LISBON, Portugal – President Barack Obama appealed Saturday to Republicans in the U.S. Senate to stop blocking a nuclear arms pact with Moscow, saying failure to soon ratify it could jeopardize improving relations with Russia and send a mixed signal to Iran about the strength of the international front against its nuclear program.
He blamed the supercharged partisan climate in Washington for the delay and said inaction on the pact would leave "a partner hanging" at a time of better cooperation among the United States, its NATO partners and Russia.
Obama said European allies at the NATO summit told him that the stalled treaty is critical to U.S.-European security. He talked with reporters after the 28-nation alliance met with Russian President Dmitry Medvedev.
Obama used his weekly radio and Internet address to press his case, noting that Russia had voted with the U.S. and other allies to impose the latest round of U.N. penalties against Iran over its nuclear program. Russia is a partner with Iran in a civilian nuclear power project and generally has been less concerned than the U.S. that Iran may be hiding a bomb program.
Obama suggested Republican senators standing in the way of the pact with Russia were abandoning Ronald Reagan's lesson of nuclear diplomacy: "Trust but verify."
The treaty would limit each country's stockpile of nuclear warheads to 1,550, down from the current level of 2,200, bringing the arsenals to a level last seen in the 1950s. It would replace the 1991 Strategic Arms Reduction Treaty, or START I, which expired last December.
Republicans led by U.S. Sen. Jon Kyl of Arizona say they won't consider it until the Obama administration budgets adequate money for the nation's nuclear arsenal and the laboratories that oversee them. Kyl says he needs assurances that the remaining nuclear arsenal is modernized and effective.
The administration has pledged $85 billion to maintain the nuclear arsenal over the next 10 years, in an attempt to address Kyl's concerns. But Democrats might be less willing to go along with that plan if Republicans stall the treaty.
Obama suggested he was encouraged that Kyl, the Republican point man on the issue, had not publicly said he wants to see the treaty rejected — just that there wasn't enough time during the current lame-duck session to get it done. "I take him at his word," Obama said.
"The climate in Washington is one where it's hard to get the parties to cooperate, especially after a big election," Obama said.
Medvedev and Obama signed the New START treaty in April in the Czech Republic. Medvedev asked the Russian Parliament to ratify it, but no earlier than the U.S. Senate does.
The treaty needs 67 votes in the U.S. Senate, where Democrats now control 59 votes. Democrats will exercise an even smaller margin of control in January, reflecting the loss of six Democratic seats in elections this month.
Obama's remarks echoed comments by U.S. Defense Secretary Robert Gates. Attending defense meetings in Santiago, Chile, Gates said "there would be significant consequences" beyond the specifics of the U.S. and Russian nuclear stockpiles if the treaty is not ratified.
While the wider political fallout is hard to predict, he said it could mean less Russian cooperation with overland supply routes for the war in Afghanistan. He noted that Russia recently approved his request to allow special mine-resistant troop carriers to cross Russia on their way to the Afghanistan front lines.
Obama also welcomed Russia's pledge to work with NATO on a missile-defense system to protect Europe against a possible missile attack, saying it turns a "source of past tension into a source of shared cooperation."
Medvedev agreed to involve Russian technicians in development work on such a missile shield network but stopped short of joining NATO's invitation to join the missile shield system itself.
Russian officials are skeptical about a Europe-based missile-defense system, suggesting it could be used to weaken Russia's nuclear deterrent. The U.S. denies that, suggesting it's mainly a defense against a possible attack from Iran. Medvedev's meeting with leaders of the trans-Atlantic alliance came a day after NATO agreed to a plan for missile defense across Europe and the U.S.
On Afghanistan, a main topic of the NATO sessions, Obama said for the first time that his goal is to end the type of U.S. combat missions now under way in Afghanistan by the end of 2014, although it's "hard to anticipate" the exact American role by then — and beyond.
Obama met with Afghan President Hamid Karzai, with whom the U.S. has engaged in a series of public disputes. Obama said his partnership with the Afghan leader is a "two-way street."
He acknowledged concerns voiced by Kazai about the continued U.S. military presence and civilian casualties.
"I don't fault President Karzai for raising those issues. On the other hand, he's got to understand that I've got a bunch of young men and women ... being shot at and having to traverse terrain filled with IEDs (improvised explosive devices) and they need to protect themselves.
"And so if we're setting things up where they're just sitting ducks for the Taliban, that's not an acceptable answer either."
AP National Security Writer Anne Gearan in Santiago, Chile, contributed to this report.