WASHINGTON — President Barack Obama emphatically put his personal prestige behind the pending New START arms control treaty with Russia on Thursday, calling it a "national security imperative" that the Senate pass it by year's end as he huddled at the White House with a bipartisan cast of foreign-policy luminaries from previous administrations.
Obama, who'll arrive Friday at a NATO summit in Portugal without the assurances he'd hoped to give Russia on the treaty, said it's essential to restore U.S. inspections to track Russia's nuclear weapons. He also said it's "a cornerstone of our relations with Russia" and vital to their cooperation in pressuring Iran, among other things.
Obama insisted that if Republicans in the lame-duck Senate continue to block passage, they'll endanger the nation. "The stakes for American national security are clear, and they are high," the president said.
Even as Obama spoke, however, an effort to forge bipartisan agreement behind the treaty was foundering on Capitol Hill.
A meeting between Senate Foreign Relations Chairman John Kerry, D-Mass., and key Republicans — including Sen. Jon Kyl of Arizona, the primary GOP obstacle to treaty approval — got off to a bad start when Kerry arrived late, according to a congressional aide familiar with the discussions. The aide spoke on condition of anonymity because he wasn't authorized to make a statement.
The meeting focused on process rather than substance, with Republicans asking Democrats what the rush is, Democrats reiterating that the treaty has had a bipartisan vetting for months and that waiting until the next Congress gets to work could trigger more months of delays. The meeting ended with no resolution, although Kyl later said he intends to continue consulting with Kerry.
Senate Assistant Majority Leader Richard Durbin, D-Ill., said that "the White House is pushing hard, they really want this" but that ultimately "I don't know if it will come up" for a vote in the lame duck session, or whether Republicans will force the treaty into next year. Sen. Richard Lugar, R-Ind., the top Republican on the Senate Foreign Relations Committee, is urging fellow Republicans to support the treaty, and said Wednesday that he believes the 67 senators needed for approval will vote for the treaty in the current session because they know it's necessary.
Kyl and other Republicans have said there may not be sufficient momentum to pass the treaty with lawmakers focused on the U.S. economy and as Republicans press for assurances on defense spending and projects.
Obama said Thursday that his administration is "prepared to go the extra mile" on such assurances, including supporting an additional $4.1 billion in nuclear-weapons modernization that Kyl wants.
"There is no higher national security priority for the lame duck session of Congress," Obama said of the treaty. It "is not about politics, it's about national security. This is not a matter that can be delayed . . ..
"I would not be emphasizing this and these folks would not have traveled all this way if we didn't feel that this was absolutely important to get done now," Obama said.
The meeting in the White House Roosevelt Room was designed to showcase bipartisan support for the treaty. It was convened by Vice President Joe Biden, whom Obama said he's told "to focus on this issue day and night until it gets done."
The meeting included Lugar and former Sen. Sam Nunn, D-Ga.; former secretaries of state Madeleine Albright, James Baker, and Henry Kissinger; former Defense Secretaries William Cohen and William Perry; former National Security Adviser Brent Scowcroft; and Vice Chairman of the Joint Chiefs of Staff, Gen. James Cartwright.
The accord, signed by Obama and Russian President Dmitry Medvedev in April, would limit each side to no more than 1,500 deployed nuclear warheads apiece within seven years, or about a 30 percent reduction.
It also would establish a new system for monitoring each other's compliance with the reductions, allowing U.S. and Russian experts to resume onsite inspections that have been suspended for nearly a year.
The nearly year-long absence of U.S. inspectors from Russian nuclear bases and facilities makes it much harder to track advances in Russian warheads and missiles, raises the danger of misunderstandings and imposes higher financial costs on the Pentagon, current and former U.S. officials told McClatchy.
"Inspections create transparency between the United States and Russia," said a U.S. official who requested anonymity because he wasn't authorized to speak on the sensitive issue. "When they (inspections) don't occur, that creates concern. The shared goals of the two countries are to avoid misperceptions and wrong information."
A former U.S. intelligence official who tracked Russian military issues said the new treaty's monitoring system is more accurate than the one that ended with the December 2009 expiration of the 1991 Strategic Arms Reduction Treaty. He too requested anonymity because he isn't authorized to speak.
Unlike the past, U.S. inspectors would be able to track precise numbers of warheads, bombers and strategic missiles that Russia deploys, allowing the U.S. military to adjust its own deployments more accurately, he said.
Until then, the United States must rely on less accurate counting rules that assume Russia is deploying more warheads, missiles and bombers than it actually does, compelling the U.S. military to maximize its deployments, he said.
"Without onsite inspections, the numbers in our intelligence assessments are driven upwards, and so you have a ballooning to the worst case, we adjust our forces accordingly and off we go to the races," said the former U.S. intelligence official.
The result is that the United States is deploying more nuclear weapons and spending more money than necessary, he said. U.S. inspectors can gauge improvements in Russian weapons designs and make judgments about the readiness of Russia's nuclear forces, the quality of the personnel and whether Russian nuclear bases are secure from terrorist attacks, he said.
"Good luck figuring this out by satellite," he said. "It's a great intelligence collection opportunity."
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