An old proverb states that when you’re in a hole, you should stop digging. When it comes to missile defense, many Republicans prefer to keep digging. Perhaps none in recent memory have dug quite so spectacularly as Sen. Jim DeMint (R-SC) during and after Tuesday’s Senate Foreign Relations Committee hearing on New START with Secretary of Defense Robert Gates, Chairman of the Joint Chiefs of Staff Admiral Michael Mullen, and Secretary of State Hillary Clinton…
During the question-and-answer period, DeMint reiterated the standard far-right boilerplate that New START will limit U.S. missile defenses and provide Russia with a veto over U.S. programs – despite repeated reassurances from Gates, Mullen, and Clinton that the treaty will not in any way constrain U.S. missile defense plans. Yet what separated DeMint’s attack from most other Republican critiques was his assertion that the treaty will “keep our missile defense to the point where it does not render their [Russia’s] weapons useless.”
Fred Kaplan and Peter Baker have already provided great summaries of the exchange. Baker’s account is particularly effective in exposing DeMint as less than informed on national security policy:
Mr. DeMint’s grievance, though, goes contrary to Mr. Bush’s vision for the program. Throughout his presidency, Mr. Bush stated again and again that missile defense would not threaten Russia’s security. His plan called for just 10 interceptor missiles in Poland that could counter a possible future Iranian threat, but that would be useless against Russia’s thousands of warheads.
“The system is not designed to deal with Russia’s capacity to launch multiple rockets,” Mr. Bush said at his last meeting with Vladimir Putin, then Russia’s president, in Sochi, Russia, in April 2008. “It’s in our interests to try to figure out a way for the Russians to understand the system is not aimed at them, but aimed at the real threats of the 21st century,” Mr. Bush said at a news conference a couple months before that.
Mr. DeMint’s complaint about the treaty conflates the missile defense program launched by Mr. Bush and continued in different form by Mr. Obama with the original idea expressed during the cold war by President Ronald Reagan, who envisioned a much more robust program that actually was intended to neutralize the Russian nuclear arsenal.
As Condoleezza Rice, Mr. Bush’s secretary of state, said in 2008: “This is not that program. This is not the son of that program. This is not the grandson of that program. This is a very different program that is meant to deal with limited threats. There is no way that a few interceptors in Poland and radars in the Czech Republic can degrade the thousands of nuclear warheads that the Russians have. And there is no intent to do so.”
At the hearing, Mr. DeMint suggested that it should be the intent.
“Is it not desirable for us to have a missile defense system that renders their threat useless?” he asked.
Senator John Kerry of Massachusetts, the Democratic committee chairman, replied, “I don’t personally think so, no.” He argued that such a move would launch a new arms race with Russia.
Mr. Gates agreed. “That, in our view, as in theirs, would be enormously destabilizing, not to mention unbelievably expensive.”
A few hours after the hearing, Mr. DeMint recounted the exchange in a blog posting on the web site of the Heritage Foundation.
“With his response, Senator Kerry proved why Americans have a hard time fully trusting the left to put American interests first in foreign affairs,” he wrote.
He made no mention of Mr. Gates or Mr. Bush. [emphasis mine.]
Notice how DeMint tries to associate the view that U.S. missile defense shouldn’t negate Russia’s deterrent with “the left.” Nice try, Senator! In addition to Gates and W., the bipartisan Congressional Commission on the Strategic Posture of the United States concluded that “Defenses sufficient to sow doubts in Moscow or Beijing about the viability of their deterrents could lead them to take actions that increase the threat to the United States and its allies and friends.” (Oh and I would of course be remiss in not extending kudos to the Heritage Foundation for allowing DeMint to attempt to completely whitewash the record!)
This entire episode would actually be pretty hilarious if it weren’t for the fact that DeMint is one of 100 Americans who will actually decide the fate of New START.