The new Strategic Arms Reduction Treaty (START) signed by Presidents Obama and Medvedev faces stiff resistance in the Senate and from leading figures in the Republican Party. Despite overwhelming support from the military and past Republican national security advisers, secretaries of defense and arms control experts, conservative hawks have targeted the treaty for defeat. Subordinating the national interest to partisan and ideological obsessions, they hope to hand the Obama administration an embarrassing setback in the "reset" with Russia and in its handling of foreign policy more generally. The tenor and quality of future national security debates will depend in large part on whether or not they succeed.
Opposition to START has been brewing on the right since late last year, but critics began fiercely attacking the treaty in recent weeks. Repeating discredited Heritage Foundation talking points, former Gov. Mitt Romney took the lead in denouncing it as Obama’s "worst foreign policy mistake" in a Washington Post op-ed roundly mocked for its aggressive ignorance of relevant arms control issues. The ranking Republican on the Foreign Relations Committee, Sen. Richard Lugar, issued a statement that completely dismantled Romney’s argument against ratification, but the clash between Romney’s demagoguery and Lugar’s expertise seems likely only to secure Romney the sympathy of neoconservatives who distrust Lugar for his foreign policy realism and movement activists who dislike Lugar as a moderate. Unfortunately, all signs suggest that Romney represents the future of the party and Lugar represents the past.
As Lugar’s rebuttal made clear, anti-ratification arguments are objectively very poor. It is therefore hard to conclude that opposition to the treaty stems from anything other than a partisan desire to defeat a major Obama initiative and to vindicate the fantastical narrative that the administration has "sold out" American and allied security to rival states. This is hardly surprising, but the reckless Republican opposition to a treaty that enhances U.S. and allied security and strengthens the cause of nonproliferation tells us several important things about the state of the GOP and the nature of our national security debates in years to come.
If the anti-ratification Republicans prevail and kill the treaty, it will be a signal that there is absolutely no place for moderates and realists in a post-Bush GOP. There are scarcely any new realists to replace the few who remain in the party, and far from correcting Bush’s excessive hawkishness, unilateralism, and anti-Russian bias, party and movement leaders as well as think tank analysts seem intent on repeating his mistakes. Even worse, Republican hawks seem intent on going much farther in scuttling arms control than even Bush or McCain ever were. It was Bush who negotiated the 2002 Moscow Treaty that required even steeper warhead reductions; and McCain who, despite his overt hostility towards Russia, stated in 2008 that he would negotiate a new arms control treaty if he were elected.
The ratification debate so far suggests that our future arguments over national security are going to have a character very much like those before the invasion of Iraq. As in the run-up to the Iraq war, there will be a more hawkish side making largely unfounded and false claims in the service of dangerous, discredited ideas, and there will be a side that is reasonably well-informed and interested in reducing America’s exposure to risk. In the recent past, the riskier, more dangerous argument has won pretty easily by exploiting popular ignorance and fear, and there is a real chance that it will happen again in this process. Republican hawks are essentially prepared to let the other nuclear superpower operate its nuclear arsenal without any oversight, and they still have the gall to accuse the administration of putting the United States at risk. Instead of being chastened by failure in Iraq and the electoral repudiation in 2006 that followed, they seem to have become even more combative and reckless, as if they believed that the American people crave ignorant and confrontational leaders.
Rejecting ratification is just the latest expression of Republicans' extreme, reflexive criticism of administration nuclear policy. When the administration released its Nuclear Posture Review earlier this year, which essentially changed nothing in U.S. declaratory policy, hawks absurdly insisted that it had sacrificed deterrence because it ruled out nuclear retaliation against states without nuclear weapons, such as Brazil and Japan. Sarah Palin laughably likened the review to a "kid on the playground" asking to be punched in the face. Obama easily dismissed Palin’s objections at the time, but he will have a much harder time winning the eight Republican votes he needs for ratification when the would-be future leaders of the party are making the treaty’s defeat into a new litmus test of party and ideological purity.