Wednesday, November 24, 2010

Stopping START

It's a valid argument.  They're the opposition.  It's their role in the political process to oppose the party in power.  The question that necessarily arises at this point is opposition in favor of what?  Is the opposition principled, espousing a different philosophy, a different direction, a different set of priorities?  Or is it really just mindless opposition, where it doesn't matter how productive or effective the President's agenda might be, it will be opposed en bloc merely for the sake of political gain and regardless of the cost to the country and it's citizens?

It certainly seems that we find ourselves washed up on those shores of mindlessness.  There are pieces of legislation that are not inherently partisan, that serve to move the republic in a positive direction, to support economic advancement and international stability.  Examples of that sort of legislation abound, but we'll focus on only two - the Unemployment Insurance extensions and the START treaty.   Now I'm not sure why federal unemployment insurance benefits are repeatedly set to expire, but their economic and compassionate value is impossible to dispute, and to deny American citizens this kind of support in the midst of an economic downturn even as we provide similar services to millions of foreign citizens in some wildly misguided attempt to establish American hegemony over poor, benighted, landlocked villages fifteen thousand miles away seems not only unfair, but offensive on its very face.

And the START treaty?  I suppose it is possible to negotiate a bad strategic arms reduction treaty, but it's hard to imagine how mutual, verifiable reductions in nuclear weapons stockpiles could be bad enough to go unratified.  And in the case of this treaty, the arms control community AND the military are unanimously on board.  It significantly reduces the number of warheads and missiles the US and Russia will have on hand while increasing the effectiveness of the on-site inspection and verification regime.

Not to mention the tattered and ill-treated remains of that other treaty, the Nuclear Non Proliferation Treaty, has lost credibility around the globe in part because the nuclear powers have failed to live up to their obligations of nuclear disarmament.  The failure of the US Senate to ratify the new START treaty would be another nail in NPT's coffin, as other nations wonder why they are repeatedly expected to honor their treaty obligations while the US seems to consider them all optional.  In short, the New START treaty is good for the US, good for our allies and good for the world.  There is no risk or loss of power or prestige anywhere in the agreement, and after the warheads and missiles have been destroyed, it will even reduce spending on strategic arms, thereby reducing the deficit.  It's hard to find a logical or principled reason to oppose ratification.

Which brings us to the Republican party, as it's currently constituted, their legislators committed to lockstep opposition to anything the administration wants to put forward.  And what is the basis of this blind, thoughtless across the board obstruction of not just the Democratic agenda, but of even the most basic governance?  Here's a hint:  It's not because they have a different agenda, or would like to see different priorities or implement different policies.  No, if this treaty came up for ratification under President McCain, it would be passed quickly and  very likely unanimously.  This is a political tactic, plain and simple - an attempt to deny the Obama administration anything it might present as a policy success.   It is what would have previously been an unthinkable decision to place the political power of their party ahead of their country's security interests.

But ultimately, a policy of blanket opposition and obstruction must lead the Republicans to confront a key question:  Are there issues where the political advantage of obstruction is more than offset by the negative impact on popularity that obstruction generates?  That is to say, are there issues the public wants, or even demands that they pass?  It may be that START ratification, being as it's supported by virtually everyone in the diplomatic, military and arms control communities and opposition to ratification is premised entirely on willful misinterpretations and outright lies about it's provisions might very well be one of those issues.  Just as it will be difficult for them to hold fast against unemployment insurance extensions for their fellow citizens, it is not difficult to imagine enough Republican Senators choosing the less confrontational path for the treaty to pass.

Unlike the debt ceiling vote, where Republican intransigence would be extremely unpopular due to it's widespread destructiveness, but the leadership feels they can shift some if not most of that blame for the resultant government shutdown over to the Obama administration, blame for the failure of START or UI Extensions would fall entirely on the shoulders of the Republican legislators who either vote as a bloc to defeat the measure or simply use arcane and dysfunctional Senate procedures to prevent a vote altogether.  In the case of START, that will come down to whether or not the public cares about another arms control treaty with Russia in 2010.  And like so many other issues, the President has been ineffective in explaining to his constituency why they should care.  And without any real public interest, the media will ignore the issue or cover it in their usual, dysfunctional "Earth - Flat or Round?  Experts Disagree" fashion that will emphasize the political horse race over the actual policy at hand.

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