The Cable

Kerry and DeMint spar over missile defense

At today’s Senate Foreign Relations committee business meeting on New START, chairman John Kerry (D-MA) and Republican Senator Jim DeMint (R-SC) got into an open argument about whether the United States should build a giant missile defense system to protect every American citizen around the world. That’s the idea put forth by DeMint in an ...

At today’s Senate Foreign Relations committee business meeting on New START, chairman John Kerry (D-MA) and Republican Senator Jim DeMint (R-SC) got into an open argument about whether the United States should build a giant missile defense system to protect every American citizen around the world.

That’s the idea put forth by DeMint in an amendment to the resolution of ratification that the committee is considering, in advance of a full senate debate and vote on the nuclear reductions treaty after the November elections. DeMint said at the meeting that if the United States is going to draw down its nuclear arsenal, it should commit to building missile defense such that every U.S. citizen and all U.S. troops abroad are protected.

"This START agreement does not defend the people of the United States," DeMint said. "This amendment commits us and the United States of America to defend the United States to the best of our ability with a missile defense system capable of shooting down multiple missiles."

In an interview with The Cable during a break in the meeting, DeMint said he wanted to scuttle the entire idea of mutually assured destruction, the basic framework of nuclear balancing that has governed the U.S.-Russia security relationship for decades, and build a missile defense system that could defend against Russia.

"If we can shoot down their missiles, they won’t build nuclear weapons," DeMint said. "We are agreeing with the START treaty to continue the policy of mutually assured destruction, which doesn’t protect the American people."

Kerry was visibly frustrated with what he and other committee Democrats saw as a set up that would put them in the position of casting a vote that could later be portrayed as being against defending America.

"We can have a vote whether or not we are going to have a new arms race or whether or not we are going to move in the opposite direction," he said.

Kerry said the DeMint amendment would have the "simple effect of killing the treaty" because it would force the U.S. and Russia back to the drawing table for protracted follow-on negotiations.

He bristled at DeMint’s implications that the START treaty leaves Americans vulnerable to attack and he rejected DeMint’s assertion that the policy of mutually assured destruction was dangerous for American security.

"The notion that strategic defense does not protect strategic stability is absurd," Kerry said at the hearing.

In a brief interview with The Cable, Kerry said that DeMint "wants to build a missile defense system that covers the whole world."

Sens. Bob Corker (R-TN), the newest champion of the START treaty, said at the hearing that he does not believe the treaty constrains U.S. missile defense plans but he nevertheless supported DeMint’s amendment.

Sen. Jeanne Shaheen (D-NH), came to Kerry’s defense. "No president of either party has advocated a missile defense system geared toward Russia ever since the Cold War ended," she said.

But then, Sen. Jim Webb (D-VA) also came out in support of DeMint’s amendment, which meant that it might pass, forcing Kerry to take it seriously. When the committee broke for a short break, Kerry huddled with Assistant Secretary Rose Gottemeoller, who was waiting in an adjoining room. He then scrambled to meet with DeMint and Corker, presumably to work out a compromise.

The Democrats definitely see DeMint’s amendment as a political stunt.

"If you really want this to be something other than a political message, perhaps we can take a couple of days and work on it," said Webb, who promised to vote for the DeMint amendment either way because agreed with the basic thrust of it.

"[Demint’s] just building up enough material to make a 30-second campaign ad," The Cable overheard one Democratic senator say in the elevator. "That’s what this is really about."

Following the backroom meetings, Kerry and DeMint agreed to compromise language, which hasn’t been released because it was being written up furiously, but does endorse the idea of eventually moving away from mutually assured destruction, according to Kerry.

"That’s something we all have tried to move away from for a long time and something we should try to work on in the future," he said.

 Twitter: @joshrogin

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