Senate GOP's progress on missile defense in the New START debate strengthened national security, says FPI's Jamie Fly

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The reality, however, is closer to the view put forth by Senator Bob Corker, who, during the final floor debate prior to ratification, termed New START the "Nuclear Modernization and Missile Defense Act of 2010."

Although many key Republicans, including Sens. Jon Kyl, John McCain, Lindsey Graham, and minority leader Mitch McConnell, ended up voting against ratification, the work they did behind the scenes in the months and weeks prior to the vote vastly improved the U.S. strategic situation post-ratification.

New START itself is a rather minor arms control agreement, with only minimal cuts to U.S. and Russian nuclear forces. Therefore much of the debate about the treaty was about ancillary issues the Russians attempted to bring into the treaty or about strategic issues not addressed by the treaty.

In two of these areas, Sen. Kyl and his colleagues did yeoman's work by prodding the administration to improve nuclear and missile defense policy. Through months of negotiations, he extracted a commitment from the Obama administration to provide $84.1 billion of funding over the next ten years to ensure that the aging U.S. nuclear stockpile is modernized. And during the final days of the Senate debate, Sen. Kyl, joined by Sen. McCain and others, obtained assurances from Obama regarding his long-term commitment to develop effective missile defenses.

Neither item may seem like a concession, given that both actions are fully in line with positions taken by previous administrations of both political parties.

But the president has made his goal of a world without nuclear weapons his top national security priority. He has been supported in this by a disarmament community on the left that has for years strongly opposed modernization of the U.S. nuclear arsenal. Similarly, Obama has not always been a strong supporter of missile defense and even appointed an official to the White House Office of Science and Technology Policy who questioned the feasibility and necessity of such a system.

During his eight years in office, President Bush withdrew the United States from the 1972 Anti-Ballistic Missile Treaty and proceeded to deploy a limited missile defense system in Alaska and California to protect the continental United States from threats emanating from North Korea and Iran. But many on the left, including then-Senator Barack Obama, were skeptical.

Candidate Obama highlighted concerns about the underlying technology behind the system. He spoke of the need to ensure missile defense technology was "pragmatic and cost-effective" and did not "divert resources from other national security priorities until we are positive the technology will protect the American public." He also pledged to "cut investments in unproven missile defense systems."

Missile defense advocates were, not surprisingly, concerned. Their fears were heightened when the president's first budget slashed missile defense by $1.4 billion and were amplified when in September 2009 the president announced his intention to abandon President Bush's plan for missile defense sites in Central Europe to confront the threat posed by Iran's emerging long-range missile capability.

The suspect timing of the announcement, just as the administration was attempting to conclude negotiations with Moscow on New START and the bungled handling of the rollout raised further concerns that the administration was willing to barter away missile defense in an effort to overcome Russia's longtime opposition to U.S. missile defense. The treaty text signed by Obama contributed to conservative angst by linking offensive and defensive weapons in the preamble, a linkage that Russia had long sought but that the Obama administration insisted would not affect its future missile defense plans.

President Obama reaffirmed this position in a letter to Senate Majority Leader Harry Reid during the Senate debate on New START, his strongest statement to date on missile defense. The president wrote that "as long as I am president, as long as the Congress provides the necessary funding, the United States will continue to develop and deploy effective missile defenses to protect the United States, our deployed forces, and our allies and partners."

The president also reaffirmed his commitment to fully implement all four phases of his new missile defense plan in Europe, including the fourth phase, which will involve interceptors capable of defending against long-range Iranian systems -- the phase that Russian officials may have had in mind when they threatened to withdraw from the treaty if the United States develops its missile defense system quantitatively or qualitatively.

Despite these commitments regarding funding for nuclear modernization and continued expansion of missile defenses, the administration will now have to follow through on its promises.

Modernization will have to be adequately funded even in the current tough economic climate. As it enters a new round of arms control negotiations with Russia on the issue of tactical nuclear weapons, the administration will have to do a better job of withstanding continued Russian efforts to limit U.S. missile defenses than they did during the negotiation of New START.

A more immediate concern relates to the fourth and final phase of Obama's approach to missile defense in Europe. This phase calls for the deployment later this decade of a missile that does not yet exist. This is exactly the type of untested technology that candidate Obama railed about in 2008, something he can address by providing continued funding in the FY 2012 budget for a backup in case the new interceptor doesn't prove to be viable in time to meet the rapidly evolving threat.

The Senate debate over New START was impassioned and divided Republicans. But Republicans successfully used the debate to prompt Obama to once again distance himself from the views of candidate Obama and many of his supporters on the left. By doing so, they strengthened U.S. national security.

- Originally posted on Shadow Government, a blog of Foreign Policy magazine

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