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Obama faces hurdles on nuclear disarmament

Five months after President Barack Obama, with great fanfare, called for a world free of nuclear weapons, a crucial step toward that goal is running into resistance.
/ Source: The Associated Press

Five months after President Barack Obama, with great fanfare, called for a world free of nuclear weapons, a crucial step toward that goal is running into resistance.

There is little indication Obama will have the votes he needs for a cornerstone of his nonproliferation efforts: Senate ratification of a nuclear test ban treaty. If Obama can't get the treaty approved, he probably will have a hard time persuading the rest of the world to rein in nuclear weapon programs.

Daryl Kimball, executive director of the Arms Control Association, an advocacy group based in Washington, said the Obama administration needs to "work faster and harder" to build support in the Senate.

The absence of progress comes as a backdrop to the special U.N. session to be chaired by Obama later this month. The summit Sept. 24 on the sidelines of the U.N. General Assembly's annual ministerial session will seek broad consensus on preventing the spread of nuclear weapons.

Political realities have made focusing on the test ban treaty difficult. Obama's top priorities these days are passing a massive health care overhaul and overcoming violence in Afghanistan. On arms control, his administration is now focused on another goal: securing a successor to a bilateral treaty with Russia that expires in December.

The treaty with Russia would amount to a small step toward the goal of a nuclear-free world that Obama outlined in April in a sweeping speech before a crowd of 20,000 in Prague. In the same speech, he promised to focus on the test ban treaty.

"My administration will immediately and aggressively pursue U.S. ratification," he said.

The administration says it is now working behind the scenes to build congressional support for the test ban treaty.

‘Little chance’
"We are pushing very hard on all fronts," White House spokesman Mike Hammer said.

But supporters of that goal outside the administration say they have not seen evidence of urgency.

"If this pace continues, there is little chance he will achieve the goals he outlined," said Joseph Cirincione, president of the San Francisco-based Ploughshares Fund, which advocates the elimination of nuclear weapons.

Negotiated in the 1990s, the Comprehensive Test Ban Treaty specified 44 nuclear-capable countries that must give formal approval before it can take effect. Eight countries besides the United States have yet to ratify the treaty: China, Egypt, India, Indonesia, Iran, Israel, North Korea and Pakistan. In 1999, during the Clinton administration, the Senate rejected ratification overwhelmingly, with all but three Republicans voting against.

Many countries see ratification of the treaty as a test of U.S. commitment to phase out nuclear weapons.

If the Senate doesn't ratify it, Obama could have difficulty persuading countries to support other goals, such as strengthening the Nuclear Non-Proliferation Treaty, at a review conference in May. The administration also wants a treaty to prohibit further production of weapons-grade nuclear material.

The administration needs 67 votes in the 100-member Senate to ratify the test ban treaty, which means it will need support from some of the 40 Republicans. No Republican has yet declared support, and key Republicans remain skeptical.

Sen. Richard Lugar, R-Ind., a well-regarded arms control and nonproliferation expert, recently told The Associated Press that the administration should build its case and wait at least until the second half of 2010 to push for a vote. But some supporters say that will be too close to congressional elections in November, and they worry that after that Obama may not have the large Democratic majority he now enjoys.

Kyl in opposition
Sen. Jon Kyl, R-Ariz., who opposes deep reductions in arsenals and led opposition to the 1999 vote on the test ban treaty, remains opposed. He believes a test ban would constrain the United States and undermine its technological superiority.

Kyl and other opponents also say it will be difficult to verify whether other countries are conducting secret tests and to ensure that the U.S. arsenal can be maintained and improved without testing.

The administration argues that technological advances, including the capability of computer simulation, have made testing unnecessary and have also made it easier to detect tests in other countries. It has commissioned a National Academy of Sciences report on how to maintain the arsenal and an intelligence estimate on detecting nuclear explosions. The administration hopes the reports, expected early next year, will help win ratification.

Kyl told the AP he believes he can defeat Obama's push for the treaty.

"I think they are dead set on ratifying it," he said. "That doesn't mean it is going to happen."

The resistance comes as the administration is already deep into negotiations with Russian counterparts to finish a follow-on agreement to the 1991 Strategic Arms Reduction Treaty, which expires in December. The administration hopes ratification of that treaty will give the issue momentum.

Prospects look much better for that treaty, with some Republicans already on board. Kyl said he could support it if the administration backs funding to modernize nuclear stockpiles and infrastructure.