Last week, Sen. Jim Inhofe (R-OK) expressed concern over the U.S.-Russian Strategic Arms Reduction Treaty (START) now before the Senate. The senator particularly questioned the treaty’s limits on America’s “ability to advance our missile defense” and its “failure to deter proliferation and future attacks on our nation and allies.” Given the consequences that New START poses for U.S. national security and the calls for its swift passage, Inhofe is right to ask questions – and the entire Senate is obligated to do so, as well.

One of the Senate’s most important functions under the Constitution is to offer its “advice and consent” on treaties. This is a vital prerogative because it checks and balances the Executive Branch, which is responsible for negotiating treaties. All treaties deserve careful scrutiny because they represent a solemn commitment by the United States to other sovereign states. But arms control treaties are particularly important because they concern our security, which the American people created the government to protect. A bad arms control treaty is not just an insult to the serious business of diplomacy. It can pose a direct threat to our interests, and those of our allies.

In the past, the U.S. Senate has fulfilled this function responsibly and carefully. In the face of its skepticism, the Carter administration asked for consideration of the SALT II Treaty to be suspended in early 1980. In 1997, the Senate refused to ratify an addendum to the START II Treaty, which ultimately resulted in the Russian withdrawal from it in 2002. And in 1999, it rejected the Comprehensive Test Ban Treaty. In other cases, the Senate has ultimately given its advice and consent to strategic arms limitation agreements. But it has never done so rapidly and easily.  Even the INF Treaty, signed by President Reagan and Soviet President Gorbachev in the waning days of the Cold War on December 8, 1987, was not ratified until May 27, 1988, almost six months later.

President Barack Obama and Russian President Dmitry Medvedev signed the New START Treaty on April 8, 2010. Immediately, its supporters began to call for its rapid ratification. President Obama has stated that he wants the new treaty ratified by the end of 2010. Senator John Kerry (D-MA), Chair of the Senate Foreign Relations Committee, plans “to hold a vote . . . prior to the August recess.” Over the past weeks, and continuing this week, the Committee has held a drumbeat of hearings, all testifying to the urgent desire of the treaty’s supporters to see it ratified as soon as possible.

This urgency is incompatible with the Senate’s traditions and with its responsibilities today. The administration has stated that the choice is between the New START Treaty and no treaty governing the U.S.-Russian strategic arsenals at all. This is extremely low bar, and also factually untrue: the Moscow Treaty remains in force until the end of 2012. The New START Treaty seeks to preserve the “viability and effectiveness” of the Russian strategic nuclear arsenal, which implies a broad restriction on the ability of the United States to deploy missile defenses. And while the treaty’s supporters claim that New START will restore the United States to a position of leadership on non-proliferation, the fact is that there is no relationship between the size of the U.S. nuclear stockpile – which has fallen dramatically since 1987 – and the desire of states such as Iran and North Korea to develop nuclear weapons.

In light of these concerns, and others, the Senate must not allow itself to be rushed into action. It must request the full negotiating record for the treaty, so it is fully aware of all assurances – if any – given by U.S. negotiators to their Russian counterparts. It must carefully consider the reports on the treaty that are still pending from the administration on such vital matters as the treaty’s verification provisions. Above all, it must consider whether the treaty addresses any vital national security need faced by the United States and its allies. If it does not, the urgency of its supporters is all the more disturbing.

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