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Treaty Cheating: The New START Precedent

Whether President Obama can be trusted to compel Iranian compliance with the naïve nuclear deal struck in November is a recurring question. The president has shown a stern unwillingness to face reality and admit that critics of his diplomatic dealmaking are right even when they clearly are. Just as troubling, however, has been the precedent set by the Russian-brokered deal to remove Syria’s chemical weapons. Bashar al-Assad appears to be flat ignoring his deadlines and obligations, with no apparent consequences.

Yet in January, the New York Times had reported that Syria might have been merely following the example set by Russia itself: “The United States informed its NATO allies this month that Russia had tested a new ground-launched cruise missile, raising concerns about Moscow’s compliance with a landmark arms control accord.” Now those alleged Russian violations, which some believe began in 2008, are hanging over one of President Obama’s top defense nominees.

The Senate Armed Services Committee was scheduled to consider the nomination of Brian McKeon to an undersecretary of defense posting today. It’s not an otherwise particularly controversial nomination except that McKeon is currently National Security Council chief of staff, and two members of the committee think McKeon has some explaining to do regarding Russia’s possible treaty violations. As National Journal reported heading into the weekend:

The Obama administration recently acknowledged having concerns that Russia is in breach of the 1987 Intermediate-Range Nuclear Forces Treaty, though it has yet to formally accuse Moscow of any violation. The apparent source of concern is Russian testing of a new ground-launched cruise missile, dating back to 2008. The agreement prohibits Russia and the United States from producing, stockpiling or testing any cruise or ballistic missiles with ranges between 300 and 3,400 miles.

In their letter, Senate Armed Services Committee members Kelly Ayotte (R-N.H.) and Roger Wicker (R-Miss.) demanded to know whether McKeon was aware of the alleged treaty breach at the time when he was acting as a key White House representative on Capitol Hill during the push to secure Senate ratification of the New START treaty, according to the news publication.

“Based on your role as Vice President [Joe] Biden’s lead negotiator on the New START treaty and as one of the Obama administration’s primary liaisons with the Senate during the New START ratification process, we are interested in what you knew about potential violations of the INF treaty and what information was shared with the Senate,” the two senators said.

Wicker and Ayotte also want answers on why it took the Obama administration so many years to update Congress on its concerns about possible treaty transgressions by Moscow.

“If the administration knew about potential violations during consideration of the treaty and did not fully inform the Senate of these violations while it debated New START, this would represent a serious abrogation of the administration’s responsibilities,” states the letter, which was viewed by the Daily Beast.

New START was, from the beginning, a puzzling distraction from much more important nonproliferation issues. But the Obama administration, true to form, was substituting public relations for public policy. The president wanted to show that the two countries were resetting relations, and the deal, while otherwise useless, served the administration’s purposes.

New START looks even less promising in the rearview mirror, once the “reset” had completely crumbled and Vladimir Putin had thoroughly humiliated the president on the world stage. But even at the time it was both shallow and a foolish expenditure of political capital. But the legacy of New START changes in important ways if the president can’t claim to have been naively duped by Putin and if, instead, a top American negotiator pushed the treaty through with the knowledge that the Russians were simultaneously violating past arms agreements and therefore unlikely to comply with this one.

McKeon’s nomination aside, the issue goes to the heart of the concern over far more important agreements, like the Syria chemical-weapons deal and above all the Iranian nuclear deal. The hope has been that while Obama is being desperately out-negotiated by rogue regimes, if they don’t comply with those deals the White House will acknowledge so and act accordingly. That goes not just for Iran but for companies who enable Iran to violate sanctions. “We will come down on them like a ton of bricks,” Obama threatened recently.

But history shows that the president is, at times, more concerned with signing deals than with ensuring the intended outcome of those deals. The questions surrounding Brian McKeon and New START raise the possibility that the president’s critics are more on-target than even they thought.

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