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Senate vote on nuclear treaty may be defining moment for Obama

President Obama could build on a New START victory as he turns to other foreign policy challenges. Failure might be regarded abroad as confirmation that the administration is too weak to put its stamp on world affairs.

December 21, 2010|By Paul Richter and Lisa Mascaro, Los Angeles Times

Reporting from Washington — The upcoming Senate vote on a U.S.-Russia nuclear arms treaty may turn out to be a defining moment for the Obama administration's foreign policy.

If he wins the support of at least two-thirds of the Senate for the New START agreement in a vote that may come as early as Tuesday, President Obama could build on the victory as he turns to a long list of foreign policy challenges — including Afghanistan, Iran, North Korea and his broader plans to limit nuclear weapons.

Failure would be regarded in some world capitals as confirmation that the administration is too weak and preoccupied with domestic problems to put its stamp on world affairs.

With the Republican Senate leadership lined up against approving the treaty in the last days of a lame-duck session, the issue will be decided by a handful of GOP senators. Supporters are expected to vote to cut off debate on Tuesday, a step that would open the way for a final vote later in the day or on Wednesday.

The administration has made controlling nuclear weapons a major foreign policy goal and held out its "reset" of relations with Russia over the last two years as its most tangible international accomplishment. It views the New START treaty, which would reduce the ceiling on long-distance nuclear warheads by up to 30%, as the centerpiece of that relationship.

Russia has enormous influence in many key areas. It has close economic ties to Iran, including in civil nuclear power, and as a member of the U.N. Security Council, its cooperation is essential to pressure the Islamic Republic to accept limits on its nuclear program. Twenty years after Moscow ended its own war in Afghanistan, it has recently expressed a willingness to cooperate with the U.S. and North Atlantic Treaty Organization countries there. And Russia is one of five countries engaged in sporadic talks with North Korea about its nuclear program.

Other countries will also be watching. The vote will probably help them decide whether it's in their interest to cooperate with Obama.

"At this point, he needs a foreign-policy win," said Paul Saunders, a former State Department official at the Nixon Center in Washington.

The vote comes at a time when world powers have been reassessing the administration's power in light of its midterm election setbacks, the unraveling this month of its strategy for Arab-Israeli peacemaking, and other reversals.

In Israel, some conservative political leaders have said they see Obama's poll numbers and political strength ebbing, and have urged their government to push back harder against administration pressure.

One Senate Republican aide said many world powers attach great importance to a government's ability to work out a major treaty with another world power.

"This matters a lot to them, and they've yet to see it," said the aide, who declined to be identified because he was not authorized to speak to reporters.

On Monday the Senate considered several possible amendments to the treaty, including one to increase the number of annual inspections of each country's nuclear sites, and a second to increase the number of allowable nuclear weapon launchers.

The last START treaty took three years to ratify in the 1990s, but most U.S.-Russia arms treaties have won overwhelming bipartisan support. As recently as this summer, supporters believed New START would coast easily to ratification.

The treaty has wide support among former leaders of the U.S. foreign policy establishment from both parties, and is generally viewed as an incremental step in scaling back the vast nuclear arsenals of the two Cold War rivals.

But the treaty aroused conservatives' fears of Russia, and became entangled in the broader political struggle over Obama's record.

In recent days, as the administration pushed hard for votes on contentious issues such as immigration and the treatment of gays in the military, the debate has become more embittered.

Saunders said he feared the final hours of deliberations had polarized the two parties on Russia issues in a way that "will be extremely unconstructive going forward." Even if Obama ekes out a victory, it will be a narrow one that may not inspire much confidence in Moscow or other foreign capitals, he said.

A rejection may make cooperation more difficult with the Russians on future nuclear arms reduction issues, but also on related issues such as the coordinated missile defense system the two countries have been discussing, Saunders said.

Russia already has expressed its annoyance that Senate action is taking so long. Officials say they will not bring it up for a ratification vote in Moscow until Washington acts. Prime Minister Vladimir Putin said last week that if the U.S. failed to approve the treaty, Russia might have to build up its own nuclear forces.

On Monday, Russian officials warned the Senate not to change the language because Moscow would not be willing to renegotiate it.

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