Back on Nov. 28, Sen. Jon Kyl told Meet the Press that considerable time would be necessary to debate New START and offer multiple amendments to the resolution of ratification, a process that would “probably take at least two weeks.” John Isaacs now points out that 22 of Kyl’s Republican colleagues, led by Sen. John Ensign and Sen. Jim DeMint, have dispatched a letter to Minority Leader Mitch McConnell bearing a similar message: time for “numerous amendments” will be needed — time that won’t be available before the end of the year.

In response to these declarations, State Duma Speaker Boris Gryzlov has threatened to counter with amendments of his own. But the point of announcing an intention to offer “numerous” amendments isn’t to change the treaty; it’s to protest bringing the treaty to the floor for debate in the first place. Perhaps it’s also a way of justifying a “no” vote on grounds of senatorial prerogative rather than (or in addition to) substance. But with New START gathering steam — especially since the appearance of the Dec. 2 op-ed by five Republican former Secretaries of State in the Washington Post – it’s likely to come to the floor regardless.

Star Wars Amendment: The Empire Strikes Back

But there presumably will be a few amendments offered in the time available. Going by the debate in the Senate Foreign Relations Committee, it’s possible that Sen. DeMint will reintroduce his missile defense amendment, which has been included in watered-down form in the resolution of ratification. DeMint later sought to incorporate his preferred missile defense language into the defense authorization bill, too. He seeks to require the rapid deployment of “an effective and layered missile defense system capable of defending the territory of the United States and its allies against all ballistic missile attacks,” i.e., including those from Russia.

As a policy, this would serve to antagonize Russia without bringing a single day closer the time that missile defenses could counteract Russia’s strategic forces. As former Secretary of State Condoleezza Rice correctly observes in her own op-ed in Tuesday’s Wall Street Journal, the Russian nuclear arsenal “is far too sophisticated and large to be degraded by our missile defenses.”

In other respects, Rice’s message seems slightly off. Apparently calling for an amendment herself, she insists that the Senate “must make absolutely clear that in ratifying this treaty, the U.S. is not re-establishing the Cold War link between offensive forces and missile defenses.” In particular, she points to the treaty’s preamble and a Russian unilateral statement as potentially troublesome. But the resolution of ratification already does what Rice proposes, declaring that the treaty does not “limit in any way, and shall not be interpreted as limiting,” current or future defenses. It’s not clear what more she thinks might be necessary. Regardless, compared to some, Rice seems almost statesmanlike at the moment.

The Bottom Line

Perhaps it’s unreasonable or just plain naive to say so, but nuclear arms control ought to be above partisan politics, personal (dis)likes, ideological knee-jerks, or idle games of positioning. It’s a truism, but the fate of nations rests on how we handle the Bomb.

For further discussion, see my latest column in the Bulletin: The high stakes of New START.