Steve Chapman

When Republicans and Democrats agree on a factual matter, it is for one of two reasons. Sometimes it's because a certain fact is true. And sometimes it's because both sides hope to gain from promoting an obvious fiction.

As it happens, they concur on one thing about the arms control agreement with Russia: It is a big step toward denuclearization. President Obama, who goes to Prague this week for a signing ceremony, says the accord advances the goal of "a world without nuclear weapons."

Republicans think that is the problem. Through the "New Start" agreement and other policies, claims former Reagan administration official Frank Gaffney Jr., Obama is "condemning the nation to unilateral disarmament."

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Those are the claims. The reality is that the United States, after this treaty takes effect, will have 700 missiles and bombers carrying 1,550 warheads. That's enough to turn any country on Earth into smoking, radioactive rubble, and then turn the rubble into gravel.

Yet for the critics, the only thing better than too much is even more. They somehow imagine that an enemy willing to risk being visited with1,550 nuclear blasts will back down at the prospect of 1,560.

The treaty is supposed to slash arsenals by 30 percent. In reality, it will fall well short of that because of strange counting rules. A B-52 is assumed to carry only one bomb, for example, even though it is equipped (and will be allowed) to carry 20.

Pavel Podvig, a physicist at Stanford University's Center for International Security and Cooperation, says almost all of the advertised cuts "will be accomplished by changing the way warheads are counted." It's like saying I'm going to lose 20 pounds, with each actual pound counting as 10.

In practice, reports the Federation of American Scientists, the United States will have to get rid of just 100 warheads, while the Russians will scrap 190. It's not disarmament, and it's not unilateral.

The main value of the treaty is that it obligates both governments to inform the other of how many weapons it has and where they are located, while imposing verification requirements to keep them honest.

It also opens the possibility of deeper cuts. Those make sense because neither side needs such a huge stockpile or the expense that comes with it -- and because the more weapons, the greater the risk of a disastrous accident.

The deal represents a modest improvement over the status quo. So why the pretense that it's a big step toward the abandonment of nuclear weapons?

Steve Chapman

Steve Chapman is a columnist and editorial writer for the Chicago Tribune.

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