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The Conversation: Lame-Duck Obama

The midterm elections were bad enough for President Barack Obama and the Democrats. Their party lost control of the House of Representatives and barely held onto the U.S. Senate. Since then, it’s only gotten worse for him. He went to Asia for trade agreements and came back empty. Now the spillover seems to be affecting a traditional area of bipartisan cooperation: our treaties. Obama and Russian President Dmitry Medvedev signed the New Start arms-control treaty in April. Among other things, it would cap our nuclear warheads and theirs at 1,550—still enough to ruin the world as we know it—but most observers agree it would be a welcome step toward peace. But Republican Senators seem willing to let it fail just to keep the president from having anything to crow about. Is this just politics as usual in our foreign policy debate or is something more unusual going on, and what does it mean? Here to discuss are Julian Ku, a Hofstra law professor and an expert on international law and the “War on Terror;” Patricia DeGennaro, an adjunct professor of international security at New York University and a senior policy fellow at the World Policy Institute; and Spencer Rumsey, senior editor of the Long Island Press.

Spencer: It bothers me to see how pathetic our president’s plight is right now. Wouldn’t Senate Republicans normally be in his corner on national security concerns like this arms-control treaty? These Senate Republicans smell blood, and I fear they’ve put their short-term political interests ahead of the country’s long-term security needs.

Patricia: It is absolutely surprising that Senate Republicans, and all Americans for that matter, are not in support of such an important national security interest as the nuclear arms treaty. What is alarming is that it seems the Senate and Congress as a whole do not even understand the rudimentary objectives of U.S. foreign policy, and are therefore directly jeopardizing national security. This arms treaty signifies several things. First, we are determined to protect Americans from nuclear holocaust. Second, it is a global issue to ensure that nuclear weapons are secure so their technological capabilities do not end up in the hands of terrorists or countries that may harm us—North Korea, for example. Finally, the international community, led by the United States, is spearheading an effort to ensure that Iran does not obtain nuclear capabilities and, in turn, spark an arms race in the Middle East. If the U.S. fails to show its leadership in the effort of non-proliferation with Russia, our country risks creating another reason for the world not to take the U.S. seriously in its promises.


Julian: Actually, I think it is unfair to suggest that the Senate Republicans are putting short-term political interests ahead of security in this instance. First, arms control with Russia is simply not as important as it used to be in the Cold War. It is important for national security, but it is far less urgent than nuclear proliferation to states like Iran and North Korea and the continuing wars in Afghanistan and Iraq. So to slow down the treaty process for three months, which is what the Senate Republicans are seeking, is hardly going to kill the treaty or seriously threaten national security. Second, Senate Republicans, and congressional Republicans in general, have been very supportive of other presidential foreign policy initiatives, especially the war in Afghanistan, the use of drone strikes in Pakistan, or on free trade agreements. They have supported the president on these issues, it is fair to say, substantially more than congressional Democrats have.

Patricia: This Congress should be ashamed it is putting animosity and egos ahead of American security. I have worked in the Senate and have never seen such partisan senselessness. It is absolutely criminal for our representatives to put personal and partisan intentions ahead of keeping our nation safe both at home and abroad.

Julian: The key for President Obama is to avoid making the New Start Treaty more important than it really is. He may roll the dice and send it to the Senate, just to force them to vote and show that he is in charge. But this is dangerous for the treaty, and unnecessary since I think the treaty is likely to be approved in the new Senate anyway.

Patricia: Julian makes a very good point. It does not behoove the Obama Administration to force the Senate to vote on the Start treaty. However, the larger picture in the argument is missing. Not only is the New Start Treaty a chance to get Russia and Europe talking again about aligning interests, it re-invigorates cooperation between the U.S. and its NATO partners, and the inclusion of Russia. Most importantly, it is not just asking the world to move toward a non-nuclear posture, it is setting an example for it. Let’s face it, the U.S. must leverage its resources even though they are becoming increasingly limited. Further, if it wants to continue to seek participation in containing Iran and moving toward peace in the Middle East, the treaty is just one way to ensure America is a team player and moving to a more peaceful world.

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