New START: Republicans picked a silly fight and lost badly.

Military analysis.
Dec. 21 2010 7:10 PM

Political Brinksmanship

Republicans picked a silly fight over START, and they lost badly.

US Senate Minority Leader Mitch McConnell.
Mitch McConnell

The Senate seems on its way to ratifying the New START on nuclear arms, an achievement that looked unlikely to say the least just a few weeks ago.

If a Republican were president, the accord would have excited no controversy and at most a handful of diehard nays. As even most of its critics conceded, the treaty's text contains nothing objectionable in substance.

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There were two kinds of opponents in this debate. The first had concerns that President Barack Obama would use the treaty as an excuse to ease up on missile defense and the programs to maintain the nuclear arsenal. In recent weeks, Obama and his team did as much to allay these concerns as any hawk could have hoped—and more than many doves preferred.

So that left the second kind of opponent: those who simply wanted to deny Obama any kind of victory. The latter motive was clearly dominant in this debate.

The task of Obama and the Democratic floor managers, Sens. Harry Reid and John Kerry, was to convince enough Republicans to view the issue not as political gamesmanship but as an urgent matter of national security. Hence their rallying of every retired general, former defense secretary, and other security specialist—Republican and Democrat—that anyone had ever heard of. (At one point, Sen. Susan Collins, R-Maine, said she might vote for the treaty if former President George H.W. Bush endorsed it. A few days later, Bush released a statement doing just that.)

The amazing thing is, Obama and the Democrats pulled it off. Perhaps it was too obvious that the treaty's opponents were able to muster no outside officers or experts to their side, except John Bolton, who has never met a disarmament treaty he liked and who, faced with this treaty, had to dissemble even more blatantly than usual to make his case.

And so the Republican leadership made this a purely political battle and—fresh off what had seemed a triumphant election season—suffered an astonishingly egregious defeat.

It is extremely doubtful, for instance, that the Obama administration will ever again bargain over national-security issues with Sen. Jon Kyl, R-Ariz., the minority whip.

For reasons that nobody can quite explain, Kyl had managed in the past few years to cut a profile as the "go-to" Republican on all matters nuclear. The conventional wisdom was that if Kyl endorsed the treaty, it would pass; if he didn't, it wouldn't.

And so, the White House and the Pentagon sent high-level emissaries to Kyl's lair during the Senate's recess to negotiate a deal, offering, among other enticements, an extra $4 billion, on top of the $80 billion already committed over the next decade, to "modernize" the nuclear-weapons infrastructure.

Kyl took the goodies but came out against the treaty anyway. So Obama and his aides did something no legislative powerhouse should ever let happen—they went around him, treating him as just another senator, and they won.

Kyl limps away from this face-off gravely wounded—a leader unable to deliver either on his promises or on his threats.

Sen. Mitch McConnell, the minority leader, shot himself in the foot, too, coming out against the treaty only in the last couple days—thus making the Republican yea votes seem like a rebellion within a rank-and-file that, until now, has been remarkably disciplined.

An astonishing 11 Republicans broke ranks to vote for cloture and thus end the debate—a measure approved by 67 senators (enough to ratify the treaty when that vote takes place, probably Wednesday) and rejected by only 28.

It would go too far to interpret this vote as a pivot in the political contests to come. Just because Obama was able to split off nearly a dozen Republicans (instead of the usual one or two, at most) on a truly major political issue doesn't mean he'll be able to do the same on future votes about taxes, stimulus packages, energy programs, or even disarmament treaties.

Still, in the game of political perceptions, it's the Republicans who appear to be "reeling" now.

But what about the substance here? What about the future of arms control and disarmament? Those two phrases ("arms control" and "disarmament") are not really synonymous. Ever since the cold dawn of Russian-American détente, there has in fact been some tension between the two.

SALT I, signed by Richard Nixon and Leonid Brezhnev in 1972, merely put a cap on the number of strategic offensive missiles each country could possess. But to get the Senate to ratify the treaty, Nixon had to fund a bundle of nuclear weapons programs (including the multiple-warhead MIRVs, the Trident missile, the B-1 bomber, and air-launched cruise missiles) that were otherwise in budgetary danger.

When Brezhnev and Gerald Ford signed the follow-on Vladivostok Accords in 1974, setting another cap, Ford put programs in place—again at the Senate's insistence—to build up the U.S. nuclear arsenal to the maximum number of weapons allowed by the cap.

And though the next treaty, SALT II, actually did reduce some offensive arms, Jimmy Carter had to make similar concessions to get the treaty through the Senate, especially since SALT II —unlike New START, signed by Obama and his Russian counterpart, Dmitry Medvedev—aroused bitter and public opposition from well-known hawks like Paul Nitze. (Ironically, a few years later, as Ronald Reagan's chief arms negotiator, Nitze pushed through a treaty with the Russians that infuriated his former hard-line colleagues.)

Over the years, both Russia and the United States have made their sharpest reductions in nuclear armaments on their own, outside the context of any arms-control treaties. (This is especially true of short- and medium-range nukes.) And so maybe this is the route Obama and Medvedev should emulate for the future.

It almost happened before. In the late 1950s and early '60s, Soviet premier Nikita Khrushchev ordered drastic cuts in his army, and proposed making them in his nuclear arsenal, and invited the American president—first Dwight Eisenhower, then John F. Kennedy—to respond in kind. He called the idea "reciprocal unilateral reductions."

Declassified historical records show that Eisenhower's CIA chief, Allen Dulles (no dove), thought Khrushchev was serious; he saw it as a potential "sea change" in the Cold War.

Things went awry. Khrushchev stormed out of the 1960 Paris peace talks, where the steps were to be formally announced, after a secret U-2 spy plane was shot down over the USSR. And his revival of the notion, in 1963, was derailed first by the Kennedy assassination, then by his own ouster at the hands of Kremlin hard-liners.

But this checkered history (for the details of which, see here) only underscores the delicacy of these moments and the need to take full advantage of them on those rare occasions when they arise.

The New START accord cuts the strategic nuclear arsenals on each side to 1,550 warheads. Can any of its critics make a case that our security would be imperiled if, the very next day, Obama and Medvedev made moves to take the levels down to 1,000—then to 500?

If so, come show us the math. If not, it may be time to stop making arms control so politically complicated—time to stop letting arms control get in the way of disarmament.

Watch:  Matthew Yglesias and Dan Drezner debate merits of START.

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