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Misrepresenting The Prague START

How many dishonest and misleading things can Mitt Romney pack into one op-ed? There are a few. Romney’s first lie was remarkably brazen even for him:

He [Obama] castigated Israel at the United Nations but was silent about Hamas having launched 7,000 rockets from the Gaza Strip.

Neither of these things happened. One will look in vain for any speech Obama has ever given in which he actually castigated Israel, but it is even more certain that he never did this at the U.N. Castigate means censure, and if there is one thing Obama has never done it is censure Israel. The only thing Obama has been silent about with regard to Gaza was the excessive military operations Israel launched there immediately before he took office. A couple sentences later, Romney lies about missile defense in Europe:

He acceded to Russia’s No. 1 foreign policy objective, the abandonment of our Europe-based missile defense program, and obtained nothing whatsoever in return.

The missile defense installations in Poland and the Czech Republic were scrapped, and they have since been replaced by proposed new installations in southeastern Europe. Unlike the previous plan, which guarded against non-existent Iranian ICBMs, this one could theoretically defend against medium-range missiles that Iran actually has. So missile defense in Europe has not been abandoned, and despite what Moscow may say the Prague treaty apparently does not rule out missile defense, either, so Romney is complaining about something that hasn’t happened.

Romney repeats a common misrepresentation of the Prague treaty, which is that it “impedes missile defense.” Dr. Jeffrey Lewis had a very useful review of the relevant parts of the new treaty that he wrote earlier this year, and his conclusion is worth citing here:

I think it is very hard to conclude that the treaty “limits” missile defenses. The treaty may have some implications for missile defense programs, but on the whole it is written in such a way as to create space for current and planned missile defense programs, including language that exempts interceptors from the definition of an ICBM [bold mine-DL] and the provision to “grandfather” the converted silos at Vandenberg.

Still, I suspect we will continue hear from some quarters that the treaty “limits” missile defense. This is a form of special pleading. The common-sense test is that no one would claim that the treaty “limits” conventional bombers, despite some provisions to separate conventional bombers from their nuclear-equipped brethren. By any consistent standard, the treaty limits neither.

As for Romney’s objection that the treaty “explicitly forbids the United States from converting intercontinental ballistic missile (ICBM) silos into missile defense sites,” Dr. Lewis makes what seems like a very sensible observation:

The advantages of this are obvious: otherwise, you would have Russian inspectors crawling all over US missile defense interceptors to ensure they weren’t stocked with contraband treaty-limited equipment.

In other words, this is something that seems like a concession but which could actually aid the development of missile defense.

Former Assistant Secretary of Defense Lawrence Korb recently wrote an op-ed in support of the treaty that addressed the missile defense question:

While some have alleged that the New START treaty will inhibit missile defense, this claim has been strongly refuted by Republican elder statesmen in their Senate testimony on the treaty. Former Secretary of State James Baker stated plainly, “There is, in fact, no restriction on the United States of America’s ability to move forward on missile defense in whatever way it wants.” Former National Security Adviser Brent Scowcroft was equally direct, testifying, “The treaty is amply clear, it does not restrict us … I don’t think there’s substance to this argument.”

In fact, Baker and Scowcroft are joined in supporting the treaty by almost every senior Republican national security leader from the past three decades, including Henry Kissinger, George Shultz, James Schlesinger, George W. Bush’s National Security Adviser Stephen Hadley, and the Senate’s foremost current expert on nuclear policy, Sen. Richard Lugar of Indiana. They are joined by leading Democratic national security leaders, such as former Defense Secretary William Perry and former senator Nunn.

Romney’s other objections are more technical, but they don’t appear to be much better. One of the standard objections to the new treaty has been that warhead reduction could do Russia a favor, because Russia does not want the expense of maintaining such a large arsenal, but Romney claims instead that loopholes in the treaty will permit a Russian build-up of warheads. For Romney’s objections to mean very much, one would have to believe that Russia is intent on a massive arms build-up and is looking for some means to achieve this without formally violating arms control agreements. In fact, the more substantive criticism that advocates of disarmament could make against the treaty is that there are not going to be many reductions at all on either side, and the loopholes in the treaty will permit both governments to maintain their arsenals near their current levels:

Due to the loophole, the United States could avoid counting roughly 450 of its 2,100 presently deployed warheads, while around 860 weapons in Russia’s 2,600-warhead arsenal would not be counted, Kristensen said. As a result, the United States would only need to place 100 deployed warheads in storage and Russia would only need to remove 190 weapons.

It is therefore quite difficult to credit Romney’s claim that “New-START gives Russia a massive nuclear weapon advantage over the United States.” Were that to happen, the same withdrawal provision in Article XIV of the treaty that Russia could exercise could also be exercised by the United States. If we view the Prague treaty as a beginning rather than a dramatic accomplishment on its own, we could then build on it to negotiate reductions in tactical nuclear weapons. Rejecting the treaty because it has not solved every arms reduction problem in one move is just the sort of short-sighted opportunism we have come to expect from Romney and other leading Republicans when it comes to important matters of U.S. foreign policy.

Of course, it could be that Romney is just incredibly uninformed and knows none of these things, but this is supposedly someone who prides himself on his mastery of whatever subject he discusses. He is supposed to be consumed by policy details and fascinated by wonkery. Somehow when it comes to foreign policy, which he now pretends to understand and wants to use as a club with which to bludgeon Obama, he has a fairly poor grasp of the subject.

Update: Max Bergmann makes an important point that the alternative to ratification is to accept the collapse of the arms control framework that has existed for at least two decades.

about the author

Daniel Larison is a senior editor at TAC, where he also keeps a solo blog. He has been published in the New York Times Book Review, Dallas Morning News, World Politics Review, Politico Magazine, Orthodox Life, Front Porch Republic, The American Scene, and Culture11, and was a columnist for The Week. He holds a PhD in history from the University of Chicago, and resides in Lancaster, PA. Follow him on Twitter.

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