The United States seems to be under the impression that being the ‘strong horse’ in international affairs harms our standing in the world. We are retreating from the international stage, seemingly happy in the idea of turning both national and international security policy over to a combination of global UN agencies and regional authorities we hope will cooperate with us, and motivated more by good will than hard interests.

As members of Congress review the administration’s proposals on counterterrorism, nuclear deterrence, missile defense, and proliferation, this retreat seem to be the ‘elephant in the room’ about which few appear willing to talk. For now.

Beneath the surface, however, Congress is becoming increasingly worried, even alarmed. Representative Howard Berman, the chair of the House International Relations Committee, has said publicly that it is long past the time when the US should have acted on Iran, with or without the cooperation of China and Russia. He sounded even more frustrated in comments he made privately at the recent AIPAC conference. And Senator Jon Kyl, from the opposite side of the political spectrum, addressing a Congressional seminar on April 20, explained he was worried that this administration was not committed to a sufficiently strong and secure nuclear deterrent.

Some important Bush-era counterterrorism policies are being retained, for example much of the Patriot Act. Also, apparently, our nuclear Triad of submarines, bombers and land-based missiles will also remain, although diminished, at least for now. And theater missile defenses will improve, which are useful, but further protection of the US mainland remains elusive. But the broader reality reflects a gradual retreat:

  • Senior members of the defense committees in Congress see no long-term plan for the sustaining or modernizing the US strategic nuclear deterrent -- even though the law requires such a plan.
  • Although plans for a new strategic submarine are on the table, in part to coincide with Britain"s need to replace its own version of the Trident, no associated missile program is in the works.
  • On the land-based missile leg of the US nuclear deterrent, after a two-decade long effort to extend the life of the Minuteman, there is yet to emerge any long-term plan to sustain the missile to 2030 or beyond, as required by Congress -- and which would be essential if the US were to maintain a balanced and stable strategic environment.
  • Many Senators from both parties have written the administration asking for a commitment to modernize the nuclear force, but have yet to receive an answer.
  • There is also a delay in plans for a new strategic bomber. Internal discussions within the Department of Defense on a long-term solution continue, with many options under consideration, including an unmanned nuclear-capable bomber.
  • At a recent private disarmament conference in Geneva, a representative from New Zealand complained to the US participants that our ICBMs could be launched accidentally (they cannot) if there were a computer malfunction in our launch-control facilities. As a result, pressures remain to stand-down our deterrent, which, if implemented would unnerve our allies and encourage our adversaries.
  • Although the current US administration is increasing funding for the nuclear weapons infrastructure by over $600 million, and although increased funding for counter-proliferation efforts within both the Departments of Energy and Defense have been proposed, members of Congress, while pleased with such efforts, are puzzled about why a nuclear summit, dedicated to the proposition that nuclear terrorism is our most serious security problem, did not focus on the most serious threat of all — Iran.
  • A senior member of the House Committee on Foreign Relations complained last week that the Iran Sanctions Bill - approved by both the House and Senate -- which prohibits companies who do business in the refined-petroleum and energy sector with Iran from doing business with the US, may be eviscerated even before it becomes law.
  • To move the bill, the administration has insisted that China be exempt from the legislation—making the bill a dead letter. Here the dots remain unconnected. Even as Chinese firms are aiding Iran’s nuclear weapons program, we give them a free ride on doing energy business with Tehran.

Congress therefore wonders how serious the administration really is about sanctioning Iran.

Meanwhile, the Director of the FBI says that right-wing militias are now the most serious terrorism threat facing the country, even greater than the threat from Al Qaeda, which had been identified only a week earlier as an even greater terrorist threat than a nuclear-armed Iran or North Korea. Is this now going to be the basis for US counter-terrorism policy?

The same holds true for missile defense. Defense Department debates have centered around a point largely ignored up to now: We are placing almost our entire future for missile defense on one technology, the Navy standard missile, to be deployed in ever-increasing capabilities in 2011, 2015, 2018 and 2020 --and eventually protecting not only all of Europe, but also the United States, from Iranian missiles.

The back-up system on which we were to have relied in case this did not work was the two-stage rocket we planned to deploy in Poland, with its associated radar in the Czech Republic, but both were cancelled.

The irony is that the Russians are even more opposed to the new plan than they were to the previous plans. The now-cancelled Polish deployment was supposed to consist of 10 interceptors, insignificant in strategic terms in relation to more than a thousand deployed strategic Russian nuclear warheads; and the new Navy-based standard missile could have been placed on the Aegis Navy ships and thus can be made mobile. With interceptor-speeds of 5-6 kilometers per second, should we obtain such a future capability, the Russians might be faced with hundreds of such missile defenses, capable of easily shooting down Russia strategic rockets.

But these future US plans are not funded -- yet.

They depend upon future assessments of Iranian missile capabilities, which might not reach a consensus for many years, although just last week a report was sent to Congress warning that Iran could build an intercontinental ballistic missile capable of reaching the United States by 2015. However, supplemental missile defenses against such a rocket threat will not be built until 2020, at the earliest.

So here we get promises of future deployments that may never even materialize.

We have agreed to too few nuclear platforms under the new START Treaty, where we have to cut our stockpile by 188 missiles or bombers, while Russia"s force of just under 500 has room to expand. If the Russians insist on limiting future US missile-defense deployments, why are we assuming that our future missile defense plans will get a free ride? They might not.

The unsettled nature of Congressional opinion may not yet be reflected in the considerations of the defense budget now before the House and Senate. But Congressional unsettledness may be part of why consideration of the START arms control treaty might be delayed until next January at the earliest.

Congress seems to be in a ‘waiting’ mode — to see what other shoe will drop. This might be the reason for much of the calm one sees. Beneath the surface, though, is real concern that the administration is putting off many tough but critical decisions about the security threats we face.

Unfortunately, the US nuclear deterrent does not move forward automatically.. It atrophies if not sustained and modernized, just like any other element of our national security.

At present, we have no commitment to a new air-launched cruise missile for our bombers, or new land- or sea-based missiles. Drafters of the Iran sanctions bill said they had to exempt China to secure Administration support, so not only have we let China off the hook, but, as noted, some planned missile-defense protections rely on future promises that may never materialize.

This global retreat also involves issues such as immigration, supposedly the next ‘big ticket’ item on the Congressional agenda. Enforcement of immigration laws has been scaled back: border arrests have fallen sharply. Columbia and Honduras, key US allies in the fight against drugs, have been ignored as the US either disregards -- or facilitates by inaction -- the increasing dangers of the alliance between our neighbor, Venezuela, and Iran -- including their ties with terrorist groups and drug cartels and their meddling in elections throughout the continent. If granting amnesty in the US is not combined with serious efforts to control our borders, we may very well make these dangers worse. Drug cartels and terrorist groups may find in no more difficult to cross our borders after immigration-reform than before it.

Some argue that the administration’s rhetoric about a nuclear-free world can be understood simply as a necessary bow in the direction of the disarmament goals of the Nuclear Non-Proliferation Treaty.

Venezuela and Iran are working together on both missiles and nuclear matters. China sustains the regime in Caracas with $20 billion in new loans. The dots of immigration, nuclear proliferation and rogue states should be connected.

Tehran, Peking and Caracas are cooperating to enhance their power, not only in the Persian Gulf but in our hemisphere as well. This can not only limit US freedom, it can intimidate our allies. Iranian missiles tipped with nuclear warheads and deployed in Venezuela can easily reach Miami. The message to Washington is clear: Back off!

There may be a method to all this. The administration’s rhetorical promises of a nuclear free world get good photo ops and nice editorials, and it is argued that any administration would tout an arms control agreement. But none before has ever so firmly embraced a world without nuclear weapons. And while we get pledges to secure nuclear material from Canada and Chile, bomb-making material and bombs themselves may soon be available in Tehran for terrorists to pick up.

Tough but necessary decisions are still being avoided. The easy decisions get done.

When faced with delivering tough sanctions on Iran and allow China an exemption, will we now go to the UN and get China’s support for equally weak measures -- then call it a success because we ‘had the support of the international community’?

It is true that the charade with Iran has been going on for some time, through various administrations. But eventually the ‘tough talk’ image, combined with no corresponding action, has consequences.

One senior Senator, a leading voice in security affairs, mentioned recently that since we are perceived to be getting out of the nuclear business -- reducing our commitment to protecting America from ballistic missiles, and leaving ourselves vulnerable to terrorism -- others around the world will make their own accommodations. He said that here at home, ‘these are the dots few are connecting.’ But, he warned, ‘others, especially our friends overseas, are connecting the dots. They too will change their calculations. And they will look elsewhere for the strong horse. And that strong horse? It will not be our friend.’

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