July 16, 2010 | Commentary on Arms Control and Nonproliferation

Gates’ Support for New START Worrisome, Not Reassuring

When Republican presidential aspirant Mitt Romney went off on the White House, the White House noticed.

In a withering column in the Washington Post, Romney labeled the New START arms control agreement “Obama’s Worst Foreign Policy Mistake.” That did not sit well with Obama. The administration has been trying to fast-track Senate ratification of the treaty.

The president’s concern over the Romney speed-bump is apparent. Mr. Obama quickly dispatched Defense Secretary Robert Gates to launch what The Hill dubbed  “a 2012 proxy fight with Mitt Romney.”

That gambit met with some initial success. “Gates has helped slow GOP opposition [to New START] from coalescing,” Alexander Bolton reported, “So far, Senate Republicans haven’t followed Romney’s call to scrap the treaty. They held their fire after hearing from Gates in a lunchtime meeting off the Senate floor. Gates is ‘still quite popular in the caucus,’ said a Republican senator who was there.”

The oddest thing about this article is the question left unasked: Why do Republicans trust Gates?  Sure, he served under two Bush presidents—but what has he done lately?

Conservatives have plenty of reasons to be concerned.

Gates is no Cap Weinberger. When the economy slumped in the 1970s, Harold Brown, Carter’s defense secretary, gutted the Pentagon. Under Brown’s “offset” strategy the armed forces would buy nothing new. The Pentagon would “skip a generation” and “rethink” military needs.

When Weinberger took over he recognized that the offset strategy was stupid. Enemies don’t take a time out. When you stop defending yourself, they take advantage of you. So Cap “the Knife” (who had a well-deserved reputation for cutting government programs) pushed through the defense build-up that rebuilt the post-Vietnam military.

Gates is another Brown. Rather than pushing to recapitalize and modernize the military to prevent it from going “hollow” (as it was at the conclusion of the Vietnam conflict), Gates’ defense policies are hastening the pace of the hollowing.

Gates is no George Marshall, either. Marshall and his fellow chiefs had but one mission during World War II: Win. Obama seems more interested in managing the Afghan war than in winning it. There seems no other purpose for the arbitrary timeline for withdrawal and capping the number troops at far less than what commanders considered the “low risk” option. Yet Gates has been a cheerleader for both wrongheaded decisions.

And Gates is certainly no Reagan. Reagan believed arms control was a means to end—not an end in itself. While he negotiated with the Russians, he drove a hard bargain.  He also strengthened U.S. conventional forces, supported our allies, and committed to missile defense. Obama has done none of these tasks very effectively. Gates has never complained.

Some in the Senate have already expressed concerns over the New START treaty. Their instincts to go slow on considering the agreement make sense. There are plenty of reasons to be concerned about New START. If anything, Gates’ support for New START ought to give senators more cause for concern—not less.

James Carafano is Deputy Director, The Kathryn and Shelby Cullom Davis Institute for International Studies and Director, Douglas and Sarah Allison Center for Foreign Policy Studies at The Heritage Foundation.

About the Author

James Jay Carafano, Ph.D. Vice President for the Kathryn and Shelby Cullom Davis Institute for National Security and Foreign Policy, and the E. W. Richardson Fellow

First appeared in Big Peace