Conservatives Fight Each Other On Obama’s Nuclear Agenda

In an interesting twist, the Wall Street Journal oped page today chose to highlight the split between moderates and extremists within the Republican foreign policy establishment.

The WSJ published the thoughts of six former senior Nixon, Reagan, and Bush W. national security officials on Obama’s nuclear agenda. The result was a debate that clearly demonstrates that opposition to Obama’s nuclear agenda is only really coming from the far-right neoconservatives. Half the authors were firmly in support (George Schultz, Richard Burt, and Fred C. Iklé), one was lukewarm (James Schlesinger), and two were negative (Paul Wolfowitz and Richard Perle). Collectively, these pieces expose a conservative national security movement that is completely cracking.

On the one hand, the traditional realist conservatives, such as Schultz, Kissinger, Powell, Scowcroft, Lugar, have all come out in support of Obama’s nuclear agenda. This has left conservative opponents to Obama’s agenda — either motivated by political or ideological reasons — scrambling to find an adequate response. The result has been a completely incoherent and divided lines of attack, with opponents making two contradictory arguments: that Obama’s efforts are either so effective that they are destroying US security and endangering America or that they are entirely insignificant.

Paul Wolfowitz and Richard Perle in the Journal both essentially go for the latter approach, arguing that the actions on the nuclear agenda insignificant and argue that the focus should be on Iran. Wolfowitz writes that:

The relatively modest additional reductions agreed to by Presidents Obama and Medvedev do little to change that fundamental picture… To be serious about a world without nuclear weapons, we must face some serious questions—questions that have nothing to do with U.S. or Russian numbers.

Richard Perle echoed:

But no one believes the threat we face today comes from Russia’s arsenal. It simply does not matter how many weapons Russia has. What does matter, as we face increasing danger from nuclear powers like North Korea now, and Iran all too soon.

Arguing that New START is not significant or “modest” is not an argument against the treaty. Furthermore, the other major thrust of Wolfowitz and Perle’s pieces are that a New START treaty won’t solve the North Korea or Iran problems. But again, this is not an argument against Obama’s nuclear agenda. This is merely a diversionary argument, since no one is arguing that a New START or the Nuclear Posture Review or the Nuclear Security Summit will solve these problems. All neoconservatives are left with are baseless and un-serious claims about missile defense.

The weakness and incoherence of these arguments demonstrates not just that neoconservatives have little to argue, but that there opposition is driven largely not about the merits of the New START treaty, but about ideology and politics. The fact that the two opponents of Obama’s nuclear security agenda in the Wall Street Journal debate were two of the most prominent neoconservative architects of the Iraq war and the disastrous first term foreign policy of the Bush administration is not a coincidence. Instead, this is a reflection of where the opposition to Obama’s nuclear agenda is coming from.

As the START treaty and the NPR is reviewed in Congress it will therefore give greater clarity over where the current GOP stands on national security. It is pretty clear, given the statements of Jon Kyl (R-AZ) and John McCain (R-AZ), that a large portion of the Senate GOP will stand with the neoconservatives like Wolfowitz and Perle. But others such as Lamar Alexander, Richard Lugar, and Bob Corker have tried to maintain a more moderate persona on national security. The question will therefore be whether moderates are able to moderate. The debate over START is therefore shaping up to be a debate not about the treaty itself, but about whether Republican foreign policy realists and moderates still have a place in the current GOP.