On January 12th William Hartung posted a criticism of Ariel Cohen’s January 8th New York Times op-ed on the START follow-on treaty. Instead of a substantive response, Hartung has created a straw man, proceeds to valiantly demolish it, and in the process twists our op-ed.

Hartung charges us with being misleading and alarmist. Nothing could be further from the truth. Our main concern is that the START follow on treaty may not adequately address nuclear modernization, verification, and will link the performance of the treaty to limitations on missile defense.

The fact is that the Obama Administration is mishandling the arms control negotiations with Russia. It is not just our opinion: 41 senators signed a letter to President Obama raising this point. The Administration is damaging the arms control process. Worse, it is jeopardizing the security of the United States and its allies.

Let’s start with the big picture. The Obama Administration established an unrealistic negotiating agenda with Russia and failed to meet the deadline it set. This outcome was entirely predictable. The Administration could have pursued a much less ambitious and more productive agenda with Russia by focusing on drafting a protocol to the Moscow Treaty regarding verification and transparency measures.

Throwing caution to the wind, the Administration chose to pursue an immediate round of further reductions despite the fact that the Moscow Treaty remains in place for several more years. This alternative approach of deferring additional reductions would have left plenty of time to draft a more carefully considered treaty with Russia. The truism that haste makes waste seems lost on Mr. Hartung.

Now, let’s turn to the specific charges. First and foremost, Mr. Hartung asserts that “the fewer nuclear weapons there are, the safer we all will be.” This is just not so. Pursuing numerical reductions in a haphazard way, particularly to very low numbers, can lead to circumstances that increase instability and increase the likelihood of the use of nuclear weapons.

The missed deadline on the START follow-on negotiations reveals how haphazard the negotiations have become. The key risk now is that the treaty under negotiation will reduce the number of strategic nuclear launchers or delivery vehicles to such a low number that first strike targeting options for Russia could become plausible.

This problem will be compounded many fold insofar as President Obama has made an unequivocal and unqualified campaign commitment to “de-alert” the nuclear arsenal of the United States. It is puzzling to us that Mr. Hartung is so encouraged about a treaty that all but invites Russia to produce multiple warhead missiles and at least marginally increases the risk of the use of nuclear weapons.

Second, Mr. Hartung claims that the U.S. has a “robust [nuclear] modernization program.” This is just factually wrong. The U.S. is not producing new nuclear weapons. In fact, the nuclear weapons infrastructure has been atrophying since the end of the Cold War and is struggling to maintain the safety, security, reliability and most importantly the military effectiveness of the arsenal. This is according to authoritative sources both inside and outside the Administration.

The Director of the National Nuclear Security Administration declared, “…maintaining certification of the finely-tuned designs of an aging Cold War stockpile solely via warhead refurbishments and absent nuclear testing involves increasing risk.” The Congressional Commission on the Strategic Posture of the United States stated the following about the nuclear weapons complex in its report last year, “The physical infrastructure is in serious need of transformation.”

Third, Mr. Hartung asserts that there will be no limits on missile defense in the new treaty. While this must await the release of the treaty text, it may well be true but is also irrelevant. Arms control treaties impose limitations through external linkages, as well as directly by the text. The Obama Administration has already bowed to Russian demands for such a linkage regarding missile defense by canceling the missile defense “third site” in the Czech Republic and Poland.

Oddly, Mr. Hartung justifies the need to cut nuclear weapons by the threat that they may fall into the hands of Al Qaeda. He fails to explain how cutting Russian weapons may accomplish such a goal, when the most probable attempt for terrorists to gain a nuclear weapon would come from their independent development or buying it in the black market, most probably from Pakistan or North Korea.

Arms control advocates like Mr. Hartung frequently emphasize the advantages of verification mechanisms in arms control treaties. He fails to note, however, that Russia is trying to impose a weaker standard of verification. In a remarkable slight of hand, Mr. Hartung wants to blame us for complicating the arms control process rather than blaming the Russians for their negotiating position.

Most discouraging, Mr. Hartung dismisses Russian non-compliance with arms control agreements as a serious concern. However, Russia is not fulfilling its commitments under the Presidential Nuclear Initiatives of the early 1990s regarding non-strategic nuclear weapons. This has resulted in a Russian tactical nuclear weapons arsenal and stockpile that is far larger than that of the United States. Yet, this does not seem to bother Mr. Hartung.

Further, the Russians are using this advantage to intimidate their neighbors, such as the Georgians and Poles, by emphasizing that they reserve right to use these weapons in the context of initially conventional conflicts in their declared policy. It is hard to see why this circumstance represents a great achievement for arms control.

The fact is that the Obama Administration is failing to meet the standards of effective arms control in its negotiations with Russia. These are standards that will have to rise dramatically in the context of President Obama’s desired policy to eliminate nuclear weapons worldwide. It is clear that Russia is seeking to lower the standards, probably as a means for derailing President Obama’s policy.

A policy of rushing to nuclear disarmament is unwise, and yet arms control advocates are celebrating. Oddly, Mr. Hartung, as a self-appointed guardian of arms control, seems oblivious to the damage that he incurs to his cause. Fortunately, there is the prospect that the Senate will fulfill its responsibility to serve as the watch dog in the arms control process and prevent steps that jeopardizes the security of the United States.

Co-authored by Baker Spring.