20 December 2010

Why Republicans are wrong on START

Virtually every high-profile congressional Republican has come out against the New START treaty, which will reduce the arms arsenals of both the U.S. and Russia and most critically, put into place a verification regime to track Russian nuclear material -- which has been completely unaccounted for since the end of the Cold War.

Led by Arizona's John Kyl, many conservatives have announced their opposition to the treaty. Never mind that if it was 2007 and President Bush had negotiated its terms, New START would have the support of virtually the entire Republican caucus.

Mitt Romney's position is particularly offensive. Daniel Larison pounds him here. But what I'm most interested in addressing is Romney's laughable comparison of our current missile defense system to President Reagan's Strategic Defense Initiative.

Romney's position -- no doubt, culled from Kyl and others -- is that we cannot give up our missile defense shields throughout Europe, simply because President Reagan refused to budge on SDI in 1985. In 1985, SDI was merely a glimmer in Reagan's eye, but he instructed Defense officials to move forward on trying to create a defense shield that could shoot down Soviet missiles from outer space.

But it's important to realize why Reagan refused to give up SDI -- because it's something Romney, Kyl and the rest of the conservative national security apparatus appears to completely miss: Reagan didn't budge on SDI because missile defense is in and of itself inherently sacrosanct; rather, Reagan didn't budge because he knew that the Soviets didn't have the technology. The tone of Gorbachev's negotiating style at Reykjavik -- initially making enormous concessions, and closing with a sly caveat that all Reagan had to do in order to secure these obligations from the Soviet government was to promise to abandon SDI -- indicated to Reagan that the Soviets were stunned by the concept of a space shield. When Gorbachev demanded he scrap SDI, Reagan famously walked out.

Comparing START in 1985 to New START in 2010, it is obvious that the Russians have the exact same technology as the U.S. Reagan was unwilling to halt SDI because he knew that America had a critical technological advantage; 25 years later, SDI has been consigned to the ash heap, and what is at issue is a missile defense shield of the same type that the Russians already possess.

Ronald Reagan was abhorred by sophisticated weaponry and believed that the biblical prophecy of Armageddon would eventually come about as a result of a nuclear arms race. Once you actually take the time to read about Reagan, it's impossible to overstate how frightened he was of nuclear weapons. Deep into my third book on Reagan, I am convinced that the Gipper would have supported New START.

It seems that Reagan's longtime Secretary State agrees. In this Washington Post op-ed -- co-authored by Jim Baker (Reagan's chief of Staff and President George H.W. Bush's Secretary of State), Lawrence Eagleburger (a longtime Reagan and Bush State Department official, who briefly served as Bush's Secretary of State after Baker's resignation), and the incomparable Colin Powell (who also served under both Reagan and Bush) -- George Shultz sets out what he calls the Republican case for START.

Romney, et al. seem to only invoke Reagan when it's convenient for them.

Much like the tax cut debate and the deficit reduction commission's recommendations, the question is not whether New START is a perfect treaty, because by that lofty standard, virtually nothing is worth voting for. Rather, the proper question is whether New START will make us more secure and whether it is preferable to doing nothing.

The answer is an obvious yes.

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