In a May 11 Washington Times editorial, Frank Gaffney, Ed Meese, Clifford May, and four additional coauthors—all of whom represent institutions that form part of the hawkish extreme of the Republican Party establishment—called for a “renewed adherence to the national security philosophy of President Ronald Reagan: ‘Peace Through Strength.’”[1] The authors argued that “freedom,” “America’s exceptional role,” and even the country’s very existence are at stake as a result of an astounding array of purported threats—which the Barack Obama administration, they implied, was doing little to confront—including missile attacks, Shariah law, electromagnetic pulse weapons, Islamic terrorism, unlawful enemy combatants, illegal aliens, and a weak military. Echoing a message that was honed by neoconservative groups like the Project for the New American Century during the Clinton presidency, the authors championed the notion that U.S. global leadership was essential to guarantee the country’s security.

This rhetorical broadside represents one facet of a larger assault on the administration’s national security policy, with other facets including criticism about the size of the defense budget, Middle East policy, and terrorist detention policy. Arguably the most significant attacks, however, have developed around questions about strategic policies, in particular President Obama’s efforts to restructure U.S. nuclear doctrine by restraining the country’s nuclear retaliation policy and renegotiating the START Treaty with Russia. The Washington Times op-ed went so far as to call for the resumption of nuclear testing, in contravention of the Comprehensive Test Ban Treaty and a two-decade testing moratorium.

In recent weeks, multiple lines of attack against the nuclear policy of the Obama administration have emerged from several bastions of U.S. rightwing politics, including the National Review, the Weekly Standard, the Center for Security Policy, and the Heritage Foundation. The angles of these attacks have varied, but they have centered on the claim that the Obama administration, in pursuit of international acclaim, has insufficiently provided for the security of the U.S. nuclear arsenal.

These right-wing attacks reveal the continued entrenchment of elements of the hawkish extreme in the Republican Party’s foreign policy establishment, despite the significant setbacks they have suffered since helping drive the country into war with Iraq. Also, the arguments currently emanating from groups like Heritage and the William Kristol-led Foreign Policy Initiative (FPI) show the degree to which the right has grasped onto outdated, nostalgic concepts from the heyday of the Cold Warriors. Discussions about “throw weight” and “rail mobile launchers” echo intra-conservative debates that took place during the Reagan era. However, conservatives who had advocated responsible arms control measures during that time have now been left behind. Voices that argued for engagement with the Soviet Union—such as George Schultz and James Baker—now stand outside the laboratories developing Republican foreign policy.

Attacking No First Use

Following its release early this year, the Obama administration’s Nuclear Posture Review (NPR), which defines U.S. nuclear weapons policy and strategy, became the subject of a concerted right-wing attack. The NPR modified U.S. deterrence posture by declaring that the country would not respond to a chemical or biological attack as long as the attacker was a member in good standing of the Nuclear Non-Proliferation Treaty. This “no-first-use” policy, however, did not entail any change in the U.S. stance toward North Korea and Iran, as the former left the NPR in the 1990s and the United States has questioned the adherence of the latter.

In an effort to win conservative “buy in,” the Obama administration made several major concessions. In addition to the caveats that significantly limit the impact of the “no first use” policy, the NPR includes significant appropriations for the modernization and maintenance of the existing nuclear stockpile. The NPR also revives “prompt global strike,” a system designed to place conventional warheads on nuclear-like delivery systems. Perhaps most disappointing to progressives, the NPR reserves a key role for missile defense in U.S. security strategy.

Nevertheless, the NPR shifted the United States, however marginally, from a policy of ambiguity regarding nuclear retaliation to a no-first-use policy. This shift has spurred a series of bitter attacks from conservative foreign policy figures and organizations, who claim that it displays weakness in the face of the enemy. For example, John Noonan of the Foreign Policy Initiative and Stuart Koehl, an analyst for the defense contractor ARDAK Corporation and a fellow at Johns Hopkins University’s School of Advanced International Studies (SAIS), argued in the National Review that the reduction of ambiguity in the NPR undercut U.S. deterrence and invited foreign aggression.[2] “This has the potential to create a false impression in the minds of potential aggressors that such weapons can be used without fear of an equivalent reprisal, because the U.S. and its allies have eliminated their chemical and biological stockpiles.”

This claim ignores the fact that the United States has stark, overwhelming conventional dominance over any foe or possible combination of foes, and that this conventional advantage provides its own deterrent. Noonan and Koehl neither explain this discrepancy, nor call for a reduction of U.S. conventional forces.


A similar line of attack has developed against the new START Treaty signed by the United States and Russia in April. The treaty reaffirms the limits on warheads and delivery devices developed at the end of the Cold War, and renews and further develops Washington and Moscow’s commitments to reduce their nuclear arsenals. Again, the administration tried to win conservative support by negotiating very mild, non-restrictive language with the Russians on missile defense. These concessions may have won the president some room on the right, especially among moderately conservative senators like Richard Lugar and Joseph Lieberman, but generated considerable consternation on the hawkish extreme.[3]

In an emblematic critique of the new START published in the National Review, two defense officials who served during the George W. Bush administration—Robert Joseph, senior scholar at the National Institute for Public Policy, and Eric Edelman, visiting scholar at Johns Hopkin’s SAIS—argued that the treaty could limit missile defense, diminish the ability to field prompt global strike weapons, and potentially result in the expansion of Russian and U.S. nuclear arsenals through exploitation of treaty loopholes regulating bombers and missiles launched from rail cars.[4] Remarkably, however, Joseph and Edelman do not call on the Senate to reject the treaty, but rather to simply examine it in detail.

Pavel Podvig, a researcher at the Center for International Security and Cooperation at Stanford University and a specialist on Russian weapon systems, responded to this line of argument with the refrain, “All this, of course, is just plain crazy.” He noted that the new START placed no limitations on missile defense, no meaningful limitations on prompt global strike (a system likely a decade away from service), but did put limitations on rail mounted ICBMs.[5]

However, GOP elected officials such as Sen. Jim DeMint (R-SC) and think tanks such as the Heritage Foundation continue to echo, and occasionally elaborate upon, claims like those made by Joseph and Edelman.[6] A report from Heritage’s “New START Working Group,” for example, reiterated the rail car assertion and made a series of additional arguments claiming that the new treaty does not place enough limits upon the use of MIRV (missiles with multiple independently targetable reentry vehicles) and tactical nuclear weapons, and places too many limitations upon some forms of missile defense.[7]

Marginalizing the Moderates

Ironically, the attacks launched by the conservative foreign policy establishment against the Obama administration could also have been used against Ronald Reagan’s administration. The defense and nuclear policy of the Reagan administration is often understood as the zenith of hawkish, anti-Soviet sentiment. While this largely applies to Reagan’s first term in office, in the second term Reagan pursued far more conciliatory policies toward the Soviet Union and arms control. Reagan himself, as demonstrated by several historians, held almost radical views about the eventual abolition of nuclear weapons.[8] In one famous case, Reagan’s advisers had to restrain him from coming to an overarching deal with Soviet premier, Mikhail Gorbachev, that would have substantially reduced global nuclear weapon stockpiles.[9]

As Max Bergmann, Deputy Policy Director at the National Security Network, has argued, a divide has emerged between the “realist” wing of the Republican foreign policy establishment and its more radical right-wing counterpart.[10] The debate over nuclear policy has demonstrated that the latter now essentially dominates the institutional apparatus of right-wing foreign policy thinking. Ideas and arguments that were welcome in the Reagan administration can now find no purchase at Heritage, or the Weekly Standard, or anywhere else on the right.

Many of the moderate Republicans who favored arms control and engagement with the Soviet Union are still around, but they have minimal influence on the institutional right. Henry Kissinger, James Baker, Brent Scowcroft, Colin Powell, and George Schultz have all played key roles in developing foreign policy for multiple Republican administrations. However, none have developed an extensive base within the institutional right wing, the constellation of independent organizations and foundations (including the Heritage Foundation and the American Enterprise Institute) that have emerged as key players in internal Republican Party debates. This faction has, by and large, concluded that the greatest threat posed by Russian nuclear weapons is loss, theft, or accidental launch, rather than pre-emptive attack.

In contrast, the signatories to the Washington Times op-ed mentioned above all represent organizations that are part of the institutional machinery of movement conservatism.[11]

In addition, prominent political figures have been able to promote the studies and reports produced by these groups, including for instance Sarah Palin, who despite her clear lack of knowledge on the subject tried to use that hardline rhetoric in attacking Obama’s arms control initiatives.

The influence of the radical right over its realist counterpart has become clear in the behavior of many congressional Republicans. While some Republicans remain committed to arms control, others have adopted the rejectionism of the institutional right. For example, in a speech to the Heritage Foundation in early May, House Minority Whip Rep. Eric Cantor (R-VA) called on the Senate to reject the new START Treaty.[12]

“Cognitive Closure”

Over the past month, the question of “cognitive closure” on the right has been discussed extensively in the blogosphere. Cognitive closure refers to the concept that the Republican political establishment and major conservative pundits review information from within a very limited circle of sources. The nuclear critique mounted by the right wing represents an example of conservative “cognitive closure,” with the ironic outcome that those most eager to wave the banner of the Reagan administration’s foreign policy are offering arguments that Reagan himself would have rejected.

Of course, President Obama also faces other domestic and international obstacles to his nuclear agenda. The major nuclear weapons labs favor developing new nuclear weapons, and they represent powerful economic interests in important states. Elements of the national security bureaucracy also oppose parts of the president’s agenda, including officials in the Pentagon as well as at the State Department and the Energy Department.[13] The ratification of START and the successful implementation of the goals outlined in the NPR will depend on more than just the outcome of internecine conflicts in the conservative movement. Indeed, as with health care, the success of extreme elements within the right to hijack the debate in the Republican Party may mean the functional exclusion of other conservative voices from key policy decisions.

At this point, the degree to which these attacks will find purchase with the American public is unclear. Nuclear issues appear to have relatively low salience among the public, although general charges of weakness on foreign affairs may have more influence. The general accommodation of these attacks within the context of a “peace through strength” political argument may make them more understandable to that part of the electorate responsive to GOP political arguments. However, the Republican Party may find it difficult to make the conceptual connection between a fear of underwear bombers and reloadable rail-launched ICBMs. The real constituency for the pro-nuclear message lies not with the GOP base, but rather within the right-wing institutions themselves—with the theorists and policymakers who have been fighting the nuclear fight since the 1980s.

The nature of these attacks against the Obama administration’s nuclear policy are not so much evidence of a battle within conservative foreign policy circles as they are a sign of the ascendancy of one particular faction. One key to achieving this dominant position in the discourse on the right has been the establishment and nurturing of institutions for developing and promoting their views. The wing of the GOP foreign policy establishment once regarded as “realist” failed to construct an institutional structure to develop and promulgate its ideas. Consequently, the major organs of conservative foreign policy-making now follow one line, serious debate is marginalized, and there are fewer new voices on the right arguing for responsible nuclear weapons policy.

Robert Farley is an assistant professor at the University of Kentucky’s Patterson School of Diplomacy and International Commerce. His last article for Right Web, “The EMP Threat: Lots of Hype, Little Traction,” was published in October 2009.