Thursday, March 25, 2010

A New Start with Russia

Reducing nuclear weapons is a worthy goal by itself. But a new treaty between Russia and the United States has the potential to slow a worldwide arms race and rebuild frayed relations between two major powers.

The agreement sets nuclear stockpiles at the lowest point in decades of arms-control efforts. It's also a powerful marker: The two countries that control 95 percent of the nuclear weaponry are shrinking their dangerous arsenals. Will other nuclear powers join them, and can this momentum be used to contain Iran and North Korea?

The treaty comes with political risk. It amounts to a foreign-affairs equivalent to health care reform for President Obama, who highlighted weapons controls in a major speech in April. Getting the agreement this far is a victory on an issue the president prizes, but it will take 67 votes in the Senate - meaning Republican help - to win full approval.

The Party of No, licking its wounds after the health care win for Obama, is likely in no mood to hand the president another trophy win before this fall's elections. Two of the touchiest topics in the treaty - on-the-spot verification and a U.S. missile defense system - will be scrutinized heavily by the Senate. Republican leaders have already served notice that missile defense - a significant American advantage - must not be traded away.

The pact replaces the Strategic Arms Reduction Treaty, which ran out in December. The proposal cuts each nation's nuclear warheads from 2,200 to 1,500 and reduces strategic bombers and other land- and submarine-based launchers by half.

The agreement, months in the works, almost didn't happen. In the final weeks, one of the prime players was former East Bay Rep. Ellen Tauscher, now a top State Department arms negotiator, who was dispatched to Geneva for final-stretch talks.

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