COMMENT: Bye bye Mitch —Harlan Ullman - Thursday, December 30, 2010

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Perhaps North Korea and Iran might deploy intercontinental range missiles one day. But unless those states were suicidal, why would they fire instantly traceable missiles at us or our friends, irrevocably painting an unmistakable bull’s-eye on themselves for retaliation?

Former Senate Majority Leader (and legislative giant) Mike Mansfield of Montana responded to colleagues who opposed him even bitterly by countenancing genuine disagreement while never doubting the motives of dissenting senators. In the four plus decades since Mansfield’s departure, boy has that changed in Congress.

The so-called debate, aka Republican tantrum, over approving the new START agreement sadly rejected Mansfield’s view of politics. The principal offender was Minority Leader Mitch McConnell of Kentucky. If the Republicans had backbone, McConnell would be replaced. And the same could be said of Democratic Majority Leader Harry Reid but for other reasons.

One could oppose the START agreement. But the arguments against it are quite weak. Quibbles — and they are quibbles — with the treaty ignore the broader strategic relationship to be built with Russia, a relationship that can lead not merely to more effective missile defence but genuine cooperation with Moscow in helping us and our friends regarding Iran, Iraq, Pakistan, Afghanistan and even North Korea. Indeed, that argument could have been sufficient for passage of even a partly flawed treaty, which this one is not.

The lead Republican dissenter was Arizona’s junior Senator Jon Kyl. Kyl challenged the future of missile defence as defined in the treaty as well as the warhead upgrade and reliability programmes to ensure our weapons would remain effective for the long-term. Kyl also deplored what he called efforts by the other side to ramrod the treaty through the Senate without time for fuller debate. McConnell’s dissent was more suspect. More about that shortly.

Regarding missile defence, some archconservatives would like to return to the days of Ronald Reagan’s Strategic Defence Initiative (SDI), known as Star Wars. However, the putative enemies North Korea and Iran lack any real missile capability, and deterrence still works should Russia and China embark on more menacing courses. Perhaps North Korea and Iran might deploy intercontinental range missiles one day. But unless those states were suicidal, why would they fire instantly traceable missiles at us or our friends, irrevocably painting an unmistakable bull’s-eye on themselves for retaliation?

Besides (one of the fatal flaws in SDI was ignoring the air-breathing cruise missile and manned aircraft threat), should North Korea and Iran consider using nuclear weapons, almost certainly stealthier non-ballistic missile options would seem more prudent in their minds.

As far as reliability of the warhead stockpile, some $ 80 billion over the next decade seems a sizable sum for that task. As far as ramming the treaty through, Democrats rightly argued that new START was sent to the Senate in April with ample hearings and upwards of 1,000 questions asked and answered.

Other critics carped that this treaty neglected tactical nuclear weapons in which Russia has a disproportionate numerical advantage. That is true. However, this treaty is as focused as all other START/SALT treaties on intercontinental weapons. And the criticism ignores why the Russians have maintained large numbers of tactical weapons. As the US and NATO relied on these weapons for much of the Cold War to offset Soviet conventional military power, conditions are reversed. Russia is no match for NATO or for China on a conventional battlefield. Hence, these tactical weapons are Russian insurance against NATO conventional superiority. As there is no chance of a NATO attack, this is a non-issue from our side although paring those numbers is a future step.

Missile defences will be enhanced with Russian participation. NATO’s decision to implement the phased adaptive approach, initially with sea-based Aegis interceptors, is the most effective way to deal with putative Iranian missiles. Given that Russia borders Iran, support for missile defence from Moscow is self-evident.

As a non-strategic expert, did McConnell hear these arguments? Indeed, given how partisan Congress has become, despite Mansfield’s caution, is this not pure pique? With administration wins on the tax compromise and ‘do not ask, do not tell’, McConnell perhaps did not wish to squander November’s Republican success further. Consequently, for entirely domestic political reasons, McConnell sought to derail the treaty and with it Obama’s political momentum.

Given that McConnell’s first priority in the Senate is ensuring the defeat of Obama in 2012, he is consistent. But if that is his key aim rather than supporting and defending the constitution, he is in the wrong pew in the wrong church. A better place would be as chairman of the Republican National Committee or as a private citizen.

Of course, this is wishful and even delusional thinking. To be sure, new START is not perfect. But it does advance our interests and those of our NATO allies. And it is to Russia’s advantage as well. Should broader strategic cooperation not follow, so be it. If it does, then that will be hugely to our advantage.

My new year’s wish is bye-bye Mitch! And I will be very disappointed.

The writer is Chairman of the Killowen Group that advises leaders of government and business, and Senior Advisor at Washington DC’s Atlantic Council

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