Russia ratifies START nukes pact

Both houses of Russia’s parliament ratified the START nuclear arms reduction treaty.

The upper house Federation Council ratified the treaty on Wednesday, a day after the Duma, the lower house.

The U.S. Senate ratified the treaty in December, overcoming resistance from a faction within the Republican Party that said its terms were too loosely defined.

The Obama administration solicited backing from Jewish groups for passage, saying it was critical to getting Russia’s cooperation in isolating Iran.

The pact will reduce arsenals by about 30 percent.

Senate advances START treaty

The U.S. Senate advanced a nuclear arms reduction treaty with Russia that has been backed by a number of Jewish groups.

The Senate on Tuesday voted 67-28 to end debate on ratifying the START treaty.

The vote—56 in the Democratic caucus and 11 Republicans—was procedural but suggested that Democrats had the two-thirds majority needed to pass the treaty when it comes up for a vote as early as Wednesday.

The Obama administration and top Jewish Democratic senators had lobbied Jewish groups to express support for the treaty, saying it was critical to persuading Russia to isolate Iran.

Most major groups backed the treaty, although the American Israel Public Affairs Committee has yet to announce where it stands.

Opposing the treaty were a group of Republican senators, led by Rep. Jon Kyl (R-Ariz.), who said its verification measures were inadequate and that it unnecessarily reduced the U.S. profile in Europe.

Why START matters less than people think

A specter has been haunting Washington, D.C. — a Cold War-era ghost known as the START treaty.

The Strategic Arms Reduction Treaty, signed by President Obama and Russian President Dmitry Medvedev last April to replace the previous treaty, which expired a year ago, is now at risk of being stalled by Republicans in Congress. The ostensible issue is mainly procedural — GOP leaders assert that other items on the agenda of the lame-duck Democratic majority have left too little time to debate the pact in the remainder of this session — but Obama supporters charge that the Republicans are simply hell-bent on thwarting the President. High-dudgeon-prone blogger Andrew Sullivan calls this “close to organized vandalism.” Other START champions such as former CIA covert operations officer and Bush administration critic Valerie Plame Wilson insist, in less vehement language, that scuttling the treaty will harm both national and global security, undercutting efforts to curb nuclear weapons and reversing important improvements in U.S.-Russian relations.

On the opposite side, some conservatives such as Heritage Foundation fellow Peter Brookes and columnist Ralph Peters have argued that START makes dangerous concessions to Russia. The terms of the treaty, they claim, would not only force the United States to give up too much of its nuclear arsenal but also undercut our conventional capability and our potential for developing missile defense. Yet a Brookings Institution analysis published last summer suggests that these concerns are vastly exaggerated; some top conservative foreign policy experts such as Max Boot of the Council on Foreign Relations agree. Yet, contrary to the assertions of some STARTers (such as Sullivan), these experts generally don’t regard START as beneficial so much as irrelevant — in Boot’s words, “much ado about nothing.”

Despite Russia’s recent warnings that failure to ratify the treaty could lead to a new arms race, the simple fact is that the U.S.-Russian nuclear rivalry is not nearly as important or as menacing as it used to be. Russia is no longer a superpower, or a putative ideological competitor to the West. It is a regional power that has to scramble for even local dominance, and that commands far more clout through the strategic use of its oil and gas reserves than through strategic nuclear arms. In the 21st century, our anxieties about nuclear weapons are focused on small rogue states and stateless terrorists, not on the Kremlin and its missiles.

Even during the Cold War era, arms reduction talks and treaties were little more than a ritual dance whose primary value was symbolic: to show that the two nuclear superpowers were negotiating, compromising and trying to avoid confrontation (“better jaw-jaw than war-war”). As Charles Krauthammer puts it, this arguably had “a soporific and therapeutic effect” at a time when fears of global thermonuclear war seemed very real. Today, this is a ritual dance in a time warp. Even its symbolic benefits accrue almost exclusively to the authoritarian regime in the Kremlin, which gets an ego boost from being treated as an equal negotiating partner to the United States — in the only area where Russia can still enjoy such status. Call it a stroll down superpower memory lane.

The practical rationale commonly given for the importance of START is that it’s needed to keep things on a friendly footing with Russia. Failure to approve it, we are told, would fatally jeopardize the Obama-era “reset” in often troubled relationship between the United States and Russia, at a time when Russia’s help is essential to such tasks as curbing nuclear proliferation and, in particular, reining in Iran’s nuclear ambitions.

Yet, as long as Russia is ruled by a corrupt and lawless authoritarian regime that uses nationalist muscle-flexing to prop up its power at home, it will remain an unreliable partner abroad — particularly when sticking it to Uncle Sam remains a favored means of self-assertion, a tendency the “reset” has not changed. On the issue of Iran, for instance, the Kremlin’s agenda has been to use tensions between Washington and Tehran and play both sides to increase its own leverage. Last June, mere days after finally agreeing to back a new round of United Nations sanctions against Iran, Moscow issued a scathing denunciation of separate and tougher U.S. and European Union sanctions.

Russia’s decision in September to cancel an $800 million contract to supply Iran with S-300 anti-aircraft missiles — which could be used to defend Iranian nuclear installations against attack — has been cited as a remarkable achievement of the “reset,” and the kind of success that could be jeopardized if START is not passed. But the reality is far more complex.

For one, the decision to cancel the missile sale in compliance with U.N. sanctions was almost certainly influenced by Russia’s relationship with Israel as much as its relationship with the United States. Indeed, this is confirmed by WikiLeaks disclosures that Russia had previously offered to call off the sale exchange for access to Israeli advanced technology.

What’s more, according to the Stratfor global security consultancy — generally a reliable source of information — it is possible that what Russia takes away with one hand, it gives with the other. In late November, Stratfor reported that Russia recently supplied advanced radar defense systems to Iran, using Belarus and Venezuela as intermediaries. While this information has not been confirmed, its confirmation would surprise no one.

It now seems that, with the help of some cooperative Republicans, START may win passage after all. This will not be a calamity. But the failure to pass it would not have been particularly calamitous, either — and its victory in Congress will not be the achievement the Obama administration will undoubtedly tout.

Cathy Young writes a weekly column for RealClearPolitics and is also a contributing editor at Reason magazine. This article originally appeared at

Why AIPAC should support START

AIPAC is in agony. It desperately wants to support the U.S.-Russia START treaty aimed at limiting nuclear warheads because the treaty would greatly advance Israel’s security.

But it is afraid of defying right-wing Republicans in the Senate. Sen. Jon Kyl (R-Ariz.), in particular, is telling AIPAC “don’t you dare.” His reason is simple: Minority Leader Mitch McConnell (R-Ky.) has ordered Republicans to block anything the president submits to the Senate except, of course, tax cuts for millionaires. That includes START. (The good news is that Kyl may come around and then AIPAC can, too.)

The case that START is critical to Israel is impossible to dispute. In a letter to AIPAC, Sens. Carl Levin (D-Mich.) and Charles Schumer (D-N.Y.) explain that there is one gigantic factor that should matter more to the so-called pro-Israel lobby than pleasing Republicans: Iran. Rejecting the treaty will probably cause Russia to abandon the U.S.-led effort to prevent Iran from getting nuclear weapons.

The treaty is an opportunity to improve relations with Russia, a nation that has provided considerable support for U.S.-led efforts to pressure Iran.

Last spring, Russia voted in favor of the U.N. Security Council resolution to impose sanctions on Iran. This fall, Russian President Medvedev agreed not to fulfill a previously agreed-upon sale of air defense missiles to Iran.

There are many economic and geopolitical incentives for Russia to do business with Iran; its decision not to do so in these instances is a strong testament to the importance of the U.S.-Russia relationship.

Like you, we are committed to preventing Tehran from acquiring a nuclear weapon capability, and we share your deep concern for the threat a nuclear Iran would pose to the United States and Israel. As a leading voice in favor of crippling sanctions on the Iranian regime, AIPAC cannot afford to stand on the sidelines as the Senate debates the New START treaty.

Israeli Defense Minister Ehud Barak agrees. He believes that containing Iran can only be achieved through a “paradigm shift” in relations with Russia. “The other issues are not so important,” he says.

In other words, if AIPAC really believes what it says about the Iranian threat to Israel, it must support START because if START isn’t ratified and Moscow responds by opting out of the “contain Iran” alliance, a major obstacle to Iran’s nuclear program disappears.

And why would AIPAC hesitate in supporting START? After all, every other major Jewish organization is supporting the president on this one.  (Two minor far-right “pro-Israel” organizations oppose START. One is the very Republican and ultra-neocon Jewish Institute for National Security Affairs. The other is the crackpot Emergency Committee for Israel, which was established by right-wing Republicans to try to defeat Democrats by running ads claiming Democrats are anti-Israel. These two represent the company AIPAC is now keeping.)

AIPAC argues that it does not get involved in congressional battles that do not directly involve Israel. Of course, they do. They always have. Even when I worked at AIPAC decades ago, they put their full lobbying weight behind a then-controversial plan to establish a military base on the Pacific island of Diego Garcia. 

Why? Because the Republican president at the time asked them to. More recently, AIPAC made sure that its friends in Congress knew that the “right vote” for Israel was supporting both Iraq wars. (Had AIPAC not indicated its support for war, far fewer Democrats would have voted for the second Iraq war.)

But now, suddenly, AIPAC has only “no comment” on START, a treaty directly beneficial to Israel — not to mention America.

Come on! Does AIPAC owe absolutely nothing to a government that AIPAC itself calls “Israel’s lifeline”? For $3.5 billion a year in aid, isn’t it a tad unseemly to give President Obama, or any president, the brush-off?

I don’t know what AIPAC will do in the end. After all, they are clearly preoccupied with former employee Steve Rosen’s lawsuit alleging that he should not have been fired for trafficking in secret government documents because, Rosen argues, that is what AIPAC does.

He wants a $20 million payoff or he will tell everything he knows. (AIPAC’s donors are generous souls, so they may give him the money. After all, AIPAC has already spent $10 million of its donors’ money first defending Rosen, then defending themselves and now trying to destroy Rosen.) So they are clearly preoccupied.

And then there is Rosen’s legacy: the pronounced AIPAC tilt to the Republicans. Before Rosen arrived at AIPAC in 1982, it was bipartisan. But Rosen vehemently argued that pro-Israel Jews need to be right-wing Republicans. He engineered the firing of former executive director Thomas A. Dine, the organization’s most successful leader, because he had been a long-time aide to Democratic senators.  And he hired (Rosen did the hiring through an executive board under his control) right-wing GOP House aide Howard Kohr, who is as close to Newt Gingrich as Dine was to Ted Kennedy and Joe Biden.

Ever since, AIPAC — although not most of its membership — has essentially been a Republican organization.

But now it is taking its bias for the GOP to the next level. It is refusing to support a Democratic president who has asked for its support, despite the fact that AIPAC knows (its staffers admit it in private) that START is critical for Israel.

This should send a clear message to Democrats that the established “pro-Israel” lobby is a pro-Republican lobby.

I hope it comes around, not because I have any illusions about AIPAC. I hope it comes around because, even as it declines, it is still a lobbying powerhouse. It can, I believe, put the START treaty over … and that is critical for my family, and yours, and for families in Israel, too.

Is it too much to ask AIPAC to do the right thing? After all, Mitch McConnell isn’t Moses and the return of the neocons under President Sarah Palin is not the Promised Land.

MJ Rosenberg is the senior fellow on foreign policy at Media Matters for America. Previously, he spent 10 years as director of policy at Israel Policy Forum, before which he spent 15 years on Capitol Hill as an aide to members of Congress. He was editor of AIPAC’s Near East Report for four years in the 1980s.

Jewish Dems press AIPAC on START

Top Jewish Democratic senators are pressing AIPAC to back the new START arms reduction treaty with Russia.

Four Jewish groups already back Senate ratification of the treaty as a means of cajoling Russia into isolating Iran. Another has suggested that it could prove helpful, and one group opposes it.

The American Israel Public Affairs Committee rarely backs such initiatives publicly, but what’s been notable in this case is that it has not taken a position behind the scenes either.

The treaty is “an opportunity to improve relations with Russia, a nation that has provided considerable support for U.S.-led efforts to pressure Iran,” Sens. Charles Schumer (D-N.Y.) and Carl Levin (D-Mich.) wrote AIPAC director Howard Kohr in a letter Tuesday that was obtained and published by Politico. “Last spring, Russia voted in favor of the U.N. Security Council resolution to impose sanctions on Iran. This fall, Russian President Medvedev agreed not to fulfill a previously agreed-upon sale of air defense missiles to Iran.”

Schumer has ambitions of becoming his party’s leader in the Senate; Levin chairs the Senate Armed Services Committee.

The decision by a handful of GOP senators to block START came after the election, in which the Democrats lost the U.S. House of Representatives to the Republicans.

The Obama administration noted that the treaty had been approved in committee, with GOP support, and accused the party of political gamesmanship.

Adm. Mike Mullen, the chairman of the military Joint Chiefs of Staff, has blasted the GOP senators for blocking it, saying it undercuts his dealings with his Russian counterparts.

Sen. Jon Kyl (R-Ariz.), who has led the opposition, says that upon review the treaty lacks sufficient verification mechanisms and would unnecessarily reduce the U.S. profile in Europe.

The White House reportedly has pressured Jewish groups into lobbying for the treaty.

The Anti-Defamation League, the American Council on World Jewry, the National Jewish Democratic Council and J Street have backed ratification. B’nai B’rith International has said it would be worthwhile if it helps isolate Iran.

The Jewish Institute for National Security Affairs on Monday vigorously opposed it, saying “there is no reason why the United States should be required to sacrifice its own defense capabilities to inspire Russia to a greater degree of diplomatic fortitude. If Russia is indeed concerned with a nuclear-armed Iran to its immediate south, it should need no extra incentive to take the action necessary to stop it.”

President Obama on Tuesday met with Republican senators, and after the meeting a number of the GOP senators said they were shifting toward some support.