We're Already at War With Russia Over What Is -- And Isn't In the New START Treaty

Words matter. Just ask the State Department.

On the day President Obama and Russian President Dmitry Medvedev signed the New START Treaty, the two countries already had a different spin on how the agreement would impact U.S. missile defense programs.

The Russians released a statement arguing the treaty would work only if the United States “refrains from developing its missile defence capabilities quantitatively or qualitatively.” The State Department countered with an April 8 fact sheet asserting the treaty “does not contain any constraints on testing, development or deployment of current or planned U.S. missile defense programs.”

The war of words over the New START Treaty’s language had begun.

Then something happened at the State Department. Two weeks after issuing its original fact sheet, State released an updated version April 21. The new language claims the treaty “does not constrain the United States from deploying the most effective missile defenses possible.”

Why the change?

Perhaps the Obama administration feared it was overselling the treaty and wanted to water down its claims of non-restrictiveness in advance of congressional testimony.

For the record, a spokesman for the State Department declined to comment. But some State Department veterans said fact sheet rewrites aren’t unusual.

David J. Kramer, who spent more than eight years at State and now works as a fellow at the German Marshall Fund of the United States, said the department probably recognized its initial statements needed adjustment. Kramer, in a post for Foreign Policy, pointed to comments from Undersecretary of State for Arms Control and International Security Ellen Tauscher, who said after the treaty’s signing it “does not constrain U.S. missile defense programs.” Kramer said her claim was simply not accurate.

“The Russians have to spin this at home as saying they have laid down markers on missile defense,” Kramer told me. “Here in the United States, the administration is going to underscore that this in no way ties the administration’s hands on missile defense. These are rather contradictory messages coming from Moscow and Washington on a fairly critical issue.”

Former Undersecretary of Defense for Policy Doug Feith said both versions of the State Department fact sheet avoid answering the question that conservatives have asked: Does the New START Treaty limit in any way the development or deployment of American missile defenses?

“The key point,” Feith said, “is that administration officials don’t believe they can categorically say they’ve protected in this new treaty America’s flexibility to develop and deploy any missile defenses that now or in the future may be determined to be necessary.”

In a piece for National Review, former U.S. Ambassador to the United Nations John Bolton argued the treaty gives Russia a “de facto veto” over U.S. missile defense programs. “Advances in missile defense are now effectively impossible if this treaty enters into and is to remain in force,” Bolton wrote.

The treaty, which must be ratified by a two-thirds majority of the U.S. Senate, will be a hot topic on Capitol Hill this week. The Senate Foreign Relations Committee began hearings on Tuesday hearing with Secretary of State Hillary Clinton, Defense Secretary Robert Gates and Adm. Michael Mullen, chairman of the Joint Chiefs of Staff. Former Secretary of State James A. Baker III testifies Wednesday.

Clinton’s visit to Congress gives senators an opportunity to clarify what the treaty does and does not say on missile defense. Of course, the bigger challenge might be Russia’s interpretation of it.

Former U.S. Ambassador to NATO Kurt Volker, senior fellow and managing director of the Center on Transatlantic Relations at Johns Hopkins School of Advanced International Studies, said that’s a problem that won’t be solved in the halls of Congress.

“More of a concern is whether the Russians agree that there are no limits,” Volker said. “It is conceivable, for example, that in the course of its own ratification process, either the Kremlin or (at its behest) the Duma would assert that there are some limitations. If so, this would certainly complicate our own proceedings.”

Also complicating matters is Obama’s own statement to the U.S. Senate. Last week in a letter calling for switch action on the treaty, the president reverted to the State Department’s original April 8 language. Apparently Obama didn’t get the latest memo.

A treaty is a bunch of words on paper. And words can be quite troublesome.

Robert Bluey directs the Center for Media and Public Policy at The Heritage Foundation.

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