“One can see a new sobriety in the air,” announced David Brooks the other day in The New York Times. “There is an anxious seriousness in the air.”
Tell it to Jon Kyl. Like virtually every other Senate Republican, he is hell-bent on reducing the deficit. And like virtually every other Senate Republican, he wants to begin by extending the Bush tax cuts, even for millionaires, thus boosting the deficit by close to $4 trillion over the next 10 years. But Kyl doesn’t stop there. In recent months, he’s bludgeoned the White House into promising to increase the amount the U.S. spends on modernizing its nuclear arsenal by at least $14 billion over the next decade. (According to a report in last week’s Times, the actual cost could prove far higher). Is that a wise use of money given that many nuclear experts say the U.S. can assure the reliability of its arsenal without this infusion of cash? Has Kyl proposed cutting any other programs—or, heaven forbid, raising any taxes—to pay for this new expenditure? Has he explained why Washington can afford to build new nuclear-weapons labs but can’t afford to extend unemployment benefits over the Christmas holiday? Of course not.
But here’s the twist. It now appears that Kyl may not get his money after all. The nuclear-modernization windfall was essentially a payment by the Obama administration to win Kyl’s support for ratifying the new Strategic Arms Reduction Treaty it negotiated with Russia. Kyl, however, is now signaling that the money is not enough, and that he will block a ratification vote this year, which will likely kill the treaty. It’s a revealing move, which illustrates that Kyl’s foreign-policy views rest on the same basic principle as his budgetary ones: A complete unwillingness to make hard choices between competing priorities.
Kyl, like most Republican senators, supports an all-out counterinsurgency campaign in Afghanistan. Preventing the Taliban from retaking power, he believes, is worth all the blood and treasure the U.S. is expending there, if not more. But he’s also sympathetic to military action—by Israel or even the United States—against Iran. Iran’s assistance, as it happens, is crucial to our ability to salvage something in Afghanistan. It was Tehran’s help, in fact, that helped the U.S. overthrow the Taliban and install Hamid Karzai in the first place. Is Kyl worried that going to war with Iran (even if Israel struck, the Iranians would surely blame us) will destroy our chances of winning the war on Iran’s eastern border? Who knows? He doesn’t do tradeoffs.
Now he’s set to sink the START treaty because, he says, the Obama administration is still not ponying up enough for nuclear modernization. But there’s a reason that Henry Kissinger, James Baker, Brent Scowcroft, and most of the Republican—not to mention Democratic—foreign-policy establishment is begging for ratification. Because killing the treaty will wreck America’s relations with Russia at a time when we need Moscow’s help to get supplies to U.S. troops in Afghanistan and when we’re hoping the Russians will apply pressure on Iran to halt their nuclear program. Is Kyl more concerned about maintaining America’s nuclear stockpile than preventing Iran from developing one? Would he rather build new weapons labs than keep the Taliban from power? We’ll never know because Kyl doesn’t think like that. In foreign policy, as in fiscal policy, he and most of his fellow Republican leaders want everything and its opposite. They don’t have a clue how to govern in an era in which money and power are massively constrained. Ain’t that “new seriousness” grand?
Peter Beinart, senior political writer for The Daily Beast, is associate professor of journalism and political science at City University of New York and a senior fellow at the New America Foundation. His new book is The Icarus Syndrome: A History of American Hubris. Follow him on Twitter and Facebook.