Retired Sen. Jon Kyl of Arizona was one of the Senate's most ardent supporters of a strong American defense capability to protect American interests, allies and friends. He was also one of the Senate's leading voices for nuclear deterrence and ballistic missile defense. Today, Sen. Kyl and Sen. Joe Lieberman are co-chairmen of the American Enterprise Institute American Internationalism Project. InFOCUS editor Shoshana Bryen caught up with Sen. Kyl for a conversation about U.S.-Russian relations and strategic security.
inFocus: Thank you very much, Senator Kyl, for agreeing to talk with the readers of inFOCUS. How would you characterize U.S.-Russian relations since the collapse of communism? In what ways have the Russians been responsible international players and in what ways are they “stirring the pot?”
Sen. Kyl: It is interesting that right after the collapse of communism, the Russian government needed a lot of help. It was not in a very strong position and it was more cooperative with Western countries during that period of time than it is now. With the Russian government, the stronger it is vis a vis its neighbors, the more assertive it is and the less cooperative it is in solving problems the other nations of the world would like to see solved. It seems that the greater its power the more it is willing to take positions in its self-interest. We see that right now in Syria, where we would like to get better cooperation than we have from Russia. So it has gone through an evolutionary period, and I think all students of Russia appreciate that fact.
iF: Would you say the current administration has reasonably good relations with Russia?
Kyl: I wouldn’t characterize the relationship that way. At this point, Vladimir Putin believes he has the upper hand with Washington, because he’s dealing with President Obama—a president who doesn’t want to assert U.S. power and tries to find every way that he can to avoid doing that—which makes easier for Putin to assert his power.
To the extent that there are discussions between leaders of our two governments, I wouldn’t characterize those as particularly cooperative. Russian interlocutors are pushing their agenda very strongly these days and with a great deal of success. I don’t think you can characterize the discussions with regard to Syria as anything other than disastrous for the United States. If you want to go outside the U.S. situation, look at what occurred recently in Ukraine. You can see examples of Russian power being exerted these days, and the U.S. not being in a position to do anything about it.
iF: Is American weakness seen by Russia as—I don’t want to say provocative—but maybe as encouraging them to take a more assertive role?
Kyl: Sure. Politics abhors a vacuum, and as the United States signals its intention to move out of an area, its very comfortable for Russia to move into that area, particularly in situations where Russia has always asserted an interest anyway—certainly what they call their “near abroad” fits into that. The Middle East is an area in which they’d like to have influence as well.
iF: To move the conversation to missile defense and strategic defense for the U.S., what happens when we choose not to modernize our arsenal and they upgrade theirs?
Kyl: We’re going to find out. First of all, let’s go back to the U.S. plan. Under President Bush, we at least had a national missile defense plan. President Obama has now eviscerated that plan. Under the original plan, we were going to replace ballistic missile defense with a different kind of defense that would first provide protection to our NATO allies. That was pretty well pulled off the table by Obama, who thought he would get something for it. He got nothing for it from the Russians. In fact, the discussion with NATO about a joint missile defense protocol or regime or arrangement soured after that to the point that the Russians pulled out of the negotiations that had been ongoing between our country and theirs relative to this.
In addition, when the New START Treaty was negotiated and the discussion in the Senate occurred, it became very clear that the Russian position was that the United States, one way or the other, was going to have to give up missile defense capabilities vis a vis Russia in order for them to be cooperative on anything relative to national security. Therefore, I think the President is on a “fool’s errand” if he thinks he can get the Russians to lower numbers of warheads or missile delivery systems without having to give up something. And what he would give up is our missile defense capabilities.
So from the Russian standpoint, it is a win-win situation. We have fewer warheads and besides that, we have given up our missile defense. That’s what they’ve been angling for a long time and the President seems all too willing to play into their hands.
iF: What part of the degradation of our system worries you the most in terms of missile defense or nuclear modernization? What needs to be redressed first?
Kyl: The sine qua non of a world without nuclear proliferation and nuclear threat is a strong U.S. nuclear strategic deterrent. So I guess the first worry is the need to maintain deterrence in a way that, on the one hand friends and allies, and on the other hand potential adversaries, appreciate that it is a viable deterrent. I think we’re dangerously close to losing the credibility that our deterrent has had in the past.
Missile Defense is an extremely important complement to a strategic nuclear deterrent—it is something we should have—but I actually put the deterrent one peg above it because I don’t see how we get along without that deterrent. While missile defense is a very important part of it, with country like Russia you can theoretically do without it—we did during the period of the Cold War. The problem is that missile defense becomes all the more important as you have additional proliferators. And that’s exactly where we’re headed.
iF: I assume you’re talking about China.
Kyl: The administration seems fixated on numbers vis a vis Russia and is failing to appreciate that we’re getting to a point where China is within range of parity. You can’t therefore ignore the capability that a rising China would have. So both with regard to strategic deterrent and missile defense, China, North Korea, and Iran—all of these countries are a problem.
iF: Have you seen fallout from our European allies after we pulled the plug on their missile defense systems?
Kyl: Yes. Both Poland and the Czech Republic expressed public disappointment when the U.S. pulled out of the first deal. And I think the fact that the U.S. has not exercised strong leadership either for our own protection or for the protection of the NATO countries is not lost on them, or on the Russians.
iF: Does this also have an impact on Ukraine?
Kyl: I was thinking more about our NATO allies, but certainly Ukraine is part of that conversation. I think they’re focused on other things right now, but certainly if the West was more willing to embrace them, including the U.S. with potential NATO membership, they might have been much more willing to take a risk that they could snub Russia’s “friendly embrace” and go with the European Union agreement that was on the table and then make way for NATO in the future.
iF: Do you have any hope Ukraine will end up on our side of the divide?
Kyl: I do. I do because half the country would definitely like to; the other half of the country is afraid. So yes, there is hope.
iF: When you consider Capitol Hill and look at committees of the House and Senate charged with our defense, do you see evidence that they “get it”? Or is it hopeless?
Kyl: The answer to that is mixed. For example, with respect to the interim deal negotiated with Iran, I think you saw a pretty healthy skepticism in both bodies on both sides of the aisle from Members of Congress. That was good. But with respect to the sorry state of our national defenses generally—and specific programs like the nuclear modernization and missile defense programs that we’ve discussed—there is inadequate attention being paid, and a lack of enthusiasm and understanding of the importance of those programs. So there, we’ve retrogressed.
The “exclamation point” on that is The Wall Street Journal editorial that criticized the Chairman of the House Armed Services Committee for trying to resurrect some modest degree of spending from the huge cuts that our national defense is now taking under sequestration. The paper criticized him for even trying to protect some of that spending. And all he’s doing is trying to keep the cuts from being as deep as they would otherwise be under sequestration. There aren’t enough Republicans to come to his defense; you’ve got John McCain, Lindsay Graham and Kelly Ayotte over in the Senate, and Buck McKeon and a few others in the House—Turner, Rogers and a few like that. But where are the rest of the people who always believed in “Peace Through Strength” under President Reagan? Now if it costs more than $1.80, they aren’t willing to put the money into national defense. That’s very, very troublesome.
It’s very difficult to be for a strong national security policy—in the situation involving Iran, for example—without the ability to back it up. That requires spending some money on our national security.
iF: Is that an economic problem or one of isolationism?
Kyl: It is primarily economic, but it is also a function of fact that after the Cold War, people who were experts in and very much concerned about national security—who had it in the forefront of their attention every day—those people have disappeared over time. You don’t have the “Scoop” Jacksons of the Democratic Party any more,with Joe Lieberman’s exit. And except for a few people like Lindsay Graham and John McCain, you don’t have people on the Republican side who give it the emphasis it deserves. I have to say, I used to do that as a Member of the Senate—and everybody knows I was pretty cheap when it came to spending taxpayer dollars—but this is an area in which you can’t afford to be penny wise and pound foolish.
iF: Turning to the way the administration deals with some of these issues, John Kerry suggested a future arms agreement with Russia could be enacted solely as an executive agreement that would not require ratification by the Senate. What would the impact of that be?
Kyl: The answer is that in some situations, it can be done. That doesn’t necessarily mean it’s a good thing to do. In other situations, you need a treaty. For example, in the Bush Administration, President Bush decided to reduce the number of warheads in our arsenal because they were simply too expensive to maintain after the fall of the Soviet Union and it wasn’t necessary. And he just decided to do that. That’s a decision I think he had the ability to make; he didn’t need to negotiate a treaty with anybody to do that. In that instance, it was the Russians who came running after us saying, “Please negotiate a treaty.” And finally he said, “OK, if you want to have an agreement that says we both agree to do this, that’s fine, but I’m not going to give you anything for it.”
So we have a two-page treaty.
Now, would it be wise for President Obama to further reduce the number of warheads in our strategic arsenal at this point? No. Not only that, I think under the circumstances, based upon START I and START II, and the commitments the administration made during START II, and the Russians’ insistence on tying other issues to this, it would be a grave mistake—and if not constitutionally invalid at least politically inappropriate—given all these other commitments and the context in which it would take place. The administration might be able to do certain things like reducing the number of missiles or warheads unilaterally, but in context it would not be a smart move here with respect to the U.S. Congress or our relations with other countries. Our allies count on our nuclear umbrella, for example, and they count on these things being done with the full concurrence of both branches of the political part of our government.
iF: That was my next question. Unilateral reductions could have the opposite of the intended effect, then.
Kyl: Sure. Our allies like Japan and South Korea, for example, and allies in the Middle East or at least friends in the Middle East, or countries with which we’ve had good national security relations—the Gulf countries, specifically—and who could blame them? Who could blame the Saudis, for example, who very much fear a nuclear Iran, from picking up the phone and calling the Pakistanis? And this kind of thing happens. It will have exactly the opposite effect of what’s intended.
iF: Will Iran end up a nuclear power?
iF: That was definitive.
Kyl: There’s only one thing that will stop it or slow it down. I’m not going to speculate as to whether the Israeli government will take steps necessary to make that happen. But if the question is, based upon what the United States is likely to do, based on the assumption that Iran can get the weapon within three years—the remainder of the Obama term of office—I see nothing that will stop Iran. Certainly this deal doesn’t do it.
If you follow the logic of the Henry Kissinger/George Schultz article in The Wall Street Journal, you can see a pathway toward at least putting very firm roadblocks in the way of Iran becoming a nuclear power. But I think it would be folly to believe the Obama administration is going to follow the advice that Kissinger and Schultz gave. Therefore, I think you will see a much weaker agreement, an agreement that makes it quite possible for Iran to get to a nuclear capability whenever they decide they want to do it.
iF: My last question is about non-nuclear proliferation. Who is now the biggest proliferator?
Kyl: Obviously, Russia.
Every country has the right to make money on arms sales, but there are certain limits that we have all abided by, more or less. We’re very careful, for example, about MANPADS—shoulder-fired, anti-aircraft missiles—because we understand that in the wrong hands, they can be dangerous to everybody. The Russians used to be willing to abide by our request not to sell to Iran their most sophisticated air and missile defense systems. According to public news reports, even though the Russians took the position they had inked a deal with Iran, they were willing to delay the delivery to the point of non-delivery. According to news reports now, they have lifted that and are willing to sell both Syria and Iran very sophisticated aircraft and missile defense systems. The implications of this on what either the United States or Israel might do, for example, with regard to Iran, are quite obvious.
It’s in this area that I go back to your very first question, which had to do with the degree of cooperation between Russia and the United States—and I said I didn’t think one could characterize our relations right now as cooperative with respect to Iran and Syria—well, this is one of the reasons.
iF: Senator Kyl, thank you for talking with inFocus.