It’s Good to be the Speaker November 3, 2010Posted by Sean Varner 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:
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.
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 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.
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, 2010Posted by Sean Varner 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
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.
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, 2010Posted by Sean Varner in Democracy, Republican Party.
Tags: Election, Midterms, Primaries, Tea Party, Vote 2010
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.
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.
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.
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.
Tags: Democratic Party, Midterm Elections 2010, Republican Party
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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.
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, 2010Posted by Sean Varner in Nuclear Proliferation, President Obama, Russia, U.S. Foreign Relations, Uncategorized.
Tags: Europe, global zero, nuclear reductions, Nuclear Weapons, START Treaty, Trident
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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.
Did Someone Say Tactical Nukes? March 2, 2010Posted by Sean Varner in Asia, China, Japan, Nuclear Proliferation, President Obama, Russia, U.S. Foreign Relations.
Tags: deterrence, Europe, Nuclear Posture Review, Nuclear Weapons, START Treaty
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The confluence of the Nuclear Posture Review (NPR) and Strategic Arms Reduction Treaty (START) negotiations has brought U.S. tactical nuclear weapons to the fore again. Two recent stories drew my attention: this one from the New York Times describing the White House influence on the NPR, which includes unnamed officials revealing back-channel negotiations with European allies debating whether or not to withdraw the approximately 200 B-61 air-deliverable “gravity bombs” stored in six countries; and this story which indicates that the U.S. may decide to retire the Nuclear Tomahawk Land-Attack Cruise Missile (TLAM-N), which the Japanese have considered a vital U.S. weapon for ensuring their security against both China and North Korea.
These developments are troubling to say the least, and strategically foolish to take at this time (even if one believes they need to be taken eventually). First, the proposal to withdraw our tactical nuclear weapons from our NATO allies is not a wise move because the U.S. would essentially get nothing for it. According to this Guardian story, officials in “Benelux,” Norway, and Germany are planning to call for the removal of U.S. tactical nukes from Europe (no advocacy for withdrawing them from the Italians or Turks…yet). Though most recognize that these nukes, only deliverable via fighter-bombers (think F-16s, the new F-35, etc.), are of limited military utility, their political importance has been their status as a cornerstone of the Trans-Atlantic Alliance for over fifty years. To remove them would mean that the U.S. would be perceived as having even less reason to retaliate against an ally struck by a biological attack or ballistic missiles. The diminished footprint in Western Europe is sure to reflect the lessened importance the Obama administration attaches to such important allies as the UK (see here).
That being said, if the Europeans don’t want them (and more importantly, their political and military officials), the U.S. cannot force them down their throat. A more comprehensive strategy to “de-nuclearize” Europe would be more effective in satisfying Europeans while upholding the Trans-Atlantic alliance. Separate from the START accord, the U.S. could propose to Russia a treaty to reduce, limit, or open for inspection arsenals of tactical nuclear weapons, in exchange for the U.S. withdrawing some or all of its nukes from Europe. This has long been a Russian talking point, and the fig leaf it has hid behind for its maintenance of 3-4,000 tac-nukes. If the U.S. (in consultation with European allies) offers to return these to domestic bases, the onus for weapons reductions and increased transparency will be on Moscow. However, it is doubtful whether the Turks would agree to evicting U.S. nukes or if the other Central and Eastern European allies in NATO would consent to removing most or all U.S. tactical nukes from the continent.
Therefore current proposals to unilaterally withdraw all U.S. tactical nuclear weapons from Europe are naive. The U.S. would get nothing for a significant concession. Better to maintain them as additional leverage when the time comes to try to negotiate a reduction in Moscow’s 10-1 advantage in these weapons.
Turning to the Pacific theater, the issue of TLAM-N retirement is more subtle and bilateral. These nuclear cruise missiles, designed for deployment on attack submarines, have been mostly kept in storage since the end of the Cold War (although secret deployments are highly likely). Nonetheless, their mere presence and the latent capability the U.S. possesses with them have reassured Japan as it faces mounting threats to its security from Beijing and Pyongyang. In fact, Tokyo communicated to the Strategic Posture (Perry-Schlesinger) Commission that the “credibility of the U.S. extended deterrent depends on its specific capabilities to hold a wide variety of targets at risk, and to deploy forces in a way that is either visible or stealthy, as circumstances may demand.”
The Commission went on to find that “In Asia, extended deterrence relies heavily on the deployment of nuclear cruise missiles on some Los Angeles class attack submarines. This [TLAM-N] capability will be retired in 2013 unless steps are taken to maintain it. U.S. allies in Asia are not integrated in the same way into nuclear planning and have not been asked to make commitments to delivery systems. In our work as a Commission it has become clear that some U.S. allies in Asia would be very concerned by TLAM-N retirement.” Therefore any decisions to retire this unique capability should not be made absent consultation with Japan and an assessment of alternative ways to reassure Japan that the U.S. extended deterrent will guarantee its security. It is unlikely that the NPR will do this. If the U.S. does not want to raise Tokyo’s insecurity to the point it develops its own deterrent (see an earlier post), it must take its commitments to extended deterrence seriously.
Tactical nuclear weapons have returned to the forefront of the nuclear posture debate. This time it concerns their very existence in U.S. arsenals – the TLAM-Ns will be retired and the B-61s will lose their purpose (not much reason to maintain tactical gravity bombs for fighter aircraft in the continental U.S.). Nuclear disarmament and Global Zero advocates have loudly claimed that they are not in favor of the U.S. unilaterally disarming. If they want that claim to be believable, they should communicate to President Obama that unilateral reductions in tactical nuclear weapons is unwise, if for no other reason than to maintain levers for future disarmament. Others, including defense hawks, can just oppose such policies on the demerits of their naivete.
The British Exit the World Stage December 9, 2009Posted by Sean Varner in Asia, United Nations.
Tags: India, Nuclear Deterrent, Trident, United Kingdom
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The United Kingdom does not apparently wish to continue its role as a great power in the international system. Internally, it is facing a viable Scottish National Party (SNP) that is pushing for independence from the UK (can anyone imagine two countries on the island of Britain?). Little else could delegitimize London more thoroughly than its loss of control over the northern half of its home island. Except, perhaps, the unilateral nuclear disarmament of the UK. Though this would certainly increase its standing among the publics of the world, few great powers would treat it as an equal.
Though the SNP has been the loudest in calling for the complete elimination of the UK nuclear deterrent (see here), the Labour Party has at least been willing to put off or drawdown replacement of the Trident fleet (the UK’s nuclear deterrent consists of 4 Trident ballistic-missile submarines). A random sampling of the Times of London and Daily Mail will indicate that most elites favor scrapping Trident replacement, if not eliminating it altogether (see articles here and here and a scaremongering piece here). If Britain were to not pursue Trident replacement because it was “no longer needed” (the subs’ service life should last another 15-20 years), it would be a momentous and perhaps irreversible decision that further marginalized its role in world affairs. The unilateral disarmament of the UK would cause once steadfast allies to question its continued importance in security affairs.
Currently all permanent members of the UN Security Council possess nuclear weapons. If London were to gradually or suddenly disarm, could it defend its continued position on that powerful body? Might not other countries, who are more eager to demonstrate their willingness to embrace Atlas and take a lead in world affairs, consider themselves more deserving of that coveted UNSC seat? Perhaps, as the British Empire finally devolves to the point where all that is left England and Wales, an inheritor of the British legacy will be willing to rise to take its place. India, once the “crown jewel” of the British Empire, may take its place as the royal head instead. Its economy is much larger than the UK’s, has a larger population (by a factor of about 18:1), and it has nuclear weapons. New Delhi, unlike London, does not appear quite so ready to disarm (as evidenced by its vote on a UN resolution on nuclear disarmament). The decision lies in London’s hands right now. Does it wish to become a rump state and a distant shadow of its former self or will it renew its resolve to be a player in international security affairs?
December, 2009 (Oh START to Die?!) December 4, 2009Posted by Sean Varner in President Obama, Russia, U.S. Foreign Relations.
Tags: nuclear reductions, Nuclear Weapons, START Treaty
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The Strategic Arms Reduction Treaty (START) is set to expire this Saturday, December 5th (technically the 4th at 7pm EST). It was signed in 1991 shortly before the dissolution of the Soviet Union, ratified a year later, and entered into force on December 5, 1994. Over the past 15 years it has brought the size of the U.S. and Russian nuclear arsenals to less than 6,000 strategic nuclear warheads on 1,600 strategic nuclear delivery vehicles (missiles and bombers). It also provided complex and intrusive verification procedures that allowed both sides to monitor the deployments and reductions of the other.
The Obama administration, however, has been unable to conclude a follow-on treaty to replace START (see this article). This may actually be good for U.S. national security. There has been rampant speculation over the past several months, especially after the Nobel award, that the U.S. would agree to essentially all Russian terms (low strategic delivery vehicle numbers, lax verification, and restrictive counting rules) in order to conclude an agreement by the 5th. With the expiration of START (and the possibility that the verification provisions will be observed until a new treaty is concluded), that deadline is removed (and despite the worries of the arms control community, life as we know it will continue to exist). The U.S. negotiating team can now operate from a stronger position and, if necessary, walk away if the Russians do not agree to their positions. Because the truth of the matter is that the Russians need this agreement more than the U.S. does. Their strategic forces are shrinking, and without a new arms control treaty they risk falling behind the U.S.
So what will the world look like in a few hours when START no longer limits U.S. and Russian nuclear arsenals? Probably not a whole lot different than today. Neither country wants to (or can) spend the resources to build up their forces once the treaty-limits are gone. Also, the Moscow Treaty of 2002 remains in effect, which limits the number of operationally-deployed strategic nuclear warheads to 2,200. Though verification provisions will lapse (because they were provided by START), an executive agreement to maintain them until a new treaty is signed will be acceptable. In the end the quiet death of START should be an eye-opener for the administration. Without the need to work against a looming deadline, they should be able to focus on getting a START that enhances U.S. national security and doesn’t cede to Russia every major issue they have pushed for the last four decades.
Why START Stopped Sounding Sweet November 9, 2009Posted by Sean Varner in President Obama, Russia, U.S. Foreign Relations.
Tags: arms control, Missile Defense, nuclear reductions, Nuclear Weapons, START Treaty
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On July 6, I argued in this post that the Obama administration may have finally abandoned hope for realism in its preliminary agreement with Russia on the follow-on to the expiring Strategic Arms Reduction Treaty (START). Over the past 4 months, however, the “Obama Realism” has faded into either hope or, more dangerously, realism conducted with the objective of constraining American power to cement good relations with Russia. In the process the next START is appearing to resemble the worst elements of the Kellog-Briand Pact (the idealistic hope to “outlaw” war as an instrument of national policy) and the Anti-Ballistic Missile (ABM) Treaty, which constrained developments in an area where the U.S. could exploit a clear technological edge.
It is bad enough that the administration has sought to ameliorate Russia through numerous concessions and policy changes (from abandoning the missile defense site in Poland and the Czech Republic, to distancing itself from post-Russian invasion rump Georgia, to Obama not even appearing in Berlin to commemorate the 20th anniversary of the fall of the Berlin Wall today) in the distant and ambiguous hope that Moscow will “get tough” with Iran. The administration is also constraining real American capabilities in exchange for nonexistent or declining Russian capabilities during the arms control negotiations. The most poignant examples of this include the overall limits on strategic delivery vehicles (ballistic missiles and strategic bombers) and limits on non-nuclear, conventional systems.
According to an article from the Global Security Newswire, National Security Advisor Jim Jones may have proposed a “compromise” limit on strategic delivery vehicles at 700 (the preliminary July agreement set the range at 500-1,100). It also reported that the Obama administration has likely conceded ANOTHER point to Russia – that conventional strategic systems will be counted in the overall limit. Since Russia is likely to have fewer than 350 nuclear strategic systems by 2020 (and likely no conventional ones), the proposal to set the limit at 700 is a huge concession to Moscow. The U.S. deploys somewhere around 815 strategic delivery vehicles, which doesn’t count the conventional B-1 bombers, empty missile silos, and submarines in port (all of which are counted under the expiring START). A limit of around 700 would require the U.S. to retire most of its B-52s and either 50-100 Minuteman-III ICBMs or 2-3 Trident II SSBNs (ballistic missile subs). And for what? So Russia will continue to retire its aging systems anyway? How does sacrificing real capabilities in exchange for nothing further the U.S. national interest?
The Obama administration had an excellent opportunity to craft a pragmatic and advantageous arms control pact with Russia. They held all the cards – missile defenses, large numbers of missiles and bombers, advanced conventional prompt global strike capabilities, etc. If they had used such leverage effectively, they could have convinced Russia to agree to a new START that would lower warheads moderately (1,600 ceiling) and strategic systems somewhat (900 limit), that would ease verification measures (to make them more cost-efficient and flexible), and that would have furthered U.S. national security. Instead they conceded one point after another. Russian tactical nuclear weapons were off the table before the negotiators arrived at it. Missile defense in Europe was “adjusted.” Conventional capabilities may be counted. The strategic delivery vehicle limit will be set very low. The next concession to watch for – the U.S. may withdraw the remainder of its ~200 tactical nuclear weapons from Europe.
This does not communicate American strength. As Stephen Rademaker has stated, you don’t go to a car dealer and say you’re really interested in the car and absolutely need it right away and by-the-way how much does it cost? You’re guaranteed to get burned. And Russia puts used-car dealers to shame. Russian negotiators have searched their arms control histories and have resurrected virtually every major concession they made during the Cold War. They understand that Obama wants this treaty a lot more than they do, and they’re prepared to sell the rust-proofing and limited warranties and anything else they can get the buyer to purchase. Only when this treaty is finished will we understand how badly we have been burned. At that point, START will be tasting awfully bitter.
In Defense of Christopher Columbus October 12, 2009Posted by Sean Varner in History, Immigration, Politics.
Tags: Columbus, History
Every so often I feel the need to defend a historical figure who has been so maligned by revisionist historians and politically correct elements of society that they are sentenced to life in prison by our nation’s fourth-graders. As this article in the Washington Post describes it, Columbus is now given a more “balanced” treatment. Gone is the ridiculous idea that he “discovered” America (they dispute how can one discover some place where others are already living). He is condemned for his intention to bring smallpox and slavery (why would this be an objective if he thought he was in India?). And he is labeled “very, very mean and very bossy,” a thief, and is charged with misrepresenting the Spanish crown. If students had to pick a picture of him and the choice was between his classical portrait and Hellraiser, they would probably assume he was the latter.
The point is that the attempt to bring honesty and accuracy to the nation’s students has swung from one end of the pendulum to the other. The representation of Columbus as a philanthropic explorer who was looking to expand the bounds of human knowledge, and had pow-wows with the native populations, was obviously grossly exaggerated. It is good that we have moved on from that idealized perception. However, neither was Columbus a bloodthirsty Genghis Khan bent on subjugating native populations by spreading smallpox and introducing slavery (the natives of Central America already practiced that among themselves). As is so often the case, the truth lies between the extremes. Motivated by glory and riches, stumbling upon the Caribbean and calling it India, and by complete accident introducing heretofore separate civilizations, Columbus deserves his recognition as the “discoverer” of the Americas.
The bizarre treatment he now receives in our nation’s classrooms is unwarranted. Columbus did discover the Americas, obviously from a Eurasian/African perspective. Even though there were people already inhabiting those lands, that doesn’t change the fact that a discovery of their existence took place by the other hemisphere. If an Aztec or Incan vessel had first ventured to Spain, it would have been a discovery the other way around. And whenever those two hemispheres were finally introduced, several exchanges were bound to take place. As Jared Diamond categorizes it in his book Guns, Germs, and Steel, the native populations had no immunity to smallpox. The only way they could have avoided a massive plague was if the two worlds never came into contact. Despite the human tragedy, it was bound to happen. Columbus only brought the day of reckoning sooner rather than later, when some other visitor to the Americas would have transported it.
Hugo Chavez branded Columbus Day the “Day of Indigenous Resistance” in 2002. As if the meeting of the two civilizations should have or could have been resisted. Thousands of years of advantages in military development and mass deaths that bred immunity to deadly diseases preordained (by 1492) the results of contact between the two worlds. Demonizing Christopher Columbus for something that was beyond his control and, likely, beyond prevention, is counterproductive to historical analysis and factually inaccurate. It amounts to lying to our nation’s students.