Nuclear policy analysts are apoplectic about his "shabby, misleading and … thoroughly ignorant" reasoning, and his arguments have already been rebutted on the merits in a number of places (including here, here, here, and here). But the question at hand isn't necessarily whether Romney's ghostwriter "has even the vaguest acquaintance with the subject matter." As with the "death panels," Romney's op-ed is an ideological statement, which does not require fealty to facts. And it has far-reaching implications for the way we should think about Mitt Romney the man, the 2012 election, and the future of American foreign policy.
It means, first and foremost, that the responsible Republican foreign policy establishment is not coming back. Mandarins like George Shultz, Henry Kissinger, and James Baker, who have all testified or written on behalf of the START treaty—calling it an integral, uncontroversial way of repairing the bipartisan arms-control legacy that sustained American foreign policy all the way up until the George W. Bush administration—are going to be dead soon (or they've drifted into the service of Democrats). The people who will take their place will be from a generation of superhawks, like John Bolton, Liz Cheney, and Robert Joseph, who are virulently opposed to the practice of negotiated arms control. Mitt Romney, though a moderate from Michigan, is not going to be the second coming of Gerald Ford.
Indeed, Romney has positioned himself far to the right of John McCain, who in the 2008 campaign implied that he would rely on advice from this older cohort and promised he would negotiate a START treaty, alongside efforts to achieve a world without nuclear weapons. And, given that Romney's primary opponents will likely be folks like Sarah Palin, Mike Huckabee, and Tim Pawlenty (who is unlikely to place himself left of Romney on such an issue), we're looking at a world where every 2012 GOP candidate, and thus the whole party, will soon be committed to overturning the New START treaty.
This is a dangerous development, for a number of reasons. First of all, it empowers opponents of New START in the Senate, making it far more likely that Jon Kyl—the minority whip who is fervently opposed to arms control—will scuttle ratification of Barack Obama's signal foreign policy achievement. This would set our relationship with the Russians afloat, eliminating our ability to keep tabs on their nuclear arsenal through inspections, and knocking out the main pillar of cooperation between Moscow and Washington, at a time when we urgently need their help in Afghanistan and Iran (no matter how we ultimately choose to deal with each of those countries). Second, if Obama cannot get this uncontroversial treaty ratified, it will indicate to world leaders that Obama is in serious trouble domestically—and, more broadly, that no post-impeachment era president has the power to get a major treaty through the Senate. After the death of the ABM Treaty, Kyoto, the test-ban treaty, and then START, it would be more evident than ever that a determined minority has the will and capacity to block a 67-vote decision to ratify, in perpetuity.
Romney's op-ed also makes it clear that his 2012 campaign will be based around a full-bore "peace through strength" critique of Obama's foreign policy, modeled on the assaults that New Right activists launched against Jimmy Carter in the 1970s and Ronald Reagan in the late 1980s. (The same activists have recently inaugurated their own campaigns against New START and Robert Gates's defense cuts.) That means Governor Romney plans to pick major fights with Obama over weapons procurement and the defense budget, and, especially, funding and support for missile defense. (As Carter cancelled or delayed weapons like the MX missile and the B-1 bomber, only to see them resurrected and purchased in bulk by Ronald Reagan, it's likely the F-22, the Ground Based Interceptor in Poland, and research for the Next-Generation Bomber will return as political footballs.) Indeed, to date, Romney's national security speeches and his book, No Apology, have all framed his approach to foreign policy around a critique of Obama's unwillingness to expand the military budget and deploy George W. Bush-style national missile defense. Doubtless, opposing START is meant to be a logical extension of this critique, a way to cozy up to the New Right establishment, and perhaps a way to replicate Ronald Reagan's success in opposing the Panama Canal Treaty, which nearly won him the GOP nomination in 1976.
Mitt Romney's willingness to adopt this stance is truly disappointing. Part of his appeal is that, underneath all of the pandering and unhinged rhetoric, Romney gives off the impression that he's a responsible individual willing to take government seriously. Unfortunately, with this op-ed, we may have to accept that that's not actually the case: He's aiming to scuttle a treaty that is backed by the entire defense establishment of the United States—the heads of all the services, the intelligence agencies, Gates, Clinton, and almost all the former secretaries of defense and state—whose ratification has been called "obligatory" by the most hawkish hawks of yesteryear. In saying he thinks New START is Obama's "worst foreign policy mistake," Romney is indicating that he prioritizes sticking it to the Russians more than he cares about developing sources of leverage against Al Qaeda in Afghanistan and Ahmadinejad in Iran. He's saying that it's crucial to axe an agreement that's unpopular with conservatives, even if doing so impedes our efforts to prevent more countries—and rogue actors—from acquiring nuclear weapons. The degree of his hyperbole is astounding, as is the degree of his opportunism.
Barron YoungSmith is an assistant editor of The New Republic.