The Right’s Misleading Attacks On Chuck Hagel’s Nuclear Stance

Chuck Hagel

Several Republican Senators voicing their concern about Secretary of Defense-nominee Chuck Hagel’s stance on nuclear weapons appear to be doing so without knowing much about what Hagel truly believes about nuclear weapons.

Last week, Sen. John Barrasso (R-WY) wrote an op-ed in the Wall Street Journal, citing Hagel’s ties with the group Global Zero — which advocates for a world free from nuclear weapons — as part of his opposition to the former Senator’s nomination. Sen. Bob Corker (R-TN), the newly minted ranking member of the Senate Foreign Relations Committee, brought up the same point in his questioning of Secretary of State-nominee Sen. John Kerry.

“Typically, there’s a tension. The Defense Department presses for weaponry and making sure that our country is safe,” Corker said at the time. “The State Department presses for nuclear arms agreements and reductions. And so in the event this person is confirmed, that balance is not going to be there.”

Those worries were echoed this morning by Sen. John Cornyn (R-TX), the Senate Minority Whip, appearing on Fox News. Among a laundry list of issues, Cornyn singled out Hagel’s stance on nuclear weapons as being disqualifying:

CORNYN: […] His embrace of these naive ideas like a nuclear free world which you know is fine to say ‘I hope and I wish and I pray that it would be that way’ but it’s not realistic and it’s naive particularly among the person who is supposed to represent American national security and keep the peace.

Cornyn and Barrasso’s stance on nuclear weapons is not particularly surprising. Cornyn helped lead the charge against the passage of the New START treaty along with John Kyl, his immediate predecessor as Whip. Sens. Cornyn and Barrasso both voted against the nuclear arms reduction deal, with Sen. Corker joining 70 of his colleagues to ratify the bilateral treaty with Russia.

Hagel’s actual positions on the matter can be deduced ahead of his confirmation hearing on Thursday. The Pentagon recently published a paper outlining several “myths” related to Hagel that it sought to correct. Responding to claims that Hagel seeks to weaken the U.S, the paper noted that as Senator from Nebraska “where headquarters of U.S. Strategic Command is located, [Hagel] developed a keen understanding of the critical importance of fielding a safe, secure, and effective nuclear deterrent.”

Several of Hagel’s Global Zero colleagues — including Amb. Richard Burt, Gen. (Ret.) James E. Cartwright, Amb. Thomas Pickering and Gen. (Ret.) John J. Sheehan — today issued a statement defending the former senator’s signing onto a report from the group. In their statement, they challenge the claim that their report called for deep, immediate, unilateral cuts to the U.S. nuclear arsenal. Instead, the report concludes, “Only a broad multilateral approach can effectively address the multitude of serious nuclear dangers found in other parts of the world.” Likewise, the report, as well as several letters and op-eds signed onto by Hagel, calls for maintaining at present a stockpile of hundreds of nuclear weapons, more than capable of providing deterrence towards other nuclear states.

Hagel also co-authored the “Nuclear Weapons Threat Reduction Act of 2007” with then-Senator Barack Obama, a clear-eyed call to work towards preventing the spread and usage of nuclear weapons without exposing the U.S. to unneeded risk. As Senator Kerry said in his response to Corker’s question, “[Hagel and others are] not talking about today’s world. Henry Kissinger, Jim Baker, I think Jim Schlesinger, former secretaries of defense, many others, have all agreed with that as a goal for the world. It’s a goal. It’s an aspiration. And we should always be aspirational.”

All of this squares with the Obama administration’s stated policy on nuclear reduction. In 2009, President Obama gave a speech in the Czech Republic, defining “America’s commitment to seek the peace and security of a world without nuclear weapons.” That commitment was reaffirmed in a March 2012 speech. “We have more nuclear weapons than we need,” Obama said then. “I firmly believe that we can ensure the security of the United States and our allies, maintain a strong deterrent against any threat, and still pursue further reductions in our nuclear arsenal.”

President Ronald Reagan himself — lauded by Republicans such as Sen. Barrasso for his shrewdness in negotiating with the Soviet Union — called for a world without nuclear weapons. Under Reagan’s watch, the United States signed onto the original START treaty to begin reducing its vast nuclear arsenal. Speaking at China’s Fudan University in 1984, Reagan made his stance towards nuclear weapons perfectly clear. “And no matter how great the obstacles may seem, we must never stop our efforts to reduce the weapons of war,” Reagan said. “We must never stop at all until we see the day when nuclear arms have been banished from the face of this Earth.”