Paul Pillar

Petulance and the Ratification of Treaties

The Senate went into closed-door executive session on Monday to consider the START treaty, and the latest indications seem to be that the prospects for ratification have brightened a bit. Perhaps closing the doors, because it also closes the possibility of public posturing, has had a salutary effect. But even if the treaty is nearer to approval, the world's greatest deliberative body—or at least the side of it that has been straining to find new rationales to hold up approval of the pact—has made an embarrassment of itself in handling the issue. Some of the ridiculousness of what has been transpiring has been noted by those on the other side of the aisle and in the executive branch who have had the serious and frustrating task of getting the treaty ratified. Senator John Kerry (D-MA), chairman of the Committee on Foreign Relations, noted that the same Republicans who earlier had appealed not to have a vote before the election are now complaining about a vote after the election. “Is there no shame, ever,” asked Kerry, “with respect to the arguments that are made sometimes on the floor of the United States Senate?” White House press secretary Robert Gibbs observed that some Republican senators were simultaneously complaining about specific provisions in the treaty and about supposedly not having had time to read the text. "It's one or the other, but it can't be both," Gibbs said. "That doesn't make a ton of sense.”

There is no shortage of other maneuvers that also lack sense. Senator John Thune (R-SD), for example, has proposed an amendment—an amendment to the treaty itself, meaning that if the amendment were adopted the entire treaty would have to be sent back to the U.S.-Russian negotiating table—that would raise the limit on deployed launchers from 700 to 720. Maybe I'm too laid back, but I haven't been losing much sleep over how the difference between 700 and 720 might affect our nation's security.

Clearly these maneuvers have far less to do with the substance of the START agreement or strategic arms in general than with the treaty as one more device for making political life difficult for the Obama administration, as well as for Congressional Democrats. And this is so even though strategic arms control is not inherently a Democratic rather than a Republican project. (The most recent previous nuclear arms treaty was negotiated and approved under the George W. Bush administration.) Perhaps this is partly a demonstration of the Party of No finding it hard to break habits and to say yes to anything that isn't either its own project or, like the tax bill, the result of major concessions by the administration. The recent Republican handling of START also seems to reflect, however, petulance over how much is being done in the current lame duck session of Congress, and especially the repeal of Don't Ask Don't Tell. Senator Lindsey Graham (R-SC) was pretty specific about this on Face the Nation Sunday, speaking of the current session having been “poisoned”.

A serious argument can be made, ever since the Twentieth Amendment to the Constitution moved up the date on which each new Congress convenes, that lame duck sessions should not take major actions that can wait until the first week in January. But the maneuvering and the statements of Republican senators have belied any idea that a constitutional principle along this line is their principal concern. Senate minority leader Mitch McConnell (R-KY) has rationalized his announced opposition to the treaty by saying that holding a vote this week is not the best way to “get support of people like me.” Given McConnell's earlier declaration that his top priority is for Barack Obama not to get re-elected, it is really hard to believe that the timing of the vote would make any difference in his position. McConnell and several other Republicans also have talked about concerns regarding verification and the need for more inspections (the subject of another Republican-proposed amendment). As long as they hold up ratification of the treaty, they are prolonging the status quo, under which there are no inspections at all.

The Russian foreign minister warned that the current treaty is a carefully negotiated package that cannot be reopened for more negotiation if the Senate affixes amendments. It is to the Russians' advantage to say that, but it also is a reasonable position given the nature of the treaty and of international negotiations generally. Imagine what our own reaction would be if, after thinking we had a deal with the Russians, the treaty got sent back to the negotiating table because a party in the Russian parliament added an amendment that, say, reduced the launcher limit from 700 to 680.