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The War On Obama's Nuclear Agenda

In 2007, John Bolton wrote that Republicans had achieved "the end of arms control." He was referring to a string of conservative successes, starting with the U.S. Senate's rejection of the Comprehensive Test Ban Treaty (CTBT) in 1999, that signaled a dramatic shift in the way the United States interacted with the rest of the world.

Essentially, Bolton and his ideological brethren wanted to create a world in which the United States would never limit its sovereignty through any negotiated agreement. (Although they posited that America's security and radical freedom of action were synonymous.) Starting with the CTBT--the first major treaty rejected by the U.S. Senate since the League of Nations-conservatives aimed either to pull the United States out of treaties that constrained American freedom of action, or to modify them and render compliance voluntary.*

They tried this throughout most of the George W. Bush administration--pulling out from the ABM Treaty; scuttling progress on small arms and the Biological Weapons Convention; refusing to send high-level representatives for talks on the Nuclear Non-Proliferation Treaty and aiding India's nuclear program in contravention of it; belittling arms inspectors; trying to cut funds for the Nunn-Lugar nuclear threat reduction program after 9/11; and so on.

Now, Obama is trying to reverse that legacy and Bring Back Arms Control, on the idea that Washington's participation in cooperative efforts will build goodwill and legitimacy for a collective response to global proliferation. This month, he promised to push "immediately and aggressively" for ratification of the CTBT; negotiate deeper, binding arms reductions with the Russians; and begin work on a global ban on the production of fissile material. So how are conservatives planning to prevent this counterrevolution?

I recently attended a policy breakfast with Senator Jon Kyl--the Republican whip and a seasoned killer of past arms control treaties--to preview the arguments his party will use against Obama's nuclear agenda. Flanked by American flags and a bust of Herbert Hoover, he launched into a semi-apocalyptic multi-part tirade against Obama's agenda. "Why return to arms control?" Kyl asked. "Why risk bipartisan consensus?"

After lambasting Secretary Gates's proposed missile defense cuts, he revived the arguments conservatives have been employing against arms control since the 1950s--sometimes with devastating success. (This was fitting, given how many elements of Obama's platform the GOP has responded to with used ideological orthodoxies.) Kyl warned that arms control does nothing but constrain the United States, while allowing evil states' nuclear-arms programs to grow unchecked. "Which is the real threat," he asked. "Thousands of nuclear weapons in the American and Russian arsenals, or a nuclear Iran and North Korea?"

Riffing on this theme, he argued that the CTBT is unverifiable--meaning that the United States might somehow 'fall behind' while other nations cheat on the treaty, setting off small, secret nuclear blasts that we cannot detect in order to improve their nuclear arsenals. (In fact, we would be able to detect these blasts.) And he argued that the United States--which has abided by the test ban's terms for almost two decades, even though it hasn't been ratified--cannot maintain its nuclear arsenal without violating the ban. This, too, is inaccurate.

While this approach doesn't hold together from a policy standpoint--witness the early Bush administration's total lack of success at stopping nuclear proliferation to Iran and North Korea--it is intuitively compelling. Obama's vision of a world where the United States gives up some of its own nuclear arsenal in order to strengthen the Non-Proliferation treaty, and then uses that goodwill to fend off proliferation in the Middle East and Northeast Asia, is far less clear-cut than Kyl's, in which we build impregnable missile defenses and keep as many nukes as possible in order threaten our enemies. Furthermore, all Kyl needs to do is hold together 34 Senate Republicans in order to win. Joe Biden, on the other hand, has been tasked with cobbling together a supermajority--which would mean picking off 7 Republicans who are not yet willing to vote for the treaty. If he can't, John Bolton's revolution may yet be secure.

*This included pressuring Bill Clinton on non-security related treaties like the Kyoto Protocol, but did not include, for example, the WTO.

--Barron YoungSmith