In a potential preview of conservative arguments for rejecting the Obama administration’s new nuclear arms reduction treaty with Russia in the Senate, John Bolton, the former U.S. ambassador to the United Nations under George W. Bush, said the treaty reflected “stunning naivete” and placed it in the context of threats to American sovereignty during a wide-ranging speech to the Heritage Foundation on Tuesday.
[Security1] Bolton, an influential conservative foreign policy official for decades, accused the Obama administration of harboring “a very different view of American sovereignty than a long line of presidents, certainly since Franklin Roosevelt.” Relying on portions of quotes by senior officials and an undefined category of people he characterized as the “international left” and the “academic left,” Bolton said the administration attaches a “near theological significance” to the power of international institutions whose actions threaten the supremacy of the U.S. Constitution.
Tying ratification of the treaty, which cuts American and Russian nuclear weapons stockpiles by 30 percent, to the broader question of the survival of American sovereignty raises the stakes for a key Obama administration priority. In his announcement of the treaty on Friday, President Obama linked it to his vision of a world ultimately free of nuclear weapons, a priority conservatives have derided. Ratification, already an uncertain prospect in a fiercely partisan Senate, will require the votes of at least eight Republican senators, a task made more difficult by the influential Bolton’s portrayal of the treaty as commensurate with a broader assault by Obama on constitutional values.
Advances in arms control would have “a cumulative impact on our sovereignty,” Bolton argued. While he declined to address the merits of the treaty — whose text has not yet been released — Bolton said it reflected Obama’s “almost religious view in the obligations and implications of treaties.” He scoffed at the president’s statement that the U.S.-Russian reduction in their countries’ nuclear stockpiles, which represent over 90 percent of the world’s nuclear weapons, would strengthen global arms control efforts, and suggested that it would spur rogue-state nuclear proliferation.
“I think the people in places like Teheran and Pyongyang say, ‘Fantastic — the United States is coming down, let’s ramp up our production efforts to get to the [nuclear] capability even more quickly,’” Bolton said. “The rhetoric of the arms control advocates often is very divorced from important and legitimate American security concerns.”
Beyond the so-called New START treaty itself, Bolton tied Obama’s foreign policy to what he called a “globalist” effort at replacing ultimate fidelity to the Constitution with fealty to international accords and institutions, a longtime conservative bogeyman, and contrasted it with his own “Americanist” perspective.
“I think if you ask most international law scholars, they’d say, ‘Of course international law trumps the Constitution,’” Bolton said, yoking Obama to that position and suggesting that the administration will never abandon it. “This is a decisive question that we ought to be asking politicians: In the priority, in the hierarchy of legal systems, where does the Constitution fit?”
At least one administration official, State Department legal counsel Harold Koh, came under attack last year for allegedly privileging international law above the Constitution, although Koh last week defended the administration’s legal right to launch drone strikes on al-Qaeda targets far from the battlefields of Afghanistan.
Bolton’s framing comes amid the growing influence of Tea Party activists who frequently question Obama’s devotion to the Constitution, and who are seething over the administration’s recent victory in passing health care reform. It also comes as Republicans in the Senate consider whether they ought to sign the New START treaty or to deal the administration’s agenda an embarrassing international setback.
Senate Republicans have yet to coalesce around a position on New START, especially as Congress enjoys a two-week recess. But the early signs from Senate GOP leaders have not been positive. Senate Minority Leader Mitch McConnell (R-Ky.) and Minority Whip Jon Kyl (R-Ariz.) wrote a letter to Obama the day the treaty was announced, warning that even preambular language remotely linking European missile defense to the treaty is unacceptable, despite public declarations from senior Obama officials flatly stating that the treaty will not hinder missile defense. The early strategy from multiple administration officials to pass the treaty is to remind Republicans, as Secretary of State Hillary Rodham Clinton did Friday, that nuclear weapons treaties with the Russians historically sail through the Senate with over 90 votes.
Jamie Fly, the executive director of the Foreign Policy Initiative, a conservative foreign policy messaging and advocacy organization, said that while skepticism of the treaty’s verification mechanisms and relationship to missile defense is pronounced, he was unsure “anyone on the right is really ready to say [the treaty] shouldn’t be ratified.” Fly said his organization would await the actual text of New START before taking a position, though he added that FPI was “not huge fans of the Russia Reset,” the Obama administration’s effort to revitalize bilateral relations with Russia. “Everyone I’ve talked to on Capitol Hill and around town is in a wait-and-see mode,” he said.
Bolton, a fixture on Fox News, widened the aperture for criticism of New START, urging conservatives to press politicians on sovereignty issues. “We have to insist on getting clear answers from candidates for Congress, from incumbent members of Congress, from the presidential candidates as we get into the presidential season in the not-too-distant future,” Bolton said, “to make it clear that we view sovereignty and the preservation of American sovereignty as a high priority.”