War Stories

Dishonest, Devious, and Dangerous

A close reading of John Bolton and John Yoo’s ridiculous op-ed about the New START nukes treaty.

Is the New START treaty bad for national security?

Last July, when Mitt Romney attacked the New START treaty in a Washington Post op-ed, I wrote that in 35 years of following debates on nuclear arms control I’d never seen anything quite as “thoroughly ignorant” about the subject.

On the op-ed page of today’s New York Times, John Bolton and John Yoo take after the treaty with a slightly different set of arguments, and I’ve never seen anything quite as slippery and dishonest.

When Bolton was George W. Bush’s undersecretary of state for arms control, his main job was to serve as Dick Cheney’s spy inside Foggy Bottom and to derail any movement toward arms control. Yoo was Bush’s deputy assistant attorney general whose claim to fame was devising a legal rationale for torture.

I will say this: Their Times piece shows them true to form.

Take the head-spinning syllogism of the first paragraph. The midterm elections, they claim, indicate that voters want the government to abide by the Constitution; the New START treaty jeopardizes our security and thus violates the Constitution’s first principles; therefore, the U.S. Senate “should heed the will of the voters” and reject or drastically amend the treaty.

Two things are suspect about this logic. First, the midterm election campaigns were notable for their utter silence on any issue of foreign policy; to claim a mandate against nuclear arms reduction is risible. Second, nowhere in the piece (and more about this later) do Bolton and Yoo support their claim that New START endangers U.S. security.

The timing of their piece is certainly shrewd. The treaty, which was signed in April by President Barack Obama and his Russian counterpart, Dmitry Medvedev, faces a do-or-die situation. It takes two-thirds of the Senate, or 67 votes, to ratify a treaty—a challenge even before the election, a near-impossibility after January, when the Senate takes on six more Republicans.

If the vote doesn’t happen during the lame-duck session, it might not take place at all.

Bolton and Yoo exclaim, “Senators should be in no hurry”—willfully ignoring the fact that the Senate foreign relations committee held 12 hearings on the treaty between April and July, involving more than 20 witnesses, before endorsing ratification in a 14-4 vote. Bolton and Yoo’s real agenda, in other words, is, if not to kill the treaty, then to let it expire.

Yet every paragraph of their article contains at least one piece of flimflam. Let us take them, one by one:

“The low limits it [New START] would place on nuclear warheads ignore the enormous disparities between American and Russian global responsibilities and the importance of America’s ‘nuclear umbrella’ in maintaining international security.”

The argument here, in plain English, is that we need more nuclear warheads than the Russians—and more than the treaty allows—because, unlike them, we have promised several allies that, if they are invaded, we would come to their defense, with nuclear retaliation if necessary.

There are two big flaws here. First, the allies covered by our “umbrella” face threats, theoretically anyway, from the same countries that our nuclear weapons are aimed at already (Russia, China, and North Korea). We don’t need more warheads just because there are more scenarios under which they might be fired. And if new threats materialize, our missiles can be “re-targeted” within minutes.

Second, it’s telling that—for all their fearful references to “low limits” that will have the effect of “gravely impairing America’s nuclear capacity”—Bolton and Yoo never mention how many nuclear warheads the treaty allows each side to have. The number is 1,550. Actually, it’s more than that, because, to make verification easier, the treaty counts each bomber as one warhead when in fact our B-52 and B-1 bombers can carry a dozen or more.

I challenge anyone to claim that 1,550 warheads are insufficient under any criteria. Bolton and Yoo don’t argue otherwise; the fact that they evade even mentioning the number suggests that they’re unable to do so.

But don’t take my word for it. Franklin C. Miller, now a private defense consultant, was the Pentagon’s top nuclear planner—the civilian official who had the deepest knowledge of, and the greatest influence over, U.S. nuclear war plans—from 1985 to 2000. In hearings before the Senate armed services committee on July 27, 2010, Miller testified:

Based on my long involvement in U.S. nuclear deterrence policy and target planning, I am confident that the United States can safely provide for our national security, and that of our allies, at the launcher and warhead limits that the Treaty prescribes.

It’s also worth noting that seven of the last eight commanding generals of the U.S. Strategic Command (which controls the nuclear arsenal), five former secretaries of defense, and three former national security advisers (including Stephen Hadley from the George W. Bush White House) endorse the treaty.

What do Bolton and Yoo—who almost certainly have never seen a nuclear targeting list in their lives—know that these generals and top officials don’t?

But let us continue with their mendacities:

“The treaty’s constraints on launching platforms [missiles and bombers] would impede Washington’s ability to use conventional warheads even in conflicts far from any Russian interest or responsibility.”

They’re referring here to Prompt Global Strike, a program to place non-nuclear warheads in the nosecones of some intercontinental ballistic missiles (which currently hold nuclear warheads) so that we can swiftly strike targets in remote areas far away from our air bases and aircraft carriers.

Two things are worth noting. First, Global Strike isn’t in production; Pentagon officials haven’t yet decided whether they want it. Second, New START doesn’t block or even “impede” us from deploying the system. It only states that, if we do deploy it, the ICBMs have to be counted as if they still carried nuclear warheads. This is reasonable. The nuclear warheads could be put back in the nosecones in a matter of hours, if someone wanted. (If the Russians had a system like this, we’d want it to be counted as a nuclear missile, too.) Finally, it’s not a big deal. The plans for Global Strike envision a few dozen missiles at most—out of 450 ICBMs.

“There are plenty of other deficiencies [in the treaty], from inadequate verification provisions …”

The verification provisions are, in some ways, more extensive than those of previous treaties. More pertinent is this: Bush’s arms-reduction treaty expired at the end of last year; we currently have no inspectors on the ground in Russia; unless New START is ratified, we will continue to have no verification at all.

“… to leaving Moscow’s extensive tactical nuclear weapons capabilities unlimited.”

True, New START does not place any limits on tactical (i.e., short-range) nuclear weapons. Nor does it have anything to say about biological, chemical, conventional, or any other kinds of weapons. Nor have any of the other strategic arms treaties negotiated and ratified in the last 40 years. Your point?

“New START also reflects the Obama administration’s lack of seriousness about national missile defense. Its preamble accepts an unspecified ‘interrelationship’ between nuclear weapons and defensive systems. Politically, even if not in treaty language, the Russians get what they want: no significant United States efforts on missile defense.”

All this is absurd. First, Obama’s defense budget for Fiscal Year 2011 requests $10.4 billion for missile defense, $700 million more than the year before. This is fairly serious. Second, the preamble, as officials have said repeatedly, has no binding power. (Notice: Even Bolton and Yoo concede there are no restrictions on missile defense “in [the] treaty language.”)

It is an undeniable fact that a relationship between offensive and defensive arms does exist. If Country A and Country B have small arsenals of offensive nuclear weapons, and if Country A has a vast missile-defense system as well, it could launch a nuclear first strike against Country B’s arsenal; and if Country B fires back, Country A could use its defensive system to shoot B’s missiles down. This apparently is a scenario the Russians genuinely fear, though it lies a decade or so down the road. Until then, each side has more than enough offensive arms to overwhelm any missile-defense program. For now, the U.S. missile-defense program is capable, if at all, only to suppress attacks by countries like North Korea or (perhaps someday) Iran.

Meanwhile, though, the Russians, far from getting “what they want,” get nothing, at least on this point. In part because of the alarm raised by pro-missile-defense senators, the Obama administration has inserted its own unilateral statement in the treaty’s preamble, explicitly (if redundantly) noting that the treaty does nothing to interfere with its missile-defense plans.

Bolton and Yoo try to throw doubts on various “declarations” and “understandings” to this effect in the “resolution of ratification” passed by the Senate foreign relations committee. The two write:

“Senators cannot take these warranties seriously—they are not a part of the text of the treaty itself.”

This is disingenuous. The treaty’s preamble about the relationship between offensive and defensive weapons is not a part of the text, either, yet Bolton and Yoo present it as grounds for the senators to scuttle the whole treaty.

“To prevent New START from gravely impairing America’s nuclear capacity …”

Again, Bolton and Yoo don’t even mention how many warheads the treaty allows. As Franklin Miller and the former chiefs of Strategic Command have testified, this premise is unfounded; the treaty doesn’t impair, much less gravely impair, our nuclear capacity.

“… the Senate must ignore the resolution of ratification and demand changes to the treaty itself. These should include deleting the preamble’s language linking nuclear arsenals to defense systems …”

Again, this preamble is a mere statement—it’s Arms Control 101—and imposes no restrictions on U.S. actions or policies.

“… and inserting new language distinguishing conventional strike capacities from nuclear launching systems or deleting limits on launchers entirely.”

The first clause refers to the Prompt Global Strike system. Again, there is no verifiable way to make this distinction; a non-nuclear ICBM can be converted into a nuclear ICBM in a matter of hours. As for “deleting limits on launchers” (“launchers” meaning the missiles and bombers that carry the warheads and bombs), this is nuts. Do Bolton and Yoo really want to let the Russians build as many missiles and bombers as they’d like?

“Congress should pass a new law financing the testing and development of new warhead designs before approving New START.”

This goes well beyond even most Republican senators’ objections to the treaty. Nobody is calling for “new warhead designs.” What kinds of designs do Bolton and Yoo have in mind? What kinds of capabilities do they think nukes should have that the current nukes lack?

Clearly, their article is nothing more than a call for indefinite delay and therefore defeat. They are not serious about amending the treaty or tightening some conditions. They just want to kill the thing; they want to deal Obama a defeat. Above all, they want to quash the budding détente that Obama has fostered between the United States and Russia, before it gets too deep.

If the Republicans follow this sentiment and fail to ratify New START, they will be making a huge mistake that could have dreadful consequences for national security.

These consequences have little to do with the treaty itself—both sides’ nuclear arsenals are large enough to deter an attack, regardless of the fate of the treaty—but rather with international politics.

The “reset” of U.S.-Russian relations since Obama took office is very real, and not just for reasons of “soft power” and bonhomie diplomacy. Medvedev has cooperated in the most hardball games of world politics. He’s sent Russian troops to join a drug raid in Afghanistan. More dramatic still, he canceled Russia’s impending sale of S-300 air-defense missiles to Iran—and returned the Iranians’ money. Had that sale gone through (and it was set to do so until the “reset”), Iran would have been able to shoot down any U.S. or Israeli aircraft engaged in an attack on its nuclear facilities. Without at least the ability to launch an attack, the United States (and, with it, the United Nations, the European Union, and other international entities) would have no leverage over Iran’s nuclear program. We have limited leverage as is, but if the S-300s had gone through, Iran may as well have built and deployed a small nuclear arsenal. More to the point, the Israelis would have drawn that conclusion, and they probably would have launched a pre-emptive attack on the Iranian sites before too many S-300s were in place. This might have unleashed a larger Middle Eastern war, worldwide terrorist attacks, astronomical oil prices, and other catastrophes.

More generally, Medvedev—who seems to be more moderate and Western-leaning than Prime Minister Vladimir Putin—has solidified his power and reputation, in good part, through his relationship with Obama and the benefits that Russia may gain as a result (for example, in trade, counterterrorism, and a relaxation in tensions). If Obama is seen as a weak president who cannot deliver on the deals he’s negotiated, then Medvedev, too, will lose credibility, and Russia could turn in a different, more hostile direction.

It’s not just relations with Russia: In a world where power has dispersed and fractured, a president who’s perceived as weak, whose deals are seen as unreliable, is not good for the United States.

If the New START treaty really did damage U.S. security, none of this would matter. Treaties shouldn’t be ratified for their own sake. But there is nothing harmful in this treaty. Nobody inside the Senate has any problems with the treaty itself. The Republican whip, Sen. Jon Kyl of Arizona, who has emerged as the crucial player (the GOP caucus will follow his lead on ratification, one way or the other), is using the treaty as a bargaining chip to prod Obama to spend more money on missile defense and “nuclear modernization” (i.e., maintaining the arsenal, including the replacement of aging ICBMs if necessary). Obama may have to go along with this to get the votes—though the question is whether Kyl will vote to ratify if he gets what he’s asking for or whether he’s just playing budget games. Neither the White House nor the Senate’s Democratic leaders know the answer.

That’s the real debate that’s going on—though it might be good to get it out in the open, so the deficit hawks can decide whether they want to spend tens of billions of dollars, beyond the tens of billions that Obama is already spending, to shore up a nuclear arsenal that’s already far more powerful than national security requires.

To most Republican opponents, the treaty itself is irrelevant—though the Senate’s failure to ratify it would do more real damage to U.S. security than even the most twisted reading of the treaty’s language ever could.

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