Going Nuclear: Romney vs. Obama (and Kerry)

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Yesterday Mitt Romney blasted Barack Obama via a Washington Post op-ed denouncing Obama’s nuclear Strategic Arms Reduction Treaty (START) with Russia as the president’s “worst foreign policy mistake yet.” Romney complains that the Russians “badly out-negotiated” Obama and came out with a decided strategic advantage in the treaty, including the power to walk away from the treaty if the U.S. presses too far ahead with missile defense systems. Today, John Kerry, the Senate Foreign Relations Committee chairman, hit back at Romney (also in the Post), calling his argument “baloney,” and tossing in some tart insults:

I have nothing against Massachusetts politicians running for president. But the world’s most important elected office carries responsibilities, including the duty to check your facts even if you’re in a footrace to the right against Sarah Palin. More than that, you need to understand that when it comes to nuclear danger, the nation’s security is more important than scoring cheap political points.

On the substance, the NYT‘s Peter Baker fact-checked Romney yesterday, and Slate‘s Fred Kaplan tore him apart today. But ultimately I find Romney’s op-ed more interesting as a political document. (It’s not clear that START has major strategic implications–both the U.S. and Russia will maintain apocalyptic nuclear arsenals, after all–beyond helping to thaw relations between Washington and Moscow.) To wit: As a former business executive, Romney has shown little past interest in arms negotiations. But that’s true of nearly all the most-often discussed 2012 Republican presidential possibles: Sarah Palin, Mitch Daniels, Mike Huckabee, Haley Barbour, John Thune and Tim Pawlenty. (To be fair, Palin does talk about national security; but no one would call her an expert.) Hence Romney’s piece feels like an effort to play national security wonk and elevate himself above a field of domestically-oriented figures. Max Bergmann of the Obama-friendly Center for American Progress says it well:

From a political perspective Romney is severely compromised with the Republican base for his past liberal positions on domestic and social policy issues (pro-choice, health care reform, etc). But one area where he is a blank slate is on foreign policy. And Romney has made a concerted effort to fully embrace the Heritage Foundation’s national security positions.

What’s especially interesting that is the Romney-Heritage position is not the position of the Republican Party’s foreign policy mandarins, who are urging Congress to ratify START:

To bolster his case and win over reluctant Republicans, Kerry has been holding hearings this spring and summer, featuring support for the treaty from prominent GOP names like former Secretaries of State Henry Kissinger and James Baker, former Defense Secretary James Schlesinger, former National Security Advisers Brent Scowcroft and Stephen Hadley and Defense Secretary Robert Gates.

Another GOP supporter is the Foreign Relations committee’s ranking member, Indiana Senator Richard Lugar, a national security moderate who finds himself increasingly out of step with a party whose Cheney wing is ascendant on these issues. To reach the 67 votes needed for ratification, Kerry and Lugar need to find eight Republican supporters. How a typical Republican senator who may have trouble placing Moscow on a map can call the likes of Hadley, Gates, Baker and Kissinger–former Cold Warriors, all–soft on Russia is a bit mysterious. But right now the votes seem not to be there, and START may never get started.