The Magazine


Another Obama diplomatic failure?

Dec 7, 2009, Vol. 15, No. 12 • By FRED BARNES
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President Obama will receive his Nobel Peace Prize on December 10 in Oslo, Norway. This is a problem for Obama, and maybe for the rest of us as well.

When the Nobel Committee announced the award, it pointedly "attached special importance to Obama's vision of and work for a world without nuclear weapons." But Obama may go to Oslo empty-handed--and a bit embarrassed--on exactly that issue, the reduction of nuclear weapons. This is because the chief nuclear arms treaty between the United States and Russia (START) expires on December 5, and any new treaty has yet to be agreed on.

The White House is desperate to avoid the humiliation of having failed to finalize a treaty that Obama and President Dmitri Medvedev of Russia can sign pre-Oslo. General James Jones, Obama's national security adviser, traveled to Moscow a month ago to speed up the negotiations. Admiral Mike Mullen, chairman of the Joint Chiefs of Staff, is expected to go to Moscow.

The urgency creates problems of its own. In the eagerness to produce a fresh arms control agreement, Obama's negotiators may make concessions harmful to America's national security interests, particularly on the matters of counting the number of nuclear delivery vehicles and inspecting weapons facilities.

Verification matters. In the old days the Soviets couldn't be counted on to abide by the limits in a treaty. Nor can the Russian government today. Verification is what the Russians would most like to restrain in the new treaty. And any gap between treaties--between the old and the not-yet-agreed-on new one--would give them freedom to deploy weapons not allowed under the START agreement negotiated in 1991.

What verification measures might be negotiated away or restricted? One is telemetry, the electronic record of missile tests collected by the Russians and by American satellites. Another is the ability of inspectors to monitor missile production at the factory sites. Still another is the reduction of other notifications of missile firings.

The counting of missiles under the treaty is important. The U.S. military wants to put conventional warheads on missiles now armed with nuclear warheads. The Russians insist these should be counted as nuclear missiles. They shouldn't be, but the fear is American negotiators may agree to count them anyway.

What's changed during the negotiations is who wants a treaty more. In the beginning, the Russians appeared to, given their passion for reductions in the number of American missiles. Now, with Obama's appearance in Oslo only weeks away, the Americans are the more eager.

If START expires, the Russians are expected immediately to deploy a new mobile missile, the RS-24. This would not be permitted under the old treaty. These missiles, even how many there are, will be difficult to track unless they are seen first-hand at the "exit portals" of Votkinsk, the facility where they are being manufactured.

Early decisions on arms control have come back to haunt Obama. He could have pushed for a simple five-year extension, the process for which is spelled out in the 1991 treaty. Or he could have sought an amended treaty. Instead, the administration took on the more complicated task of negotiating a new treaty.

Senator Jon Kyl of Arizona, the Republican whip, has criticized the administration for leaving verification, the most sensitive issue, for last. "It spent the first half of the year negotiating a joint understanding that would allow it to show progress toward the president's goal of a world without nuclear weapons," he said in a recent speech. "According to press reports, only now have negotiators begun looking at the question of verification."

"I was shocked that there had been virtually no talk," Kyl said, "of what happens after December 5 and prior to the possible entry into force of the follow-on agreement when and if it is signed by the two executives."

Senator Richard Lugar of Indiana, the ranking Republican on the Foreign Relations Committee, has offered one possible solution. He proposed legislation to allow Russian inspectors to remain on duty in the United States. Whether the Russians would reciprocate is unclear. In any case, the White House has shown minimal interest in the Lugar legislation.

Republicans have two other worries. One is that the Obama team has little interest in the treaty they're actually negotiating, with its slight reductions in weapons. They're looking toward the next one with deep reductions and are willing to make concessions now in hopes of facilitating the next round.