Center for Arms Control

Mitt Romney: Lost on Nuclear Weapons Policy

On July 24, presumptive Republican Presidential nominee Mitt Romney delivered a much-ballyhooed speech on foreign and defense policy before the Veterans of Foreign Wars (VFW) annual convention.

Those of you looking for some concrete policy proposals and insights into how Romney might address key national security issues and challenges if he’s elected likely came away empty handed. The speech, like his previous speeches and campaign publications on the topic, was long on platitudes about American weakness under Obama and the need to assert America’s leadership in the world, but short on specifics.

As David Shorr writes over at Democracy Arsenal, in the few instances when Romney did wade into particulars, “he either baldly lies about President Obama's policies (as Heather helpfully lays out) or fudges (how, exactly, is Romney's 2014 Afghanistan timeline different from Obama's) or claims he can achieve outcomes without saying how (Iran's uranium enrichment).”

While we don’t have much to work with, Romney’s speech and planned six-day tour of Europe and the Middle East, which includes stops in Great Britain, Poland, and Israel, is a good time to take stock of his positions on nuclear weapons related issues. (Note we’ll have more to say on how President Obama has performed on these issues during his first term soon.)

The bottom line: While President Obama is pursuing pragmatic steps supported by U.S. military leaders and national security experts from both parties to secure vulnerable nuclear materials, put America’s nuclear policy on a 21st century footing, and prevent Iran from acquiring nuclear weapons, Mitt Romney’ statements and proposals on nuclear policy are stuck in the Cold War and if implemented would undermine U.S. security.

Nuclear Weapons Policy

Romney recklessly opposed the 2010 New START treaty and argues that it is not in the U.S. national interest. This view rests on discredited objections and defies the counsel of U.S. military leaders and former national security leaders from both parties, the overwhelming majority of whom support the treaty.

In a fact sheet published on his website, Romney states that he will “Review the implementation of the New START treaty and other decisions by the Obama Administration regarding America's nuclear posture and arms-control policies to determine whether they serve the best interests and national security of the United States.”

In other words, if elected, Romney could consider withdrawing the United States from New START. U.S. withdrawal from the treaty would likely prompt Russia to do the same. This would dangerously weaken U.S. security and influence by:

  • Increasing the nuclear threat posed by Russia
  • Forcing U.S. military leaders to spend scarce resources on additional weapons they do not want instead of on higher-priority military programs and
  • Undermining U.S. efforts to secure the global cooperation necessary to combat current security threats such as terrorism and Iran.

Iran

On Iran, the bulk of Romney’s policy proposals, such as tough sanctions, erecting a missile defense against Iran, and keeping the military option on the table, are indistinguishable from President Obama’s policies.

To the extent Romney has suggested alternatives to the President’s approach, such as by increasing the annual naval shipbuilding rate, demanding that any diplomatic deal with Iran include a permanent cessation of any Iranian enrichment of uranium, and more loudly trumpeting the threat of military attack, these alternatives are either financially unaffordable or could increase the risk of a war with Iran – an outcome U.S. military leaders counsel is unnecessary and would have terrible costs.

As Colin Kahl who served as a Middle East official in the Department of Defense, has written, insisting on zero enrichment “either means war with Iran or a nuclear Iran becomes more likely.”

Russia

In his speech, Romney claimed that Iran is “the most severe security threat facing America and our friends.” But let’s not forget that in March he labeled Russia as America’s “number one geopolitical foe.” This reflects a naïve understanding of current threats and a misguided preference for Cold War-era solutions to 21st century problems and is rejected by most national security experts.

Russia is an important partner on a range of critical security issues even while we have our substantive disagreements. President Obama’s tough-minded engagement with Russia has yielded numerous benefits including:

  • Russian logistical support for the U.S. mission and troops in Afghanistan, especially access to key transit routes
  • The entry into force of the New START treaty, which reduces the number of Russian deployed strategic nuclear weapons aimed at the U.S. and gives the United States an essential window into their composition and location - knowledge the United States would not otherwise have
  • The security and elimination of hundreds of weapons worth of dangerous Russian-origin nuclear weapons-usable material
  • Russian support for the toughest UN Security Council sanctions against Iran to date and
  • Withdrawal by Russia of its contract to sell advanced air defense weapons to Iran

Romney’s policy of antagonizing and isolating Russia was tried by the George W. Bush administration. It failed. Not only would a return to this approach not cause Russia to reverse behavior we find objectionable, but it also could unravel the vital security gains President Obama has made.

Missile Defense

In his speech, Romney once again claimed that Poland and the Czech Republic “had courageously agreed to provide sites for our anti-missile systems, only to be told, at the last hour, that the agreement was off. As part of the so-called reset in policy, missile defenses were sacrificed as a unilateral concession to the Russian government.”

This is revisionist history at its worst.

When President Obama assumed office, the initial operating capability for President Bush’s plan to put 10 long-range interceptors in Poland and a supporting radar in the Czech Republic had slipped to 2018 and lost the support of the Czech government. As former Secretary of Defense Robert Gates testified to Congress in June 2011, “And let's be blunt: The third site in Europe was not going to happen, because the Czech government wouldn't approve the radar....And so if it was going to happen at all, it would've taken years longer and we still hadn't negotiated the required agreements with the Poles in terms of the interceptors.”

Romney also claims that the Obama administration has underfunded U.S. national missile defense programs.

The reality is that the President continues to robustly fund this program (also known as the Ground-Based Midcourse Defense system). The administration’s budget request for missile defense programs this year is $9.7 billion, including approximately $900 million for the ground-based midcourse defense system. This is an enormous investment. By their own admission, adding additional millions to the budget would not allow military leaders to accelerate solving the technical problems that continue to plague the system.

Romney proposes to spend additional hundreds of millions of dollars on national missile defense programs that U.S. military leaders say would be excess to their needs and lead to the deployment of interceptors that have not been adequately tested.

As former Georgia Senator Sam Nunn has pointed out, missile defense has become theology for Republicans, including Mitt Romney.

The long and the short of Mitt Romney on nuclear weapons issues: not ready for prime time.

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