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Romney Keeps Getting It Wrong On START

By chance, my column on Romney and START has come out on the same day that National Review has provided Romney with another opportunity to embarrass himself. Mitt Romney seems not to have learned anything from the thorough thrashing his first op-ed against START ratification received, as he has written a response to Sen. Lugar’s rebuttal that mostly just repeats previous errors and misleading statements.

For some reason, Romney continues to defend the odd claim that the language of the treaty’s preamble is binding and restrictive of missile defense. It isn’t either of these things. Romney is reduced to affirming the most pro-Russian spin on a non-binding preamble to make his objection seem credible. Romney also claims that “it [the treaty] accedes to Russia’s insistence that there is an interrelationship between strategic offensive weapons and missile defense.” This is not simply something that Russians insist on. There is a rather obvious interrelationship between the two things. Fred Kaplan addressed this in his thorough demolition of Romney’s original op-ed:

Yes, the treaty’s preamble notes that there is a relationship between strategic defense and strategic offense. This is Arms Control 101.

Acknowledging this in a preamble commits the United States to nothing in terms of limiting current or planned missile defense projects. There are no specific “missile-defense measures in the body of the treaty” that anyone responsible for our missile defense programs wants to have, and that includes the provision ruling out silo conversion. So there have been no real concessions to Russia here, and certainly no major ones. Kaplan also easily dismissed Romney’s objections to the treaty’s creation of a Bilateral Consultative Commission:

This is silly. Previous arms treaties—negotiated by Democrats and Republicans—have created similar commissions. This one, like the others, has no “broad latitude to amend the treaty.” In fact, Article XV of New START states explicitly that the commission can make no changes that affect “substantive rights and obligations.” Its purpose, as noted in several other sections (Articles V and XIII of the treaty, Part VI of its protocol), is to “resolve any ambiguities that may arise” over the 10 years that it remains in effect. These articles contain no “specific reference to missile defense,” by the way.

Romney re-states his vastly exaggerated claim of Russia’s advantage in tactical nuclear weapons, and he completely fails to address the argument that ratifying the new START is critical to making progress on negotiating on reductions in tactical nuclear warheads. Romney’s claim was misleading and factually incorrect earlier this month, and it is still misleading and factually incorrect. The same goes for his complaint that “America gives and Russia gets,” when this is an egregious distortion of the treaty’s provisions, and his objection about counting each bomber as one bomb is misplaced. As Kaplan said the first time:

New START counts each bomber as if it is carrying just one nuclear bomb, even though it almost certainly carries several. This counting rule was established for practical reasons. A bomber might carry three bombs one day, a dozen the next, with no need to alter its design. There’s no way to verify how many it’s carrying. So they agreed just to count one bomber as one bomb.

The thing is, this counting rule is to the United States’ advantage, not Russia’s. We have 113 heavy bombers; they have 77. So, if this is what Romney’s ghostwriter meant to take note of, it’s not a problem with the treaty, not from the U.S. point of view.

Romney remains fixated on the dangers of rail-based ICBMs, to which Kaplan already replied the first time:

First, neither Russia nor the United States has any rail-based ICBMs or launchers. Second, the treaty does deal with mobile ICBMs, in two ways. Article IV, Section 1 states that ICBMs can be deployed “only at ICBM bases.” If, in some perverse wordplay, the Russians claim that a railroad line is a “base,” Article III, Section 5b notes that an ICBM is counted under the treaty’s limits the moment it leaves the production facility (which other sections of the treaty place under constant monitoring); it doesn’t matter where the missile goes afterward, it’s still counted as an ICBM. So while mobile missiles might not be “mentioned” by the treaty, they are, in effect, restricted.

Romney made no effort to incorporate or answer the objections of his critics. He simply re-phrased a large part of his original op-ed, sent it to a different outlet, and reiterated his senseless opposition to ratifying the treaty. It is somewhat telling that even Fred Hiatt’s editorial page came out in favor of ratification and dismissed Romney’s argument as lacking in substance. Ratification opponents might almost conclude that the Post rigged the debate in favor of the treaty by allowing Romney’s nonsense to serve as the main argument against it.

The most impressive thing about Romney’s second attempt is how he has managed to ignore almost everything Sen. Lugar (and every other critic) said in the course of dismissing Romney’s arguments as ill-informed and discredited. As far as I can tell, Romney’s so-called response to Lugar never engages Lugar’s rebuttal at any point. Many people have argued that Romney’s total lack of guiding convictions is actually an improvement over the stubbornness of George Bush, because Romney is so malleable and self-interested that he would never defend a foolish, discredited position once it became a political albatross. What we are seeing is that in practice Romney’s self-image as a well-informed, wonkish executive makes him just as resistant to admitting error as Bush’s willful ignorance ever did. Romney’s idea of leadership is to take soundings from a select group of experts and then act on what they have told him. In this case, Romney has decided that mistaken Heritage Foundation staffers are the best experts he can find, and now that he has received their advice nothing is going to dissuade him from attacking a treaty that most arms control experts believe ought to be ratified.

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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