by Joseph Cox
A treaty that is a priority of the President, advocated for by the Secretary of Defense, the Chairman of the Joint Chiefs of Staff, the head of the Missile Defense Agency, the Secretary of State, every Democrat in the Senate, the President of Russia, every member of NATO, U.K. leaders past and present, major Israeli lobbies, Republican Cabinet Secretaries Henry A. Kissinger, George P. Shultz, James A. Baker III, Lawrence S. Eagleburger and Colin Powell and the ranking Republican on the Senate Foreign Relations Committee would seem to be a slam dunk. Yet, in a testament to U.S. policy’s powerful status quo bias, the new nuclear disarmament START treaty is widely considered to be a long-shot for passage because of the objections of one Senator, John Kyl, the Republican whip.
The START treaty reduces the American and Russian nuclear arsenals, a step that may be controversial among believers in an exceedingly strong nuclear deterrent, but without the START treaty, the U.S. forgoes the right to inspect Russian nuclear facilities. The Vice President summed up the importance of the treaty thusly: “Failure to pass the new START treaty this year would endanger our national security” and “sour a relationship that has helped open a new supply route to troops in Afghanistan and increase pressure on Iran to halt its nuclear program.” Senator Kyl’s objection is not to the treaty itself, but is a strategic opposition to extract a commitment to nuclear modernization. President Obama has pledged to dramatically increase the funds for modernization, but so far not enough to satisfy Kyl.
START is an enormously sensible and strategically important treaty. While on I strongly support treaty ratification, my real concern is how can a country govern when its political system is so prone to seizure? If the U.S. can not address a straightforward policy with such a wide consensus, what hope do we have for tough policies with disputed solutions? The problems the U.S. faces will require either consensus or compromise, yet partisans seem to find neither palatable.
The looming crisis of structural deficit and debt is illustrative. After Congress failed to convene one, the President created a bipartisan deficit commission to put together a grand compromise to spread the pain of deleveraging around through tax increases, spending cuts and entitlement reforms. Naturally, instead of creating a starting point for both sides to rally around, the proposal has been widely criticized. Grover Norquist said it was a nonstarter because it increased tax revenues, even though it also made taxes much simpler. Meanwhile, Democratic Representative Jan Schakowsky offered a counterproposal that balanced the budget almost entirely through tax increases and defense cuts, even though she was on the original committee. The status quo is a policy choice, but not the right one for most of our problems. Unfortunately, until both sides stop making the perfect the enemy of the good, that’s the only choice we have.