The U.S. Senate gets back to work today after a week of bipartisan mourning of Ronald Reagan and tributes to his security policy legacy. It is fitting that the first orders of business will be votes on amendments to repudiate two of the initiatives most central to the Gipper’s foreign and defense policy success: the maintenance of a credible and safe nuclear deterrent, and protection of Americans against missile attack.
The first effort to reduce last week’s Reagan endorsements to empty words will be led by some of the Senate’s most liberal Democrats, notably Sens. Edward Kennedy of Massachusetts and Dianne Feinstein of California. They seek to preclude the United States from even researching new nuclear weapons, let alone testing or deploying them.
Ronald Reagan hated nuclear weapons as much as anybody. What is more, he seriously worked to rid the world of them. Yet, unlike these legislators, President Reagan understood — until that day — this country must have effective nuclear forces. He was convinced there was no better way to discourage the hostile use of nuclear weapons against us than by ensuring a ready and credible deterrent.
Toward that end, Mr. Reagan comprehensively modernized America’s strategic forces, involving both new weapons and an array of delivery systems. He built two types of intermediate-range nuclear missiles and deployed them to five Western European countries. And, not least, he recognized our deterrent posture depended critically upon a human and physical infrastructure that could design, test, build and maintain the nation’s nuclear arsenal. Without such support, America would inexorably be disarmed.
In fact, it is no exaggeration to say that, but for Mr. Reagan’s nuclear modernization efforts — most of them over the strenuous objections of senators like Mr. Kennedy and John Kerry — we may well not have a viable nuclear deterrent today. Even with his legacy, 15 years of policies more in keeping with the anti-nuclear “freeze” movement’s nostrums than Mr. Reagan’s philosophy of “peace through strength” have undermined the deterrent by creeping obsolescence, growing uncertainty about its reliability and safety and loss of infrastructure to ensure its future effectiveness.
This is especially worrisome since some of the research in question would explore whether a Robust Nuclear Earth Penetrator (RNEP) could be developed to penetrate deep underground before detonating. Such a capability would allow us to hold at risk some of the 10,000 concealed and hardened command-and-control bunkers, weapons of mass destruction (WMD) production and storage facilities and other buried high-value targets built by potential adversaries.
If anything, the absence of a credible American capability to attack such targets may have contributed to rogue states’ massive investment in these facilities over the past 15 years. One thing is clear: Our restraint in taking even modest steps to modernize our nuclear deterrent — for example, by designing an RNEP or new, low-yield weapons — has certainly not prevented others from trying to “get the Bomb.”
There is no more reason — Sens. Kennedy, Kerry and Feinstein’s arguments to the contrary notwithstanding — to believe continuing our unilateral restraint will discourage our prospective enemies’ proliferation in the future.
Last September, the Senate recognized this reality, rejecting an earlier Feinstein-Kennedy amendment by a vote of 53-41. Five Democrats — Sens. Evan Bayh of Indiana, Fritz Hollings of South Carolina,Zell Miller of Georgia, Ben Nelson of Nebraska and Bill Nelson of Florida — joined virtually every Republican in permitting nuclear weapons research, with the proviso further congressional approval would be required prior to development and production. The prudence of this is even more evident today in light of revelations of covert Iranian and North Korean nuclear activity since last fall.
The other assault on the Reagan legacy will be led by Democratic Sens. Carl Levin of Michigan and Jack Reed of Rhode Island. They hope to strip more than $500 million from defense authorization legislation that would buy anti-missile interceptors, the direct descendant of Ronald Reagan’s Strategic Defense Initiative (SDI).
Just last week, former Gorbachev spokesman Gennadi Gerasimov, reminded the world how mistaken those like Sen. Carl Levin, Michigan Democrat, were when they ridiculed and tried to undermine the Reagan missile defense program: “I see President Reagan as a grave-digger of the Soviet Union and the spade that he used to prepare this grave was SDI.”
Today, there are published reports the U.N. Security Council has been briefed by its inspectors that ballistic missiles and WMD components were slipped out of Iraq before Saddam Hussein was toppled. Such weapons, like some of the thousands of other short-range missiles in arsenals around the world, could find their way into terrorists hands and be launched at this country from ships off our shores.
Can there be any doubt but that Ronald Reagan — faced with today’s threat of missile attack and the proliferation of nuclear and other weapons of mass destruction — would have been any less resolute in building missile defenses and maintaining our nuclear deterrent than he was in the 1980s? If last week’s praise for his visionary leadership two decades ago was not dishonest rhetoric, it should inspire, and guide, us all now.
Frank J. Gaffney Jr. was responsible for nuclear forces and arms control policy in the Reagan Pentagon. He is president of the Center for Security Policy and a columnist for The Washington Times.