Inter Press Service
Two weeks after U.S. voters gave Republicans control of the House of Representatives and a sharply reduced the Democratic majority in the Senate, President Barack Obama is scrambling to save his foreign policy agenda.
The White House had virtually taken for granted Senate ratification of a key part of that agenda – a new strategic arms reduction treaty (New START) with Russia — particularly after it ceded chief Republican interlocutor on the accord, Sen. John Kyl, the extra 4.1 billion dollars he sought to add to the 80 billion dollars committed to the administration's proposed five-year nuclear-weapons modernisation programme.
After all, not only was the proposed reduction in deployed, long-range weapons not that significant – from 2,200 on each side to 1,550 – but it also permitted a resumption of U.S. inspections of Moscow's arsenals that halted last year when the previous START treaty expired.
In addition, the entire leadership of the U.S. armed forces, including the chairman of the Joint Chiefs of Staff, the commander of U.S. strategic forces, and the director of the Missile Defense Agency – not mention to mention former Republican secretaries of state Henry Kissinger and George Shultz – had endorsed the pact and called for its earliest ratification.
So when Kyl abruptly announced Tuesday – on the eve of a planned meeting between him and top cabinet officials, including Pentagon chief Robert Gates – that he "did not think" there was enough time left in the year for the Senate to take up the treaty, the reaction was one of shock.
His statement sent senior officials and other treaty supporters, who are deeply worried that ratification will be much more difficult to achieve with a more Republican Senate next year and that improved relations with Moscow could rapidly unravel, into overdrive.
Vice President Joe Biden asserted bluntly that blocking ratification before the end of the year "would endanger our national security," while the White House sent Secretary of State Hillary Clinton to Capitol Hill Wednesday morning to personally press for Republican support.
"Some have suggested we should hit the pause button, that it's too difficult to do this treaty in a lame-duck session. I strongly disagree," she said. "This is exactly what the American people expect us to do, to come together and do what is necessary to protect our country. We can and must go forward on the new START treaty during the lame-duck session (of Congress)," she insisted.
She was accompanied by Senate Foreign Relations Committee Chairman John Kerry and the Committee's ranking Republican, Richard Lugar, one of a dwindling handful of arms-control advocates in a party that appears to be moving significantly rightwards. "To temporise (on the treaty) at this point I think is inexcusable," said Lugar, who urged his colleagues to "get real".
They were cheered by the Senate Majority Leader Harry Reid, who controls the upper chamber's agenda and who Wednesday assured "Senator Kyl and others concerned about the fate of this treaty that the Senate will be in session after (the) Thanksgiving (holiday) and will have time to consider and ratify it."
Many treaty supporters and the White House itself insist that enough Republicans, including possibly Kyl, may still come around to gain the 67 votes needed for ratification before the lame-duck session ends.
But the drama surrounding his pronouncement illustrates how deeply threatened Obama's foreign policy agenda is by Republican gains – and specifically gains by far-right candidates associated with the "Tea Party," South Carolina Senator Jim DeMint, and former vice presidential candidate Sarah Palin – in the mid-term elections earlier this month.
Indeed, Congressional staffers noted that Kyl moved to block the treaty after Palin, whose foreign policy views have been largely shaped by hard-line neo-conservatives such as Weekly Standard editor William Kristol, called publicly for newly elected Republicans to ignore "desperate politically motivated arguments about the need for hasty consideration" of the treaty.
Similarly, the far-right Heritage Foundation, encouraged by the election results and backed by the editorial pages of the neo-conservative Wall Street Journal, has been running its own campaign against the treaty, exerting sufficient pressure on key Republicans, such as Tennessee Senator Bob Corker and Georgia Senator Johnny Isakson, who, like Kyl, had been leaning toward ratification, to modify his stance in recent days.
With the Republican caucus poised to decide its leadership in the new Congress, Kyl, the minority whip, may have made a crass political decision: that appeasing, rather than opposing, the ascendant powers in his party would enhance his chances of being re-elected to the number two position in the caucus.
Once re-elected, Kyl could tack again, particularly if the White House adds some more sweeteners in the form of more money for missile defence or other high-priced systems, to the deal.
Kerry told reporters late Tuesday that, after speaking with Kyl, he did "not believe the door is closed to considering New START during the lame-duck session".
But the fact that Kyl felt compelled to bow to the Palins and DeMints in the party on such a key strategic issue in the Senate suggests that Obama will find it much more difficult to gain any support from Republicans on foreign policy over the remaining two years of his term.
Most analysts here believe a failure to ratify New START could deal a major blow to Obama's efforts to "re-set" relations with Moscow whose cooperation is increasingly seen as critical, for example, to the administration's hopes of persuading Iran to curb its nuclear programme, to securing increasingly important supply routes for U.S. and NATO forces in Afghanistan, and to make advances on other, more ambitious arms-control initiatives that Obama has made a priority. Increased tensions with Russia would also complicate U.S. ties with Europe.
"There's no getting around it: Failure to pass START will help empower (Russian Prime Minister Vladimir) Putin," wrote Robert Kagan, a prominent neo-conservative at the Brookings Institution, who has broken with his ideological colleagues on the issue. "On Iran, Russia will become less cooperative."
Despite the enhanced Republican presence in the next Senate – their numbers will rise from 41 to 47 seats – most observers believe it will still be possible for Obama to gather the 67 votes necessary for ratification, albeit at a much higher cost in increased spending for their favoured defence programmes. But that, in turn, could still threaten the "re-set" with Russia which strongly objects to certain kinds of missile-defence systems.
But the administration and the treaty's supporters appear determined for now to try to force a vote before the end of the year.
"The only way they can defeat the treaty is through procedural means, because there are no substantive grounds on which to oppose it," said Joe Cirincione, president of the Ploughshares Fund, a major arms-control group.
"I think the U.S. military will make it even clearer than before that they want this treaty urgently, and it's very hard for senators to turn down an urgent request from guys with lots of stars on their shoulders," he said.