The hype surrounding this week’s serial announcements of a breakthrough in nuclear-arms talks is palpable. In more than 25 years of analyzing arms-control diplomacy, I don’t recall ever seeing news organizations report developments in it with so little skepticism or attention to detail. In each of its pieces on the arms treaty since the Kremlin’s announcement of the breakthrough on Wednesday, the New York Times has helpfully pointed out that this is a week of multiple triumphs for President Obama. From Newsweek’s in-house bloggers to ThinkProgress’s “Wonk Room,” the depiction of Obama’s treaty effort ranges from startlingly uncritical to hagiographic. Reports abound that Senate Republicans will fight the treaty, but outside of websites dedicated to the professional arcana of arms control and diplomacy, there is almost no discussion of the reasons why.
Those reasons matter. The ones summarized by the Heritage Foundation on Thursday –- missile defense, verification, and modernization of the U.S. arsenal –- are particularly troubling given that we don’t have a published treaty text yet. The language outlining what we’re signing up for hasn’t been made public; there has been no opportunity for open debate on its particulars or its rigor.
I would add two other troubling issues to those raised at the Heritage blog. An important point of concern in the U.S. involves the limitation on delivery platforms (missiles, aircraft, and submarines) that was announced this week. The limit of 800 platforms per side sets a boundary on America’s conventional capabilities. It also implies an agreement to parity with Russia in that regard: an effective reversal of George W. Bush’s policy in negotiating the 2002 Moscow SORT Treaty.
The other disputed issue is the handling of missile telemetry data. It was one of the main sticking points for negotiation as little as a month ago. If Russian agreement has been obtained, it’s likely that the U.S. position is the one that has softened. Readers can get a sense of the specifics on that here; basically, the way ahead appears to be acceding to Russia’s desire to revert to encrypted telemetry.
These issues seem to have evaporated without an overt explanation. That circumstance puts the Washington Post’s uniquely careful narrative in an informative light. The Post points out that the Russians were frustrated enough three weeks ago to propose breaking the talks off for a month. Obama’s White House pressed for a resolution, however –- and this week the White House appeared, in the Post’s words, to have been “surprised” when the Kremlin announced the breakthrough in negotiations. The sense is hard to avoid that the Russians got the concessions they wanted and rushed out with an announcement to preempt further haggling.
In the coming weeks we will hear about Senate Republicans objecting to the new treaty. The eventual publication of the treaty’s actual text, which we’re being asked to take on faith right now, is likely to validate senatorial concern. It’s neither curmudgeonly nor unfair to demand that the administration justify -– under critical and exacting scrutiny -– what it has agreed to. No previous administration has ever been given a pass by the press or the Senate in that regard.
Even if Senate Republicans scuttle ratification, we can expect Obama to abide by the treaty in his decisions about national-security strategy and defense priorities. The president can be stymied in his approach to national security, but it is very hard for Congress to effectively override him.