A Security Test for the GOP

09/16/2010 01:21 am ET | Updated May 25, 2011
  • Joe Cirincione President, Ploughshares Fund; Author, 'Nuclear Nightmares: Securing the World Before It Is Too Late'

America's military is solidly behind the new security treaty that cuts Russia's nuclear weapons. Is the Republican Party? The test comes Thursday when Senators have to choose: Back the military or play politics?

At issue is the approval by the Senate Foreign Relations Committee of the New Start treaty that cuts both Russian and US long-range, deployed nuclear weapons by 30 percent. More importantly, it restores the system of inspections put in place by President Ronald Reagan that allowed US inspectors to verify the number and placement of Russian weapons for the past two decades. The inspections stopped last year when the original Reagan START treaty expired. It has been 285 days since US inspectors were allowed to "look under the hood" of Russian weapons, as one military commander put it.

Military Support

The strong, bipartisan support for New START from America's top military and national security leaders is impressive. The Secretary of Defense; the Chairman and Vice-Chairman of the Joint Chiefs of Staff; the current head and 7 former heads of our nuclear forces; the director of the Missile Defense Agency, high-ranking members of the Nixon, Ford, Carter, Reagan, Bush 41, Clinton, and Bush 43 administrations - including military and national security experts like Henry Kissinger, James Baker, Brent Scowcroft, Stephen Hadley and James Schlesinger; former Senators like Alan Simpson, Sam Nunn, Gary Hart and Chuck Hagel; editorial endorsements from major newspapers nationwide, with at least 15 in swing Senate states. In all, almost 80 senior, retired military and national security leaders have urged the Senate to ratify New Start.

Secretary of Defense Robert Gates says:

"The New Start treaty has the unanimous support of America's military leadership...For nearly 40 years, treaties to limit or reduce nuclear weapons have been approved by the US Senate by strong bipartisan majorities. This treaty deserves a similar reception and result."

For Senator Richard Lugar (R-IN), the ranking member of the Foreign Relations Committee, this is an open and shut case. "It offers concrete national security benefits that will make the American people safer, and it should be ratified," he said in July.

Political Opposition

Some in the Republican leadership, however, appear reluctant to give President Obama a "victory" before the November elections. They have drawn out the approval process. Senators, for example, submitted over 900 questions for the record compared to fewer than 150 for the previous START treaty. Each has to be painstakingly answered and approved by administration officials. There have been over 20 hearings on this treaty compared to 3 for the original START treaty.

Others are using the issue to try to frame President Obama as weak on national security. The campaign against the treaty had been dominated by unsubstantiated charges. Former Governor Mitt Romney, for example, wrote a widely-ridiculed oped in July claiming the treaty was "Obama's worst foreign policy mistake."

Obama heralds a reduction in strategic weapons from approximately 2,200 to 1,550 but fails to mention that Russia will retain more than 10,000 nuclear warheads that are categorized as tactical because they are mounted on missiles that cannot reach the United States. But surely they can reach our allies, nations that depend on us for a nuclear umbrella.


Author Charles Seife calls this type of false statistic "proofiness." A precise number that sounds authoritative even though it is completely made up. "If you want to get people to believe something really, really stupid, just stick a number on it," he says.

Romney's numbers would be terrifying if they were true. But Russia only has a few hundred, short-range missiles that can reach our allies. We are not even sure they work. They may be rusting in Russian storage sites. Ronald Reagan eliminated all of the truly threatening medium-range and intermediate-range missiles with his historic INF treaty in 1987.

But don't let facts get in the way of a good argument. Richard Lowery, editor of the National Review, approvingly cited Romney's false claim again this week. His journal and the Heritage Foundation have lead the campaign against the treaty. Lowry goes on to cite "our favorite dark-horse candidate in 2012," John Bolton, who says, "this treaty is harmful to American interests in many, many ways."

Bolton is one of only 10 former government officials who oppose the treaty. That includes only one former military officer, retired admiral Robert Monroe. Support for the treaty by former military and government officials outweighs opposition eight to one.

So, it is time to choose, Senators. For inspecting Russian weapons, or against? For reducing the only weapons that can destroy America, or against? For supporting the entire military leadership of the United States, or against?

It is time to put country first.