Senior Obama administration officials called on the U.S. Senate Tuesday to ratify the New START Treaty with Russia, which would impose further reductions in the two countries' long-range strategic nuclear arsenals and provide new verification procedures. The officials faced tough questions from senators concerned that the treaty does not cover tactical nuclear weapons and that it could limit the U.S. missile defense system.
Secretary of State Hillary Clinton told members of the Senate Foreign Relations Committee the options before them are stark.
"The choice before us is between this treaty and no treaty governing our nuclear security relationship with Russia; between this treaty and no agreed verification mechanisms on Russia's strategic nuclear forces; between this treaty and no legal obligation for Russia to maintain its strategic nuclear forces below an agreed level," said Clinton.
But the approach presented by Secretary Clinton and other officials was not all in that vein. The chairman of the Joint Chiefs of Staff, Admiral Mike Mullen, offered the military view.
"The chiefs and I believe the New START Treaty achieves important and necessary balance between three critical aims: It allows us to retain a strong and flexible American nuclear deterrent. It helps strengthen openness and transparency in our relationship with Russia," said Admiral Mullen. "It also demonstrates our national commitment to reducing the worldwide risk of nuclear incidents resulting from the continuing proliferation of nuclear weapons."
Some of the Senate opposition to the treaty stems from a separate Russian statement that it will withdraw from the accord if the developing U.S. missile defense system threatens its offensive capability. Defense Secretary Robert Gates, who has worked on arms control issues off-and-on for 40 years, said Russia has long opposed U.S. missile defense efforts, and he summarized the reason this way.
"It's because we can afford it and they can't. And we're going to be able to build a good one, and are building a good one, and they probably aren't," said Gates. "And they don't want to devote the resources to it so they try and stop us from doing it through political means. This treaty doesn't accomplish that for them."
The officials said the treaty contains no restrictions on the U.S. missile defense program. But Secretary Gates also said the program is not aimed at rendering Russia's nuclear deterrent useless. Rather, he said, it is aimed at preventing rogue states, like Iran and North Korea, from attacking the United States or its allies with nuclear weapons. Senators also criticized the administration for not including any limits on short-range tactical nuclear weapons in the treaty. Admiral Mullen acknowledged that shortcoming.
"We seized an opportunity to come together and get to this treaty. It isn't everything that everybody could have wanted," he said.
But the officials said they have already informed Russia they want to negotiate a separate treaty on reducing tactical nuclear weapons. And they stressed that if the Senate ratifies the treaty they believe it will put both the United States and Russia in a stronger position to press for global adherence to the nuclear Non-Proliferation Treaty, and to achieve consensus on sanctions against nations that do not abide by the treaty.
In addition, Secretary Clinton noted that although the United States and Russia have 90 percent of the world's long-range nuclear weapons, she now wants to pursue similar treaties with China and other nuclear weapons states.
Senate supporters of the treaty said they hope to have it ratified during the next few months, or by the end of the year at the latest. Past weapons treaties with Russia have also been controversial, but have been ratified by wide margins.