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By Focusing Now, Clinton Can Renegotiate ABM Treaty

Authors: James M. Lindsay, Senior Vice President, Director of Studies, and Maurice R. Greenberg Chair, Ivo H. Daalder, and James M. Goldgeier, Dean, School of International Service, American University
April 2, 2000
Los Angeles Times

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Vladimir V. Putin's election as the new president of Russia opens the door for negotiating a serious deal on deploying national missile defense (NMD). President Bill Clinton must move decisively to take advantage of this opportunity. He must devote attention to persuading Russia to revise the Anti-Ballistic Missile Treaty to allow for deployment. Equally important, he must lay the foundation for Senate passage of a modified treaty.

Success in these two efforts will vindicate Clinton's strategy of engaging Russia and put U.S.-Russian nuclear relations on a more stable footing. Failure will jeopardize relations with Moscow and increase the chances that an NMD deployment would make the Unites States less secure. Much is at stake, with little time left.

Will Russia agree? Many believe Moscow's long-standing opposition to changing the ABM treaty means agreement is impossible. That is wrong. Faced with a choice between modifying the treaty or watching the United States abrogate it, Russia has every reason to negotiate.

It should want to do so while Clinton is in office. The U.S. desire to build a missile defense will not go away. While a Democratic president is unlikely to offer Moscow more, a Republican will certainly offer less. Texas Gov. George W. Bush has already said he will proceed with deployment come what may, and his chief foreign-policy advisor has dismissed the ABM treaty as a "relic" of the Cold War.

Recent changes in the Russian political landscape make it possible for Moscow to conclude a deal. Putin had previously called on the Duma to ratify the long-stalled START II cutting U.S. and Russian nuclear forces. Now that he has won the presidential election, Russia has a leader who commands greater parliamentary support than Boris N. Yeltsin did. That bodes well for reaching an agreement.

Some Republicans object to this, insisting that, with only a year to go in office, Clinton should leave negotiations to the next administration. But there is ample precedent for presidents concluding major negotiations in the waning months of their terms. President George Bush signed a major trade pact (the North American Free Trade Agreement) and two landmark arms-control treaties (START II and the Chemical Weapons Convention) after he lost his reelection bid, leaving Clinton with the task of securing their approval on Capitol Hill.

What might a deal on the ABM treaty look like? It should allow Washington to deploy a limited system capable of defending all 50 states against a small missile attack. At the same time, the deal must reassure Moscow that NMD deployment does not represent a first step toward America acquiring a nuclear first-strike capability.

To give Washington what it wants, only small changes in the ABM treaty are needed. The system that the Clinton administration proposes is consistent with the original intent, if not all the details, of the ABM treaty, which sought to ban only strategically significant defenses.

To give Moscow the reassurance it needs, the administration should offer to make deep cuts in offensive nuclear forces. Specifically, Washington should propose negotiating a START III limiting each country to 1,000-1,500 warheads. The administration should also announce it will immediately and unilaterally cut U.S. forces to the 3,500 warheads allowed under START II and take off alert those weapons scheduled for retirement once START III enters into force.

A deal along these lines— perhaps sweetened with other cooperative gestures, like assisting Russia in rebuilding its early-warning radar and satellite network and providing Moscow with access to U.S. surveillance data— should be negotiable within a year.

Will the Senate support it? Last fall's rejection of the Comprehensive Test Ban Treaty makes it clear that Senate approval is not automatic. Any ABM deal could turn into a polarized debate pitting arms-control proponents against NMD enthusiasts. Indeed, the GOP hard-liners who championed the defeat of the test ban believe the ABM treaty will be voided if they block a deal on modifications.

But it is equally important not to exaggerate the obstacles on Capitol Hill. The United States has not returned to the pattern of the late 19th century, when the Senate rejected every major treaty put before it. The test-ban defeat had far more to do with the White House's cavalier treatment of the issue than with resurgent isolationism on the Hill.

The task facing Clinton, then, is to begin building political support in Congress for a modified ABM treaty. Though he is unlikely to be president when the treaty comes to a vote, what he does over the next year will help determine whether the Senate ultimately gives its approval. If Clinton leaves the heavy lifting to his successor, NMD enthusiasts will seize the opportunity to build a coalition opposing any limits on building missile defenses.

To secure Senate support, the administration must pursue a "center-out" strategy. Though arms-control proponents and NMD enthusiasts will make the most noise, the winning votes lie with the large number of senators in the center. Pragmatic by nature, these senators favor building a missile defense and would prefer to do so in a way that doesn't needlessly antagonize other countries.

In contrast, a strategy that focuses on the political extremes guarantees failure. As President Jimmy Carter learned in his efforts to woo hard-line Sen. Henry M. "Scoop" Jackson over SALT II, persuading hard-core opponents to switch causes is a fool's errand. By the same token, a "left-in" strategy that spends the next year trying to allay the concerns of arms-control enthusiasts is not likely to work: What it takes to mollify them will alienate moderates. Worse yet, it is unnecessary. Once Russia agrees to modify the ABM treaty, the objections of pro-arms-control senators will evaporate.

Making the center-out strategy work requires three things. First, the administration has to frame its policy to appeal to centrist senators. Its primary goal must be to deploy a defense in responsible ways. The administration cannot suggest, as it sometimes does, that its highest goal is preserving the ABM treaty "as a cornerstone of strategic stability." NMD enthusiasts will use that mistake to portray their cause as the only one that seeks to defend Americans against nuclear attack.

Second, the administration needs to help senators understand the issues at stake and elicit their views. It needs to bring senators into the negotiations with Russia by creating a Senate observer group. Making senators part of the talks— something that did not happen with the test-ban treaty— educates them about the issues, injects their views into the process and inclines them to support the finished product.

Third, the administration needs to name a point person for the issue on Capitol Hill. The State Department, the Pentagon and the National Security Council are too consumed with day-to-day business to give the Senate the attention it needs. To keep the point person from being drowned out by the established bureaucracies, it is critical he or she be someone with good ties to the White House.

If Clinton takes these steps, he can lay the groundwork for Senate approval of a historic deal that will allow the United States to deploy a missile defense that increases U.S. security and placates Russian concerns. If he fails to undertake the difficult work of building political consensus, any ABM deal he signs will become the 21st century's equivalent of the Treaty of Versailles.

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