Monday, July 12, 2010

The Republicans and New START

It’s not easy being a Republican these days. Ask Mitt Romney. Ask Dick Lugar.

The New START treaty is a particular challenge. It revives and renews the arms control relationship between the United States and Russia, which flourished under Ronald Reagan and Mikhail Gorbachev. But it is a treaty, and Republican common wisdom developed under Jesse Helms George W. Bush was that treaties encroached on American sovereignty and therefore should be eschewed. Further, the Congressional common wisdom under John Boehner, Mitch McConnell and Newt Gingrich is that President Obama must be denied any successes.

The Senate must ratify treaties with a two-thirds majority. That means that at least eight Republicans must vote to ratify New START. Party discipline has been strict on most legislation so far, so one might think that New START has no chance if the current Republican party discipline holds.

But, it has been said, politics ends at the water’s edge. And Republicans have supported arms control in the past, most especially when the nuclear arms race was on fast forward. Further, arms control has been a project of both Republican and Democratic administrations, with treaty ratification by both Republican and Democratic Senates.

The Strategic Arms Limitation Talks began in November 1969, under President Richard Nixon, who signed the resulting Anti-Ballistic Missile Treaty with Leonid Brezhnev in 1972. The treaty was ratified in November 1972 by a Senate composed of 54 Democrats, 38 Republicans, 1 Independent, and 1 Conservative. President Gerald Ford continued the talks after ratification. President George W. Bush withdrew from the treaty in December 2001.

The SALT II treaty was negotiated under President Jimmy Carter. It was the first treaty actually to roll back numbers of delivery vehicles and a turning point in the arms race. Carter and Brezhnev signed the treaty in June 1979. Congress (58 Democrats, 31 Democrats, 1 Independent) did not ratify it because of the Soviet invasion of Afghanistan.

The first strategic arms reduction proposal was presented by President Ronald Reagan in 1982. That was an interesting time; Reagan was beginning a big defense buildup. The war in Afghanistan was going badly, and their defense spending was crowding out consumer needs. A series of aged Communist Party hacks headed the government and quickly died. It wasn’t until Mikhail Gorbachev became First Secretary of the Communist Party in 1985 that Reagan had a partner he could negotiate with. The Strategic Arms Reduction Treaty (START I) was signed in July 1991 by President George H. W. Bush and Secretary Gorbachev.

Then the Soviet Union came apart for once and all in December 1991, and some details had to be ironed out, like those nukes in the new countries of Kazakhstan, Belarus, and Ukraine. So it wasn’t until 1994 that the treaty was ratified. That Senate had 52 Republicans and 48 Democrats.

A START II treaty followed on, signed by President George H. W. Bush and Russian President Boris Yeltsin and ratified by a Republican Senate, but it never came into force, partly because the Gingrich-Helms Republican missile defense uproar of the nineties was beginning.

George W. Bush and Vladimir Putin signed the Strategic Offensive Reductions Treaty (SORT) in 2002, Bush under duress because the Russians didn’t believe in his Texas handshake and wanted something in writing. Another Republican Senate ratified it. SORT has no verification provisions and uses the provisions of START I. Which brings us up to New START.

It has largely been Republican presidents and Senates that have developed and approved treaties. The Democrats kept the ball rolling, so reducing the world’s nuclear arsenals has been a bipartisan effort. And I didn’t mention that Reagan and Gorbachev almost agreed to eliminate both countries’ nuclear arsenals by the year 2000.

But that sort of bipartisanship is now anathema to most of the Republican Party.

Senator Richard Lugar has been a senator since 1976, when arms control was getting rolling. He’s worked closely with Joe Biden when Biden was a senator on arms control and, when the Soviet Union came apart, on programs to keep the Soviet legacy nuclear arms under lock and key and the scientists occupied with other things than freelancing for, say, Libya. He is now the ranking Republican member of the Senate Foreign Relations Committee.

Enter Mitt Romney, not a senator but presumably interested in the Republican presidential nomination in 2012. It’s looking like Sarah Palin is getting ready to run too. Today’s Republican Party is driven by Palin, Rush Limbaugh, Glenn Beck, and the Tea Partiers, aided and abetted by the congressional caucus that believes that wrecking the country will lead to voter disgust with the party currently in power, making the Republicans electorally victorious. National interest seems to play no part in their calculation, as it did for the Republicans who supported arms control from the 1970s on.

So Romney, seeing the difficulty in being a Republican with the party’s pacifistic history of giving up its mighty nuclear arsenal for the mere historically-backed assurance that the Soviet Union would do the same, decided to go for the Palin-Limbaugh-Beck school of making it up as you go but keeping it aggressive. If you want a line-by-line fisking of Romney’s piece, Fred Kaplan does a good job.

And then Senator Richard Lugar weighed in. He didn’t point out the dumb in Romney’s op-ed the way Kaplan did. He summons the history by listing the Republican elder statesmen who support New START and firmly but diplomatically undercuts some of the same points in Romney’s op-ed that Kaplan does. And he adds a very good point: where Romney criticizes New START for not addressing Russia’s tactical nukes, Lugar points out that if New START is not ratified, there is no way that we can address those tactical nukes.

Now Romney has a real problem. He is being called out by an elder statesman of his own party. He could go the he-man route, standing up for our strong defense and saying whatever he feels he needs to in order to seem as strong as Sarah Palin when Putin is raising up his head to fly over her house. But such a response is likely to diminish him.

But Lugar has his own set of problems. He is one of a rapidly declining breed, the moderate, internationalist Republican. Others have been voted down in favor of Republicans who are more acceptable to the Tea Party. Lugar may see ratification of New START and, perhaps, of the Comprehensive Nuclear Test Ban Treaty as the capstones of a long career, so he may be willing to let the chips fall where they may in the election of 2012 and continue his principled and intelligent stand for arms control.

[Cross-posted at Obsidian Wings and American Footprints.]

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