(photo: Great Beyond)

The Senate is about to vote on the new START nuclear arms reduction treaty with Russia, and all expectations are that the treaty will pass. [UPDATE: New START passes, 71-2.] This caps off a very productive lame duck session with a major foreign policy victory for the Obama Administration.

But it’s important to place new START in the proper perspective. It’s called “new START” because it’s essentially a follow-on treaty. It features a very modest reduction in nuclear armaments and a basic continuation of the verification regime from prior years. It was designed to be only a first step to a vision of global nuclear disarmament, and a beginning of a new working relationship with Russia on those goals.

But the tremendous fight put up by Republicans, even if unsuccessful, will make it very difficult to advance from this extremely modest treaty.

…while Mr. Obama is savoring another major victory, just days after he won repeal of the “don’t ask, don’t tell” rules that dominated the lives of gay and lesbian members of the military, his own aides acknowledge that the lesson of the battle over the treaty is that the political divide on national security is widening. The next steps on Mr. Obama’s nuclear agenda now appear harder than ever.

While Mr. Obama overwhelmed Republican opponents of the treaty, called New Start, it would be a much heavier lift to get the next Senate to approve a long-languishing treaty to ban all nuclear tests. The world’s newest nuclear powers — led by Pakistan, an ostensibly close American ally — have been maneuvering to kill Mr. Obama’s plan to stop production of more fissile material, the building blocks needed by nuclear aspirants like Iran. And the next treaty with Russia on how to deal with its small, tactical nuclear weapons promises to be a bigger fight.

“If the Start treaty was this hard, you can only imagine how difficult the rest will be,” said William J. Perry, a secretary of defense during the Clinton administration and one of the four former cold warriors who helped formulate the goal of a world without nuclear weapons that Mr. Obama has embraced. “But even though it was small, it was vital — because everything we need to do in the future, starting with halting the Iranian program, requires working with Russia and showing that we are serious about bringing our own nuclear stockpiles down.”

This is not to see that new START wasn’t worth fighting – it’s a vital policy, and I’m glad we’ll see it passed. But basically every ounce of persuasion and fierce advocacy was spent on new START, and the next step of disarmament policies are going to be nearly impossible to get done.  [cont’d.]

And in order to get this done, the Administration had to add a massive amount of nuclear “modernization” spending (basically nuclear pork), as well as make assurances over missile defense, precisely the kind of boondoggle that doesn’t work that should be on the chopping block in a time when resources are being constrained.

The missile defense system that President Barack Obama plans to deploy in Europe starting next year may not function properly and could face significant cost overruns, a nonpartisan congressional watchdog agency warned Tuesday.

The report raises questions about legislation that would strengthen the U.S. commitment to the deployment plan that the White House was negotiating in return for Republican votes it needed for Senate approval of a new U.S.-Russia nuclear arms reduction treaty.

According to the Government Accountability Office, Obama has committed the Defense Department “to a schedule that could be challenging to meet, based on the technical progress of missile defense element development and testing programs.”

Moreover, the administration committed the Pentagon “to this schedule before the scope of the development efforts was fully understood,” GAO said in its report to a subcommittee of the House Armed Services Committee. The GAO is an investigative arm of Congress.

Missile defense is just a waste of money. It failed its most recent test just a week ago.

So yes, we get verification on nuclear materials in the former Soviet states, and a modest reduction of nuclear arms. But the ultimate goal of global disarmament will face a very difficult path, and in the meantime, America will blow money on useless programs.

David Dayen

David Dayen