Neocons Versus Nonproliferation

If you think getting to 60 Senate votes for serious climate legislation or immigration reform is a daunting task, consider the fate of the new START arms-control treaty, which must garner a constitutionally mandated 67 votes. At this point, a resolution in favor of mom and apple pie would struggle to reach that threshold. But proponents of the measure do believe they have an ace in the hole, namely broad and deep support from the Republican foreign-policy establishment. Unfortunately for them -- and the world -- the available evidence suggests that said establishment's power is weaker than ever, and bellicose nationalists have a deeper grasp on the conservative movement than they've ever had before.

The treaty itself is an extremely modest measure, largely a continuation and update of the U.S.-Russia arms-control status quo that has existed for more than 15 years. But it's the very modesty of the treaty that makes its fate so important. The world stands at a fork in the road on nuclear proliferation. It's no secret that "rogue states" such as North Korea and Iran have been testing the international community's resolve to halt the spread of nuclear weapons. Less understood by the American public is that other powers, less easily painted as the bad guys of world affairs, have been losing faith in the system. The Nonproliferation Treaty committed the existing nuclear-weapons states to work toward global disarmament, but they haven't done so.

Leaders of rising states from Brazil to Turkey to South Africa to Indonesia can't accept a world order that entrenches permanent international inequality. If the world is going to have nuclear weapons forever, then many countries without nuclear arms are going to want to keep their own options open. That, in turn, prevents the creation of an effective global nonproliferation regime.

During his presidential campaign, Barack Obama staked out the most progressive position, calling for the United States to rededicate itself to the eradication of nuclear weapons. It's not a goal that he (or anyone) expects to be achieved in the short term. But it is a goal to which we can make meaningful short-term progress. And doing so is vital to restoring the credibility of nuclear-weapons states and to building an effective coalition for enforcement of nonproliferation rules. New START ratification would be a down payment on that agenda. If world leaders see that such a modest treaty can't be ratified by the U.S. Senate, then words from the White House will cease to carry much weight in their decision-making.

To get the job done, the administration can count on an impressive number of conservative backers. There's Henry Kissinger and James Schlesinger from the Nixon/Ford administrations, George Schulz and Frank Carlucci from the Reagan administration, Brent Scowcroft and James Baker from the George H.W. Bush administration, and Stephen Hadley and Colin Powell from the George W. Bush administration. Against them are arrayed a bunch of cranks, know-nothings, and warmongers -- the kind of people who think the problem with the previous administration was that George W. Bush didn't spend enough time listening to Dick Cheney. Naturally, the cranks have the upper hand.

These are people who oppose START because they oppose the basic idea of arms control. Their notion is that bad actors can be prevented from acquiring nuclear weapons through an endless series of Iraq-style unilateral preventive wars, thus leaving America free to build whatever kind of weapons we want. If that sounds good to you, then welcome to the new GOP.

Consider a name missing from the list of Republican START supporters -- former Secretary of State Condoleezza Rice. Her mentors are on the list, as is her former deputy Hadley. But she is absent. Rice is thought by most to privately favor the deal, but she's unwilling to take a public position over concern about her future within the conservative movement. Similarly, Mitt Romney, the most purely political of GOP presidential aspirants, recently unleashed a cavalcade of erroneous and misleading arguments against the treaty.

That should really scare people. Romney is an excellent finger in the wind as to where the politics of the Republican Party are going. And he's telling us it's going right, doubling down on neoconservatism. As Barron YoungSmith put it, Romney's views show that "the responsible Republican foreign policy establishment is not coming back." There's a perception that neocons have been discredited in the wake of the Bush years. The reality is that their position in the Republican Party has never been stronger. The question for the country and the world is whether we can get something useful done before their growing clout dooms us to a frightening spiral of proliferation and war.

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