Barack Obama is about to become the first Democratic president in decades to sign his own arms-control treaty, which the Senate is set to approve today. The debate over the New Start treaty has been a prolonged exercise in the sort of demagoguery not seen since neoconservatives such as Richard Perle and Norman Podhoretz ganged up on Richard Nixon and Henry Kissinger to pillory them as appeasers for signing arms agreements with the Kremlin. But Nixon and Kissinger really were negotiating important treaties that helped bring about the end of the cold war.
By common consent, New Start does not qualify for that designation. Yet the GOP has mounted a host of niggling objections to the treaty. It's also indulging in the fantasy that a full-scale missile defense system can be constructed (the most recent test, incidentally, failed, a routine occurrence). The objections smack of pettifoggery rather than serious qualms. That wise woman of foreign affairs, Sarah Palin, chirped that the treaty makes "no strategic sense." How would she know?
What the debate over the treaty has revealed is that the GOP remains in the grip of the neocons, who reflexively oppose any arms-control treaty as an intolerable restriction on America's freedom of action. Which is why Republicans should be brought up short by foreign policy grandee Leslie Gelb's observation in the Wall Street Journal:
To many in the foreign policy establishment, the split over New Start was eye opening. Leslie Gelb, president-emeritus of the Council on Foreign Relations, said leaders abroad were mystified at Republican opposition to a treaty that if anything was initially criticized for being too modest. The debate, he said, "seriously damages [Republican] credibility on national security."
He's right. There can be no doubting that, by and large, the GOP has held the edge over the Democrats when it came to foreign policy. But that edge began to erode during the George W. Bush administration. Secretary of State Colin Powell was sidelined. So was outside adviser Brent Scowcroft. In essence, the entire GOP foreign policy establishment was put out to pasture. Now it's returned--to endorse the New Start treaty. Everyone from Kissinger to George Shultz has endorsed it. But as the presidential primaries loom, Mitt Romney, Sarah Palin, and others are staking out extreme positions. Yet even as the GOP tries to assail Obama as soft on Russia--a vital partner, by the way, for America in tackling Iran and North Korea--it will confront the conundrum of backing his war in Afghanistan.
The biggest problem the GOP will face, however, is the Gelb prophecy. President Obama will ballyhoo his modest treaty as a major accomplishment, one achieved in the teeth of retrograde Republican opposition. He looks like the statesman; his detractors like leftovers from the Cold War. Before the GOP embarks upon a fresh neocon crusade in foreign affairs, it might think about the results of the last one in Iraq. The New Start treaty does not jeopardize American security. Quite the contrary. The treaty enhances it.
America's task isn't to keep building new weaponry, but to keep it out of the hands of its foes. The treaty helps accomplish that goal. America has more than enough weapons to, as Sen. Bob Corker vividly put it, blow its enemies to "Kingdom Come." As Kissinger himself expostulated in 1972, "What in God's name is the meaning of nuclear superiority?" Forunately, the era of supersizing is over. Lean and mean should be America's new credo.