concerns, and I appreciate in particular their efforts to reach out to Senator Kyl.   I assure Senator Kyl and others concerned about the fate of this treaty that the Senate will be in session after Thanksgiving and will have time to consider and ratify it.
And today, Obama showed that he's on the same page:
Now, as Senator Reid said yesterday, there is time on the Senate calendar to get this treaty ratified this year.  So I’ve asked Vice President Biden to focus on this issue day and night until it gets done.  It’s important to our national security to let this treaty go up for a vote.  I’m confident that it’s the right thing to do.  The people around this table think it’s the right thing to do

Without (yet) implying -- as McCain invariably does when crossed -- that his adversaries on this front are putting political gain above the national interest -- which they are --- Obama starkly and clearly laid out the stakes:
The New START treaty is also a cornerstone of our relations with Russia.  And this goes beyond nuclear security.  Russia has been fundamental to our efforts to put strong sanctions in place to put pressure on Iran to deal with its nuclear program.  It’s been critical in supporting our troops in Afghanistan through the Northern Distribution Network.  It’s been critical in working with us to secure all vulnerable nuclear materials around the world, and to enhance European security.

We cannot afford to gamble on our ability to verify Russia’s strategic nuclear arms.  And we can’t jeopardize the progress that we’ve made in securing vulnerable nuclear materials, or in maintaining a strong sanctions regime against Iran.  These are all national interests of the highest order.
To extend all the Bush tax cuts would be atrocious fiscal policy, but tax rates can always be jiggered under pressure of necessity.  DADT may happen too slowly, but it will happen. New START is now or never.

Republicans have made it clear that they aim to destroy Obama, and by killing this treaty they may well succeed if they dare. But they will also then destroy any hope of reducing and securing Russia's nuclear arsenal, and destroy too our relationship with Russia, and our leverage with Iran, and our hopes of stopping or slowing the spread of nuclear weapons.   

UPDATE: The Times' Peter Baker, who's been implying that the treaty is all but dead since Kyl's Tuesday assertion that there should be no vote this session, suggests tonight that Obama is all but staking his presidency on a drive to get New START ratified.

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