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It’s Good to be the Speaker November 3, 2010

Posted by SV in Democracy, Politics, President Obama.
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John Boehner may not be directing a human chessboard in the Rotunda against the minority leader anytime soon, but he is about to find some substantial influence as the Speaker of the House.  He will lead a caucas far more united than the Democratic ones that Speaker Pelosi had to manage for her 4 years with her raucous Blue Dogs on her right flank.  He has a historic opportunity to serve as both the chief critic of the Administration as well as an architect in steering through bills that will highlight Republican solutions to the nation’s problems.  Now that the dust has settled (mostly), here is my underqualified analysis of yesterday’s election:

The House

It’s good to be John Boehner today.  The Republican Party is on track to have its biggest majority since 1947.  In virtually every competitive race, GOP candidates pulled off upsets, some expected, some surprising.  Three key races indicate the depth of the wave that swept the country last night.  In New Hampshire, both House races went to Republicans, providing a respectable toehold in New England, which has been devoid of Republican representatives since 2006.  As a sidenote, GOP candidates also did well in the Middle Atlantic states of New York and Pennsylvania.

A second important race saw Rep. John Spratt (D-SC) swept from office after 28 years representing the district.  He received a lot of flak for his chairmanship of the Budget Committee, which failed to pass a budget this year.  His demise, along with Gene Taylor’s in Mississippi, indicates that long-term incumbency is no longer enough to save these moderate Democrats in heavily Republican districts.  The final race, which came as somewhat of a surprise, was Rep. Ike Skelton’s (D-MO) loss to Republican Vicky Hartzler.  Skelton has served for 17 terms, was the chairman of the Armed Services Committee, and was basically a moderate.  However, Hartzler proved an energetic campaigner, while Skelton (aged 77) did not run much of a campaign, relying on his incumbency and name recognition.  These races suggest that not only are moderate Blue Dogs and senior leaders not safe, but even liberals who overread their 2006/2008 mandates are vulnerable to challenges.

Presumptive Speaker-Elect John Boehner and Democrats highlighting the post-election casualty list

Now after the hyperanxiety of the campaign, the hard part begins.  Winning will prove easier than governing from the majority in the House.  To fulfill campaign promises, Republicans will (and should) pass various bills targeting Obamacare, financial regulation, stimulus programs, and other acts of the past two years.  Many of these will fall victim to Senate filibusters.  Nonetheless, they will be important symbolic statements to show the GOP is serious about its principles.  Once that statement is made clear, Republicans will have to contribute positive ideas to promote job growth and economic stabilization.  They can and should offer sound conservative bills.  But they should also offer some that have a decent shot of Senate passage.  Willing to compromise on a couple issues here and there will show the GOP is responsible and capable of not just shooting down Democratic proposals.

So John Boehner has his work cut out for him (sorry for the cliche).  The speaker’s platform and House majority will be a useful platform against the Obama Administration’s excesses and policies.  Some of the most egregious programs of the past two years will be flooded with amendments, hearings and investigations.  But Republicans will also have a great opportunity to demonstrate their ability to lead, to hold true to their principles and rein in government, and to not screw it up like last time.

The Senate

The Senate will clearly earn its moniker as the “saucer that cools the tea” over the next two years.  A lot of bills coming from the House will be slowed down in the Senate, where the narrow Democratic majority will put a brake on bills originating from the House, especially if they were sponsored by Tea Party-backed members.  However, bills that are not wildly controversial (like repealing Obamacare or razing the Department of Education) could pass with the support of a couple moderate Democrats like Joe Manchin or Ben Nelson (both up for reelection in 2012).  Nonetheless, look for a record low number of bills to emerge from the Senate for the President’s signature.

As a sidenote, Joe Manchin (D-WV) and Mark Kirk (R-IL) will be seated very soon since they are replacing appointed senators.  This will complicate any Democratic plans to take advantage of a lame duck session of Congress to pass unpopular bills before they lose their House majority and substantial Senate majority.  Senator Harry Reid, against all odds, managed to pull off his reelection by a comfortable margin.  Now that he has to deal with a Republican House, look for lots of publicity duels between him and Boehner.

John Boehner and Harry Reid will have a lot to talk about over these next 2 years

Ballot Initiatives

The most overlooked story of the election.  In addition to selecting new members of Congress, state legislators, and governors, citizens in many states voted on a number of key issues in ballot initiatives.  Here are some of the most important:

Health Care - Every state that had a ballot measure on striking down or targeting the individual health care mandate  saw it pass by significant margins – Arizona (55-45), Colorado (53-47), and Oklahoma (65-35).  These clearly challenge federal law and will end up before the Supreme Court.  They demonstrate the continuing resilience of the Obamacare law since its passage in March.

Going to Pot… Not - Marijuana was a big issue in Arizona and California.  Despite the liberal/libertarian bent of the region, the cause for expanded marijuana legalization suffered across the board losses.  Arizona’s attempt to legalize medical marijuana came the closest, with about 7,000 more “No” votes, although it has not officially been called yet.  South Dakota decisively voted down medical marijuana by a 63-37 margin. Over the much more contentious issue of legalizing the drug for general consumption, California voters rejected that idea by a comparatively wide margin of 54-46.  The analysis? Traditional voters and those uncomfortable with encouraging the acceptability of marijuana, are not just limited to whites and Republicans.  Solid majorities of African-, Latino-, and Asian Americans voted the measure down too.

Redistricting – California, as in many other areas, once again pioneered new ideas.  With 61% of the vote, Californians voted to take the power of redistricting away from the state legislature and hand it to a 14-person citizens commission.  This commission is to consist of an equal number of Republicans and Democrats, as well as some non-affiliated California voters.  The goal is to end gerrymandering that carves so much of  California into safe Democratic and Republican seats.  The impact (and success of this idea) will not be fully known until the new district lines are drawn.  At the very least, Republicans don’t have to feel so bad about losing the governorship to Jerry Brown, since his hand in redistricting has been nullified.

Budget Vote Requirement - California’s budget and fiscal health has been notoriously dysfunctional.  With the approval of Proposition 25, the state legislature will require just a simple majority (as opposed to the current 2/3 supermajority) to pass a budget.  The one exception is if new tax rises are included.  This proposition has the potential to loosen up some of California’s paralysis, but that remains to be seen.

Secret Union Ballot - In Arizona, South Carolina, South Dakota, and Utah, voters approved by wide margins initiatives to preserve the secret ballot for unions.  Clearly a preemptive strike should Democrats try to resurrect card check.

Rhode Island is Named What? – Perhaps the strangest yet important ballot initiative of the election was the question of renaming the state of Rhode Island, or rather the “State of Rhode Island and Providence Plantations.”  Seems some people are offended by the very term “plantation,” for its past association with slavery.  Nonetheless, common sense prevailed and political correctness failed with a vote of 78-22 to keep the historic official name of the state.

My Midterm Musings November 2, 2010

Posted by SV in Democracy, Politics, Republican Party, Uncategorized.
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No election day would be complete without my underqualified analysis and predictions on the day’s outcome.  I have been a poll-junkie over the past several months, and have read up on as many House and Senate races as I could.  It will be no surprise that Republicans will have a very good night, the question has just become how much of one it will be.  The GOP will almost certainly retake the House, and pick up a minimum of 7 Senate seats, possibly as many as 9.  So without further ado, here are some of my predictions and races to watch:

Final Senate Tally: Net gain of 8 seats

Final House Tally: Net gain of 57 seats

Senate
Critical GOP Gains: Illinois, Colorado, Nevada - If Republicans can pick off President Obama’s old Senate seat, it will be a huge morale victory and portend big gains in the Great Lakes region.  GOP candidates are already doing very well in every state bordering Illinois (WI, IA, IN, KY, and MO), so Mark Kirk has a better than even shot of pulling this off.  Colorado’s GOP candidate, Ken Buck, has seen his margin in the polls tighten over the past month, but his lead has been consistent.  Assuming the Colorado gubernatorial debacle does not peel away votes from him, he should pull off a narrow victory.  Few Senate races have gotten as much media attention, or outside money, as Sharron Angle’s bid to upset Senator Harry Reid in Nevada.  Although this race has been within the margin of error for months, expect Reid to be narrowly defeated by night’s end.

Longest Wait: Alaska - In all likelihood, the final results of the Alaska Senate race will not be known for days, or even weeks, after voting ends tonight.  The 3-way contest between Republican Joe Miller, Democrat Scott McAdams, and Republican-running-as-an-independent-write-in Lisa Murkowski (the current senator who lost her primary), has been a roller coaster.  Miller, who enjoyed a lead for months, has seen his support slip as moderates and Republicans flock to Murkowski.  My prediction is that Murkowski will come in first, Miller in second, and McAdams in third.  However, many of her write-in votes may be invalidated by the courts, so this could be a replay of the Minnesota senate contest two years ago.

Biggest Open-Seat Blowout for Democrat: Delaware – Delaware Republicans nominated an unelectable conservative in their deep blue state.  Democrat Chris Coons will walk away with this one by at least 15 points.

Biggest Open-Seat Blowout for Republican: North Dakota - Next to only the Kansas and Utah races, this one has the best chance of the Republican, the popular governor John Hoeven, crossing the 70% threshold.

Biggest Surprise of the Night: Republican John Rease wins in West Virginia - The Mountaineers are traditionally Democratic but have backed Republicans in the past several presidential elections.  The Democrat running to fill Robert Byrd’s old seat, Governor Joe Manchin, boasts a popularity rate above 60%.  His GOP rival is a successful businessman, but he has a favorable rating far below the governor.   If West Virginians elect Raese, it will clearly be a signal that they are deeply dissatisfied with President Obama’s agenda.  If they elect Manchin, it will also be a signal that they are deeply dissatisfied with the ruling party (witness his ad where he shoots a copy of the Cap and Trade bill).  Expect Manchin to be the most conservative Democrat in the chamber.

Don’t Count Them Out: Fiorina in CA and Rossi in WA – Although both of these candidates are down in the polls, their challenges have become the toughest incumbents Barbara Boxer (CA) and Patty Murray (WA) have yet faced.  California’s contest will hinge on turnout (Democratic likely to be higher here than in the rest of the country due to the marijuana initiative) and the fallout from the tumultuous governor’s race.  While Rossi has come within striking distance of Murray, it may be too little too late.  Almost all of Washington votes by absentee ballot or early voting, so the contest was likely decided over the past couple weeks.

House

Bellweather for Anti-Incumbency: Barletta Beats Kanjorski in PA – In 2008, Democrat Paul Kanjorski (PA-11) was reelected to his 13th term with just 52% of the vote.  President Obama carried the district by a much wider margin.  If Republican Lou Barletta pulls off the upset, it could well be a signal that voters across the country are willing to vote out their own long-serving representatives, even though their seniority often brings influence and federal dollars to the district.

Bellweather for Northeast Comeback: Hanna Knocks Off Arcuri in NY - Democrat Michael Arcuri (NY-24) won his second term in 2008 with just 52%.  The district he represents has a slight Republican registration advantage.  Currently only 2 members of New York’s 29 House districts are Republicans.  If the GOP is to have any hope of establishing a firm foothold in the majority, it will have to wrest away seats like this in the northeast that flipped in 2006 and 2008 to Democrats.  Republicans cannot hope to have a lasting majority if they are locked out of the 3rd biggest state in the country (Texas by contrast has 12 Democrats to 20 Republicans).

Campaign Strategy: Perriello vs. Hurt in VA - In 2008, Democrat Tom Perriello (VA-5) was elected to an open seat by a margin in the hundreds of votes.  Since then he has become a vocal and consistent supporter of President Obama’s agenda.  This has hurt him in a district where Republicans have a 5-point registration advantage.  In 2008 he was able to draw on the support of UVA students and Charlottesville liberals.  If they do not turn out this year, he is sunk.  He has become the only representative to bring President Obama to campaign specifically for his district.  While most Democrats are running away from their leader, Perriello is embracing him.  If he wins, Democrats will be emboldened to run strongly on their record in 2012.  If he loses, they may become more timid in their support of the President’s agenda. 

Biggest Surprise of the Night: Charles Djou Holds on in HI - While Republicans have occasionally held the governorship in Hawaii, they have been virtually locked out of the congressional delegations.  When Neil Abercrombie retired to run for governor, Republican Charles Djou won his seat in a special election, helped by the fact that two Democrats remained in the race.  Although at the time many assumed he would serve a short stint in Congress, polls have him within the margin of error to his one opponent this time.  Either for lack of Democratic enthusiasm, or just Hawaiians wanting to give him a shot at a full term, there is a slight chance Djou may pull this race off.

Are Open Primaries the Solution? September 16, 2010

Posted by SV in Democracy, Republican Party.
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Unpredictability has been the norm in the 2010 election cycle so far.  While many incumbents are feeling the heat from angry and dissatisfied voters, the wrath of the Tea Parties has so far fallen disproportionately on Republicans.  Just this week Delaware GOP primary voters chose Christine O’Donnell, a firebrand conservative who has lost statewide races twice, over Representative (and former governor) Mike Castle, who has won statewide races twelve times.  The result: Biden’s old Senate seat will almost certainly be a safe Democratic hold.  Why have the Tea Parties proven so destructive to the Republican Party?  Because they tend to lean Republican and thus vote in GOP primaries, allowing many Democrats to escape their electoral clout, at least until the general election in November.

Michael Castle (R-DE): Moderate Republican, An Endangered Species?

What has been the result of this intra-party rivalry?  In state after state, “establishment” and/or moderate Republican candidates have lost to Tea Party-backed insurgents and “outsiders” in the primaries, often with the backing of conservative kingmakers Sarah Palin and Senator Jim DeMint.  The impact of these races will be mixed in November.  While Tea Party candidates for the Senate may still win in Kentucky and Alaska, they are more likely lose in Nevada and Delaware (seats that more moderate GOP candidates may have easily won).  However, this does not tell the full story.  In six years (or less for House members) the electoral climate will almost certainly be different, and new senators such as Joe Miller (AK) or Rand Paul (KY) may find themselves losing reelection races in their red states (just as the 2006 and 2008 elections swept away Republicans in supposedly safe seats).  As a disclaimer, this may not hold true for candidates that have Tea Party support but are not controlled by them, such as Marco Rubio in Florida or Pat Toomey in Pennsylvania.

Sarah Palin and Jim DeMint: The Democrats' Best Friends?

It is therefore highly likely that the GOP primaries this year will threaten Republicans’ prospect of winning the Senate (and narrow its advantage in the House) in 2010 as well as endanger any majorities in future election cycles.  What, then, is the solution to this growing problem?  How can moderates of both parties hope to fend off challenges from the far left or right without making extreme statements or casting votes that make them unelectable come November?  On the state scene, California and Washington have adopted an innovative solution: open, nonpartisan primaries.  The constitutional amendment approved by 53% of Californians in June, Proposition 14, will take effect in the 2012 elections (see here for a description of the measure by ballotpedia).

“Top two” primaries would be a significant break from traditional American politics.  Instead of candidates running in their own party primaries (and often having to run to the left or right to secure their bases), they would run against all other candidates for that office, regardless of party.  Every voter would get the same ballot, which could have multiple Republican, Democratic, and third-party candidates on it.  Whichever top two candidates received the most votes would face off in the general election.

This could, of course, cause two candidates of the same party (or ideological persuasion) to wind up being the two choices in November, especially in deep-blue states like Vermont or deep-red states like Idaho.  However, this is not a bad thing.  Since one of the candidates would likely be more moderate (or more likable, inspiring, trustworthy, etc.), it would give an incentive to independents and voters from the other party to support the candidate closer to their values.  This may seem like picking the lesser of two evils, but it is certainly better than the current system.  In states or districts dominated by one party, heavily outnumbered minority party voters either vote for their candidate who is destined to lose by a wide margin or do not vote at all.  A report by the Center for Governmental Studies found that members of the minority party could have substantial clout in electing the more moderate candidate.  As a side effect, top two primaries could significantly increase the number of Americans participating in the electoral process.

This system would obviously stir up a great deal of controversy.  Party bosses in California complained it would spell the death of political parties.  However, a party leadership could always support or oppose a candidate wishing to run under its banner.  Those who argue that such a system would produce ineffective or unprincipled candidates always trying to appeal to the middle have clearly not looked around lately.  Is it not better for candidates to appeal to the electoral center and majority instead of the far ends of the spectrum?  At the very least it would help tone down the divisive rhetoric and restore a semblance of civility to our electoral process.

Governor Schwarzenegger, Moderate Republican, Welcoming the Approval of Proposition 14

Examining the cases of Delaware and Arkansas this election cycle can shed some light on how this system would affect primary contests.  In Delaware a “top two” primary, in which independents and everyone else could vote for any candidate, would almost certainly have produced Republican Mike Castle and Democrat Chris Coons as the candidates.  Christine O’Donnell, who snatched victory from the moderate Castle and has no chance in November, would not have made it to the general election because she lacks broad appeal in Delaware.  In Arkansas, incumbent Democratic Senator Blanche Lincoln may not have had to run to her left and may have avoided a costly run-off if an open primary were in place.  Though she still would probably lose to Republican John Boozman, the contest may have been slightly more competitive.

Adopting the top two primary in more states would shake up American politics.  After a couple of election cycles, this system would have the potential to produce a more respectful political climate, more bipartisanship, and broadly agreeable and durable solutions to the economic, social, and political problems that have plagued the country for decades.  In that way this solution to often self-destructive party primaries may engender solutions to far greater, nationwide problems.

Primaries and a New Rise of Antiestablishmentarianism May 21, 2010

Posted by SV in Democracy, Politics, President Obama, Republican Party, Uncategorized.
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Tuesday’s primaries were surely a preview of things to come in November – unpredictability, anti-incumbency, and polarization.  The hammer of populist rancor and antiestablishmentarianism fell equally on Republicans and Democrats, and Republicans-turned-Democrats.  Both as a result of the primaries and the special election that took place in Pennsylvania, it appears that the tsunami of 2010 may be a more modest tidal wave than was previously anticipated.

First, a brief look at the races starting with the Keystone state.  In the Pennsylvania Democratic primary, Joe Sestak, a relatively unknown 2-term U.S. congressman, unseated incumbent Republican-turned-Democrat Arlen Specter.  Specter was known for his moderate views and independence from party over his 30-year career, which often mirrored the positions of PA voters.  According to CQ, Specter and Sestak both voted with President Obama and the Democratic leadership over 95% of the time in 2009.  So what accounts for the primary voters’ abandonment of Specter, who was endorsed by the governor and the President?  Part of it was this anti-incumbent phenomenon, but part of it must also be attributed to the fact that there wasn’t much difference between the two candidates, and the energetic and younger Sestak tirelessly pointed back to Specter’s three decades as a Republican.  It will be interesting to see whether Sestak can continue his anti-establishment campaign while he holds a congressional seat in the face of Pat Toomey’s challenge.

The special election in PA’s 12th congressional district, to replace the late John Murtha, was equally significant.  In a district where largely conservative voters hold a Democratic registration advantage of 2 to 1 over Republicans, Democrat Mark Critz won by a small margin.  He did this by running to the right, saying he would have voted against the health care bill, cap and trade, and other unpopular bills.  It did, however, provide a blueprint for those Blue Dog Democrats fighting to hold onto their seats – come out strongly against the administration’s agenda and focus on local issues so as not to nationalize the race.  Whether this will be successful remains to be seen, but it may thwart Republican prospects of capturing the 40 seats needed to retake control of the House of Representatives.

The Kentucky race was probably the most fascinating of the evening.  Kentucky Secretary of State Trey Grayson, backed by moderate Republicans and the GOP establishment, was crushed by over twenty points by his Tea Party rival, Rand Paul (son of long-shot presidential contender Ron Paul).  A self-described libertarian, Paul ran a relentless anti-establishment campaign (he has never held public office) against the pragmatic conservative Grayson.  In this action Kentucky primary voters effectively devoured one of their own to nominate someone with pure ideological credentials – someone who probably belongs in the Libertarian Party more than the Republican Party.  The fact that Paul had to spend the first day of the general election campaign defending his position on the Civil Rights Act with theoretical arguments spells trouble for his prospects in November, as Michael Gerson of the Washington Post makes clear here.  I will go out on a limb and opine that the KY primary has effectively killed the GOP’s slim chances of winning 10 seats and retaking the Senate in November.

Both parties are eating their own in the search for ideologically pure candidates

In Arkansas, the primary was much less conclusive.  Three-term incumbent Senator Blanche Lincoln narrowly edged her liberal opponent, but she was still below 50%, which forces the contest into a runoff in early June.  Her opponent, Lt. Gov. Bill Halter, criticized her not only for her moderate views but also on an anti-establishment, anti-incumbent platform.  Lincoln, who was already considered one of the Senate’s most vulnerable Democrats in November, may pull it out in June but is unlikely to repeat the miracle in November.

So what is the lesson from the elections on Tuesday (and the Utah GOP convention last month)?  It seems to be that moderates and incumbents, regardless of party, will be persecuted in November.  If a candidate did not always support or always oppose the President, voters will be more inclined to send them packing, branding them as too establishment to represent their constituents.  This spells trouble not so much for the parties as for the nation as a whole.

Pure ideologues have their role to play in our political system, but it has never been the dominant role.  Partisan voting has its advantages on certain issues, but not the critically important ones such as national security (conflicts, treaties) or domestic policy (health care, energy policy).  While some of this is the fault of liberal over-reach in Congress and the White House, the remedy is not to elect hyper-partisan (or libertarian) politicians.  If the Democrats wish to lend permanency to their legislative accomplishments, they will have to retain the moderate forces within their party to hold valuable seats in the South and West.  If the Republicans wish to roll-back some of the more egregious excesses of the Obama Administration, they will have to retain their own moderates to hold or win valuable seats in the Northeast, Southwest, and Midwest.  Antiestablishmentarianism is attractive when voters are seeking to “throw the bums out,” but the parties and candidates are playing with fire – to be effective, they not only have to be capable of running against Washington but also of mastering it in order to govern.  Otherwise they will quickly become the “bums” they so recently evicted.

One-Sided Arms Control April 26, 2010

Posted by SV in Nuclear Proliferation, President Obama, Russia, U.S. Foreign Relations, Uncategorized.
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[This article was first published by the Center for Vision and Values here: http://www.visandvals.org/One_Sided_Arms_Control.php]

President Obama signed the New Strategic Arms Reduction Treaty (START) in Prague on April 8—and did so to global accolades. It was the culmination of years of negotiations and a major triumph to finally achieve agreement with Moscow. Unfortunately, President Obama’s signature was attached to a naïve arms control treaty that threatens the strength of the U.S. nuclear umbrella that defends over 30 friends and allies. It compromises American interests while benefiting the Russians and weakening international security and stability.

On the surface, START looks like a reasonable albeit constrictive treaty. The 800 delivery-vehicle limit on bombers and missiles is about 100 below what is currently deployed. The 1,550 nuclear-warhead limit can easily be achieved by retiring some aging B-52s and changing the way they are counted. The treaty provides for telemetry exchanges (information from missile test launches), which promotes mutual trust. It also contains no overt constraints on missile defense or the ability to deploy non-nuclear systems with global reach.

A quick glance at the treaty’s effects is more troubling. The 800 delivery-vehicle limit will cut valuable systems used to defend the United States and reassure its allies. Conversely, Russia only has to continue already planned decommissioning of obsolete missiles and submarines. The U.S. intercontinental ballistic missile (ICBM) force will probably have to be reduced from 450 to 400 deployed missiles. The most survivable nuclear platforms, stealthy ballistic-missile submarines, will shrink by two submarines to remove four dozen missiles from accountability.

The bomber fleet will be limited to 18 stealth B-2s and dozens of 50-year-old B-52s. The remainder will be converted to conventional-only capabilities or simply eliminated. The future triad of missiles, submarines, and bombers will therefore be smaller, less flexible, and less capable of reassuring America’s friends and allies in threatening environments.

These cuts may seem minimal, but when the missile reductions are combined with the cancellation of NASA’s Constellation program, they could severely weaken the already decimated industrial base. The solid-rocket-motor industry is particularly vulnerable to collapse. An inability to sustain and replace valuable systems like ballistic missiles will have long-term negative consequences for our scientific and deterrent capability.

While the new warhead limit is 30 percent below the Moscow Treaty of 2002 limit, complicated counting rules give the Russians a whopping advantage. Each Russian bomber can carry eight warheads on cruise missiles, with the potential for more in the bomb bay. Under the New START, those 76 bombers count as only 76 warheads. Therefore, Moscow could deploy 500 or more warheads above the 1,550 limit, which would put it equal or above the Moscow Treaty limits. The United States, with its strict adherence to treaty law, will not imitate such devious accounting to ignore the 1,550 limit. Can we say the same for the Russian Federation?

The Bush administration began talks on a successor to START in its final years. The Obama administration publicly designated negotiations as the centerpiece of its “reset” with Russia and rushed negotiations in such a manner that the Russians knew exactly who wanted the treaty more. As former Bush administration official Stephen Rademaker has argued, you do not go to a car dealer and say “I absolutely positively have to have that car and I need it today, how much is it?” However, that is exactly what the president has done. In an effort to meet arbitrary deadlines, the American negotiators made multiple unnecessary concessions, most notably abandoning the missile-defense sites in Poland and the Czech Republic. Now Russia is objecting to any future missile-defense deployments, saying they would be cause to withdraw from the New START.

This treaty is different from past nuclear reductions in one important aspect: It is meant as a “down-payment” on President Obama’s pledge for moving toward a “world without nuclear weapons,” rather than to primarily improve U.S. national security. President Obama needs START to (among other things) justify his Nobel Peace Prize. He will push senators to provide their advice and consent for ratification of a bad treaty. Although many senators will want to avoid the pro-nuclear weapon label, the existence of these weapons has guaranteed American security for over 60 years.

The New START has turned out to be a golden missed opportunity. Instead of negotiating a treaty with modest reductions and extensive verification provisions, the administration opted for a bold approach. Proponents argue that the United States no longer needs the nuclear force structure it has from the Cold War. They assert that America’s conventional superiority can increasingly fulfill the mission of nuclear weapons. Conventional weapons, however, do not have the same deterrent effect provided by nuclear forces. As Margaret Thatcher observed, “There are monuments to the futility of conventional deterrence in every village in Europe.” Until the international security environment is severely improved, drastic reductions in U.S. and Russian strategic nuclear weapons will not make the world more secure. Address the root causes of conflict between states, and wider nuclear reductions will be more successful and constructive.

The CTBT Revisited: Has Anything Really Changed? September 22, 2009

Posted by SV in China, Iran, Israel, Nuclear Proliferation, President Obama, Russia, Science, U.S. Foreign Relations.
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[This article was picked up by the Center for Vision and Values and is available here: http://www.visandvals.org/New_Life_for_the_CTBT.php]

The Comprehensive Test Ban Treaty (CTBT), an agreement which would ban all nuclear tests, may soon be revived from its purgatory in the Senate.   It was signed by President Clinton in 1996 and rejected by the Senate in October 1999.  The arguments that denied ratification by a 19 vote margin still ring true today.    In his Prague speech, however, President Obama called for prompt U.S. ratification of the treaty.  He is expected to do the same at the UN later this month.

In rejecting the CTBT, Senate opponents listed several concerns that motivated their decision.  They believed the CTBT was unverifiable and that others nations could easily cheat; the ability to enforce the treaty was dubious; the U.S. nuclear stockpile would not be as safe or reliable in the absence of testing; and the benefit to nuclear nonproliferation was minimal.[i]

Ten years later, many of these concerns are still relevant.  The issue of verification has been improved but not settled.  The CTBT Organization has set up a network of 228 monitoring stations around the world, but significant gaps still exist.[ii] There are no stations in India or North Korea, and only one in Pakistan and Turkey.  Sixty-one stations detected North Korea’s nuclear test in May 2009, but none detected radioactive gases to corroborate the seismic data.[iii] If North Korea was able to conceal such radiation, there is no reason to believe China or Russia could not as well.

As the continuing crises with North Korea and Iran illustrate, enforcing treaty obligations or punishing rule-breakers is not always effective.  It is often, in fact, completely ineffective due to a lack of international cooperation.  If a nuclear test were detected in Pakistan, India,[iv] or China, what would happen next?  If the record with Pyongyang or Tehran is any indicator, the violating state would take some rhetorical heat and little more than a toothless UN Security Council resolution (if that).  The CTBT will not immediately change other states’ policies.

The last decade has not been kind to the U.S. nuclear weapons arsenal.  Though the Stockpile Stewardship Program has successfully replaced older components, confidence in reliability has declined as the warheads age.[v] Secretary of Defense Robert Gates has stated that a credible U.S. deterrent cannot be maintained without testing or modernizing U.S. nuclear weapons.[vi] If modernization is not pursued, many experts believe testing will be needed to guarantee the weapons’ reliability.

Most significantly, the treaty’s perceived benefits toward enhancing nuclear nonproliferation are still debatable.  Pro-CTBT voices have made several valid claims to consider.[vii] They argue that without the CTBT the nuclear arms race will continue, especially in Asia, with more states hedging their capabilities to be able to assemble a nuclear weapon quickly.[viii] Treaty advocates are quick to point out that the U.S. has already received a benefit for pursuing ratification – the indefinite extension of the Nuclear Nonproliferation Treaty (NPT) in 1995.  The NPT, which divides the world into five nuclear weapon states (NWS) and the rest as non-NWS, is up for review in May 2010. The non-NWS are likely going to insist on CTBT ratification in exchange for nonproliferation cooperation.[ix]

These arguments still do not explain how the CTBT will be good for nonproliferation.  For one, the existence of a nuclear arms race (outside India and Pakistan) is suspect, given the fact that the U.S. and Russia are reducing their nuclear stockpiles.  Nuclear hedging is a problem to be tackled by IAEA monitoring; not by attempting to ban nuclear tests (the NPT already does this for non-NWS).  Though the non-nuclears may insist on entry into force of the CTBT, there is little reason to believe they will take tougher actions on Pyongyang and Tehran once the U.S. ratifies it.  If unilaterally and bilaterally reducing nuclear arsenals and not testing for 17 years have done nothing to convince non-NWS of U.S. leadership, why will the CTBT?

The CTBT is simply not in the U.S. national interest.  The U.S. would not be guaranteed a seat on the Executive Council, which geographically would be unfriendly to Washington.[x] Since it requires North Korean, Pakistani, and Egyptian ratification (to name a few), the U.S. would be binding itself to a treaty unlikely to ever enter into force.  Though there would be a growing ability to detect nuclear tests, there would be no effective way to enforce the treaty.  The U.S. stockpile would continue to atrophy as explosive testing for reliability would be prohibited, which could spur proliferation.  The CTBT needs to be rewritten to mitigate these drawbacks, not “immediately and aggressively”[xi] brought before the U.S. Senate.


[i] Kathleen Bailey and Robert Barker, “Why the United States Should Unsign the Comprehensive Test Ban Treaty and Resume Nuclear Testing,” Comparative Strategy 22 (2003): 131.

[ii] Kathy Sawyer, “Experts say new sensing tools could help ease concerns on Nuclear Test-Ban Treaty,” AAAS News Release, 10 August 2009.

[iii] http://www.ctbto.org/press-centre/highlights/2009/experts-sure-about-nature-of-the-dprk-event/

[iv] “No CTBT, India needs more nuclear tests; Pokhran II coordinator,” Hindustan Times, 27 August 2009.

[v] William Perry and Jim Schlesinger, America’s Strategic Posture, May 2009.

[vi] “Inside Obama Administration, a Tug of War over Nuclear Warheads,” Global Security Newswire, 18 August 2009.

[vii] Raymond Jeanloz, “Comprehensive Nuclear-Test Ban Treaty and U.S. Security,” in Reykjavik Revisited, 2008.

[viii] For a discussion on nuclear hedging, see Ariel Levite, “Never Say Never Again: Nuclear Reversal Revisited,” International Security 27, no. 3 (Winter 2002/03), 59-88.

[ix] William Perry and Brent Scowcroft, commissioners, “U.S. Nuclear Weapons Policy,” Council on Foreign Relations, 55.

[x] “The Comprehensive Nuclear Test-Ban Treaty,” available at http://www.fas.org/nuke/control/ctbt/text/ctbt1.htm

[xi] See text of President Obama’s “Prague Speech.”

U.S. Walks Away from the Missile Defense Third Site (and European Allies) September 17, 2009

Posted by SV in Iran, North Korea, Nuclear Proliferation, President Obama, Russia, U.S. Foreign Relations.
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In an excellent WSJ article, Peter Spiegel details the reasons behind the Obama administration’s shelving of the missile defense third site in Central Europe.  Though they are claiming that it was based on a technical assessment and that Iran’s long-range ballistic missile program is proceeding slowly, it should be apparent to the casual observer that this has been Obama’s plan since January 20th.  In a move to appease Russian objections to installing U.S. military assets in their “sphere of influence,” the U.S. has walked away from defense commitments made to Poland, the Czech Republic, and other nations within range of Iranian missiles.  This decision is misguided and dangerous for several reasons.

First, the procurement issue.  Even if you accept the delay in Iranian ICBM capabilities until mid-2010s, due to the slow acquisition process (and slower deployment timetable), that is about the time the Third Site would become operational.  By shelving the plans, the U.S. will be putting itself in the position where it finds the Iranian missile program progressing faster than its missile defense deployment.  In the time period between Iranian long-range missile capability and U.S. BMD deployment, Iran may be able to coerce the U.S. or Europe by threatening unprotected European cities.  Their stopgap measure of rotating terminal-phase missile defenses (those that intercept the missile in its last minutes of descending flight) through Europe will leave plenty cities vulnerable and will take just as long to deploy (and probably cost more).

Second, the timeline issue.  The 2007 national intelligence estimate, which had a lot of political influences, delayed the timeline of Iran’s nuclear program.  However, it failed to account for technical surprise, and it is likely the missile estimate failed to do so as well.  In 1998 virtually every intelligence agency in the world was surprised when North Korea launched a three-stage ICBM.  In 2003 the unraveling of (some of) the A.Q. Khan network revealed how private individuals could essentially proliferate nuclear weapon technology to any country with cash.  The point is that a significant surprise – such as North Korean or private-network assistance, could propel Iran to an ICBM capability far sooner than the intelligence currently suggests.  The third site would have provided valuable insurance against this possible eventuality.

An Iranian Shahab-3 has a range of 1,600 km

An Iranian Shahab-3 has a range of 1,600 km

Third, the allies’ defense.  True, the administration is pledging to deploy some missile defenses, like terminal-intercepts, but this is a far cry from the planned midcourse-intercept system that could have provided coverage of virtually all of Europe.  Terminal systems have a small “footprint” that can only cover smaller areas, like a city.  In a must read letter to the Obama administration, current and former leaders of Central and Eastern Europe basically ask not to be forgotten or sacrificed.  They state “all is not well in our region or in the transatlantic relationship…storm clouds are starting to gather on the foreign policy horizon… [Russia] at a regional level and vis-a-vis our nations, increasingly acts as a revisionist [power].”  They worry that Russia’s intimidation and influence-peddling will lead to a neutralization of their region.

Regarding the missile defense site, they pointedly write that “regardless of teh military merits of this scheme and what Washington eventually decides to do, the issue has become a symbol of America’s credibility and commitment to the region… The small number of missiles involved cannot be a threat to Russia’s strategic capabilities, and the Kremlin knows this.  We should decide the future of the program as allies and based on the strategic pluses and minuses of the different technical and political configurations.”  They conclude on this subject that “abandoning the program entirely or involving Russia too deeply in it without consulting Poland or the Czech Republic can undermine the credibility of the U.S. across the whole region.”  Central and Eastern Europe would know about Russia’s operations.  They lived under their iron boot for generations.

Finally, the Russian problem.  The Russians have protested loudly to the planned third site since it was first announced, despite the fact it is only 10 defensive interceptors that would be incapable of countering one SS-18 or even catching up with its missiles if they headed out over the polar routes.  Once again, our allies understand the situation: “When it comes to Russia, our experience has been that a more determined and principled policy toward Moscow will not only strengthen the West’s security but will ultimately lead Moscow to follow a more cooperative policy as well.”  This would require firmness in negotiations with Putin and Medvedev.

The third site was likely the price the Obama administration figured it could pay to get Russian assistance on sanctions against Iran and in order to conclude the START follow-on.  If anyone is convinced the Russians can exert the leverage to make the Iranians comply with their obligations (forget the UN Security Council, China will still block that), they have not been paying attention.  Short of a crippling cut-off of all gasoline imports or nuclear reactor fuel from Russia, Iran is unlikely to even consider talks about its nuclear program.  As I stated in a previous post, linking the new START to removal of the missile defense site from Europe would be unacceptable.  Linking offensive and defensive weapons is walking right back into the Cold War paradigm the Clinton and Bush administrations did so much to end.

This is perhaps the administration’s worst foreign policy action to date.  It delays deployment of a real capability that could not only defend European allies but also the eastern United States from Iranian missiles.  It cannot be viewed as anything other than backing away from commitments made to Central and Eastern European allies and ignoring their legitimate concerns.  The Senate should reject ratification of the START follow-on treaty and mandate the deployment of the planned missile defenses as the price for their support.  Given this decision and the administration’s likely objection to warhead modernization, it will be hard to get 67 votes to ratify START.

The F-22 Raptor Suffers Friendly Fire July 21, 2009

Posted by SV in China, Iran, Politics, Russia, U.S. Budget, U.S. Government.
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Perhaps you were not aware of it, but today was a great day for Russia and China.  The party elites and defense establishments in Moscow and Beijing surely looked on with glee as the Senate voted 58-40 in favor of the McCain-Levin amendment to halt production of the F-22 Raptor at 187 planes.  This contrasted with the House defense authorization bill which allotted funding for an additional 7 of the $150 million planes.  The bill will now have to go to conference committee for the House and Senate to work out their differences between the bills.

The opponents of the F-22 make three main charges – that the jet costs too much, is not being used in Iraq or Afghanistan, and that the money could be better spent on the F-35 Joint Strike Fighter.

Though the pricetag of the jet is significant (around $150 million), it is a lot of bang for the buck.  It is literally the only fifth-generation fighter that is operational and ready-for-use today.  Its capabilities are through the roof – stealth that reduces its radar signature substantially, the ability to cruise at high speeds and high altitudes, and a maneuverability and advanced avionics that allow it to outfight any jet in the world.  Though the $1.5 billion for the additional jets may seem like a lot in a time of deficit spending (but compare it to the stimulus or auto bailout for some perspective), it is necessary to keep the expertise and suppliers available for future fighter production.  If the F-22 assembly line is shut down, valuable engineering skills and unique material suppliers will scatter to different employers or go out of business, making a reversal of this decision very difficult.  Given the long amount of lead time in government defense contracts (the F-22 was 20 years in the works), shutting down production would spell the end of the quick replacement ability necessary for unforeseen contingencies.

The charge that the Raptor is not being used in Iraq or Afghanistan, made especially by Senator McCain, is true but misleading.  McCain is suffering from this-war-itis as he charges defense contractors with “next-war-itis.”  The F-22 is designed primarily for air superiority missions.  Obviously insurgents in Iraq and Afghanistan have no air force or contested airspace.  But Iran, thanks to Russian suppliers, is equipped both with Russian-modified jets and surface-to-air missiles.  If a strike was deemed necessary to eliminate Iran’s nuclear program, a jet like the F-22 would be necessary to supress enemy air forces and destroy anti-aircraft installations before the strike fighters would fly in.  Beyond that, the F-22 chiefly serves to deter conventional aggression by China and Russia.  Since those nations may be at least a decade away from fielding their own fifth-generation fighters, the American Raptor force serves as a reminder that they would be denied air superiority in any future conflicts over Eastern Europe or Taiwan.

Many F-22 detractors also claim that the money for additional planes would be better spent on funding the F-35 Joint Strike Fighter, which every branch of the military will field, as well as many U.S. allies.  The F-35, though also a fifth generation stealth jet, is not designed for air superiority missions and is not as maneuverable or able to travel at the same speeds or altitudes as the F-22.  Moreover, the F-35 will not be operational on a significant scale for at least a couple of years (once the assembly lines reach full capacity, they will be able to produce approximately 350 planes a year).  The F-22 and F-35 are a great “team” due to synergy – by having a mix of both planes, they are more effective and less are needed overall.  Emphasizing the F-35 too much while the F-22 is kept at a small force (less than half what the Air Force deems necessary) will reduce the overall potential effectiveness of the U.S. Air Force.  For further analysis on the distinction between the F-22 and F-35, see David Centofante’s column here.

The F-22, a perennial punching bag, was beaten today, not by enemy air forces, but by a misguided United States Senate.  Part of it may be a lack of public understanding about the Raptor’s importance, as a highlighted in this earlier post.  Part of it is surely a knee-jerk distrust of big government contracts and expensive defense systems (witness the recent fate of missile defense).  But most of it is a lack of leadership on the part of U.S. politicians.  Too concerned with spending money that will benefit them (or their districts) immediately, they are neglecting the long-term health and vitality of the country.  Also, they are far too negligent about the capabilities and intentions of our adversaries in Moscow and Beijing.  After all, if a defense amendment is going to benefit Russians and Chinese, shouldn’t a good leader question its prudence?

F-22 Raptor, air dominance achieved

America’s Nuclear Deterrent 64 Years After Trinity July 16, 2009

Posted by SV in China, History, Iran, North Korea, Nuclear Proliferation, President Obama, Russia, Science, U.S. Government.
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Today, July 16th 2009, marked the 64th anniversary of the Trinity nuclear test in Alamagordo, New Mexico.  That test brought the world unambiguously into the Atomic Age.  Since that day nuclear weapons have played a critical role in U.S. defense policy, first as the ultimate tool with which to win the Second World War and almost immediately thereafter as a critical tool to deter aggression against the United States and its allies.  This mission became of even greater importance with the Soviet testing of an atomic bomb in August of 1949.

Despite serving as the most powerful deterrent against threats to the U.S. homeland and its allies, and by preventing a massively destructive conventional (or nuclear) war between the major powers, the nuclear deterrent of 2009 is atrophying and declining in reliability and safety.  As the Congressionally-mandated Strategic Posture Commission pointed out in its final report, the current nuclear weapons complex suffers from a lack of funding, a lack of emphasis on maintaining the intellectual base, and an almost hostile attitude by policymakers.  Writing in the Wall Street Journal, Senator Jon Kyl and former Reagan Assistant Secretary of Defense Richard Perle charged the president with neglecting to support a safe, secure, and reliable nuclear deterrent as well as endorsing the unverifiable Comprehensive Test Ban Treaty (CTBT), which the Senate rejected in 1999.

As the U.S. nuclear inventory continues to age, life-extension or stockpile stewardship programs continue in their attempt to increase the weapons’ service lives.  However, with each further modification, the weapon design is taken farther from the actual model that was proven successful through testing.  Also, each passing year sees more scientists who had experience with nuclear testing retiring.  Therefore the hands on expertise that was produced through a rigorous and scientific development and testing process is declining precipitously.  Crucial skills and knowledge, some of which may only be understood through testing, are being lost.

Though the proponents of a CTBT argue that it will strengthen Washington’s hand in promoting nonproliferation and tougher sanctions toward Iran and North Korea, there is little evidence to support this.  No matter if every other third-party nation suddenly endorsed U.S. nonproliferation efforts, as long as Russia and China continue to block effective measures, which have been within their interests, no amount of political good-will generated by CTBT ratification will stop proliferation.  Therefore, the CTBT could only bring into question more the reliability of America’s nuclear deterrent.  If the U.S. is to deter aggression and assure its allies (so that they do not develop their own weapons), it will eventually have to test a new, modern, safe nuclear warhead design to replace the Cold War-era stockpile.

If one wants to reach a compromise position, I would suggest following the French example.  France conducted its last nuclear test in 1995, providing it with a modern, reliable, and proven warhead design that would serve French purposes for decades to come.  Within the next year it signed and ratified the CTBT.  The U.S. could develop a Reliable Replacement Warhead (RRW) that would have  a service life of decades, test it to verify its reliability and effectiveness, and then ratify the CTBT.  Though a skeptic or pessimist may still argue that the U.S. may need to test a new or different design in the future, there is a “supreme national interest” clause in the CTBT that would allow the U.S. to withdraw if it served to further U.S. national security.  International agreements, after all, should only be abided to in order to further the national interest.

Alamagordo brought the world, willing or not, into the Atomic Age, which we remain in.  The Trinity test was the epitome of the scientific process.  Theorize, hypothesize, predict, and finally test.  Testing, as with any military weapon system, is a crucial option to have available.  Theory with testing is science.  Theory without testing is theology.

Trinity Test

Obama’s Moscow Summit – Which Way to START? July 5, 2009

Posted by SV in Nuclear Proliferation, President Obama, Russia, U.S. Foreign Relations.
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President Barack Obama and Russian President Dmitry Medvedev are meeting in Moscow to discuss a successor to the soon-to-expire Strategic Arms Reduction Treaty (START).  On the table for consideration (according to U.S. and/or Russian officials) are levels of deployed and stockpiled strategic nuclear warheads, strategic delivery systems (intercontinental ballistic missiles, or ICBMs, and bombers), and missile defense.  Off the table are nonstrategic (short-range) nuclear weapons, which the Russians hold in abundance.

Truly understanding the situation between Washington and Moscow requires a brief look at the numbers.  The United States deploys around 2,200 strategic nuclear warheads (and ~ 2,500 reserves) on less than 1,000 missiles and bombers.  Russia deploys about 2,700 strategic nuclear warheads (and thousands in reserve) on roughly 650 missiles and bombers.  In nonstrategic nukes, Russia holds a massive advantage (3,000-5,000) over the United States (400-500).  In terms of strategic delivery systems, the U.S. still has decades before most of its systems will need replaced, while many Russian systems will reach the end of their service lives within the next decade, reducing their numbers to around 330.

The Obama Administration, in its rush to conclude the START follow-on by the current treaty’s expiration date on December 5th, is therefore playing into the Russians’ hands.  By pushing for deep warhead cuts (the Russians will not go below 1,500 deployed) and considering a further reduction in the permitted number of strategic delivery vehicles, U.S. negotiators are essentially getting nothing for something.  Since the Russians will have to eliminate many of their aging warheads, missiles, and bombers with or without an arms control treaty, they are trying to maintain parity with the United States through a new START accord.  In return, the U.S. is getting something it would have gotten without having to reduce the survivability and flexibility of its nuclear arsenal.

Until recently, the Obama Administration was seemingly giving credence to Russian objections to a third missile defense site in Central Europe.  Even former Secretary of Defense (and nuclear abolitionist) William Perry (D) stated in House testimony that trading missile defense for Russian promises was absolutely unreasonable.  The president’s special assistant, Michael McFaul, stated last week the U.S. was “not going to reassure or give or trade anything with the Russians regarding NATO expansion or missile defense.”  This is a step in the right direction.  Tying defensive conventional systems to offensive nuclear systems, which President Medvedev is still insisting on, is a relic of the Cold War “mutually assured destruction” thinking.

Therefore, the U.S. approach to the START follow-on has been fundamentally flawed.  By agreeing not to include nonstrategic nuclear weapons in the limits, the U.S. allowed Russia to maintain its biggest geopolitical advantage.  Many experts believe it is these “battlefield” nuke stockpiles that will be the likely source of any future nuclear terrorism or nuclear use by a state (Russia explicitly states they would be used to “de-escalate” an invasion of their homeland).  Furthermore, once U.S. warhead and delivery system levels have been drastically reduced, Washington will little leverage to urge Moscow to reduce its tactical nukes.

The arms control process is also misguided in the link some are attempting to make between a new START and “global zero,” the nuclear abolitionist movement.  The bipartisan Strategic Posture Commission determined that complete nuclear disarmament required a “fundamental transformation of the world political order.”  Guiding a new treaty along what optimists consider a decades-long goal is a recipe for miscalculation and bad decisions.  The Obama Administration needs to take a step back, assess U.S. interests over the long term, and proceed with a modest START follow-on from there.  Idealism is one thing.  Dealing with the Russians about nuclear weapons is entirely different.

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