START Treaty: What Republicans Can Learn from Reagan

Democrats finally have enough GOP votes to pass Obama’s arms reduction pact with Russia—but it wasn’t easy. Steve Weiss on conservatives’ history of putting politics above security.

Democrats finally have enough GOP votes to pass Obama’s arms reduction pact with Russia—but it wasn’t easy. Stanley Weiss on conservatives’ history of putting politics above security.

Now that a sufficient number of Senate Republicans support ratification of the new U.S.-Russia START Treaty to bring the pact to a vote on Wednesday, it’s worth remembering that the phrase at the heart of this treaty—“arms reduction”—was born 23 years ago last week, in a high-profile summit between the U.S. and the Soviet Union in Washington, D.C. Then, as now, to no one’s surprise, the strongest voices of opposition came from communist-hating conservatives. But what was surprising was the unlikely target of conservatives’ harshest criticism: Ronald Reagan.

In December 1987—less than six months after Reagan famously declared at the Brandenburg Gate, “Mr. Gorbachev, tear down this wall!”—Soviet General Secretary Mikhail Gorbachev came to Washington to sign the Intermediate-Range Nuclear Forces (INF) Treaty. For the first time in history, the INF Treaty proposed the outright elimination of an entire class of missiles (and not just “arms control”): namely, nuclear and conventional ground-launched ballistic and cruise missiles with ranges between 300 and 3,400 miles. The U.S. had about 400 such missiles in Western Europe; the Soviets had four times as many across the Iron Curtain.

The treaty was too much for conservatives, who believed that the missiles were central to U.S. relations with its Western European allies. The conservative stalwart National Review dedicated an entire issue to the INF Treaty, calling it “Reagan’s Suicide Pact.” Editor William F. Buckley sent Reagan the first copy, writing in an accompanying letter, “For the first time, I and my colleagues need to take very serious issue with you.”

Henry Kissinger warned that the treaty undid “40 years of NATO.” Conservative columnist George Will ridiculed “the cult of arms control,” writing, “The Soviets want victories; we want treaties.” Conservative Caucus Chairman Howard Phillips fumed that Reagan had become “the speech reader-in-chief for the pro-appeasement triumvirate of (White House Chief of Staff) Howard Baker, Schultz, and (Defense Secretary) Frank Carlucci.” Every Republican presidential candidate, save Vice President George Bush, opposed it. New York Times columnist William Safire seemed to sum it up best: “The Russians... now understand the way to handle Mr. Reagan: Never murder a man who is committing suicide.”

The conservative stalwart National Review dedicated an entire issue to the INF Treaty, calling it “Reagan’s Suicide Pact.”

That may remind you of some of the rhetoric coming from Senate Republicans today. Senator Jon Kyl, for example, complained that the administration “wasn't willing to stand up to the Russians.” But there’s a big difference. Republicans during the INF debate genuinely believed the treaty would weaken America’s security. Senator Bob Dole, the Republican leader in the Senate, who was undecided on the treaty, put it bluntly: “I don’t trust Gorbachev.”

While the INF debate was a clash between two sets of principles, the new START debate seems to be a clash between principles and politics. Despite support from nearly every high-ranking U.S. national-security figure from the past three decades—from Kissinger to Brent Scowcroft to James Baker to Condoleezza Rice—Senate Republicans reportedly want to deny President Obama a political victory, despite Russian Prime Minister Vladimir Putin’s threat that failure to ratify the treaty could kick off a new arms race. This not only threatens America’s security; it sets a bad precedent: How will other nations take America seriously if it is so willing to sacrifice global agreements to petty domestic politics?

Eventually, many of the conservatives who opposed the INF treaty came around to support it. Nine days after the treaty was signed, Dole endorsed it. Five months later, the Senate ratified it. By the treaty’s deadline of June 1, 1991, a total of 2,692 such weapons had been destroyed—846 by the U.S. and 1,846 by the Soviets. Gorbachev later wrote in his memoir, “The INF Treaty represented the first step on our way out of the Cold War... creating a security system that would be based on comprehensive cooperation instead of the threat of mutual destruction.”

In years past, members of the current opposition to the new START Treaty have demonstrated a similar ability to rethink their positions. In the mid-1990s, Kyl, who leads the Republican opposition today, was also one of the leading opponents of the Chemical Weapons Convention—until a group of generals, led by Norman Schwarzkopf, whispered in his ear, “the boys need it.” Kyl changed his vote and the treaty passed.

It’s unclear who is whispering in Kyl’s ear these days, or whether he’d be similarly willing to change his mind. But it may be worth passing along Reagan’s words, delivered in a speech to the Center for Strategic and International Studies, 23 years ago this week: “Any successful foreign policy must be built, not upon a Republican or Democratic consensus, but upon an American consensus... upon an agreement about our nation’s aims in the world that is not sectional nor partisan, but rooted in the will and values of the American people themselves. That policy consensus is one that we must build for ourselves.”

Stanley A. Weiss is founding chairman of Business Executives for National Security, a nonpartisan organization based in Washington.