START Exposing Divide Among Conservatives

Are there any Powell conservatives left in the Senate?

Are there any Powell conservatives left in the Senate?

A split within the conservative movement is becoming more and more apparent as the US and Russia come close to finalizing a new START treaty that will cut nuclear arsenals. The treaty has widespread and broad support from a long list of prominent Republican foreign policy figures (it is after all merely the extension of a treaty negotiated by Ronald Reagan). Yet its future in the Senate is highly uncertain, as neoconservatives are starting to mobilize against its ratification.

The neocon war on START has heated up. John Bolton has been on the war path as usual. The Washington Times has published three opinion pieces in the past week disparaging START. The Heritage Foundation has produced multiple pieces attacking the treaty. Finally, Keith Payne – “Donald Rumsfeld’s Dr. Strangelove” – essentially argued in the Pittsburgh Tribune that the Senate should only support a treaty if it doesn’t really cut nuclear weapons, which is sort of the entire point of the treaty.

But at the very same time that these forces have mobilized, so has the traditional and more established realist wing of the conservative foreign policy establishment – not just in support of START, but in support of the overall global effort to eliminate nuclear weapons. While the opponents of a START treaty have been on the fringes of past Republican administration’s, these figures contain many of the most prominent conservative foreign policy figures, including Secretaries of State and Defense Colin Powell, George Schultz, Henry Kissinger, Frank Carlucci, as well as Reagan National Security Adviser Robert McFarlane and Condoleezza Rice’s State Department consigliere Philip Zelikow.

At issue here are two competing world views. On the one hand, there are the neocons like Bolton, that insist that the US should actually begin engaging in a new nuclear arms race to stop countries from thinking we are weak, as well as out of a bizarre notion that the Cold War never ended. This warped and hyper-paranoid perspective is the very vision that pushed the US to invade Iraq over fears of that a Saddam-initiated mushroom cloud was imminent. On the other hand, there are the realist conservatives like Powell and Kissinger, that argue that nuclear weapons have become militarily useless and that if nothing is done to eliminate nuclear weapons, the world will move quickly in the opposite direction toward a nuclear tipping point, in which proliferation cascades and which the threat of nuclear terrorism becomes ever more likely.

Hence, the ratification fight over START is not really one between progressives and conservatives. Progressives are in agreement with Republicans like Powell, Kissinger, and Schultz. Instead, the ratification fight is between conservatives. The ratification debate will expose the extent to which conservative politicians have become “neoconized,” as it will clarify where Senate conservatives stand – are they with John Bolton or are they with Colin Powell?