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PolitiFact.com | St. Petersburg Times
Sorting out the truth in politics

Truth found on both sides of debate on over new START arms treaty with Russia

One of the most high-profile debates arising as lawmakers head into a lame-duck session is whether to ratify a new START treaty to control nuclear arms, as the Obama administration wants.

PolitiFact decided to look at statements made by figures on both sides of the divide — the Senate Republicans' leading spokesman on the issue, Sen. Jon Kyl, R-Ariz., the minority whip, and Adm. Mike Mullen, chairman of the Joint Chiefs of Staff.

The treaty with Russia would enact modest nuclear weapons reductions and extend verification provisions that lapsed last year. Most Democrats and many foreign policy professionals favor ratification of the treaty, which takes 67 votes in the Senate.

But the effort has run into problems with Senate Republicans, notably Kyl, who outlined his concerns on the Nov. 28, 2010, edition of NBC's Meet the Press.

We won't get far into the policy details, but we do think fact-checking one portion of the dialogue might help illuminate a key element of the debate — whether delaying ratification would put national security at risk.

Here's some of what Kyl said:

"First of all, let me quote the Washington Post, which directly addressed the question that you asked. 'No calamity will befall the United States if the Senate does not act this year.' And in response to the charge that somehow we need to do this for the urgency of needing verification, the Associated Press did a fact-check on that allegation and said, 'The urgency is political. Even the administration concedes the security risk is not immediate.' "

We looked at the original published items and concluded that the way Kyl abridged them amounts to cherry-picking. He selectively quoted from the accounts, leaving viewers with a distinctly different impression than they would have had if they'd read the items in their entirety. So we rated his comment Half True.

• • •

Kyl fared a little better in another fact-check from the same interview, when he said he has a major philosophical difference with President Barack Obama's administration regarding arms control — namely whether the goal should be a world free of all nuclear weapons.

"You have questions extraneous to the treaty but within the context, which is, is this all that's standing between us today and the administration trying to negotiate even deeper, further cuts, which it's indicated that it wants to do in its march toward global zero, something that a lot of us disagree with," he said.

We looked into whether it's accurate to characterize the Obama administration's position on nuclear arms as a "march toward global zero."

There's little question that Obama's stated goal, even before he became president, has been a world free of nuclear weapons.

Some examples:

• A campaign position paper promised that Obama "will make the goal of eliminating nuclear weapons worldwide a central element of U.S. nuclear policy."

• In a speech in Prague on April 5, 2009: "So today, I state clearly and with conviction America's commitment to seek the peace and security of a world without nuclear weapons."

• And in remarks at the U. N. Security Council Summit on Nuclear Non-Proliferation and Nuclear Disarmament on Sept. 24, 2009, Obama said, "The historic resolution we just adopted enshrines our shared commitment to the goal of a world without nuclear weapons."

In that U.N. speech, Obama quoted former President Ronald Reagan, who said, "A nuclear war cannot be won and must never be fought. And no matter how great the obstacles may seem, we must never stop our efforts to reduce the weapons of war … until we see the day when nuclear arms have been banished from the face of the Earth."

"That is our task," Obama said. "That can be our destiny.''

So there is no debate that a "march toward global zero" has been Obama's stated goal. But how fast does he plan to march?

In every case, Obama's statements included a major qualification: "America will not disarm unilaterally," Obama stated in the campaign literature. "Indeed, as long as states retain nuclear weapons, the U.S. will maintain a nuclear deterrent that is strong, safe, secure and reliable."

"I'm not naive," Obama said in Prague. "This goal will not be reached quickly — perhaps not in my lifetime. It will take patience and persistence. But now we, too, must ignore the voices who tell us that the world cannot change. We have to insist, 'Yes, we can.' "

In fact, Obama's nuclear policy closely mirrors that espoused by George P. Shultz, secretary of state under Ronald Reagan; William J. Perry, defense secretary under Bill Clinton; Henry A. Kissinger, secretary of state under Richard Nixon and Gerald Ford; and Sam Nunn, former chairman of the U.S. Senate Armed Services Committee in two opinion pieces published in the Wall Street Journal in 2007 and 2008.

John Pike, director of GlobalSecurity.org, a website that specializes in information about defense, said there are two schools of thought regarding nuclear disarmament, and the views of Kyl and Obama appear to exemplify them.

Kyl's position is that nuclear weapons can't be uninvented, he said, and that the United States wouldn't be as safe without them.

Some may argue over how quickly Obama intends to "march toward global zero." He has said he's not even sure it's possible in his lifetime. Also, he has always noted that as long as other countries retain nuclear weapons, the United States will maintain a strong nuclear arsenal. Still, Obama has consistently and repeatedly stated that his goal is to enact policies that bring us closer to a world without nuclear weapons. So we rated this statement from Kyl Mostly True.

• • •

Now consider an earlier comment by Adm. Mike Mullen, chairman of the Joint Chiefs of Staff. In an interview on ABC's This Week with Christiane Amanpour on Nov. 21, 2010, the host asked the nation's top military officer whether the Senate is "playing politics with American national security."

Mullen replied, "What I think is that there is a sense of urgency with respect to ratifying this treaty that needs to be … recognized. Historically this has been bipartisan. This is a national security issue of great significance. And the sooner we get it done, the better."

We wondered whether most prior arms control treaties were passed with bipartisan support.

To check, we turned to the list of "treaties and agreements" handled by the State Department's Bureau of Arms Control, Verification and Compliance, looking only at formal treaties, which require a two-thirds vote by the Senate to be ratified. We also stuck to treaties primarily designed as arms control efforts, particularly when they dealt with weapons of mass destruction.

By our count, the Senate has ratified 14 such treaties in 13 votes, ranging from the 1963 Limited Test Ban Treaty, approved 80-19, to the 2003 Strategic Offensive Reductions Treaty, ratified with a vote of 95-0.

The list demonstrates that at least 13 treaties presented to the Senate for ratification passed by overwhelming majorities and with strong bipartisan support. Thirteen of the 14 treaties were ratified when one party held the presidency and the other party held the Senate.

There is one example of a weapons treaty actually being voted down on the Senate floor. In 1999, the Comprehensive Nuclear Test Ban Treaty fell, 51-48, with all but four Republicans voting no. All Democrats voted yes except Sen. Robert Byrd, D-W.Va., who voted present.

In remarks after the Senate vote, President Bill Clinton presaged what some Democrats have argued this month.

"Yesterday, hard-line Republicans irresponsibly forced a vote against the Comprehensive Nuclear Test Ban Treaty,'' he said. "This was partisan politics of the worst kind because it was so blatant and because of the risks it poses to the safety of the American people and the world."

That was a clear exception to Mullen's claim.

We found one solid example of partisan opposition to a nuclear weapons treaty — the Comprehensive Nuclear Test Ban Treaty — but 13 that passed with broad, bipartisan support. So we rate Mullen's claim that Senate treaty ratifications have "historically … been bipartisan" as True.

Edited for print. For more, go to PolitiFact.com.

The statement

Said the Washington Post argued that a failure to pass the START treaty this year would be "no calamity," and that the Associated Press said "the administration concedes the security risk is not immediate."

Jon Kyl, Nov. 28, 2010, on NBC's Meet the Press

The ruling

We looked at the original published items and concluded that the way Kyl abridged them amounts to cherry-picking. He selectively quoted from the accounts, leaving viewers with a distinctly different impression than they would have had if they'd read them in their entirety. So we rated his claim Half True

The statement

Obama's position on nuclear arms is a "march toward global zero."

Jon Kyl, Nov. 28, 2010, on NBC's Meet the Press

The ruling

Some may argue over how quickly Obama intends to "march toward global zero." He has said he's not even sure it's possible in his lifetime. Still, he has consistently stated that his goal is to enact policies that bring us closer to a world without nuclear weapons. So we rated this statement from Kyl Mostly True

The statement

"Historically," Senate ratification of arms control treaties "has been bipartisan."

Mike Mullen, Nov. 21, 2010, on ABC's This Week with Christiane Amanpour

The ruling

We found one solid example of partisan opposition to a nuclear-weapons treaty, but 13 that passed with broad, bipartisan support. So we rate Mullen's claim that Senate treaty ratifications have "historically … been bipartisan" as True

Truth found on both sides of debate on over new START arms treaty with Russia 12/02/10 [Last modified: Thursday, December 2, 2010 8:11am]
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