Will Romney's START Gamble Pay Off?

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A few weeks ago, Mitt Romney drew a circle in the sand and stood inside of it, declaring his opposition to the START treaty on the grounds that it jeopardized national security and conceded too much to Russia. The op-ed was torn to shreds the next day by the Washington consensus, which very much supports a bilateral, mutually beneficial approach to arms control, an approach that was President Reagan's greatest legacy to the world. A few days ago, Romney all but announced that he disagreed with the consensus entirely. 

Twenty plus years of nuclear diplomacy is not in his consciousness. He wants an entirely new approach, a radical approach that marks a return to a world that dissolved 20 years ago but is still alive intellectually, in some circles. 

The new "START's preamble not only references missile defense, it accedes to Russia's insistence that there is an interrelationship between strategic offensive weapons and missile defense. While the Bush administration steadfastly refused to accept this Russian position, the Obama administration bows to it. The statement of interrelationship in the preamble, in addition to the specific missile-defense measures in the body of the treaty, amount to a major concession to Russia."

Well. What Romney sees as a concession is seen by the consensus as a fact: there is a relationship between offense and defense. If country A has one missile (offense) and country B has a system that can shoot down one missile (defense), then country A's offensive capability has been negated. And if it wants to retain such a capability, it will have to build at least one more missile (offense); at which time, Country B, should it want to maintain its defensive capability, will have to build a bigger system (defense). This is not rocket science. This is one of the most elementary concepts in warfare. ("Arms control 101," says Slate's Fred Kaplan.)

If it is a "Russian position," then it is in fact one that the Bush administration conceded as well. Yes, the Bush administration withdrew from the anti-ballistic missile treaty, But they made it very clear that the missile defense system they were building was not aimed at Russia. Why? Because it would be destabilizing. Why would it be destabilizing? Because there is a relationship between offense and defense.

As Secretary Robert Gates (a Republican appointed by President Bush) testified to the Senate Foreign Relations Committee last month: 

"Under the last administration, as well as under this one, it has been the United States policy not to build a missile defense that would render useless Russia's nuclear capabilities. It has been a missile defense intended to protect against rogue nations such as North Korea and Iran or countries that have very limited capabilities. The systems that we have, the systems that originated and have been funded in the Bush administration as well as in this administration, are not focused on trying to render useless Russia's nuclear capability. That, in our view, as in theirs, would be enormously destabilizing, not to mention unbelievably expensive."

This view is supported by intelligence and, needless to say, by seven living former commanders of the U.S. strategic command, the guys who have the briefcases and can fire nuclear weapons.

As a potential presidential candidate, it is worth asking where Romney wants to take the U.S.-Russia relationship? If he is concerned about tactical nuclear weapons, how does he propose to negate what he thinks is a significant Russian advantage? What utility will a radical rethink of the balance-of-interest posture have for the war on terrorism? For current nuclear reduction agreements, for nuclear cooperation?

One reason why Romney's arguments are not echoed by Republicans in Congress is that they are not arguments that lead to a different solution. They are arguments against a treaty that is fairly solid. The Republican strategy, incidentally, has finally been revealed: focus on Russia's nefariousness and question their motivations.

It sounds reasonable, for example, for Republicans to want to know whether Russia is fulfilling its obligations under previous treaties. Last week, a specially written National Intelligence Estimate had answers to those questions. A State Department report (PDF) available today notes previous issues with Russian compliance and suggests that most of them are now resolved.

Russia is never going to perfectly live up to its obligations and the U.S and Russia aren't always going to agree on how to interpret clauses. Ambiguities will be exploited by both countries. This is sort of a secret that the consensus has accepted, an implicit bargain in service to a much larger goal: Russia can still cheat a little and the U.S. can find its national security interests protected.

Also, Republicans are using conventional tactics to stall a vote. (Who wants to be seen as voting against a nuclear arms reduction treaty? It's a sign of the consensus's power that few Republicans do.) Walter Pincus, writing in today's Washington Post, says:

The Republicans also noted that they had not received the "full negotiating record" of the treaty provisions, which they sought last month via a letter sent to President Obama. At issue are all instructions to U.S. negotiators, transcripts of their conversations with the Russians, correspondence and other backup materials relating to those documents. It is usually voluminous.

Depending on how serious the demand, this could lead to a prolonged dispute, since most past presidents, starting with George Washington, have opposed such requests. The tradition in most instances has been for a president to claim executive privilege. But there have been two exceptions in the past 25 years.

If the treaty passes with bipartisan support, Romney, the establishment candidate, will find himself rebuked. If it fails, then he knows his party is with him, and he can begin to figure out what a United States relationship with Russia would look like in his Oval Office.

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Marc Ambinder is an Atlantic contributing editor. He is also a senior contributor at Defense One, a contributing editor at GQ, and a regular contributor at The Week.

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