Is Start Treaty Good for Obama?

The Democrats believe the passage of the Start Treaty marks a turnabout in President Obama's fortunes; Republicans scoff at this idea.

Amiel Ungar, | updated: 14:50


Barack Obama and the Democratic Party exulted in the Senate ratification of the New Start Treaty reducing the number of nuclear warheads held by the United States and Russia. The treaty passed the Senate by an ample 71-26 margin easily crossing the Constitution's two thirds barrier for treaty ratification. (Jewish groups were divided over the issue. For analysis of START's influence on Israel,  click here.).

As opposed to what occurred during most of the current Congress where the Republican caucus in the Senate held firm and the defections came from the Democratic side of the aisle, the vote on the treaty reversed the pattern. The Republican vote fragmented, allowing the Obama administration an important win.

The Democrats are already banking that the vote will set a precedent for further "bipartisanship" in the next Congress and that Pres. Obama will thus be able to reclaim the mantle of the "post-partisan president", a man who can get things done, as he successfully advertised himself during the 2008 election.

Before the Democrats get their hopes up too high is important to recall that the Start Treaty from its very beginnings offered the optimal chance to exploit Republican divisions. Already in the Foreign Relations Committee the Republicans split down the middle, with the ranking Republican 6-term senator Richard Lugar of Indiana, highly regarded for his foreign policy expertise, supporting the treaty as did two of his Republican colleagues. Obama heaped special praise on Lugar after the treaty passed and Lugar may pay heavily for such praise if he runs against a more conservative opponent in a primary.

Republican administrations have a long history of supporting arms control measures and it was therefore easy for the administration to secure the backing of former secretaries of state Henry Kissinger, James Baker and George Shultz as well as, of course, the ranking Republican in the Obama administration Defense Secretary Robert Gates who is a holdover from the Bush administration. Senate minority leader Mitch McConnell of Kentucky, although he voted against the treaty, did not attempt to twist arms to secure a monolithic Republican vote.

The Obama administration made commitments in writing to allay Republican fears. Firstly, the administration has pledged to invest tens of billions of dollars in modernizing the American nuclear arsenal so that the remaining warheads after the treaty mandated reductions will be more potent and reliable. Secondly the administration promised to go ahead with an antimissile system in Europe despite Russian objections and despite the wording in the preamble to the treaty that appeared to limit such an option.

Since very few people currently fear a American-Russian nuclear exchange, the main purpose of the defensive missile system is to counter countries such as Iran and North Korea. With these 2 major concessions in hand, the major Republican argument, aside from arguing that arms control in itself broadcasts timidity and smacks of appeasement, was to claim. as did Sen. John Kyl. that the treaty was being railroaded through and should be deferred to the next Congress. This procedural issue did not provide a sufficient rallying point.

Some of the Republican senators who broke ranks and voted with the Democrats were either unseated in the primaries or had retired and will not be back in January. Republican Sen. Lindsey Graham ruefully concluded "With a new group of Republicans coming in, we could get a better deal on almost everything."

The Republicans would like to believe that the main theater of their opposition to the Obama administration will be the spending front, and their success in thwarting an administration spending bill augurs well for the next Congress. In 6 months we should know which prognosis was correct and who was engaging in wishful thinking.