Naked To Nuclear Attack: Democrats Hand The GOP A Winning Defense Issue For 2016

May 1, 2015


The GOP is struggling to regain the reputation it once enjoyed as the party that understands how to defend America.  That reputation, a legacy of the Reagan era, took a beating when George W. Bush presided over the invasion of Iraq — a campaign that contributed to the destabilization of the Middle East.  The same year U.S. troops departed from Iraq, a raft of Republican deficit hawks were elected to Congress, further muddling the party’s defense credentials.  Today, there are few military experts left in the GOP’s congressional leadership.

Although President Obama’s stewardship of national security leaves a lot to be desired, it isn’t so easy to explain what Republicans might have done differently.  Would they have sent U.S. troops back to Iraq?  Would they have gone to the brink over Russia’s invasion of Ukraine? Would they have raised taxes to improve military readiness?  Would they have closed unneeded military bases to free up money for new weapons?  Probably not — when it comes to making hard choices about America’s military, Republicans seem just as ambivalent as Democrats.

Except for this:  Republicans have always been more supportive of defending the nation against nuclear attack than Democrats have been.  I don’t mean buying missiles and bombers to punish whatever country launches such an attack (the core of current nuclear strategy), I mean actually defending it with interceptor missiles, beam weapons, or whatever other options technology might provide.  On that score, there’s no doubt which party is more committed to protecting America, and therein lies a potent electoral weapon for the GOP in 2016.

During the later years of the Vietnam War, when Democrats had lost the White House and were in a distinctly anti-military frame of mind, they backed into the belief that the only way to prevent a destabilizing nuclear arms race was to embrace vulnerability.  The Russians, it was said, would stop building up their nuclear arsenal if they saw that America was undefended, because it would be clear the U.S. had nothing to gain by launching a surprise attack.  Even a residual Russian retaliatory capability would be sufficient to wipe out American civilization.

This perverse approach to security in the nuclear age was enshrined in the 1972 Anti-Ballistic Missile Treaty, which committed both the U.S. and U.S.S.R. to avoid construction of effective homeland defenses.  Democrats had little trouble going along with the treaty even though it was negotiated by the Republican Nixon Administration, because they didn’t believe strategic defenses were feasible anyway.  It was just too easy for the Russians to buy more nuclear weapons that could overcome whatever defenses the U.S. might deploy.

Besides, they reasoned, if only 10% of Russian warheads got through U.S. defenses, it would be more than sufficient to collapse the U.S. economy and society.  So they convinced themselves to join in what came to be called the “mutual hostage” relationship, where each superpower would be deterred from aggression out of fear of the consequences that might follow.  Many Republicans, though, soured almost immediately on the idea of having no defenses, with Ronald Reagan declaring during his first term that existing U.S. nuclear strategy was dangerous and immoral…

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