Romney strikes out on nukes

By Kingston Reif | October 22, 2012

Last month, I profiled President Barack Obama’s record on nuclear threat reduction during his first term. I concluded that, while the president has taken impressive initial steps to reduce nuclear stockpiles, secure vulnerable nuclear materials, and retard the spread of nuclear weapons, key elements of his ambitious agenda remain unfinished.

So where does the Republican nominee, former Massachusetts Governor Mitt Romney, stand on these issues? Apart from a major speech at the Veterans of Foreign Wars (VFW) annual convention in July, Romney has said very little about foreign policy, including in his nationally televised convention speech in Tampa this August. What Romney has said, however, does not inspire confidence: Romney’s statements and proposals to date on nuclear weapons policy and related issues reflect an obsolete Cold War mindset that, if implemented, would undermine US economic and national security.

Romney on New START. Romney recklessly opposed the 2010 New Strategic Arms Reduction Treaty (START) and continues to argue that the treaty disproportionately favors Russia. This view defies the counsel of America’s own military and national security leaders from both parties, the overwhelming majority of whom support the treaty. In a fact sheet published on his website, Romney is vague, stating that he will “[r]eview the implementation of the New START treaty and other decisions by the Obama Administration regarding America’s nuclear posture and arms-control policies to determine whether they serve the best interests and national security of the United States.”

Romney on Iran. US military and intelligence leaders agree that Iran has yet to make a decision to acquire nuclear weapons and is not in a position to make a deliverable weapon — to say nothing about more than one. These facts inform the widely held belief that a military attack would be premature and counterproductive, and that there is still time for a diplomatic solution — but only if the United States and Iran are willing to make difficult compromises.

So far, the bulk of Romney’s policy proposals on Iran — tough sanctions, missile defense, and the threat of the use of military force to prevent Iran from acquiring nuclear weapons — are indistinguishable from Obama’s policies. To the extent Romney has suggested alternatives — increasing the US naval shipbuilding rate, demanding that any diplomatic deal include a permanent cessation of any Iranian enrichment of uranium, and more loudly trumpeting the threat of military attack — these alternatives are either financially unaffordable or likely to increase the risk of war.

Romney on Russia. In his VFW speech, Romney claimed that Iran is “the most severe security threat facing America and our friends.” But don’t forget that, in March, he labeled Russia America’s “number one geopolitical foe.” This reflects a naive understanding of current threats and a misguided preference for Cold War-era solutions to 21st century problems.

Russia is an important partner to the United States on a range of critical security issues, despite substantive disagreements on other issues. Obama’s tough-minded engagement with Russia has yielded numerous benefits, including Russian logistical support for the US mission and troops in Afghanistan, the entry into force of New START, the security and elimination of hundreds of nuclear weapons worth of dangerous Russian-originated material, Russian support for the toughest UN Security Council sanctions against Iran to date, and Russian withdrawal from a contract to sell advanced air defense weapons to Iran. Former President George W. Bush tried a policy of antagonizing and isolating Russia. It failed. A return to this approach won’t inspire Russia to reverse behavior the United States finds objectionable nor induce it to permanently reduce the size of its nuclear arsenal; it will unravel the vital security gains Obama has made.

Romney on missile defense. One of Romney’s favorite talking points on foreign policy is that the Obama administration unwisely abandoned the Bush administration’s plan to put a third long-range missile defense site in Eastern Europe to appease Russia. In reality, by the time Obama assumed office, the proposal to put 10 long-range interceptors in Poland and a supporting radar in the Czech Republic had been delayed to 2018 and had lost the support of the Czech government. As former Secretary of Defense Robert Gates testified to Congress in June 2011, “Let’s be blunt: The third site in Europe was not going to happen, because the Czech government wouldn’t approve the radar.” In addition, the proposed interceptors had not even been built, much less tested, and the system would have left most of Europe unprotected from Iran’s short- and medium-range ballistic missiles anyway. What the Obama administration did do was devise an alternate plan — the European Phased Adaptive Approach — based on existing interceptors and radars and designed to combat existing Iranian ballistic missiles first.

Romney also claims that the Obama administration has underfunded US missile defense programs. On his website, Romney pledges to: “In the first 100 days, begin reversing Obama-era cuts to missile defense and commit to a robust multi-layered national ballistic-missile defense system to deter and defend against nuclear attacks on our homeland and our allies.” Does this mean Romney will halt the Phased Adaptive Approach? Restore the Bush administration’s European missile defense proposal? Pursue an East Coast US missile defense site? Build more long-range interceptors in Alaska and California? No one, perhaps not even Romney himself, knows.

Meanwhile, the president continues to robustly fund missile defense. The administration’s budget request for missile defense programs this year is $9.7 billion, including approximately $900 million for the ground-based midcourse defense system to defend the US homeland. This is, to say the least, an enormous investment — whether it is a prudent one is a different question. Romney has yet to explain how throwing even more money at missile defense will solve the numerous technical problems that continue to plague many of aspects of the current architecture.

Reason for hope? Despite the hard-line views candidate Romney has taken on the campaign trail, is it possible a President Romney would actually follow in the footsteps of his Republican predecessors and make changes to US nuclear posture for the better? Recall that presidents Ronald Reagan, George H. W. Bush, and George W. Bush all negotiated arms control agreements. Both Bush 41 and 43 made significant unilateral reductions to the size of the US nuclear arsenal. And during his second term, George W. Bush negotiated and struck a deal with North Korea on its nuclear weapons program. If Romney is elected, it remains to be seen whether he would side with the far-right fringe on these issues, as he did on New START and has on the campaign trail, or if he would heed the advice of many former Republican government officials and national security leaders, who believe that the United States can maintain a strong and effective deterrent with a smaller number of nuclear weapons at a reduced financial cost. Unfortunately, the early signs are not encouraging.

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