Last Spring, I wrote that one of the perks of being a Republican president in the United States is the freedom to make drastic changes to US nuclear force levels while Democratic presidents are forced to travel a much tougher political road, often in the pursuit of far less ambitious goals. Sen. Jeff Sessions (R-AL), the ranking Republican on the Senate Strategic Forces Subcommittee, recently provided further evidence of this phenomenon.
In his June 19 speech in Berlin, President Obama proposed to reduce US deployed strategic nuclear warheads with Russia by up to one-third below the New START level of 1,550 warheads. Predictably, this drove the President’s critics crazy. In a well-coordinated series of press statements and op-eds in response to the speech, Republican members of Congress, former Bush administration officials, and the ICBM pork caucus trotted out the standard-issue talking points against changing our outdated nuclear strategy.
But in a fit of candor, Sen. Sessions strayed wildly off-message and revealed the pure, unadulterated partisanship animating his party’s attitude on nuclear weapons issues. The day after the President’s speech, Sessions told a gathering on Capitol Hill that:
If George Bush said I think we could get to 1000, 1100 nuclear weapons and I believe we can still defend America, that’s one thing.
In other words, reductions implemented by Republican Presidents are fine and dandy, but reductions implemented by Democrats are a threat to life, liberty and the pursuit of happiness.
Sen. Sessions attempted to cover his tracks by arguing that Obama’s proposed reductions are dangerous because of the President’s support of the goal of a world free of nuclear weapons. But this protestation rings hollow given that President Ronald Reagan, the patron saint of Republican defense hawks, argued vehemently decades before for nuclear zero while the Cold War still raged.
While the GOP lambastes Obama for being open to a further incremental reduction in deployed forces with Russia, the truth is that since the end of the Cold War, Republicans Presidents have repeatedly slashed the size of the US nuclear arsenal, including significant reductions without reciprocity from any other nation. And as Sessions suggests, Republicans didn’t complain.
Take George W. Bush, for example. During a press conference at the National Press Club on May 23, 2000, then Governor Bush declared:
It should be possible to reduce the number of American nuclear weapons significantly further than what has been already agreed to under START II without compromising our security in any way. We should not keep weapons that our military planners do not need. These unneeded weapons are the expensive relics of dead conflicts, and they do nothing to make us more secure.
Apparently taken aback by Bush’s sweeping statements, a reporter asked:
Question: I’m just trying to clarify. When you say that we should be prepared to lead by example, are you saying that you’d be prepared to reduce America’s nuclear arsenal whether or not the Russians follow suit?
Bush: Yes, I am, and I would work closely with the Russians to convince them to do the same.
After his election, President Bush continued to voice his preference for unilaterally reducing the US nuclear arsenal. In a November 2001 press conference with Vladimir Putin, Bush announced that pursuant to a recently completed nuclear posture review, the United States would reduce its arsenal of deployed strategic warheads from approximately 6,000 to 1,700-2,200 (!) as a matter of national policy without a formal arms control agreement with Russia. “We don’t need arms control negotiations,” Bush said, “to reduce our weaponry in a significant way.”
The Russians, however, preferred to implement further cuts via a treaty with the United States. Ultimately, Bush was persuaded by Secretary of State Colin Powell and the Senate Foreign Relations Committee to codify reductions in a treaty with Russia, which he did in 2002 in the form of the Moscow Treaty. But the Bush team remained unilateralists to the end. As Secretary of Defense Donald Rumsfeld told the Senate as it was considering the Moscow Treaty, “We would have made these cuts regardless of what Russia did with its arsenal.”
Beyond the deployed arsenal, President Bush also authorized unilateral reductions in the arsenal of US non-deployed warheads and non-strategic warheads deployed in Europe. From 2001 to 2009, Bush cut the total nuclear stockpile by approximately 50%. No treaty governed these enormous reductions. And there was nary a peep from Senator Sessions or any other member of Congress.
Nor was the international strategic environment more stable then than it is now. While America was (unilaterally) cutting its arsenal, North Korea conducted its first nuclear test, Iran made great progress on its nuclear program, and Pakistan continued to churn out fissile material.
So the next time you hear a Republican member of Congress attack President Obama for suggesting that the US and Russia continue to reduce the size of their still enormous nuclear arsenals, remember that for all the arguments about global zero, nuclear modernization, the triad, the dangerous international environment, extended deterrence, Section 303(b) of the Arms Control and Disarmament Act, and Russian cheating, the bottom line is that when it comes to nuclear reductions, Democratic presidents are held to a much different standard than their Republican counterparts.