Richard Lugar of Indiana has served in the Senate since 1977, as long as any Republican now in the chamber. He has logged two tours as chairman of the Senate Foreign Relations Committee. President Reagan included Lugar in a select group of Senate leaders he tapped to advise his administration on arms control. During the 1990s, Lugar played a central role in assembling resounding (and bipartisan) Senate majorities to approve two treaties with Russia to limit nuclear weapons and a third treaty to ban chemical weapons worldwide.
And today, as the most consequential arms-control debate in years reaches critical mass, Lugar finds himself in an uncomfortably solitary position. He is the only Senate Republican to publicly endorse the New START pact that President Obama negotiated with Russia to limit nuclear warheads. Some of Lugar’s colleagues signaled this week that they might soon join him. But winning Republican support for the treaty has proven much more arduous than the White House anticipated. This unexpectedly grueling struggle testifies to the continuing consolidation of conservative dominance inside the GOP, and to the increasing tendency of the parties to divide as sharply and unrelentingly over foreign affairs as over domestic policy.
Both of those long-term changes are encapsulated by the shift in influence over arms-control issues within the Senate GOP Conference from Lugar to Jon Kyl of Arizona, the minority whip. Kyl, now in his third term, is a long-standing skeptic of arms control. He fought the chemical-weapons treaty that passed in 1997 and helped to sink a comprehensive nuclear test-ban treaty in 1999. Now Kyl is leading the resistance to the latest START agreement, which Obama desperately wants the Senate to approve before the Democratic majority shrinks from 58 seats to 53 next month.
In many respects, Kyl is assuming the role of Lugar antagonist on arms control once played by the late Sen. Jesse Helms, R-N.C. As Foreign Relations Committee chairman, the staunchly conservative Helms tenaciously fought the arms-control agreements negotiated by Reagan, George H.W. Bush, and Bill Clinton. Lugar backed almost all of those treaties, and in each case most Senate Republicans ultimately sided with him—narrowly on the chemical-weapons ban and overwhelmingly on agreements to limit nuclear weapons in 1988, 1992, and 1996. (The sole exception was the 1999 test-ban treaty, which Lugar joined almost all Senate Republicans in opposing.)
Today, the balance inside the GOP caucus looks very different. Besides Lugar, Obama has won support for New START from almost all living former Republican secretaries of State, including Henry Kissinger, George Shultz, James Baker, and Colin Powell. Brent Scowcroft, Stephen Hadley, and Frank Carlucci, all former national-security advisers to Republican presidents, have signed on, too. Yet the glum sense among administration officials is that inside the Senate GOP caucus Kyl eclipses that entire constellation. “It just shows you how disconnected the current [Republican] crop is from the mainstream establishment,” says one Obama official monitoring the debate. “It seems to us all roads go through Kyl. If you talk to any Senate Republican, they use his talking points, they raise his questions.”
The disconnect between the Kyl camp and the treaty’s GOP supporters is both generational and ideological. Lugar, who is 78, and all of the Republican “formers” backing Obama were shaped by the Cold War—when nuclear-arms treaties proved indispensable for managing and containing the conflict between the U.S. and the Soviet Union. Today’s Republican Senate Conference mostly reflects post-Cold War conservative thinking that places the highest priority on maintaining unilateral American freedom of action in national security and instinctively bridles at treaties, alliances, or anything else that might constrain it.
Former Sen. Gordon Smith, R-Ore., who served with Lugar on the Foreign Relations Committee, says that the divergence in priorities has clipped Lugar’s capacity to carry other Republicans to his positions. “Whether Republican senators agree or disagree with Dick Lugar, he is universally respected,” Smith says. “His orientation, though, has always been more toward international engagement and trust in international institutions than many new Republican senators share today.” The same is true for Baker, Shultz, Kissinger, and Powell. “In Washington they may symbolize a certain group of centrists,” says James Rubin, the assistant secretary of State for public affairs under Bill Clinton, “but it’s not represented with Republicans on the floor of the House or the Senate.”
Positive comments this week from Sen. John McCain, R-Ariz., and some other Senate Republicans suggest that the chamber might still approve New START this month. But however this fight turns out, it has already underlined an unmistakable shift away from traditional internationalism inside the GOP. It is Kyl whom most Senate Republicans will follow on the treaty. And Lugar faces the prospect of a tea party primary challenge in 2012, partly around the charge that he collaborates too much with Obama on foreign policy. Compared with bridging our own partisan differences over national security, reconciling with Russia looks like a snap.
This article appears in the December 4, 2010 edition of National Journal Magazine.