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START Grinds to a Halt

The votes in the Senate aren’t there for the crowning glory of Obama’s “reset” strategy with Russia:

The treaty, called New Start, was supposed to be the relatively quick and easy first step leading to a series of much harder and more sweeping moves to stop the spread of nuclear weapons. Instead, a Senate committee on Tuesday shelved the treaty until fall, when it faces an uncertain future in the midst of a hotly contested election season.

The White House remains confident that it will get the pact approved eventually, possibly in a postelection lame-duck session, and it accepted the delay as a way to win over Republican senators who asked for more time to address their concerns. But even if the treaty does pass in the end, the long process of negotiation and ratification has pushed back the rest of Mr. Obama’s program and has raised obstacles to the more controversial measures.

This is a major embarrassment for the president, and yet another sign that he is losing political capital at a frightful pace. Moreover, it’s one more indication that lawmakers will become increasingly resistant to the president’s agenda, as regards both domestic and foreign policy (the Senate already blocked the confirmation of his ambassador to Syria).

It also highlights how inept is his foreign policy team, and how inapt is the administration’s “jam it through” strategy when it comes to national security:

Some conservatives said that Mr. Obama’s agenda was never all that realistic and that he would be wise to seek a broader consensus. “Trying to do treaties and national security policy as if they’re health care is a bad call,” said one such critic, Henry D. Sokolski, executive director of the Nonproliferation Policy Education Center. “You don’t do this by one vote. You do this by overwhelming majority. They need to learn to work with the other side.”

And at least for now, the Obama team concedes that its dream of a second arms treaty with Russia is kaput.

As a substantive matter, this is a positive development. In addition to the treaty’s other infirmities (most glaring, the impact on our ability to proceed with missile-defense development), there are real constitutional concerns about a treaty that embodies Obama’s fetish for multilateral institutions. Jack Goldsmith and Jeremy Rabkin explain:

[New START creates] a Bilateral Consultative Commission with power to approve “additional measures as may be necessary to improve the viability and effectiveness of the treaty.” The U.S. and Russian executive branches can implement these measures and thus amend U.S. treaty obligations — without returning to the U.S. Senate or the Russian Duma.

Could the commission constrain missile defense? It is empowered to “resolve questions related to the applicability of provisions of the Treaty to a new kind of strategic offensive arm.” The treaty’s preamble recognizes “the interrelationship between strategic offensive arms and strategic defensive arms.” The commission might have jurisdiction over missile defense through this interrelationship. Russia has already warned that it might withdraw from the treaty if the United States develops missile defenses. Limits on missile defense systems thus might be “necessary to improve the viability and effectiveness of the Treaty.”

In short, the Senate should not only be wary of what damage the treaty does to our national security; it should also be concerned about what it does to the Constitution and the Senate’s own powers (“as more authority for making international agreements is transferred to the executive branch and international organizations, the cumulative effect of these arrangements becomes increasingly hard to square with the Senate’s constitutional role in the treaty-making process and, more generally, with separation of powers”).

START is a microcosm of many of the shortcomings of the Obama administration — excessive deference to international rivals, disrespect shown the other branches of government, and political tone-deafness (the Obami really thought this would glide through the Senate?). With lawmakers increasingly willing to flex their own political muscle, the first two of these ailments may be minimized. Unfortunately for the Obami, there’s no magic cure for the third.