Obama's Push for Arms Pact With Russia Tests Ability to Set Foreign Policy

President Barack Obama is doubling down on his push for Senate ratification of a nuclear arms treaty this year in a bid to strengthen relations with Russia and preserve his own standing as a world leader.

Obama will raise the treaty at a meeting today with congressional leaders, and he may make a public statement to increase pressure on wavering senators, a White House official said. The administration also will intensify its warnings about the global repercussions if the treaty fails, said the official, who asked for anonymity to discuss internal strategy.

The president needs at least nine Senate Republicans to ensure ratification of the Strategic Arms Reduction Treaty this year -- his top national security priority, he has said -- and he is facing resistance from lawmakers led by Arizona Republican Jon Kyl. Indiana Senator Richard Lugar is the only Republican who has bucked his party’s leadership to urge support for the treaty.

Obama’s failure to get the 67 Senate votes he needs “would be seen as a weakening of his authority as the head of our government responsible for foreign policy,” said William Cohen, a former Republican senator who served as Defense secretary under Democratic President Bill Clinton. “It will look to the Russians” and many NATO allies as an “inability to conduct foreign policy.”

Senate Republicans “could decide that they would rather wound Obama and, in the process, wound the country” by not ratifying the treaty this year, he said. “It’s their decision.”

Asked to assess the treaty’s chances, Cohen said, “It is going to be pretty uphill.”

More Challenges

A Senate loss would add to the global challenges that Obama must confront in the next two years. He already is diminished at home by his Democratic Party’s setbacks in the midterm congressional elections and burdened abroad by the weight of trillion-dollar budget deficits, a sluggish economy and a war in Afghanistan stretching toward its second decade.

The White House also is seeking to minimize diplomatic damage from the leaking of more than 250,000 embassy cables -- an action that Secretary of State Hillary Clinton said “undermines our efforts to work with other countries.”

Obama’s attempts to win ratification of the START agreement may be undercut by tensions over North Korea’s shelling of a South Korean island.

“There’s always the danger that the Senate’s attention gets diverted by a crisis,” said Sharon Squassoni, the director of the proliferation program at the Center for Strategic and International Studies in Washington.

If the debate is pushed into next year, Obama would need to get even more Republican votes, since the Democrats will have six fewer senators in the 112th Congress.

‘Concrete Progress’

Ben Rhodes, a White House deputy national security adviser, said Obama remains strong internationally. “There is not another leader who approaches his respect and authority,” he said.

“We’ve made concrete progress on key issues in recent weeks like finalizing an agreement on Iraqi government formation and cementing a deeper partnership with India,” Rhodes said. “And we believe we’re making good progress in breaking the Taliban’s momentum in Afghanistan.”

Still, progress on the START pact has stalled, and Obama, who has made a new relationship with Russia a focus of his foreign policy, calls it “a national security imperative.”

The treaty, which would replace one that expired last December, would reduce deployed strategic warheads to 1,550 on each side and require on-site inspections for both the U.S. and Russia.

No Urgency

Kyl rejects the notion that there’s any urgency to approve the treaty. He said the Senate has “higher-priority items” to deal with, such as whether to extend the Bush-era tax cuts. And he laid the blame for the delay on Senate Majority Leader Harry Reid, a Nevada Democrat.

Reid “can bring the START treaty up anytime he wants to, but he has a different agenda,” Kyl said Nov. 28 on NBC’s “Meet the Press.” “He wants to do the Dream Act in order to appeal to certain segments of the Hispanic community. The ‘don’t ask, don’t tell’ policy to appeal to the gay and lesbian community.”

Kyl and Senator Bob Corker of Tennessee circulated a memo to their Republican colleagues last week, detailing concerns over what they said was the administration’s inadequate plan to modernize the nuclear arsenal and maintain nuclear-weapons plants and laboratories.

Uncommitted to Vote

Corker and Johnny Isakson, a Georgia Republican, voted for the ratification resolution that was approved by the Foreign Relations Committee in September. So far, they haven’t publicly committed to supporting the treaty if the full Senate votes on it.

The Republican objections, coupled with a closing Senate window, have raised the stakes for the White House.

“They have to go all in; they cannot afford to lose this,” said Bill Galston, a former domestic policy adviser to President Clinton who is now an analyst at the Brookings Institution in Washington.

Lugar, the ranking Republican on the Senate Foreign Relations Committee, is urging lawmakers to support the treaty. He says START is needed to resume inspections of Russia’s nuclear arsenal.

“This is not a casual affair,” he told MSNBC on Nov. 20. “We do not have verification of the Russian nuclear posture right now.”

Upgrading the Arsenal

In November, Obama offered an additional $4.1 billion to his $81 billion plan to upgrade the U.S. nuclear arsenal. That could benefit companies like San Francisco-based Bechtel Group Inc. and lead to thousands of jobs at facilities in New Mexico and Tennessee. Senator Susan Collins, a Maine Republican, called that money “a step in the right direction.”

That offer may expire at the end of the year, giving senators like Corker a choice: Support Obama’s nuclear arms- reduction treaty or risk losing money for home-state projects.

While the START agreement may present the most immediate test of Obama’s ability to control foreign policy, it’s not the only one.

In meetings timed to coincide with the Group of 20 summit in Seoul earlier this month, Obama and South Korean President Lee Myung-Bak failed to reach agreement on a free-trade accord between the two nations.

And in the Middle East, Obama is struggling to resolve a dispute between Israeli and Palestinian leaders over Israeli settlement construction that has stalled peace negotiations.

Popular Overseas

“The question is to what extent Obama can persist in the kind of pressure he’s put on Israel in the past, and the Israeli government has figured out he can’t go very far,” said Dan Schueftan, deputy director of Haifa University’s National Security Studies Center.

Still, Obama has succeeded in changing foreign opinions of America and is still viewed much more favorably than the president he replaced, George W. Bush. While not as popular abroad as when he was first elected, Obama maintains a reservoir of goodwill internationally, except in many Muslim countries.

Majorities or pluralities of people in 16 of 22 nations said they are confident that Obama will do the right thing in world affairs, according to a June 2010 survey by the Pew Research Center’s Global Attitudes Project.

By contrast, the public in only three of the countries surveyed by Pew during Bush’s final year in office expressed confidence in him. In each of the Muslim countries, Bush’s popularity was lower than Obama’s current standing.

To contact the reporters on this story: Hans Nichols in Washington at hnichols2@bloomberg.net; Mike Dorning in Washington D.C. at mdorning@bloomberg.net.

To contact the editor responsible for this story: Mark Silva at msilva34@bloomberg.net

Bloomberg reserves the right to remove comments but is under no obligation to do so, or to explain individual moderation decisions.

Please enable JavaScript to view the comments powered by Disqus.