A Fast Way to Lose the Arms Race

President Obama has called for a world without nuclear weapons, not as a distant goal, but as something imminently achievable. Secretary of State Hillary Clinton followed up, saying that American and Russian “leadership” in arms control and nonproliferation was “at the top of the list” of her priorities. Although the administration may be counting on the eyelid-lowering effect of arms-control terminology to minimize Congressional and public scrutiny, its plans are deeply troubling for America.

First, the administration’s bilateral objectives with Russia play almost entirely to Moscow’s advantage, as in arms-control days of yore. Hurrying to negotiate a successor to the second Strategic Arms Reduction Treaty by year’s end, which Secretary Clinton has committed to, reflects a “zeal for the deal” approach that benefits only Russia.

We need not be rushed, since simply extending the existing treaty’s verification provisions would preserve the status quo. Fortunately, Russia seems likely to save us from the dangerously low warhead levels proposed by Senator John Kerry and others, but the risks of foolish, unnecessary concessions remain high.

Paradoxically, the administration itself might put the entire negotiating process into gridlock by reaching much farther than the Russians are willing to go, such as by trying to negotiate numerical limits on tactical nuclear weapons. More seriously, the administration has pre-emptively conceded to Russia on strategic defensive issues: first by linking the general subject of missile defense with offensive issues, long a Russian goal; and secondly by signaling that specific projects, like the defense system intended for Poland and the Czech Republic, might be abandoned or bargained away.

Second, the Obama administration is seriously weakening both our strategic offensive and defensive capacity. The Defense Department budget proposes major cuts in missile defense programs, returning to an emphasis both in operational and diplomatic terms on “theater” missile defense (mainly for defending deployed military forces), rather than “national” missile defense (for shielding America’s population from missile attack). Protecting our forces abroad must remain a top priority, but it need not be at the expense of homeland defense. President Ronald Reagan refused to bargain on missile defense, and President Obama isn’t bargaining either. He is simply giving it away.

The Pentagon also proposes ending financing for the Reliable Replacement Warhead, a key to substituting safe, dependable warheads for the ones now aging. For the last two years, Congress refused President George W. Bush’s requests to pay for the program, but dropping it from the Obama budget altogether is another diplomatic freebie for Moscow. Even worse, in his public statements, President Obama’s seeming indifference to the beneficent effects of the United States’ nuclear deterrent has to worry our friends and allies, most notably Japan.

Third, the president is resurrecting President Bill Clinton’s unfinished multilateral arms-control agenda, committing, for example, to ratify the Comprehensive Test Ban Treaty, which would effectively make permanent the current moratorium on underground testing. Vice President Joe Biden is leading the administration’s effort to reverse the Senate’s 1999 rejection of the test-ban treaty, the first major treaty to fail on the Senate floor since the Treaty of Versailles after World War I.

The administration is also putting new emphasis on negotiating conventions against the “arms race” in outer space, which would undercut America’s current substantial advantage above the earth, and on resuscitating a proposed treaty that would prohibit the production of uranium and plutonium for weapons.

Unhappily, the administration is pushing Israel to sign the Nuclear Nonproliferation Treaty as a “non-nuclear-weapons state,” meaning Israel would have to eliminate its nuclear arsenal. Iran and others will welcome this, given their repeated demands for the same result. Today’s real proliferation threat, however, is not Israel, but states like Iran and North Korea that become parties to the alphabet soup of arms control treaties and then violate them with abandon. Without robust American reactions to these violations — not apparent in administration thinking — more will follow.

The Senate, which must approve any treaty with a two-thirds supermajority, is now the only obstacle to Obama administration policies that will seriously weaken the United States. Voters should remind their representatives on Capitol Hill that they have a responsibility to keep us safe.

John R. Bolton, the United States ambassador to the United Nations from 2005 to 2006, a senior fellow at the American Enterprise Institute and the author of Surrender Is Not an Option.