Senate Irreconcilables and New START

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Retired Admiral “Fox” Fallon, ex-head of the Central and Pacific Commands, called the ratification of New-START “a no-brainer” in an interview with Mary Beth Sheridan in the Washington Post.   General Brent Scowcroft, President George H.W. Bush’s national security adviser, told ABC News’ Jake Tapper that the ruckus over New START’s ratification in the Senate was “baffling to me… to play politics with what is in the fundamental national interest is pretty scary stuff.”  Scowcroft added,

“This is not just the treaty, this is trying to put our relationship with the Russians on a sounder basis so we can move forward with a lot of things we really need Russian help with… And the Russians are basically with us with on all those issues but we’re going to stick a finger in their eye.”

The Big Three arguments against the treaty – insufficient verification and questionable Obama administration commitments to ballistic missile defense and nuclear modernization – were all flimsy, since shelving the Treaty would mean less verification, less political support for BMD and less money for the nuclear labs in the Congress. Rejecting the Treaty would weaken U.S. standing on every single proliferation concern. U.S.-Russian relations would have deteriorated and unreconstructed Cold Warriors in both countries would have received a lift.  Washington would have found it much harder to lead allies in Europe and the Pacific, since no foreign capital would be able to count on Washington to deliver on its promises. Killing New START would have resulted in a windfall for Beijing, Tehran and Pyongyang.

Only one of Ronald Reagan’s top-tier national security advisers, Richard Allen, voiced opposition to New START.  Admiral Mike Mullen and the Joint Chiefs of Staff strongly supported the Treaty, as did the nuclear lab directors, former Secretaries of State, Secretaries of Defense and national security advisers for Republican as well as Democratic administrations, and a host of retired four stars who used to be responsible for the U.S. nuclear deterrent.

A grand total of thirteen Republican Senators took their advice.  The rest talked about shortfalls in verification, missile defenses, and nuclear modernization.

One yardstick to measure new members of Congress is their choice of mentors.  When Barack Obama was elected to the Senate, he chose Richard Lugar as a mentor on nuclear issues.  The Republican now occupying Senator Obama’s seat, Mark Kirk, is a serious person with a strong interest in national security.  During the New START debate, he took his cues from Jon Kyl.  Two other indicators of the current center of gravity on national security politics in Republican circles are the votes cast by John McCain and Lindsey Graham, two Senators who have logged many, many miles around the world.  Both Senators flirted with consensus building on New START and then voted “Nay.”  Graham is up for re-election in two years and is girding against the same kind of right-wing primary challenge that McCain just faced.  Only four Republican Senators likely to be on the ballot in 2012 voted for New START.

When the votes were finally tallied, Senator Lugar had more than enough company among Republican Senators to push New START across the finish line. As Admiral Fallon and his cohort noted, this should have been a no brainer, but we are living in strange times.  Back in the 1950s, there was a U.S. television show called “Father Knows Best” starring Robert Young, who smoked a pipe, wore a cardigan, and dispensed folksy wisdom to the kids.  Capitol Hill Republicans, flush with victory in the mid-term elections, now reject the notion that father knows best.  Tax cuts trump deficits and treaties are an imposition.  What happened? Three possibilities suggest themselves, all unsettling: Perhaps a super-majority of Republican Senators now believes that Party Elders who helped win the Cold War have lost their marbles and have become insufficiently attached to missile defenses and nuclear deterrence. Or, more likely, they think that arms control is as out-of-date as Robert Young’s cardigan, and that tough-minded Senators don’t need treaties to reduce nuclear dangers. Or, more likely still, perhaps they think that partisanship will protect them from primary challenges and produce even more wins in 2012. 

For whatever reason, Republicans on Capitol Hill are losing their bearings when it comes to the Bomb.  Many Republican Senators were similarly opposed to treaties and international commitments after World War I.  Back then, it took a surprise attack and the onset of another world war to marginalize Irreconcilables in the Senate.  History is not yet repeating itself: In the aftermath of another surprise attack and the prosecution of two wars, Irreconcilables in the Senate are gaining strength, if the vote on New START is any indicator.


Michael Krepon is co-founder of the Stimson Center.  A version of this essay appeared on



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