William Beecher: START Is Hardly a Beginning

The Obama Administration hailed the recently concluded strategic arms reduction agreement with Moscow as signaling a newly “strong partnership” with Russia, an initiative to curb or reverse the nuclear weapons programs of Iran and North Korea, and a step toward what the President called “a world without nuclear weapons.”

Politically ambitious? Yes. Likely to accomplish any of those aims?  Absolutely not. In point of fact, either sadly delusional or misleading.

The question is: Does President Barack Obama actually believe any of this rhetoric? Let’s consider the points in sequence.

First, early in this Administration, Vice President Joe Biden said the President was determined to “reset” America’s relationship with the Kremlin, an obvious reference to frosty relations under President Bush. The biggest and earliest test was to begin a new, upgraded version of the Strategic Arms Reductions Treaty (START), which was to expire in December. This was considered a piece of cake, considering the Russians had already unilaterally cut back their long range missiles because of severe budgetary constraints. Moreover, a new treaty bringing the United States down to the same level would enable Moscow to boast strategic parity.

But by all accounts, the Russians decided to attempt to ease Obama into significantly constraining anti-missile defenses as part of the offensive weapons deal, figuring he’d need to make that concession in order to have the new treaty in his pocket when he went to Stockholm to collect his Nobel Peace Prize. In the end, Obama refused to cave, with the Russians doing so instead—very reluctantly and belatedly.

The day Secretary of State Hillary Clinton arrived in Moscow with an agenda that included, among other items, an attempt to persuade the Russians to support tougher sanctions against Iran in order to press for an end to its nuclear weapons program, Prime Minister Vladimir Putin announced plans to help Iran make its nuclear power plant operational, with Russian fuel. What kind of signal did that send Tehran about the seriousness of tougher worldwide sanctions? And how did that bolster the “partnership” with the Obama administration?

Already, Obama had declared, “By upholding our own commitments under the Nuclear Non-Proliferation Treaty (NPT), we strengthen our global efforts to stop the spread of these weapons, and to ensure that other nations meet their own responsibilities.”

But does he really believe that Iran, seeing the United States and Russia moving forward on their NPT commitments, would then fall into line and abandon a weapons program it denies pursuing? Or that North Korea would agree to surrender its small stock of nuclear weapons?  NPT “commitments” are the least of the concerns of Tehran and Pyongyang  in their weapons calculus. Nor do the relative sizes of the American and Russian arsenals figure into their plans for nuclear acquisitiveness.

As for Obama’s shining objective of “a world without nuclear weapons”– which he unveiled in Prague at the start of his tenure, then repeated in accepting the Nobel Peace Prize, and most recently reiterated in hailing the new strategic agreement with Moscow–does the President believe that Russia would agree to dismantle its nuclear arsenal when it distrusts the designs of the United States and China?

Or is he persuaded that Pakistan and India, which have fought three wars, would trust one another to actually abandon their respective nuclear stockpiles? Or that Israel, feeling beleaguered by neighboring enemies and frenzied about a supposed existential threat from Iran, would give up its nuclear arms? Or that China, or indeed Britain or France, would do so? Even Defense Secretary Robert Gates said recently, “I don’t think anyone expects us to come anywhere close to zero nuclear weapons anytime soon,” a remark that could be seen as a gentle rebuke to his President.

Why then does Obama keep waving that flag? He’s well aware that nations make strategic decisions based on their perceived national self-interest. With so much mistrust in the world, no member of the nuclear club is about to disarm when to do so would make the cheaters the strongest bullies on the block.

William Beecher is a Pulitzer Prize-winning former Washington correspondent for the Boston Globe, the Wall Street Journal and The New York Times. He’s currently an adjunct professor at the University of Maryland. His blog can be accessed at www.williambeecher.net.

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