The Cable

State Department on New START: It’s time to vote

Next week, the Senate Foreign Relations Committee is slated to finally vote on a resolution to ratify the new START nuclear reductions treaty with Russia, amid growing concern that time is running out for the full Senate to consider the treaty this year.

Top Obama administration officials are working hard behind the scenes to convince GOP senators to get off the fence and announce their support for new START. But Senate Majority Leader Harry Reid (D-NV) is going to be hard pressed to find precious floor time for the treaty before the Senate goes home for its recess before the midterm elections. What might happen after the elections is anyone's guess. The treaty could be considered during the lame-duck session or be postponed until next year, but a more GOP-heavy Senate could change the calculus for getting to the 67 vote threshold needed for ratification.

Supporters of the treaty have been increasingly frustrated about the persistent delays. They blame Senate Republicans, who have been discussing a whole host of concerns they have over the treaty and withholding any commitment to support the pact. The GOP blames the Obama administration for what it sees as the shortcomings of the agreement and its refusal to share the full negotiating record with the Senate.

Regardless, top administration officials involved in the treaty said Friday that the administration had done pretty much all it can to appease Senate Republicans.

"This administration has provided the Senate with more information than is even necessary to make an informed decision," said Undersecretary of State for Arms Control Ellen Tauscher. "There's been very robust outreach, every question has been answered, and it's time to take the vote."

Tauscher alluded to the growing fear among New START supporters that the GOP reluctance to support the treaty is based in their reluctance to give Obama a foreign policy victory before the election.

"As an American citizen I will say that the American people are clearly frustrated and frankly fed up with the kind of partisanship they see on many issues, and they certainly become disheartened and frightened when they see it on national security, where for decades we've had an agreement that these were issues that were too important and had too much to do with the safety and security of the American people to be caught up in a partisan debate," she said.

Tauscher did not shed any light on the administration's understanding of the treaty's schedule following the committee's planned  Sept. 16 vote. Earlier this week, The Cable reported that chairman John Kerry's draft resolution on ratification was facing internal criticism and had failed to win the support of ranking Republican Richard Lugar (R-IN). Lugar is expected to circulate his own version on Monday.

Tauscher referred indirectly to this development, saying that it was not unusual to have two different resolutions brought to a committee vote. However, State Department officials, speaking on condition of anonymity, said that  it's at least somewhat unusual and definitely less desirable, from the perspective of the administration, than having only one resolution on which to vote.

Since the old START treaty expired last December, there has been no verification of Russian nuclear activities and no process to work with Russia on areas of mutual concern - a fact that Tauscher focused on in making her case for the necessity of ratifying the new treaty quickly.

"The urgency to verify the treaty is because we currently lack verification measures with Russia," she said. "The longer that goes on, the more opportunity there is for misunderstanding and mistrust."

She also said that the administration's proposal for huge increases in the budget for the nuclear complex and modernization of the nuclear stockpile, which was put forth in the fiscal 2011 budget request, is its final offer -- even though some Senate Republicans have called for larger increases.

"We've shown our hand, we've proposed our budget, it's a 13 percent increase," she said. "Any question about the commitment to modernization is just not a question."

She also took a gentle shot at those pushing for more money for the nuclear weapons complex, pointing out that their insistence for more funding for the National Nuclear Security Administration wasn't evident before they decided to raise concerns about the START treaty. This feeds into the increasingly public sentiment among administration officials that senators are using the nuclear funding issue as just one more reason to delay a vote on new START.

"I was pretty lonely fighting for money for the NNSA and for the weapons complex before I left Congress for the administration," she said.

The Cable

Special Briefing Skipper: President Obama on foreign policy

In which we scour the transcript of the daily presser so you don't have to. These are the foreign-policy highlights of Friday's press conference by President Barack Obama:

  • Obama said that the poor state of the economy was at least partially responsible for what many see as an increasingly public suspicion and resentment of Muslims and their activities. "I think that at a time when the country is anxious generally and going through a tough time, fears can surface, suspicions, divisions can surface in a society. And so I think that plays a role in it," he said. Obama praised George W. Bush for being clear that American is not at war with Islam, pledged to protect all religion's right to worship openly, and called on all Americans to do the same. "I think it is absolutely important now for the overwhelming majority of the American people to hang onto that thing that is best in us: a belief in religious tolerance, clarity about who our enemies are -- our enemies are al Qaeda and their allies, who are trying to kill us but have been -- have killed more Muslims than just about anybody on Earth," he said. "You know, we have to make sure that we don't start turning on each other."
  • Obama warned that the Israeli-Palestinian peace negotiations are going to be tough, but said that the first meetings last week in Washington exceeded expectations and that all sides need to resist efforts to torpedo the talks. "There are enormous hurdles between now and our end point. And there are going to be a whole bunch of folks in the region who want to undermine these negotiations," Obama said. "There are going to be rejectionists who suggest that it can't happen, and there are also going to be cynics who just believe that the mistrust between the sides is too deep. We understood all that. We understood that it was a risk for us to promote these discussions... The main point I want to make is, it's a risk worth taking because the alternative is a status quo that is unsustainable. And so if these talks break down, we're going to keep on trying." He said that striking a deal would strengthen the international position vis-à-vis Iran and would help the West combat terrorist groups throughout the region.
  • The U.S. government is pressing Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu to extend the settlement moratorium that expires Sept. 26. Obama said the moratorium has been "significant" and that he understood this was a difficult issue for Netanyahu domestically. "What I've said to Prime Minister Netanyahu is that, given so far the talks are moving forward in a constructive way, it makes sense to extend that moratorium so long as the talks are moving in a constructive way, because ultimately the way to solve these problems is for the two sides to agree what's going to be Israel, what's going to be the state of Palestine; and if you can get that agreement, then you can start constructing anything that the people of Israel see fit, in undisputed areas."
  • Obama defended his foray into the issue of the burning of the Quran by a pastor in Florida, saying that he had an obligation to weigh in and prevent what he saw as the potential for a series of similar actions. "And so we've got an obligation to send a very clear message that this kind of behavior or threats of action put our young men and women in harm's way. And it's also the best imaginable recruiting tool for al Qaeda," Obama said. "I hardly think we're the ones who elevated this story, but it is, in the age of the Internet, something that can cause us profound damage around the world. And so we've got to take it seriously."
  • Regarding corruption in the Afghan government, Obama reiterated his call for reform and accountability in the administration of President Hamid Karzai and acknowledged that sometimes the U.S. government is involved with the very officials accused of corrupt practices. "The only way that you are going to have a stable government over the long term is if the Afghan people feel that you're looking out for them. And that means making sure that the tradition of corruption in the government is reduced. And we're going to keep on putting pressure on him on that front," Obama said. "Is it going to happen overnight? Probably not."
  • Obama lamented that he hasn't fulfilled his promise to close the prison at Guantanamo Bay, Cuba and defended his intention to use military commissions to try some prisoners, despite that reform of the military commissions system has lagged. "We have succeeded on delivering a lot of campaign promises that we made. One where we've fallen short is closing Guantanamo. I wanted to close it sooner. We have missed that deadline. It's not for lack of trying. It's because the politics of it are difficult," he said. He pledged to someday move forward with the trial of 9/11 mastermind Khalid Sheikh Mohammed. He also pledged to continue hunting Osama bin Laden.
  • On the Park 51 community center planned for lower Manhattan, Obama said he thinks he has been "pretty clear" about his position. "This country stands for the proposition that all men and women are created equal, that they have certain inalienable rights; one of those inalienable rights is to practice their religion freely. And what that means is that if you could build a church on a site, you could build a synagogue on a site, if you could build a Hindu temple on a site, then you should be able to build a mosque on the site," he said. He said it's in our national security interest not to demonize all Muslims and to differentiate between the religion and the small number of extremists who pervert it. "We've got millions of Muslim-Americans, our fellow citizens, in this country. They're going to school with our kids. They're our neighbors. They're our friends. They're our coworkers. And, you know, when we start acting as if their religion is somehow offensive, what are we saying to them?"