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'The President just wouldn't accept no for an answer'

Only days ago the signs were ominous that the US Senate would reject the START arms reduction treaty, but as Thomas E. Mann tells DW, President Barack Obama stuck to his guns and has come away with an important victory.

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Thomas E. Mann

Thomas E. Mann is the W. Averell Harimann Chair and senior fellow in Governance Studies at the Brookings Institution. He's also a member of the Council on Foreign Relations.

Deutsche Welle: The START treaty was passed with a majority of 71 votes - were you surprised?

Thomas Mann: No, the last couple of days have seen a movement among Republicans to support ratification of the treaty and it seemed likely that they would get at least 70 and possibly higher. It wasn't the kind of near unanimous vote that we're used to having on arms control treaties. But given the extraordinary effort by the No. 1 and 2 Republican leaders in the Senate against ratification I think it's a significant achievement.

For a long time it looked as if the Obama administration would not get the majority of the votes. What was the tipping point?

The administration had been working for months with Senator Jon Kyl who was sort of the policy leader on this front … it had been negotiating with him with the expectation that reasonable compromises addressing concerns such as freedom to move ahead on missile defense and modernizing our nuclear weapons … that the Republicans would fall in line, but as we got closer to the end of the 111th Congress it became increasingly apparent that Kyl was going to do everything in his power to prevent any action from occurring and pushing it into the next Congress where prospects would diminish given the nature of the new members coming and those leaving.

At that point the administration started working seriously working with other Republicans who would more naturally respond to the strong support for its ratification among very prominent former Republican national security officials.

Contrary to what the Republicans argue, the treaty was not rushed through.

No, there were a large number of hearings conducted, there were ample opportunities for additional debate and consideration. My own view is that for most of the senators reluctant to play ball it was more a desire to deny the president a victory than it was serious concerns about the substance of the treaty.

So it was not about substance but about political wrangling?

That is right. They argued it on substance, but each of the issues raised were answered and with impressive arguments and evidence … There wasn't in the end a serious substantive argument against it. And that's why some of the senators like John McCain and Lindsey Graham ended up looking petulant. It was embarrassing that Senator Lindsey Graham was complaining about the productivity of a lame duck session, that so many things were accomplished that President Obama was not further wounded but was strengthened.

Have you ever seen this kind of wrangling during the last days of a Congress before?

Yes I have - the ending of a legislative session is oftentimes a mess especially in the Senate. It's a very partisan era of American politics, parties are deeply polarized, and engaged in partisan war to an extent we haven't seen over a century. But was what is striking is how productive the 111th Congress has been … the initial and the second stimulus, health care reform, financial regulation and a series of other domestic policy achievements, managing to get the defense authorization bill passed, the don't ask don't tell policy repealed and the new START treaty ratified is quite an achievement.

So for those who see nothing but dysfunction in our politics it's important to realize that the combination and party polarization and Senate filibusters makes it very difficult for a majority to achieve its objectives. And certainly a number of items like climate change legislation and immigration were not achieved and nonetheless inspite of all of that and the perfectly dreadful way the process appears to the public, I think that the president and the Democrats can be pleased that they have ended a very productive Congress.

You mentioned President Obama - how important is this ratification for him, after all, he invested a lot in supporting this treaty?

I think it's important. This is one in which he really stuck to his guns. He just wouldn't accept no for an answer. He said it was critically important to American national security. Our standing in the world, our relations with Russia, and our policies and efforts with Iran and North Korea, he really raised the stakes for himself in pushing ahead with this - it has to be a boost to him, certainly countries around the world will look upon this as a major achievement and feel a bit more comfortable working with the president.

Is the START treaty more of a symbolic act? How important is it really for the US-Russian relations and for nuclear proliferation?

It's not a dramatically ambitious agreement, but it needed to be passed, if only to maintain inspection regimes, it's mainly to keep relations and negotiations with the Russians alive and to maintain credibility in the world for trying to deal with problems of nuclear proliferation. It's not that the achievement itself was substantively historic, but it's agreement and ratification are very important for the broader security agenda.

Does this turn the year around for him?

It certainly means that the setback from the midterm election which is real but is largely driven by the economic conditions in this country that that setback is in no way going to paralyze him for months or a full year. He can take a punch, he's absorbed the loss but he's pushing ahead. He'll find Congress much more difficult to work with with the Republican majority in the House and a diminished Democratic majority in the Senate. He'll be playing defense as far as some of his achievements in the 111th Congress [are concerned].

He'll almost certainly be turning to areas where he has the authority to act alone as the chief executive and head of the administrative process of government. I think it's also the case in getting some additional stimulus out of Congress and we'll likely see some economic growth and a decline of the unemployment rate over the next year or so as we lead up to the presidential election year and that will certainly strengthen his position going into reelection.

Interview: Christina Bergmann (DW Washington)
Editor: Rob Mudge

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