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GOP Senators Question Obama on Missile Defense Remarks to Medvedev

By Elaine M. Grossman

Global Security Newswire

President Obama, left, speaks with Russian President Dmitry Medvedev on Monday at this week’s Nuclear Security Summit in Seoul, South Korea. Forty-three of the U.S. Senate’s 47 Republicans have pressed Obama to explain comments he made on missile defense during the overheard discussion (AP Photo/Pablo Martinez Monsivais). President Obama, left, speaks with Russian President Dmitry Medvedev on Monday at this week’s Nuclear Security Summit in Seoul, South Korea. Forty-three of the U.S. Senate’s 47 Republicans have pressed Obama to explain comments he made on missile defense during the overheard discussion (AP Photo/Pablo Martinez Monsivais).

WASHINGTON -- All but four of the U.S. Senate’s 47 Republicans have called on President Obama to explain remarks on missile defense made on Monday in an informal discussion with Russian President Dmitry Medvedev (see GSN, March 27).

“We demand an immediate clarification that, if re-elected in November, you will honor your commitments on our missile defense programs,” the 43 lawmakers said in a Tuesday letter to Obama, obtained by Global Security Newswire

They were led by Senator Jon Kyl (R-Ariz.), who has repeatedly said he would hold the White House to promises it made on nuclear weapons modernization and missile defense during the late-2010 process to ratify the U.S.-Russian New START arms control accord.

Meeting on the sidelines of a Nuclear Security Summit in Seoul, South Korea, Obama indicated to the Russian leader that an agreement to cooperate on missile defense would be virtually impossible until after he is re-elected in November. Apparently unaware that their brief discussion was audible on an open microphone, the U.S. president said he needed some political “space” to work the issue domestically and could not do so during the campaign.

"This is my last election," Obama could be heard telling the Russian president. "After my election, I have more flexibility."

“I understand,” Medvedev said. “I will transmit this information to Vladimir,” he pledged, referring to Russian Prime Minister Vladimir Putin, who was elected earlier this month to succeed Medvedev as president.

The comments were replayed widely on television and the Internet, drawing barbs from Republican presidential candidates Mitt Romney and Newt Gingrich, and even prompting a dramatic video response from the Republican National Committee. 

Obama addressed the media firestorm during a Tuesday press conference.

“The only way I get this stuff done is if I’m consulting with the Pentagon, with Congress, if I’ve got bipartisan support and frankly, the current environment is not conducive to those kinds of thoughtful consultations,” he told reporters.  “Arms control is extraordinarily complex, very technical, and the only way it gets done is if you can consult and build a strong understanding, both between countries and within countries.”

In the letter, Republican senators insisted on knowing what Obama would do as president following the election that he lacked the capacity to discuss during the campaign.

“Not having to worry about the judgment of the American people on this important national security issue may allow more flexibility to make concessions to the Russians, but it would be antithetical to our safety and security and would be counter to other assurances you have given to the American people and their representatives in Congress,” the lawmakers stated.

The letter reminds the president of his pledge, made during the run-up to New START ratification, to develop and deploy all elements of the so-called phased adaptive approach to missile defense for Europe, including making technical improvements to the system over time.

“Is that still your commitment or might you be considering agreements that would limit the speed and range of U.S. missile defense systems deployed on naval vessels and in Europe?” the senators demanded to know.

Russian leaders have consistently objected to plans by Washington and its NATO allies for constructing a missile shield in Europe, citing concerns that such defenses could be used to deny Moscow a second-strike capability widely seen as vital for helping deter a nuclear war. 

Obama administration officials have said that the land- and sea-based defenses envisioned in the phased adaptive approach would be aimed at protecting the United States and its allies from Middle East threats, specifically one anticipated from Iran.  They have invited Moscow to cooperate in building a missile defense system in Europe.

As recently as last week, Medvedev insisted that Washington enshrine in a written agreement its pledges that the defensive shield would have no capability against Russian long-range nuclear missiles (see GSN, March 23). 

“They want a piece of paper they can point to when a U.S. ship enters certain waters or when an interceptor has a certain speed,” Ellen Tauscher, the State Department special envoy for strategic stability and missile defense, said in a Monday speech in Washington.

She appeared to rule out specific terms for a Russian agreement that the Senate Republicans counseled they, too, could not stomach.

“We certainly cannot accept limitations on where we deploy our Aegis ships. These are multimission ships that are used for a variety of missions around the world, not just for missile defense,” Tauscher said.  “We also will not accept limitations on the capabilities and numbers of our missile defense systems.”

The Washington envoy said what could be in the offing is “a political statement that our missile defenses are not directed at Russia.”  Any statement of this kind, Tauscher said, “will be politically binding and it would publicly proclaim our intent to cooperate and chart the direction for cooperation, not limitations.”

These assurances seemed insufficient to the minority senators once Obama’s candid remarks to Medvedev circulated.

“This is not a little matter,” Senator Jeffrey Sessions (R-Ala.), one of the letter signatories, said at a Tuesday hearing of the chamber’s Armed Services Committee.  Russian leaders have “objected steadfastly for no good reason that I can see other than maybe domestic Russian politics or [to] use leverage against the United States,” he said.

“And so, now it looks like the president is saying, ‘We're going to take care of those concerns,’” continued Sessions, ranking member of the panel’s Strategic Forces Subcommittee, describing his interpretation of Obama’s comments.  “‘We're not going to build the new system, not going to place it there. … And now, after the election I'll take care of it, Vladimir.’

“But that's not what he told the American people, what he told the Congress,” the lawmaker said.  “He told the Congress we were going to build this system.”

“What the president said in front of an open mic was unfortunate and feeds suspicions of those who are already suspicious about everything Obama,” John Isaacs, executive director of the Council for a Livable World, said on Tuesday.

“But I think it is fair to say that difficult problems such as missile defense cooperation with Russia, North Korea, Iran or the Israeli-Palestinian issues will not be solved in the current white-hot political environment,” he told GSN.  “A compromise with the Russians on missile defense that brings in Russian radars could make the phased adaptive system for Europe more effective than is likely without it.”

The GOP letter also warns the president to abide by limits against sharing classified missile defense information with Russia -- a provision enacted into the fiscal 2012 Defense Authorization Act, despite an Obama signing statement that called such a restriction nonbinding. Flouting the law’s provision “could have serious repercussions,” according to the missive.

The four Senate Republicans who did not sign the letter were Lamar Alexander (Tenn.), Scott Brown (Mass.), Thad Cochran (Miss.) and Rand Paul (Ky.).  All but Paul -- who had not yet taken office -- voted in December 2010 to approve New START ratification, along with 10 other Republicans, 56 Democrats and two independents.

Senators who did sign this week’s correspondence additionally advised against further reductions in the U.S. nuclear weapons arsenal, which Defense Department leaders have recently said appears sensible (see GSN, Feb. 16).  The Pentagon and Strategic Command are currently studying options for potential cuts.

The lawmakers cited the 2010 view of then-U.S. Strategic Command chief Gen. Kevin Chilton that “the arsenal that we have is exactly what is needed today to provide the deterrent.”  Chilton retired from the military in February 2011.

“It would certainly seem premature, and quite possibly incorrect, to claim that we can further reduce our nuclear arsenal,” the GOP lawmakers opined.

Complicating the matter, though, is that the current combat commander of U.S. nuclear forces appears to support the administration judgment that additional cuts might be warranted, at least under certain conditions.

“I think there are opportunities to reduce further, but I think that there are factors that bear on that ultimate outcome,” Gen. Robert Kehler said at the Tuesday Senate panel hearing, noting that it would not be “appropriate” to elaborate.

At other junctures during the committee meeting, though, the Strategic Command chief underscored his need for future-year budgets to include sufficient dollars for maintaining the nuclear arsenal and modernizing the atomic complex.  He did not specify funding figures he would support. 

Budget plans for nuclear weapons-related efforts beyond fiscal 2013 were left out of this year’s Energy Department submissions to Congress.  Administration officials said the future-year plans remain the focus of interagency discussions and would be released later this year (see GSN, March 15).

“I think the [thing] that concerns me the most is our continued investment in the weapons complex,” Kehler said, pointing in particular to an announced five-year delay in building a facility to perform plutonium research for warhead upkeep (see GSN, Feb. 14).  “I understand the ’13 budget does provide for us to get moving in a number of areas.

“The secretary of Energy and the secretary of Defense sent a letter to the Congress that reminded them that we're not ready yet to lay out what happens in ’14 and beyond,” the Air Force general said.  “Until we're ready to lay all of that out, I remain concerned.”

“The key question is whether there is sufficient funding to ensure that the U.S. nuclear stockpile remains safe, secure and reliable,” Isaacs said regarding expenditures at the Energy Department’s semiautonomous National Nuclear Security Administration.  “Some of the current NNSA plans will have to be slowed in the current budget environment, but the stockpile will remain sufficient to ensure U.S. security. Given the budget cuts advocated by both Republicans and Democrats, full funding for [warhead] life-extension programs in the future would have to come at the expense of other Pentagon programs.”

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