Terms of Engagement

A Chief’s Service

Meet Adm. Mike Mullen, unsung hero of Congress's not-so-lame duck session -- and Sen. Lindsey Graham, its undeniable goat.

Chip Somodevilla/Getty Images
Chip Somodevilla/Getty Images

Let us now praise Adm. Mike Mullen, who earlier this week helped deliver congressional approval of both the New START nuclear-arms deal with Russia and the end of the military’s Don’t Ask Don’t Tell policy toward gay soldiers. The chairman of the Joint Chiefs of Staff is the grayest of gray eminences, a ponderously respectable figure for the Sunday talk shows with none of the electric crackle of a Wesley Clark or a David Petraeus. And yet it’s a fair guess that neither of these signal achievements would have been possible without Mullen’s very public support.

President Barack Obama acknowledged as much when he thanked Mullen at the Wednesday ceremony marking the repeal of DADT. Obama quoted Mullen as having said, "Our people sacrifice a lot for their country, including their lives. None of them should have to sacrifice their integrity as well," and the shout-out won the loudest ovation at what was a very emotional event. Mullen played an even more crucial, and certainly more delicate, role in the debate than did Defense Secretary Robert Gates, since leading Republicans like Sen. John McCain had said they would look to the service chiefs for guidance, and since senior figures in the Army and the Marines had expressed doubts about repeal. And Mullen — an appointee, crucially, of George W. Bush — remained unequivocal throughout, both in testimony and in public comments. "America has moved on," the chairman said. "America’s military is ready, by and large, to move on as well." The fact that McCain disregarded Mullen’s appeal to vote against repeal says far more about him than it does about doubts within the military.

Mullen played a slightly less visible, but no less important, role on New START, a treaty he had helped negotiate with Moscow earlier in the year. I was on the Hill for the final push on START earlier this week, and its passage was by no means a foregone conclusion. As of Sunday, only two or three Republicans had pledged to vote for the treaty, and, with rising anger among Republicans over the repeal of DADT the day before, there was real fear in the White House that Obama would suffer the public humiliation of failure on an arms-control measure.

That same day, John Kerry, chairman of the Senate Foreign Relations Committee, asked Mullen to send him a letter covering the most critical issues surrounding the treaty. The Mullen letter stated that ratifying New START was "vital to U.S. national security"; that the treaty would improve relations with Russia and strengthen the U.S.’s role on nonproliferation; that START "does not in any way constrain our ability to pursue robust missile defenses"; and that absent START’s verification provisions, "our understanding of Russia’s nuclear posture will continue to erode." On Monday afternoon, Kerry held a classified session of the Senate to allow senators to discuss these issues, and to be briefed by senior Obama administration officials. Kerry read the letter to members at the closed session.

And then, as soon as the session ended, Kerry released the letter to the press. The Washington Post ran an article on it above the fold on its front page the following day. The letter offered jittery Republicans more of the cover they needed to vote yes. "We viewed it as a very helpful letter," a senior Republican staff member told me. After voting for the treaty, Bob Corker, a Tennessee Republican and one of the fence-sitters as of Sunday, said, "I am pleased to support a treaty that continues the legacy of President Reagan who signed the first nuclear arms reduction treaty with Russia in 1987" — a point Obama officials had been driving home for months. Corker added, "Chairman of the Joint Chiefs of Staff Admiral Mike Mullen says the treaty is vital to U.S. national security; I agree."

Republicans, of course, sought no such cover when they voted to adopt the so-called Moscow Treaty, which George W. Bush negotiated in 2002. The Moscow Treaty, like New START, cut the number of launchers and warheads each side could deploy, but contained no verification measures, unlike START. And yet the treaty encountered no opposition from either side of the aisle. Democrats generally like arms-control pacts, and Republicans don’t mind treaties so long as a Republican reaches them. Indeed Democratic Presidents Jimmy Carter and Bill Clinton both suffered terrible setbacks on arms-control issues: Carter had to withdraw the SALT treaty rather than submitting to a certain defeat and Clinton, without full support from the military and the national weapons labs, failed to win even a majority of senators on the Comprehensive Test Ban Treaty. Obama ultimately won on START because he lined up the entire Republican national-security establishment and the military brass.

As we tip our cap to the chairman of the Joint Chiefs, let us also pause to gape in horror at the spectacle of Sen. Lindsey Graham, Republican of South Carolina and one-time anointed heir to John McCain’s abandoned role of Republican maverick, now standing fast with the lunatic fringe-turned-majority of the GOP caucus on arms control (and DADT, for that matter). Another Sunday fence-sitter, Graham not only voted against START but barely pretended to consider it on the merits. Instead, he insisted that the vote on DADT had "poisoned" the atmosphere in the Senate, whining that "It’s been a week where you are dealing with a lot of big issues from taxes to funding the government to special interest politics. And I’ve had some time to think about START but not a lot and it’s really wearing on the body." Graham and McCain allegedly offered the White House a deal in which they would round up the votes for START in exchange for deep-sixing DADT. Thankfully, Obama officials said no.

What’s happened to the senator who used to be Graham? Has Mitch McConnell, the GOP leader in the Senate, planted electrodes in the brains of would-be rebels so that he can send a jolt of conventional right-wing thinking whenever they threaten to seriously stray? Or has the public fear and anger that the Republicans have so masterfully cultivated begun to wreak havoc in their own ranks?

Mullen must be feeling very thankful that his only constituent is the President of the United States.

James Traub is a regular contributor to Foreign Policy, a nonresident fellow at New York University’s Center on International Cooperation, and author of the book What Was Liberalism? The Past, Present and Promise of A Noble Idea.

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