A close reading of John Bolton and John Yoo's ridiculous op-ed about the New START nukes treaty.

Military analysis.
Nov. 10 2010 5:16 PM

Dishonest, Devious, and Dangerous

A close reading of John Bolton and John Yoo's ridiculous op-ed about the New START nukes treaty.

Missiles. Click image to expand.
Is the New START treaty bad for national security?

Last July, when Mitt Romney attacked the New START treaty in a Washington Post op-ed, I wrote that in 35 years of following debates on nuclear arms control I'd never seen anything quite as "thoroughly ignorant" about the subject.

Fred Kaplan Fred Kaplan
Fred Kaplan is Slate's "War Stories" columnist and a Schwartz Senior Fellow at the New America Foundation. His classic 1983 book on the nuclear strategists The Wizards of Armageddonis still in print. He can be reached at war_stories@hotmail.com.

On the op-ed page of today's New York Times, John Bolton and John Yoo take after the treaty with a slightly different set of arguments, and I've never seen anything quite as slippery and dishonest.

When Bolton was George W. Bush's undersecretary of state for arms control, his main job was to serve as Dick Cheney's spy inside Foggy Bottom and to derail any movement toward arms control. Yoo was Bush's deputy assistant attorney general whose claim to fame was devising a legal rationale for torture.

I will say this: Their Times piece shows them true to form.


Take the head-spinning syllogism of the first paragraph. The midterm elections, they claim, indicate that voters want the government to abide by the Constitution; the New START treaty jeopardizes our security and thus violates the Constitution's first principles; therefore, the U.S. Senate "should heed the will of the voters" and reject or drastically amend the treaty.

Two things are suspect about this logic. First, the midterm election campaigns were notable for their utter silence on any issue of foreign policy; to claim a mandate against nuclear arms reduction is risible. Second, nowhere in the piece (and more about this later) do Bolton and Yoo support their claim that New START endangers U.S. security.

The timing of their piece is certainly shrewd. The treaty, which was signed in April by President Barack Obama and his Russian counterpart, Dmitry Medvedev, faces a do-or-die situation. It takes two-thirds of the Senate, or 67 votes, to ratify a treaty—a challenge even before the election, a near-impossibility after January, when the Senate takes on six more Republicans.

If the vote doesn't happen during the lame-duck session, it might not take place at all.

Bolton and Yoo exclaim, "Senators should be in no hurry"—willfully ignoring the fact that the Senate foreign relations committee held 12 hearings on the treaty between April and July, involving more than 20 witnesses, before endorsing ratification in a 14-4 vote. Bolton and Yoo's real agenda, in other words, is, if not to kill the treaty, then to let it expire.

Yet every paragraph of their article contains at least one piece of flimflam. Let us take them, one by one:

"The low limits it [New START] would place on nuclear warheads ignore the enormous disparities between American and Russian global responsibilities and the importance of America's 'nuclear umbrella' in maintaining international security."

The argument here, in plain English, is that we need more nuclear warheads than the Russians—and more than the treaty allows—because, unlike them, we have promised several allies that, if they are invaded, we would come to their defense, with nuclear retaliation if necessary.

There are two big flaws here. First, the allies covered by our "umbrella" face threats, theoretically anyway, from the same countries that our nuclear weapons are aimed at already (Russia, China, and North Korea). We don't need more warheads just because there are more scenarios under which they might be fired. And if new threats materialize, our missiles can be "re-targeted" within minutes.

Second, it's telling that—for all their fearful references to "low limits" that will have the effect of "gravely impairing America's nuclear capacity"—Bolton and Yoo never mention how many nuclear warheads the treaty allows each side to have. The number is 1,550. Actually, it's more than that, because, to make verification easier, the treaty counts each bomber as one warhead when in fact our B-52 and B-1 bombers can carry a dozen or more.

I challenge anyone to claim that 1,550 warheads are insufficient under any criteria. Bolton and Yoo don't argue otherwise; the fact that they evade even mentioning the number suggests that they're unable to do so.


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