Mitt Romney's dumb critique of Obama's New START nuke treaty.

Military analysis.
July 7 2010 7:24 AM

Wrong-Headed Romney

Mitt Romney's dumb critique of Obama's New START nuke treaty.

Mitt Romney. Click image to expand.
Mitt Romney

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.

Senate Republicans are looking for some grounds—any grounds—to defeat this treaty, which was signed in April by President Barack Obama and his Russian counterpart, Dmitri Medvedev, and which will soon come to the Senate floor for a vote.

Romney, the former Republican governor of Massachusetts, clearly feels the need to pump up some foreign-policy swagger in advance of the 2012 presidential primaries. But one would think he could have found a ghostwriter who had even the vaguest acquaintance with the subject matter.

Let's take his rant—critique is too serious a word—line by line.

"New-START impedes missile defense, our protection from nuclear-proliferation rogue states such as Iran and North Korea. Its preamble links strategic defense with strategic arsenal."

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Aside from the bad grammar and the suggestion that Romney's ghostwriter was taking dictation over a poor phone line (he should have written "links strategic defense with strategic offense," not "strategic arsenal," which makes no sense), the first sentence is false, and the second is irrelevant.

There is nothing in the treaty that places any limits on the U.S. missile-defense program. (And several generals, many with a vested interest in the program, have so testified before the Senate foreign relations and armed services committees.)

Yes, the treaty's preamble notes that there is a relationship between strategic defense and strategic offense. This is Arms Control 101. If both sides drastically reduce their offensive nuclear weapons, while one side greatly builds up its defensive weapons, then that side could (theoretically) launch a disarming first strike and, moments later, shoot down what's left of the other side's missiles as they're launched in retaliation. The essence of nuclear deterrence—and strategic stability—is to maintain the ability to retaliate in kind to a first strike. Very small offensive forces, combined with very large defensive forces, erode deterrence and create a "destabilizing" situation.

However, we are far from this state of affairs. New START leaves each side with 1,550 nuclear warheads; the Pentagon's missile-defense program envisions a few dozen anti-missile interceptors.

More to the point, as is the case with all treaties, preambles are not legally binding. In response to the Russians' unilateral statement, President Obama's negotiators added one of their own, noting that U.S. missile defenses "are not intended to affect the strategic balance with Russia," but rather to defend against "limited missile launches" by "regional threats" and, to that end, the United States will continue "improving and deploying" its missile-defense systems.

"[New START] explicitly forbids the United States from converting intercontinental ballistic missile (ICBM) silos into missile defense sites." 

That's right. But Romney doesn't note that the managers of the missile-defense program say, privately and publicly, that they have no plan—and see no advantage—in doing this sort of conversion.

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