The news surrounding today's meeting between Hillary Clinton and Russian Foreign Minister Sergei Lavrov is pretty bad. Prime Minister Vladimir Putin has taken the opportunity to dump cold water on our hopes for more Iran sanctions and to trumpet a Sino-Russian gas pipeline deal that would weaken our hand in Central Asia. But, despite all that, it's worth keeping in mind that the "New START" treaty that Hillary is in Moscow to negotiate is a solid one.
The deal would supplant both START I, the arms-control treaty signed by George H.W. Bush, and SORT, the non-treaty negotiated by former Under Secretary of State John Bolton and signed by George W. Bush. It would prevent the total disappearance of mechanisms to verify that either Russia or the United States is following through on any of its nuclear promise. In fact, it would expand the mechanisms to cover the cuts agreed to under Bush 43--capping the expansion of Russia's sinister MIRVed Topol-M ballistic missile.
Meanwhile, the rest of the new treaty's provisions are fairly anodyne. The joint cuts in nuclear warheads will be modest, leaving the strategic balance between the United States and Russia roughly the same; neither side will be able to "cheat," because both countries have a keen interest in establishing strict verification mechanisms (of which there would be none without the treaty). And fears that Obama would "negotiate away" missile defense with the treaty are unfounded, since the president has already modified the planned program on his own. Yet Senate conservatives, led by the Goldwaterite minority whip Jon Kyl, are still vowing to fight the treaty to the death. Most of their objections make little sense, other than as a declaration that some Senate Republicans will oppose any sort of legally binding arms control treaty, which means that the administration should be devising ways to maneuver around them politically.
However, right-wing opponents of New START have raised one concern that bears closer examination. Back in July, the usually unhinged New York Post columnist Lt. Col. Ralph Peters wrote that "Moscow knows we aren't going to start a nuclear war with Russia. … [Putin] wants to gut our conventional capabilities." The idea was that, because many nuclear 'launchers' limited under the START treaty--such as the B-2 and B-52 bomber--are usually used to deliver conventional munitions, signing New START would cripple America's ability to project conventional force around the globe.
Yet, based on the broad outlines that Moscow and Washington have laid out for New START, it looks like that concern is, like so many others, baseless. First of all, because of the way our nuclear forces have developed since the 1990s, it's essentially inconceivable that any new reductions will require cuts from our bomber fleet or our land-based ICBMs. Instead, they will almost certainly be accomplished by deactivating a few of the 24 large missile tubes on each of our ballistic missile submarines--and those tubes don't carry conventional weapons anyway.
And second, if the United States ever did reach a point where limits on nuclear delivery vehicles threatened to weaken our conventional systems, we could just strip a few bombers of their nuclear mission--rendering them less expensive, because training costs would be lower, and freeing up more conventional power for us to apply against our enemies in a conflict. (Bombers are only limited under the START rules if they are maintained as nuclear delivery vehicles.)
The bottom line is that there's nothing to be worried about in the New START treaty, and it would be more reasonable for conservatives to spend their time freaking out about important things like, say, Iran.
(Photo credit: U.S. Air Force.)