Wednesday, May 30, 2007

Bush to let START I expire in 2009

In a not so surprising but nevertheless disappointing move, a senior Bush administration official announced last week that the United States will let the first Strategic Arms Reduction Treaty (START) expire when it runs out at the end of 2009. Apparently, the administration instead plans on replacing it with a less formal agreement that doesn’t have the strict verification requirements and weapons limits that START I does.

The move is just the latest example of President Bush’s nose-thumbing towards arms control as a method of limiting the potential development and proliferation of nuclear weapons. Congress has notably shown little interest in the treaty and has instead opted to defer to the next president, with the hope that that person will act upon arriving in the White House in January 2009.

Signed in July 1991 by the United States and the USSR (subsequently including Russia, Belarus, Ukraine, and Kazakhstan upon the collapse of the Soviet Union five months later), START I is the most ambitious arms control treaty in history.

The treaty barred its signatories from deploying more than 6,000 “countable” nuclear warheads atop a total of 1,600 intercontinental ballistic missiles (ICBMs), submarine-launched ballistic missiles (SLBMs), and heavy bombers.

By the end of its implementation deadline in late 2001, the treaty had resulted in the elimination of approximately 80% of all strategic nuclear weapons then in existence.

While both the United States and Russia are still well-below the limitations agreed upon in START I, repudiating the treaty sends mixed signals to both Russia and the world that while the U.S. is seeking to halt the development and spread of nuclear weapons by other countries, it is not willing to continue with a treaty that limits its own arsenal, or make further reductions in its stockpile.

At a time when the United States is seeing a resurgent Russia increasingly comfortable flexing its muscle on the international scene, now is not the time to pour more gas on the fire and revert to our old Cold War ways. This is especially true given that Russia is already alarmed over the expansion of NATO to its boundaries and the deployment of a missile defense system at its doorstep, over which it has been increasingly vocal in its criticism. And matching their rhetoric with action, the country recently issued a moratorium on the application of the Conventional Forces in Europe (CFE) treaty and also only yesterday tested a new inter-continental ballistic missile that Russian officials claim can defeat current or future missile defense systems.

President Bush needs to get serious about arms control and either extend START I or begin new negotiations towards another legally binding treaty that makes further cuts in strategic forces. If not, extension of the treaty should be an early priority of the successor Administration. Likewise, the Senate should hold Foreign Relations hearings on the treaty with the goal of not only pressuring Bush, but also to raise awareness of the issue to the presidential candidates, whom he might be passing the START baton to in less than two years time. The clock is ticking.

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