A Tale of Two Mitts

We know where Barack Obama stands on the world's most dangerous weapons. But what's Mitt Romney's nuclear policy?

Alex Wong/Getty Images
Alex Wong/Getty Images

For a sense of what’s at stake for nuclear policy in this year’s election, consider this: The U.S. government is on track to spend $640 billion over the next 10 years on nuclear weapons and related programs — more than the military’s budget for an entire year. The next president will make key policy decisions early in his term that will have an impact on these budgets and global security more broadly. Four years ago, Barack Obama and John McCain largely agreed on the need to reduce and eventually eliminate nuclear weapons, but this year the candidates are poles apart.

Obama has a well-established agenda on this issue. But Mitt Romney’s policies will depend on whether he brings into the Oval Office the hawkish positions that he staked out for most of the campaign or the moderate posture that he’s assumed in the past month.

The president, for his part, has implemented only part of the comprehensive nuclear policies that he detailed early in his term. Having been frustrated by an entrenched bureaucracy, reluctant global partners, and political opponents for four years, he will likely pick up where he left off if he wins reelection. Senior aides insist Obama is personally committed to breaking with Cold War strategies and weapons. If so, we could expect early action on several fronts.

First, Obama will finally issue the presidential guidance the White House developed to implement the 2010 Nuclear Posture Review. "It is the key to all the nuclear decision-making for the next 20 years," Jon Wolfsthal, a former nuclear security advisor to Vice President Joe Biden, recently told Global Security Newswire. "It is the first commandment in setting all other nuclear decisions." The guidance could cut U.S. strategic warheads from the 1,550 permitted under New START, Obama’s nuclear weapons treaty with Russia, to about 1,000. The White House completed the guidance during the summer but never sent the document to the Pentagon, presumably to mute it as a campaign issue. Once the guidance is issued, the president will then need to decide how to make these cuts. He could move to adjust U.S. nuclear forces to these levels quickly, either through unilateral reductions or reciprocal reductions with the Russians.

On that front, Obama is also likely to seek a new round of negotiations with Moscow on a cooperative approach to missile defense and on a treaty to spell out deeper reductions in each country’s nuclear arsenal. The missile talks could take months; the new treaty talks, two or three years. Brookings scholars Steve Pifer and Michael O’Hanlon believe the new treaty should "limit each country to no more than 2,000-2,500 total nuclear warheads," down from the 8,000-10,000 that each side now possesses.

The Obama administration will also have to decide whether to push for Senate approval of the treaty banning all nuclear tests everywhere. President Bill Clinton negotiated the Comprehensive Nuclear Test Ban Treaty (CTBT) in 1996 but could not get Senate approval in 1999 during Republican impeachment efforts. If the president thinks he has a reasonable chance of securing Senate backing for the treaty, he may very well pursue what could prove to be a major part of his legacy — and Clinton’s.

Iran, of course, will remain at the top of the president’s foreign-policy agenda as well. We will likely emerge from 2012 without military strikes on Iran (conducted by either Israel or the United States), without an Iranian dash toward the bomb, and with some political space for diplomacy intact. Obama’s key strategic challenge will be to expand political support for a negotiated solution and to develop the process and substance for an agreement that restrains Iran’s program.

And what if Romney emerges victorious this week? Should Romney the Hawk become president, he would deep-six most of this agenda. You could kiss CTBT goodbye, expect U.S. and Russian nuclear buildups rather than reductions, forget about negotiations with Russia, and get ready for a rough ride with Iran.

Romney’s corral of advisors and acidic attacks on New START provide evidence for this view. Security expert Susan Eisenhower, who broke with the Republican Party to endorse Obama four years ago, worries that "[i]n the foreign policy realm, where Romney has little personal experience, he will be heavily reliant on his advisors, most of whom are neocons as well as former Bush administration officials." Eisenhower told MSNBC’s Chris Matthews that a first-term Romney administration would likely hew to more conservative policies to avoid a far-right primary challenger four years hence.

This President Romney would likely abandon the process of negotiating reductions in nuclear weapons — as the Bush administration did — expand missile defense programs, increase nuclear weapons funding, and perhaps test new nuclear weapons. He would eschew arms control agreements based on the logic that they weaken America’s security, pay scant attention to international forums like the Non-Proliferation Treaty conferences, and seek to overthrow hostile regimes in Iran and North Korea through either sabotage and sanctions or direct military action. John Bolton, whom Romney hinted could become his secretary of state, has said that "America should support an Israeli attack [on Iran] as the least-worst option."

While many experts consider Romney’s promise to increase the military budget to 4 percent of GDP unrealistic, even moving toward that goal will likely mean major funding increases for nuclear weapons. He, like Obama, will have to decide in the next two or three years whether to produce the new nuclear-armed submarines, missiles, and bombers in development. Intended to replace the Cold War weapons due for retirement in the next decade, these systems would be with us for another 50 years — and the price tag would be enormous. The Navy estimates that the new nuclear submarine fleet alone would cost $350 billion over the life of the program. Obama’s policies could shrink this force and its budget; Romney’s could increase it.

On the other hand, if conservative columnist David Brooks is right, Romney could decide to govern from the middle. "Mr. Romney’s shape-shifting nature," Brooks writes, "would induce him to govern as a center-right moderate." He could implement an Obama-lite agenda — or even outperform Obama. The truth is, Republicans do arms control better than Democrats. Freed from attacks from the right, Republican presidents can oversee reductions the GOP would never permit Democratic presidents to make. Ronald Reagan and George H.W. Bush cut the nuclear arsenal by 50 percent, and George W. Bush cut it another 50 percent — including unilateral reductions implemented by executive order. The fact that this isn’t widely known shows how uncontroversial cuts are when Republicans implement them.

Moderate Mitt, blocked by fiscal reality from ramping up the Pentagon budget, could squeeze budget savings out of the nuclear weapons programs, bring more nations into reduction talks, cut a deal with Iran and not test any new weapons (even if he refrains from ratifying the test ban treaty). And he could do it with overwhelming congressional support.

One can only hope.

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