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Jewish World Review May 19, 2002 / 8 Sivan, 5762

Michael Barone

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The cul-de-sac of arms control

America's interest in protection against attack is secured not by arms control but by regime change |
It got a banner headline in the New York Times: "BUSH AND PUTIN TO SIGN PACT TO CUT NUCLEAR WARHEADS; WEAPONS CAN BE STOCKPILED." But the news was scarcely a surprise nor does it dramatically change the world we live in. Indeed, the all-caps headline is a vestige of the past, of the days when, bien-pensant opinion, led by the New York Times, assumed that the most important issue in international politics was nuclear arms control and the most important criterion by which to judge a president's foreign policy success was whether he obtained an arms control agreement.

But those days are long gone. And, looking back with the benefit of hindsight, it seems plain that arms control was never all that important and that arms control agreements were a side issue, a cul-de-sac mapped in minute detail by a priesthood of arms control specialists. The arms control critics were right: Arms control agreements didn't produce changes in the Soviet Union; changes in the Soviet Union produced changes in arms control agreements.

The focus on arms control agreements started in the 1960s, when President John Kennedy supported a ban on nuclear testing. The Nixon administration continued the focus, with the SALT I agreement with the Soviet Union. The Carter administration followed up with SALT II. Throughout all this, opposition to arms control agreements was led by Sen. Henry Jackson, the New Deal Democrat from Washington State, who insisted on opposing provisions that would leave the United States at a disadvantage with the Soviet Union.

Jackson's objections were usually brushed aside as warmongering by bien-pensant opinion. The argument was made repeatedly that the existence of a large number of nuclear weapons was a danger and that a reduction in numbers would make the world safer-as if the bombs were inclined to go off by themselves. In fact, the various arms control agreements did not appreciably reduce the number of nuclear weapons; they tended to ratify the numbers already in place or planned.

And some arms control agreements stimulated production of weapons of mass destruction; as Jackson warned, the other side would cheat and we wouldn't. Thus it is now generally agreed that immediately after signing the treaty purporting to outlaw chemical and biological weapons, the Soviet Union started its massive project of developing chemical and biological weapons. The existence of the treaty assured the Soviet Union that it could get an edge over the United States.

SALT II was never ratified by the Senate, and the United States deliberately broke out of its limits during the Reagan administration. And arms control, once supported by presidents of both parties, became a partisan issue, particularly after Henry Jackson's death in 1983. The debates of the Democratic candidates for the 1984 presidential nomination consisted largely of assurances by each that he was the strongest supporter of arms control, the most eager to give up U.S. weapons, and the staunchest advocate of the then trendy nuclear freeze.

They all missed the point grasped by Ronald Reagan: that you could only reduce the danger of Soviet nuclear weapons by changing the character of the Soviet Union. To be sure, Reagan in his second term did negotiate an arms control agreement with Mikhail Gorbachev. But not before rejecting Gorbachev's demand that he renounce missile defense. And not before producing the defense buildup that the bankrupt Soviet Union could not match, and which led-as so many former Soviets have testified-to the downfall of the Soviet system.

Since the fall of the Soviet Union, the United States has worked with Russia to account for and reduce the number of nuclear weapons in Russia, Ukraine, and Kazakstan (the latter two former Soviet republics have renounced them entirely). The latest agreement trumpeted in the New York Times just continues this project a logical step further. Neither country, for good reason, sees the other as an enemy. Neither country has any need for the number of nuclear weapons accumulated during the U.S.-Soviet rivalry. Both are acting in accord with their national interests, and in a cooperative spirit since they recognize that they have many common interests.

Yet bien-pensant opinion, as expressed in the New York Times and by leading Democrats, has had a hard time letting go of the old arms control theology and the assumption that this issue is more important than all others. Democrats squawked loud and hard when George W. Bush moved to abrogate the antiballistic missile treaty (a Nixon product), as under its own terms he was entitled to do. Clinton National Security Adviser Sandy Berger said abrogation would put the United States on a "collision course" with Russia and its NATO allies; House and Senate Democratic leaders Dick Gephardt and Tom Daschle criticized Bush's "go-it-alone" policies; Senate Foreign Relations Committee Chairman Joseph Biden, on Sept. 10, 2001, condemned Bush's "theological allegiance to a missile defense system"; Senate Armed Services Committee Chairman Carl Levin said that "a unilateral decision could risk another Cold War."

Russia's President Vladimir Putin reacted more calmly. He said he disagreed with the decision to abrogate the ABM Treaty but could live with it. He continued negotiations on reducing the number of nuclear weapons and cooperated with the United States in the war against terrorism. Putin is trying to further Russia's national interests as he sees them, and he sees the threat of Islamist terrorism as considerably more serious and pressing than the need to preserve a nuclear balance with the United States purportedly mandated by a treaty signed in 1972.

The lesson, and one that should not be forgotten in the war against terrorism, is that America's interest in protection against attack is secured not by arms control but by regime change. Those who would rely on inspections-a form of arms control-to protect us against Saddam Hussein's nuclear, chemical, and biological weapons would risk the national safety. No inspection regime could conceivably find all of Saddam's weapons, as Defense Secretary Donald Rumsfeld has pointed out, and no arms limits could protect us against a dictator with the will to use the weapons. Nor will we find safety by installing a different general in the president's palace in Baghdad. What is needed is what George W. Bush has called for-regime change in Iraq.

Michael Barone Archives

JWR contributor Michael Barone is a columnist at U.S. News & World Report and the author of, most recently, "The New Americans." He also edits the biennial "Almanac of American Politics". Send your comments to him by clicking here.


©2002, Michael Barone