Just in time for Halloween, John Bolton emerges from the basement of the White House to continue his serial killing spree of arms control agreements.
In his first move, he engineered the horrifying U.S. withdrawal from the Iran anti-nuclear deal, over the screams of America’s national security leaders and our European allies. Now he is pushing President Donald Trump down the stairs, urging him to pull out of Ronald Reagan’s landmark INF Treaty. Trump announced his decision to do so after a political rally October 20. Bolton’s next victim will be Reagan’s entire START nuclear reduction process. Can he be stopped before he kills again?
The obscurely named Intermediate-Range Nuclear Forces Treaty of 1987 was a historic breakthrough. Negotiated by Ronald Reagan and the Soviet Union’s Mikhail Gorbachev, it was the first arms control agreement to reduce, rather than limit, nuclear weapons. The two leaders physically destroyed a total of 2,692 missiles after the treaty entered into force.
The agreement banned an entire class of ground-launched ballistic and cruise missiles held by the two nations, not only in Europe where the majority of them were deployed, but anywhere in the world. Because of Reagan’s diplomacy, neither nation is allowed to field ground-based weapons whose reach falls between short-range and the ocean-spanning ranges of strategic weapons.
It was a remarkable achievement. “For the first time in history, the language of ‘arms control’ was replaced by ‘arms reduction’,” Reagan said at the signing of the INF accord, “We can only hope that this history-making agreement will not be an end in itself but the beginning” of this relationship.”
In fact, it was. The INF treaty led directly to the first START treaty. Signed by President George H. W. Bush in 1991, START cut the U.S. and Soviet strategic nuclear arsenals in half. Through these two initiatives, Reagan became the greatest arms control president in American history.
Now, Bolton is about to dismember this security arrangement — for no good reason. He apparently has convinced an uninformed and uninterested president that a likely Russian violation of the INF Treaty is reason to destroy the agreement. After that, he has his eyes on ending the START process that limits both sides strategic arsenals, hoping to kill the New START treaty in its sleep by allowing it to expire in 2021.
The immediate issue is the apparent Russian deployment of a new ground-based cruise missile system, the 9M729. Thought to be a land version of a sea-based system with a range of about 1,500 miles, the 9M729 appears to use the same launcher as a short-range missile allowed under the treaty, a fact that makes “location and verification really tough,” according to former NATO commander Gen. Philip Breedlove. Bolton will use this violation as the excuse to do something he wants to do anyway—deploy new U.S. nuclear weapons in Europe.
The ground was laid for such a move in this year’s scary Nuclear Posture Review, which presented the case for deploying a variety of new, more usable nuclear weapons. The review warned that the United States would “not forever endure Russia’s continuing noncompliance” and was “reviewing military concepts and options” for new intermediate-range missiles. In particular, the study cited a so-called “low-yield” warhead for the Trident submarine-launched strategic missile and a new sea-launched cruise missile. Congress then tacked on research and development money for a new ground-launched cruise missile that legislators said would be “a response” to the Russian missile.
In order to field these new weapons, Bolton needs Trump to quit Reagan’s treaty. But there is no need for these new instruments of mass destruction. Even if the Russians have violated the agreement, the United States already has thousands of long-range nuclear weapons trained on Russia. Additional weapons would be redundant, providing no new capability.
Maybe that is why no one wants them. No government in Europe or Asia is calling for these weapons or offering to host them. In the 1980s, deployments of nuclear weapons into Europe brought millions of Europeans into the streets in sustained protests. This time, the decision to pull down yet another security pillar in the trans-Atlantic alliance will deepen an already growing divide.
“Of course, it will widen the rift between Europe and America,” former British diplomat and director of the European Leadership Network Adam Thomson told me this week, “European governments will look even more intensely at how they can provide for their own security.” It will not be as insulting to European leaders as Trump’s violation of the Iran anti-nuclear deal, he said. Europeans saw that agreement as the crowning achievement of European Union security diplomacy. But it will burn.
Perhaps that is why the decision to jettison the INF Treaty did not come from the State Department (which normally has jurisdiction over treaties), but out of Bolton’s National Security Council. Bolton has an obsession with tearing down the treaties, legal arrangements, and global governance councils created by Republicans and Democrats over the past 70 years. He views treaties as tools of the global Lilliputians to tie down the American Gulliver.
Bolton insists that maintaining U.S. global dominance requires that the U.S. have a massive spectrum of conventional and nuclear options. “Violations give America the opportunity to discard obsolete, Cold War-era limits on its own arsenal, and upgrade its military capabilities to match its global responsibilities,“ Bolton wrote with former Deputy Assistant U.S. Attorney General John Yoo.
This tough talk conceals strategic weakness. Killing the INF treaty is a gift to Moscow. Issues of compliance with arms control treaties are common, and we have reliable methods for resolving them. Leaving the treaty removes all pressure from Russian President Vladmir Putin and allows him to race ahead with new nuclear weapon deployments while severely divided the NATO alliance. There are solid alternatives that would constrain Putin.
“Specifically, Washington and Moscow should agree to reciprocal site visits by technical experts to examine the missiles and the deployment sites in dispute,” writes leading arms control expert Daryl Kimball. “If the 9M729 is determined to have a range that exceeds the INF Treaty’s 500-km range limit, Russia should either modify the missile to ensure it no longer violates the treaty or, ideally, halt production and eliminate any such missiles in its possession, including any that have been deployed.”
This is how Reagan dealt with Soviet violations of the Anti-Ballistic Missile treaty. When he caught the Soviets building at Krasnoyarsk a radar prohibited by the treaty, he insisted over several years that they tear it down. Importantly, he continued his talks with the Soviets that led to the INF and START treaties. Gorbachev halted construction of the rader in 1987 and dismantled it entirely in 1992.
Even if you think that mechanisms that worked in the past will not bring the Russians back into compliance this time, and, for whatever reason, that you need nuclear weapons based on Europe to answer the Russian weapons, note that we already have 150 air-dropped nuclear bombs in five European nations.
It does not appear that there is a need for even those Euro-based weapons. This force had zero impact on Russia’s recent decisions. There is no evidence to suggest that a few dozen more cruise missiles or submarine-launched missiles would change Moscow’s calculus. More likely, their deployment would trigger a return to a full-on nuclear arms race with Russia that would splinter NATO and divert defense dollars from other, vital conventional military needs.
Bolton does not try to mask his identity or his right-wing ideologue. He does not issue his threats in raspy phone calls, but boldly proclaims that U.S. military power should not be constrained by any treaties, under any circumstances. LIke a recycled horror movie, he presents nuclear war-fighting ideas from the 1950s as if they were bold new concepts.
If this scares you, it should. Bolton is setting up Trump—and America—for a foreign policy disaster. Ronald Reagan must be rolling over in his grave.