Argument

Take Reagan's Word for It

Why Republicans should embrace President Obama's nuke treaty with Russia.

The new strategic arms treaty with Russia is a gift for Republicans, not as a political weapon against President Barack Obama, but as the fruit of their own labors. The treaty is a logical, modest step down the long road of strategic nuclear arms control, led by Republicans from Richard Nixon to Ronald Reagan. In all those years of the Cold War, whether by détente or confrontation, they sought to restrain an existential threat and create rules and stability in a world of mistrust and uncertainty.

The new treaty goes further toward those goals than the hawks of yesteryear could have ever imagined. Republicans ought to vote for ratification and tell voters they fulfilled Reagan's greatest wish, to lock in lower levels of the most dangerous weapons on Earth. Reagan often talked about "peace through strength," and this treaty measures up to the slogan.

The might of the United States as a strategic power remains unrivaled, while Russia's forces are a shadow of Soviet days, long overdue for modernization. Sure, in global politics, Russia loves hardball and will remain stubborn and aggressive. Its current leaders have not entirely broken free of the Soviet mindset. But we should not treat Russia as a threatening Evil Empire. It is a troubled petrostate with nukes, a country of enormous potential suffering a long and deep humiliation. The treaty is a good way to fasten down some predictability in the years to come.

In the Senate, Democrats are expected to vote for the treaty, but it will need eight Republicans for ratification. So far it is not clear which direction the Republican minority will choose, though the treaty has the support of Sen. Richard Lugar of Indiana, the ranking Republican on the Foreign Relations Committee, as well as a string of leading Republican statesmen and officials, including former Secretaries of State George Shultz and James Baker.

There may be a clue for today's Republicans in Reagan's twilight struggle with Soviet communism.

What's often forgotten about the Cold War is how easy it was to suspect the worst. The United States was engaged in a decades-long battle of immense proportions against a perplexing, secretive enemy. Forty percent of the CIA's resources were devoted to watching the Soviet bear. The fear of the other side gaining some kind of strategic advantage was palpable in the arguments of the day, as when a small group of American conservatives began warning darkly in the late 1970s that Soviet leaders were preparing to fight and win a nuclear war.

"We're already in an arms race, but only the Soviets are racing," Reagan declared in an Aug. 18, 1980, campaign speech to the Veterans of Foreign Wars in Chicago. "They are outspending us in the military field by 50 percent and more than double, sometimes triple, on their strategic forces."

Reagan then quoted Paul Nitze, a leading voice against the 1979 SALT II treaty, as having said, "The Kremlin leaders do not want war; they want the world." Reagan declared: "For that reason, they have put much of their military effort into strategic nuclear programs. Here the balance has been moving against us and will continue to do so if we follow the course set by this administration."

"The Soviets want peace and victory," he added. "We must understand this and what it means to us. They seek a superiority in military strength that, in the event of a confrontation, would leave us with an unacceptable choice between submission or conflict."

The landscape of today would be startling to Reagan and Nitze. Their greatest fears were never realized. The strategic nuclear arms race with Moscow is over. U.S. military spending is about eight times more than Russia's. Defense Secretary Robert Gates recently noted that the United States operates 11 large and capable nuclear-powered aircraft carriers, and in terms of size and striking power, no other country has even one comparable ship. Russia's newest strategic submarine and missile have been plagued with delays. Alexander Golts, an incisive journalist on military affairs in Moscow, wrote recently that Russia's plans for defense modernization are likely to fail because the industrial base is antiquated and corrupt. Even a plan to convert the military to digital communications is "pie-in-the-sky," he wrote. Eighty-five percent of the army's technologies are still stuck in the analog era, he said.

Thus, it was strange to read Mitt Romney's recent criticism of the new strategic arms treaty in the Washington Post, saying it could be Obama's "worst foreign policy mistake yet." Among other things, Romney, the former Massachusetts governor, said the treaty should be opposed because it does not prohibit Russia from putting intercontinental ballistic missiles on bombers. It sure is hard to imagine that Russia would have any desire or need to attach a 47-ton Topol-M missile to one of its aging bombers, to say nothing of the engineering challenges involved.

This kind of crude exaggeration of the Russian threat makes no sense in today's world, which is far more transparent than in earlier decades. The first SALT treaty, in 1972, basically froze missile launchers but did not include precise numbers for missiles or warheads. Today, the New START treaty locks in equal levels of warheads and launchers, and requires unique numbers on each weapon that can be used for verification. Reagan and Nitze would be wide-eyed with wonder at this achievement.

But then there's Romney, who warns the treaty gives Moscow "a massive nuclear weapon advantage over the United States." If anyone really fears that Russia is poised to launch a Soviet-sized build-up of nuclear weapons, wouldn't it be wiser to restrain them with the new treaty than to leave them unbound?

Even after this treaty, there is big unfinished business in nuclear arms control, including the several thousand tactical nuclear weapons, most in Russia, and the "hedge," or reserve, of U.S. nuclear warheads in storage. There is also the nagging and unresolved danger associated with keeping land-based missiles in both countries on launch-ready alert status. Walking away from all this hardly seems to be in the Republican tradition of concern for national security.

Take Reagan's word for it. His frequent criticism of SALT II in the late 1970s was that the treaty only slowed the growth of the nuclear arsenals and did not actually cut weapons. Once in office, Reagan insisted arms control must mean really getting rid of the weapons, as he did in the 1987 Intermediate-Range Nuclear Forces Treaty, and in the negotiations for START 1, signed by President George H.W. Bush in 1991. The treaty now before the Senate is simply one more step in this direction. Senate Republicans who revere Reagan should see that this treaty is their inheritance. Instead of voting against it to wound Obama, they should adopt the treaty for what it is and focus instead on what's to follow.

Reagan never gave up his dream of missile defense, but he did not let it interfere with his determination to negotiate lower levels of nuclear weapons. Today's Republicans can champion missile defense long after ratification of this treaty, which, as the administration has pointed out, does nothing to restrict U.S. missile-shield plans.

Of all the problems facing the United States today, strategic nuclear competition with Russia is not one of them. Locking down these arsenals is the essence of prudence and conservatism. As Baker, the former secretary of state, said in his testimony recently, the START 1 treaty was a product of the Cold War, but is not a relic. It helped bring stability in the chaotic years after the Soviet collapse, and deserves to live on.

BILL SWERSEY/AFP/Getty Images

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