Last week former Massachusetts governor Mitt Romney threw his hat into the foreign policy ring in an error-filled Washington Post op-ed calling the New Strategic Arms Reduction Treaty (START) — signed by President Obama and Russian President Dmitri Medvedev in April– Obama’s “worst foreign policy mistake.” Romney’s op-ed led to a vehement response from foreign policy leaders and experts from across the political divide. Yet it also coincided with the emergence of a new action campaign from the conservative Heritage Foundation that laid out two objectives: repealing health care reform and stopping the New START treaty. However, these efforts are being countered and a new Lawrence Bender film titled “Countdown to Zero,” set for release on July 23, promises to raise awareness of nuclear weapons issues just as An Inconvenient Truth did for climate change. It is now a pivotal time for the New START treaty. The Senate Foreign Relations Committee should soon vote on the treaty, and the White House has indicated that it wants a full Senate vote this year. While Republican obstructionism in the Senate has impeded progress on issue after issue, Republican support is required to achieve the 67 votes needed to ratify the New START treaty. Past arms control treaties have passed with overwhelming bipartisan support and START should as well, as it is merely an update and extension of the original START treaty negotiated by Ronald Reagan. It also has the unanimous support of the military and strong backing from many of the most senior Republican foreign policy officials, including Henry Kissinger, Richard Lugar, George Schultz, James Baker, Brent Scowcroft, Colin Powell, James Schlesinger and Stephen Hadley. The upcoming votes on START therefore provide a critical litmus test for whether Republicans have moved well to the extreme right of Reagan and now have no problem playing politics with the nuclear security of the country.
ROMNEY’S FAILURE: Following Romney’s op-ed, which laid out a series of long discredited and specious arguments, military reporter Fred Kaplan wrote, “In 35 years of following debates over nuclear arms control, I have never seen anything quite as shabby, misleading and — let’s not mince words — thoroughly ignorant as Mitt Romney’s attack on the New START treaty in the July 6 Washington Post.” Senator John Kerry (D-MA) responded the very next day in the Washington Post, “the security of the United States is too important to be treated as fodder for political posturing. Sadly, former governor Mitt Romney failed that test. … When it comes to nuclear danger, the nation’s security is more important than scoring cheap political points.” In a rare intra-party rebuke, Sen. Richard Lugar (R-IN) called Romney “misinformed,” adding, “Governor Mitt Romney’s hyperbolic attack on the New START Treaty…repeats discredited objections and appears unaware of arms control history and context.” Former Georgia senator and noted leader on national security and nuclear issues Sam Nunn remarked, “I didn’t see a single reference in the Romney article…to catastrophic terrorism, I didn’t see a single reference to U.S.-Russia cooperation required to keep materials out of the hands of terrorists. … It could be captioned: ‘I’d rather run for President than learn about national security.’ Very little in that article was either accurate or relevant.” By the end of the week, Romney had been so thoroughly discredited that Max Fischer in the Atlantic summarized the response by saying that besides Romney himself, “most everyone else thinks that Romney is making a spectacle of himself.” Wall Street Journal political reporter Gary Seib asked whether Romney’s foray into national security was a blunder.
MODEST START: The New START treaty is rather uncontroversial. The original START treaty was vigorously pursued by Reagan and was ratified by a vote of 93-6 under President George H.W. Bush in 1992; eight current sitting Republican senators even voted for the initial treaty. It set verifiable limits on strategic nuclear weapons and the launchers used to deliver them. It also helped create vital nuclear stability between the U.S. and Russia by placing inspectors on the ground and setting up extensive verification and monitoring systems. Through this information sharing, U.S. military planners gained confidence and awareness of Russian nuclear activities and vice-versa. The New START treaty signed in April sets modestly lower limits on warheads and launchers, and perhaps more importantly, extends and updates the original verification and monitoring regime. Complaints from the far right that Russia cannot be trusted enough to enter into this treaty have it exactly backwards. The verification and monitoring measures exist because neither side completely trusts the other. The original START treaty expired last December and therefore every day that goes by without a vote on the new treaty, the U.S. military loses valuable information and intelligence on the Russian nuclear arsenal. This is why the New START has the full backing of the military and a growing consensus of bipartisan national security leaders. Even former Bush adviser Karl Rove called it a “helpful” and modest treaty.
GOP LITMUS TEST: While the New START treaty is relatively modest, the implications of it failing to be ratified are anything but. Rejecting this treaty means eliminating the framework that has ensured nuclear stability between the U.S. and Russia in the post Cold War era. With the loss of nuclear monitoring, suspicions, tension, and uncertainty would grow, which is unhelpful for two super powers that continue to have nuclear weapons on hair-trigger alert. A failure to ratify the treaty would strike a severe, perhaps fatal, blow to the nuclear non-proliferation regime, possibly leading to a new cascade of nuclear proliferation across the world. The non-proliferation regime is founded on a grand bargain between nuclear and non-nuclear states, where non-nuclear states agree not to obtain the bomb and, in exchange, nuclear states agree to cut their arsenals and share civilian nuclear power technology. Should the U.S. reject a treaty like START and fail to uphold its end of the nuclear bargain, non-nuclear states could easily balk at upholding their end. Consequently, any effort to control nuclear materials and prevent nuclear terrorism would also likely fray and the threat of nuclear terrorism would grow, especially since START’s rejection would also prevent further far reaching talks to address Russia’s tactical nuclear weapons that are more prone to falling in the hands of terrorists. This is how the world can descend past the nuclear tipping point and how a new anarchical nuclear age comes about. Since the implications of START’s failure are so severe, should Republican senators decide to reject or obstruct the New START treaty, it would signal both a dramatic and dangerous shift to the extreme right, as well as a reckless willingness to play politics with the nuclear security of the United States.