Is the START treaty a non-starter?

A year ago, Hillary Clinton fumbled a bad joke by giving Russia’s Foreign Minister Sergei Lavrov what she called a “reset button,” which got mistranslated to “overcharge” and didn’t use Cyrillic script for the Russian word.  Now it appears that the Obama administration may have bungled the translation of its newly-announced START treaty with Moscow.  The Russians claim that the treaty limits American efforts on missile defense, which the White House denies:

As the Obama administration prepared to send the new U.S.-Russian arms treaty to the Senate for ratification, differences emerged Monday between Moscow and Washington over whether the agreement limits missile defenses.

Speaking to reporters in Moscow, Russian Foreign Minister Sergey Lavrov said Russia reserved the right to pull out of the Strategic Arms Reduction Treaty, or START, if the level of U.S. missile defense forces increases.

“The package of documents presumes that the treaty is concluded in circumstances where the parties have appropriate levels of strategic defensive systems,” Mr. Lavrov said. “Changing these levels gives each party the right to decide the question of its future participation in the process of reducing strategic offensive arms.”

After Barack Obama and Dmitri Medvedev reached agreement on the treaty last week, the White House took great pains to portray it as the result of personal diplomacy by Obama.  He held off Russian demands for limitations on missile defense, according to the report leaked from inside the administration.  Obama supposedly went so far as to tell Medvedev the deal would be off if it included missile defense limitations.

Of course, no one has seen the language in the agreement as yet.  Obama wants to sign the treaty in Prague in a few weeks, and then send it back to the Senate for ratification.  However, Obama needs at least seven Republicans to get to 66 votes, the two-thirds margin required to ratify treaties.  If the treaty does limit American efforts on missile defense, he not only won’t get enough Republican votes for ratification, he might have problems garnering a majority in the Senate.

And if the Russians turn out to be right, the White House should answer for that self-serving bit of mythology they spun for the national media about standing up to Medvedev in the final days of the negotiations.  Instead of a reset button for START, the White House may have given the media an overcharged version of Obama’s spinal stiffness.

Update: McKittrick at Closing Velocity is willing to give Obama a “bravo” if he kept missile defense out of the START treaty. I’d call that a big “if” while Russia insists that the treaty allows them to rescind it if we pursue missile defense, though. If that’s the Russian attitude, then it doesn’t make a lot of difference what the text says, especially since missile defense is a critical need against foes like North Korea and Iran.

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