Adrian Hamilton: This is not the Start of something new

International Studies
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President Barack Obama is finally hitting bottom in Congress. Ratification of the new US-Russian Strategic Arms Reduction Treaty (Start) to reduce nuclear weapons, alongside the recent agreement on tax cuts, should provide him with the firmer ground on which to launch his bid for re-election in 2012. And good luck to him. If ever a man had been traduced, demonised and made the subject of quite extraordinarily vicious personal attacks, it has been Obama.

The Start treaty is a case in point. It is a measure that could hardly be called revolutionary, reducing the number of nuclear weapons from the current level of 2,000 to around 1,550, with tighter compliance. President Bush was for it, so – as the chorus of support from virtually the whole of the foreign policy establishment in the past few months shows – were the Secretaries of State to successive Presidents, Republican and Democrat, from Henry Kissinger upwards. The fact that fewer than a dozen Republicans voted to curtail debate on Tuesday, while providing the majority needed, is a sad comment on the state of adversarial politics in Washington.

Still, Obama chose to put his own prestige and negotiating skills to the test on this one. Provided the treaty does get passed in the final vote – and you can never be certain of these things in Congress – the President will have regained some of the authority he appeared to be losing at the time of the November midterm elections. Having had a field-day batting him round the field, the Republicans have now to show more discretion and responsibility if they are to look as if they are ready to resume office in 2012.

That's the politics of positioning, however. The prospect for actual policy in the new year, and particularly so far as foreign affairs are concerned, is much less assured. The new Start treaty is not the start of anything. Rather it is a throwback to the old obsessions with US-Russian relations after the Cold War.

Obama wanted it as part of a State Department drive to reset the relationship with Moscow after the froideurs of the Bush era over the deployment of a missile shield in Europe and the war in Georgia. Indeed, Russia has made it absolutely clear in recent months that this symbol of a new beginning was at risk should Congress fail to pass the measure.

It was for the same reason that some of its most virulent opponents in the Senate were against it. It offered, they argued, an expression of equivalence in US and Russian powers that was neither warranted nor necessary.

It is a pretty weak argument. The assertion of superiority is a bad basis for any diplomacy. But it is particularly so in an area such as Russo-American relations, where the US has much to gain from Moscow's co-operation in international affairs – and much to lose by throwing it away.

What it doesn't do is to take the general cause of nuclear disarmament any further forward, for all the hopes that Obama's election and rhetoric had raised. The new Start treaty was signed last April, less than a month before the all-important summit of signatories of the Nuclear Non-Proliferation Treaty took place in New York in May. It might have served as a signal for renewed effort on a global front. It should have served as such. It didn't.

Instead, Washington attempted to use the occasion to marshal a grand alliance against Iran, the meeting became dominated by the question of Israel's weaponry and a nuclear-free Middle East, and most of the developing countries took it as yet another lesson in US determination to order world affairs to its own agenda.

The new Start treaty remains where it began, a piece of the Russian jigsaw, rather than a move towards a world free of weapons of mass destruction. And for anyone who doubts that, look at the price Obama was willing to pay for Republican support. To placate the militaristic right, the President has proposed an $85bn investment in America's nuclear infrastructure. There is no reason to throw away the nuclear disarmament buttons now, or for a long time to come.

All-party coalition will struggle in Iraq

President Obama has, meanwhile, greeted the Iraqi parliament's approval of a new government (actually a prolongation of Nouri al-Maliki's tenure as Prime Minister) as a "major step forward in advancing national unity". Up to a point, Lord Copper. In one sense, it is a reflection of the workings of democracy. The March election produced a hung parliament (as here). The months of wrangling since have been the classic product of competing power blocks. The former prime minister, Iyad Allawi, gained the most votes for his secular Shia-Sunni coalition bloc, al-Irraqiya, but not an overall majority. Maliki has responded by drawing together the Shia groups and forming an alliance with his (and America's) former enemy, Moqtada al-Sadr, to keep his position in a new all-party coalition.

To call this, as Obama does, "a clear rejection of the efforts by extremists to spur sectarian division" is just wishful thinking. Maliki has still been unable to make appointments to the three key ministries of security, defence and interior, because of continuing rivalries. Most people in the election voted on sectarian or tribal lines. Gathering everybody into a big tent isn't a sign of integration, it is just short-term expediency that answers none of the questions of stability facing the country.