11/23/2010 04:55 pm ET | Updated May 25, 2011

The New Start Treaty: A Question of Conscience for the GOP

Does anyone seriously doubt that Republican efforts to block ratification of the Obama administration's arms control treaty with Russia are motivated by politics rather than legitimate concerns about New Start? Whatever the objections voiced by Senator Jon Kyl and others, isn't it obvious that the aim at this point is simply to undermine President Obama? The G.O.P. has pledged to make him a one-term President and it seems ready to do anything, no matter how damaging to the nation, to accomplish that end. Where will this kind of unabashedly cynical behavior take us in the course of the next two years?

Many Republicans revere the memory and legacy of Winston Churchill. I and other Democrats do too. So I think it might be helpful if both sides took a moment to reflect on Churchill's words when Neville Chamberlain, his predecessor as Prime Minister, died in 1940. Churchill's tribute to Chamberlain was more than just a summing up of an individual leader. It was also a probing meditation on the duty of public men in general, and I believe it highly relevant to the dangerous situation that is developing in post-midterm election Washington.

Chamberlain had been the great appeaser, the British leader who traveled to Munich to try to prevent a war with Hitler. No one can have opposed the policy of appeasement more passionately, or at greater potential cost to his own personal and political fortunes, than Churchill had. At the time of Chamberlain's demise, Churchill was confident that history had amply vindicated the views of the minority anti-appeasement wing of the Conservative party in which Churchill had played a leading role.

Still, Churchill encouraged people to take a broader view of the late Prime Minister's record. Churchill maintained that however sharp his differences with Chamberlain had been, he was certain that his old antagonist had always "acted with perfect sincerity according to his lights." In Churchill's opinion, though events had since mocked Chamberlain's hopes, Chamberlain had truly believed that he was acting in the nation's best interests when he sought to make a deal with Hitler.

Churchill emphasized that, in the event, men can never really know whether they have made the correct judgments. In one phase they appear to have been right and in another they appear to have been wrong. The perspective of time can make all the difference. There is a new proportion, another scale of values. Future generations may judge us to have been wise, whereas our contemporaries perceived things rather differently.

Is there any yardstick, then, that can be used at all times to evaluate the actions and decisions of a public man?

Here is the part of Churchill's argument that I think we desperately need to listen to right now:

The only guide to a man is his conscience; the only shield to his memory is the rectitude and sincerity of his actions. It is very imprudent to walk through life without this shield, because we are so often mocked by the failure of our hopes and the upsetting of our calculations; but with this shield, however the fates may play, we march always in the ranks of honor.

I am afraid that recent Republican moves to sabotage the arms control treaty do not pass Churchill's test. They are politics pure and simple. Worse, they jeopardize both the nation's security and standing.

Sincere criticism of the administration on matters of policy is one thing. Efforts to harry and hobble the President are another -- and they are unacceptable.