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Clinton Urges U.S. Senate To Ratify START, Is Challenged On Missile Defense

  • Heather Maher

U.S. Secretary of State Hillary Clinton and Defense Secretary Robert Gates (file photo)

U.S. Secretary of State Hillary Clinton and Defense Secretary Robert Gates (file photo)

U.S. Secretary of State Hillary Clinton has urged the Senate to ratify a new U.S.-Russian nuclear-arms control treaty as soon as possible and tried to refute concerns from lawmakers that the agreement would limit U.S. missile defense efforts.

Testifying before the Senate Armed Services Committee on June 17, Clinton said that the new Strategic Arms Reduction Treaty, or START agreement, which was signed by U.S. President Barack Obama and Russian President Dmitry Medvedev on April 8 in Prague, will strengthen U.S. national security by obligating Russia to keep its strategic nuclear forces below an agreed level.

"This is a treaty that, if ratified, will provide stability, transparency, and predictability for the two countries with more than 90 percent of the world's nuclear weapons," Clinton said. "It is a treaty that will reduce the permissible number of Russian and U.S. deployed strategic warheads to 1,550, a level not seen since the 1950s."

Beyond that, the secretary of state said the landmark agreement gives Washington more leverage in pursuing its global nonproliferation efforts, which have just gotten boost from last week's new round of UN sanctions against Iran over its suspect nuclear program.

Clinton told lawmakers that the U.S-Russia agreement has direct implications for Iran because it strengthens the United States' position with its allies to "to hold irresponsible governments accountable, whether in further isolating Iran...or in persuading other countries to implement better controls on their own nuclear materials."

'Better Off With It'

The new treaty succeeds a predecessor arms agreement which was signed in 1991 and expired in December. START III, as it's called, places an upper limit of 1,550 on the number of deployed nuclear warheads each country can posses, down from 2,200.

It also for the first time includes a legal verification mechanism that ensures compliance.

To come into effect, the treaty must be approved by a majority of U.S. senators, or 67 votes. The Russian Duma, which has yet to act, must also approve the agreement.

Clinton noted that two previous versions of START were overwhelmingly approved by the Senate and quoted James Schlesinger -- secretary of defense for former Presidents Richard Nixon and Gerald Ford, and energy secretary for former President Jimmy Carter -- as recently saying that "it is obligatory for the United States to ratify."

She was bolstered in her view by Defense Secretary Robert Gates and the head of the Joint Chiefs of Staff, Admiral Mike Mullen, both of whom told the panel that the treaty has their full support and should be quickly approved.

In his testimony, Gates recounted how he first worked on the issue of strategic arms control with the Russians forty years ago and helped produce the 1972 agreement known as SALT I.

"The key question then and in the decades since has always been the same: is the United States better off with a strategic arms agreement with the Russians, or without it?" Gates said. "The answer for successive presidents, as Secretary Clinton has said, of both parties has always been, with an agreement."

Competing Views

But Republican Senator John McCain, who's known for his hawkish stance toward Russia -- he famously once said that when he looks in Vladimir Putin's eyes he sees "a K, a B, and G" -- challenged the panel to prove that the agreement doesn't tie Washington's hands when it comes to missile defense plans in Eastern Europe.

"I, for one, am going to have to get some kind of statement from the Russians as to exactly what this treaty means in their view," McCain said.

He noted that both President Medvedev and Russian Foreign Minister Sergei Lavrov have said publicly that Russia has the right to withdraw from the new agreement if the United States makes any changes to its missile defense system.

Last fall, Obama scrapped a Bush-era plan to place interceptor missiles in Poland and an advanced radar in the Czech Republic in favor of a more mobile system that will initially rely on sea-based interceptors.

U.S. officials say the current plan is designed to counter the threat from short- and intermediate-range Iranian missiles. It would initially deploy sea-based SM-3 interceptor missiles in 2011. An updated version would be positioned by 2015 in Romania.

Indeed, just hours after the Senate panel adjourned, U.S. and Romanian officials launched negotiations in Bucharest on the new missile shield. U.S. Under Secretary of State for Arms Control and International Security Affairs Ellen Tauscher said she and a U.S. delegation planned to "conduct consultations with [the] Romanian government on security issues of mutual interest, including work on an agreement to station U.S. missile defense assets in Romania."

McCain quoted Medvedev as having referred to an "interconnection between the strategic offensive arms and missile defense" in the treaty's preamble, and said, "It's clear from these statements that there's a very different interpretation of this treaty from what has been stated here concerning the connection to missile defense systems and that of the Russians."

"Russian leadership have all made this statement: that this treaty is contingent upon the United States not changing, or qualitatively or quantitatively building up, missile defense systems," McCain said. "That's bound to be worrisome to anyone."

Pressing Ahead

Both Clinton and Gates sought to assuage McCain's concerns.

Clinton pointed out that the issue had been raised and settled already once by the committee when it approved next year's national defense authorization bill. She quoted aloud from a section of the bill that reads, in part: "It is the sense of Congress that there are no constraints contained in the new START treaty on the development or deployment by the United States of effective missile defenses..."

"Now, Russia has, as the chairman said, issued a unilateral statement expressing its view. But that is not an agreed-upon view. That is not in the treaty," Clinton said. "It's the equivalent of a press release. And we are not in any way bound by it. In fact, we've issued our own statement, which is now part of the record, making clear that the United States intends and, in fact, is continuing to improve and deploy effective missile defense systems."

Gates seconded that, and said the United States made its plans "clear" to the Russians in a unilateral statement when the new treaty was signed.

"It is not surprising that Russia continues to object to our missile-defense program as they have objected to all U.S. missile-defense efforts for several decades," Gates said. "The Russians know that our missile defenses are designed to intercept a limited number of ballistic missiles launched by a country such as Iran or North Korea. Our missile defenses do not have the capability to defend against the Russian Federation's large, advanced arsenal. Consequentially, U.S. missile defenses do not, and will not, affect Russia's strategic deterrent."

The Obama administration has said it would like to see the treaty ratified by the end of the year.

Medvedev is set to visit Obama at the White House on June 24, and the two leaders are expected to discuss the agreement's prospects for passage in Moscow and Washington.