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Peace in Our Time: All Trust, No Verify

With the Senate Foreign Relations Committee scheduled to vote on the New START treaty on August 3, pundits left and right are using the State Department’s most recent report on arms-treaty compliance to make their respective points about the new treaty’s advisability. Sarcasm, disdain, and semantic disputes seem to be taking center stage in the argument, but there is a very clear bottom line to the whole debate, and it can be expressed in one word: verification — and specifically the lack thereof.

The State Department report acknowledges disagreements between the U.S. and Russia over some compliance measures specified in the old START treaty (which expired in December 2009), along with a persistent inability to verify Russian compliance with provisions of the international conventions on biological and chemical weapons. Technically, these concerns don’t amount to evidence that Russia violated the old START treaty, as claimed in a Washington Times headline yesterday. On the other hand, they cast doubt on the State Department assertion that Russia was in compliance with the treaty’s central provisions for strategic-arms limitation.

The most significant compliance measures in question involved verifying the number of re-entry vehicles on a Russian warhead, measuring the canisters mounted on mobile ICBM launchers, and Russia’s failure to provide all the test-launch telemetry data required by the old treaty. The Bush administration listed these as open issues in its 2005 compliance report. In 2010, the first two are implied to have been “resolved,” with no explanation. Resolution of the telemetry issue is not explicitly addressed at all. These are not minor or picayune concerns; they bear directly on the integrity of the verification process.

While Russia considered itself bound to the ongoing START process, and saw its own performance as a means of securing U.S. commitments, verification disputes like these were a tolerable form of low-level friction. But New START would be inaugurated under much different circumstances: verification measures that are considerably relaxed and a Russia with little incentive to show good faith.

In September, President Obama dealt away his biggest bargaining chip — the silo-based missile-defense array in Europe — without obtaining any concessions in return. In signing New START in April, he agreed to additional limits on America’s latitude to improve our national missile defenses. He has already made the principal concessions desired by Russia’s leaders, while accepting a verification regime much less stringent than that of the old START treaty. The question of supreme importance for New START, therefore, is precisely what right-wing critics suggest it is: can Russia be trusted?

In the best of circumstances, concluding a treaty of questionable verifiability with a partner who lacks incentive to keep it is a bad idea. And as Russia’s record on START and the other weapons conventions indicates, these are not the best of circumstances. Skeptical Republican senators are right to view the New START treaty with profound concern. However the treaty’s advocates try to shift the argument with inverted reasoning, the bottom line on it is that it abandons the Reagan principle — trust, but verify — in favor of a principle with a terrible track record: trust, period.



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