In May 2013, U.S. President Barack Obama nominated the then acting under secretary of state for arms control and international security, Rose Gottemoeller, to be the next under secretary of state for arms control and international security. The Senate Committee on Foreign Relations soon thereafter ordered Gottemoeller’s nomination “to be reported favorably” to the Senate, meaning that it should go to vote in the full body. Despite the committee’s endorsement, Florida Senator Marco Rubio blocked the nomination until it expired at the end of 2013. In January 2014, when the Obama administration nominated Gottemoeller once more, the Senate Committee on Foreign Relations yet again ordered her nomination “to be reported favorably.” The Senate finally confirmed her nomination on March 6 by a 58-42 yea-nay vote

The stated reason behind the initial Senate bottleneck was Rubio’s concern that the Obama administration might engage in unilateral reductions of the U.S. nuclear arsenal outside the normal framework of treaties (which require Senate approval). During Gottemoeller’s hearing in September 2013, Rubio repeatedly made his concerns clear, saying, “I understand that you don’t have the authority to make that decision, you simply execute the policy of this administration. But apparently it’s not the policy of this administration to rule . . . [unilateral reductions] out in the future.” 

Despite Gottemoeller’s assurance that “unilateral reductions are not on the table,” Rubio stuck to his guns: “The point I’m trying to get at is I don’t support unilateral reductions by the United States as an effort of goodwill to the world. So far I’ve not heard anyone in the administration rule out further militarily significant reductions.” 

The Senate vote on Thursday ended a protracted battle over Gottemoeller’s nomination. But what was behind Rubio’s opposition? Was his position really about unilateral reductions? If historical trends are any indication, extreme partisanship may be infecting an area once thought important enough to set typical party politics to the side.  

Policies and Nominees 

A look at the historical record shows that U.S. unilateral nuclear reductions are exceedingly rare and that the only administrations that have undertaken them have been Republican. 

In September 1991, George H. W. Bush announced in a televised speech to the nation that the United States would unilaterally reduce its nuclear forces, withdrawing and eliminating most U.S. shorter-range nonstrategic nuclear weapons from bases in Europe and Asia without seeking congressional approval. And in 2001 George W. Bush announced a unilateral reduction of U.S. strategic nuclear forces to the “lowest possible number consistent with our national security.” This latter reduction was eventually codified in the Moscow Treaty, but the administration had been prepared to proceed outside a treaty framework. In 1991 Rubio was a student at Santa Fe Community College, and in 2002 he was a member of the Florida House of Representatives; there is no record of his reaction at the time to either Bush’s unilateral reductions. 

The current White House has shown no sign of wanting to undertake unilateral reductions. On the contrary, the U.S. administration’s approach to arms control policies has been consistent since Obama took office in 2009. In terms of strategic planning, the administration has calculated how low Washington could go in terms of nuclear forces. In the Department of Defense’s June 2013 Report on U.S. Nuclear Employment Strategy, the Pentagon determined that the United States could achieve its deterrence and strategy requirements with “up to a one-third reduction in deployed nuclear weapons from the level established in the New START Treaty,” referring to the New Strategic Arms Reduction Treaty signed in 2010 by Russia and the United States. This force level (amounting to about 1,000 deployed nuclear weapons), in the military’s view, would be sufficient whether or not Russia reduced its arsenal further below the New START level. But the president, as a matter of policy, has said that he will only undertake future reductions of the U.S. nuclear arsenal in a reciprocal way through negotiated treaties with Russia.

Gottemoeller has simply reiterated the administration’s well-known arms control policies, which were captured in the 2010 Nuclear Posture Review and led to the conclusion of the New START treaty. And as the former deputy under secretary of energy for defense nuclear nonproliferation and chief U.S. negotiator of New START, it is hard to accuse Gottemoeller of lacking experience in arms control policy. Many Republicans readily praise her qualifications. During her confirmation hearing, Republican Senator Johnny Isakson of Georgia called her “a tough lady, a knowledgeable lady, an effective lady,” adding that with all the proliferation challenges facing the United States today, there is “no better person to have than Gottemoeller” to deal with them. 

In light of these facts, it has to be asked to what extent Rubio’s opposition to Gottemoeller’s nomination had to do with partisan politics. If the opposition was a mere proxy for a broader political conflict that has little to do with arms control policies or the merits of the nominee, it represents a departure from a time when nuclear matters were treated as critical enough to warrant serious bipartisan public debate. 

The “Forty Years’ Peace”

From the time that the position of director of the U.S. Arms Control and Disarmament Agency was created in 1961 until 1999 all but two appointees to the job were confirmed by the Senate regardless of the party affiliation of the president or the Senate majority. (The director job became the position of under secretary of state for arms control and international security in 1999 when the administration of then president Bill Clinton completed the integration of the agency into the State Department.)

From 1961 until today, 60 percent of all confirmed nominees for director or under secretary have passed through Senates whose majority shared the same party affiliation as the nominating presidents. The other 40 percent were nominated by a Republican president and confirmed by a Democrat-led Senate. The one time a Republican-led Senate had the opportunity to confirm a Democratic president’s nominee—John Holum, nominated by Clinton in 1999 and again in 2000—they did not, although Holum had been confirmed as director of the agency prior to its termination in 1999 (see figure). 

The voting pattern between 1961 and 1999 suggests that during the forty years’ peace, Senate confirmations of Arms Control and Disarmament Agency directors and under secretaries of state for arms control were not tied to the White House’s approach to arms control policies or to other partisan quarrels, for that matter. They were routine votes that adhered to the tradition of giving presidents broad leeway over foreign policy nominees. The pattern hit a rough patch twice over two nominees’ perceived lack of experience in the field, but the fights were about the qualifications of a nominee or a specific articulated policy that could be argued over and defended. 

In 1977, many Republicans opposed President Jimmy Carter’s nominee to be the next Arms Control and Disarmament Agency director, Paul Warnke, for his supposed flip-flopping on the issue of numerical superiority and Carter’s perceived reluctance to show strength in arms negotiations with the Soviet Union. Warnke was charged by Senate opponents of demonstrating “weakness and fuzzy-mindedness” as well as “saber-rattling and nuclear adventurism.”1 

In a relatively close 70–29 vote, the Democrat-led Senate confirmed Warnke, but not before some senators made it clear that they did not support the candidate or Carter’s approach to arms control policies. The resistance to Warnke’s nomination as director had in reality more to do with his anticipated role as chief arms negotiator, a post that also needed Senate approval. His opponents claimed he had a record of “opposing new U.S. weapons systems and advocating ‘soft’ positions in negotiations.”2 

The debate over Warnke’s subsequent nomination to be chief arms negotiator ultimately came down to what may or may not have been a misplaced comma in a statement he made on whether relative U.S. or Soviet military superiority mattered. With the comma, the words in question implied that if the Russians had nuclear superiority it should not worry Americans; without the comma, the implication was that Russian superiority should worry Americans.3 While there was no filibuster, the close Senate vote of 58–40 spoke to the degree to which senators in opposition were skeptical of Warnke’s qualifications for the post of chief arms negotiator. 

But as Democratic Senator John Sparkman, one of Warnke’s defenders, pointed out, opponents were also “in reality attacking the President.”4 Carter had indeed asked for a “strong vote” for Warnke, while indicating that opposition would demonstrate a “lack of confidence in the Senate in . . . [Carter’s] own ability.”5 According to a Washington Post editorial, Warnke’s opponents feared that Carter would forego showing “strength and will” toward America’s Cold War adversary and would instead try to “reduce the risks and costs and strains of relations with the Russians” by negotiating treaties.6

In 1983, the tables were turned, and Democrats expressed displeasure with Kenneth Adelman, President Ronald Reagan’s candidate for the position of Arms Control and Disarmament Agency director. Democrats thought Adelman lacked experience in the field and used the platform provided by the nomination to criticize Reagan’s alleged arms buildup.

Adelman received by far the closest vote any director or under secretary of state for arms control had received up to that point. Despite being rejected 9–8 by the Senate Foreign Relations Committee, where it was believed that the nominee had “failed to demonstrate an understanding of arms control issues,”7 Adelman’s nomination was still allowed to move to the Senate for a full vote. 

There, despite stiff opposition—mainly from Democrats—Adelman ended up with a 57–42 vote in his favor. Senator Paul Tsongas, a leading opponent from the Democratic Party, called Adelman’s views on arms control “a sham,”8 adding that the goal of his criticism was actually to “raise the issue of arms control, using the nominee as a process.”9 Four Republicans joined 38 Democrats in voting against Reagan’s nominee, turning what normally should have been a routine vote into a vote of no confidence in the White House’s arms control policies.

In order to overcome the resistance, the Reagan administration hinted that Adelman would not play a significant role in arms control negotiations with the Soviets and would hand over most of his responsibilities to the secretary of state, George Shultz.10 On the day of Adelman’s confirmation vote, Shultz assured several undecided Democrats that “arms control negotiations would be pursued with vigor.” And Shultz kept his promise as he went on to assist Reagan in the negotiation of both the Intermediate-Range Nuclear Forces (INF) and the START treaties with Russia. 

Forty years of bipartisan confirmations—with only two exceptions—were finally interrupted in a meaningful way in 1999 when a Democratic president, for the first and only time, nominated a candidate that needed to be confirmed by a Republican-led Senate. The new millennium introduced an era of partisan clashes over the nominees’ arms control knowledge, the nomination procedures, and U.S. policies.

A Proxy War in the Senate: 
Clinton’s “Unalloyed Arms-Control Ideologue”

In 1999, Clinton nominated the acting under secretary of state for arms control, John Holum, for the under secretary post during a recess of the Senate. But Republicans rejected the appointee. He was nominated again in 2000, but in December the Senate returned the nomination to the president. 

Holum’s confirmation should have been a routine affair since he had already served as director of the U.S. Arms Control and Disarmament Agency since 1993 and acting under secretary of state for arms control since 1997.

But it was not. At the heart of the problem was a conservative fear over what was called in the Washington Times Clinton’s “dubious U.S.-Russian and/or multilateral arms-control-related initiatives,” as well as the White House’s apparent aversion to the deployment of “effective missile defenses,” policies that some worried could prove “highly problematic for, if not downright inimical to, the nation’s ability to deter aggression.” One of the thorniest issues was the Clinton administration’s consideration of a Russian proposal for a global monitoring system of ballistic missiles, which was called in the Washington Times “a transparent Soviet-style ploy aimed at creating further impediments to U.S. ballistic missile programs.”

The controversy over the appointment of Holum did not last long. George W. Bush took home the 2000 election and appointed his own under secretary to take over arms control affairs. But Democrats in the Senate would soon pay back the favor by trying to block the newly elected president’s nominee, John Bolton, over what some saw as the candidate’s lack of experience on arms control issues. Mainly, however, they were concerned about the Bush administration’s policies.         

Fears of a Destabilizing National Missile Defense System

In 2001, Bush nominated Bolton, then senior vice president of the American Enterprise Institute, to be under secretary of state for arms control and international security. He was eventually confirmed by a 57–43 yea-nay vote in a Senate split evenly between Republicans and Democrats. Seven Democrats joined 50 Republicans to confirm the appointment.11 But the nomination was not without controversy. 

Democratic senators who voted against Bolton’s appointment criticized the nominee’s lack of experience and his personal stance on nuclear arms control, which mirrored the Bush administration’s approach to the issue. One of the most outspoken critics of Bolton’s nomination was then senator Joseph Biden, who after initially suggesting he would support the nomination said he had doubts about Bolton’s expertise: “What we do know about Mr. Bolton’s views on arms control and nonproliferation matters suggests an individual who questions the relevance of arms control agreements.”

Senate Democrats also criticized Bolton for having favored a national missile defense system, “even if it conflicts with the 1972 Anti-Ballistic Missile Treaty.” Democrats were concerned that the White House’s plan would end the Anti-Ballistic Missile Treaty. Senator Byron Dorgan of North Dakota claimed that Bolton’s confirmation would “show the world that Mr. Bush is pursuing a ‘unilateralist policy’ and a ‘destabilizing national missile defense system.’” Democrats’ fears came to fruition when the United States unilaterally withdrew from the treaty two years into the Bush administration.

George W. Bush went on to pursue a policy of unilaterally reducing U.S. strategic nuclear forces to the “lowest possible number consistent with our national security.” Russia, which wanted a legally binding agreement, protested this approach and was soon joined by U.S. senators, including Biden, who insisted that “significant obligations by the United States regarding deployed U.S. strategic nuclear warheads” would “constitute a treaty subject to the advice and consent of the Senate.” 

The Bush administration soon reversed its course and signed the 2002 Strategic Offensive Reductions Treaty (SORT), in which both the United States and Russia agreed to “limit their strategic nuclear warheads to 1700–2200 each.” But the less-than-500-word Moscow Treaty still reflected the Bush administration’s arms control approach of “minimizing constraints and maintaining flexibility” and stipulated that any party that wished to withdraw did not need to give a justification. 

Senate Opposition to John Rood

Problems with George W. Bush’s arms control nominees returned in 2007 when Senate Democrats, who held a majority in both chambers for the first time since 1995, refused to act upon former Central Intelligence Agency analyst and then assistant secretary of state for international security and nonproliferation John Rood’s nomination for the post of arms control under secretary. As with Bolton, Biden took the lead in protesting Rood’s appointment because “there were far more experienced candidates for the position than Mr. Rood.”

In reality, as shown during the nomination clash over Bolton, Biden first and foremost disagreed with the president’s arms control policies—as one nuclear policy expert explained, “It’s hard to find a top arms control or nonproliferation expert who is in sync with this administration.”

The Bush administration found a way to fill the position without Senate confirmation by designating Rood acting under secretary, a position he held until January 2009, when the newly elected Democrat-led Senate returned the nomination to the president.

Arms Control and Partisan Politics 

Senate confirmations of under secretaries of state for arms control in the 2000s became a tool for a Senate majority of the opposition party to stage a vote of no confidence on the administration’s approach to arms control policies. Whatever the validity of concerns over Paul Warnke’s and Kenneth Adelman’s suitability for the position of director of the Arms Control and Disarmament Agency, the cases of Holum, Bolton, and Rood suggest that arms control votes in the Senate have become much more politicized.
 
For the past three presidents—who have all seen at least one of their nominees rejected or stalled by the Senate—this situation has become the new normal. This development is part and parcel of an evolving pattern of bipartisan conflict over executive nominees generally speaking, not just those related to arms control. According to a report by the advocacy group People for the American Way released in November 2013, from the 1960s until Bill Clinton’s presidency, the Senate filibustered four executive nominees, two each under Jimmy Carter and Ronald Reagan. The Senate filibustered nine of Clinton’s executive nominees and seven of George W. Bush’s, and—prior to 2013’s filibuster reforms—Republicans were on pace to filibuster a full 45 nominees before the end of the Obama administration.
 
Nominees to the posts of director of the Arms Control and Disarmament Agency and arms control under secretary have in the past been opposed or rejected based on their lack of experience or their deemed extreme views because of opposition to the president’s arms control policy. But nothing in the White House’s current policies substantiates Rubio’s concerns over the administration’s arms control approach in a way that would have historically been used to justify not acting upon a nomination such as that of Gottemoeller.
 
Soon after taking office, Obama announced that he and then Russian president Dmitry Medvedev were planning “a new agreement . . . that is legally binding,” and the two countries signed the New START treaty in April 2010. Moreover, in the 2010 U.S. Nuclear Posture Review, the White House repeated its preference for negotiated agreements with Russia to help “preserve stability at significantly reduced force levels.” Finally, in a speech in Berlin in June 2013, the U.S. president reiterated these consistent objectives, announcing, “I intend to seek negotiated cuts with Russia to move beyond Cold War nuclear postures.” These are the same policies that were in place when the Senate confirmed Gottemoeller’s predecessor, former congresswoman Ellen Tauscher, by unanimous consent.
 
None of the professed desire by the U.S. administration to deal with arms control via negotiated treaties stopped Rubio from holding up the Gottemoeller nomination based on unfounded concerns about Obama’s position on unilateral nuclear arms reductions. 

Could there be other reasons behind Republican senators’ opposition to the nomination? Data show stiffer Senate opposition to Obama’s nominations in general than to those of his predecessors. Robert Draper’s much-talked-about 2012 book Do Not Ask What Good We Do: Inside the U.S. House of Representatives suggested that Republican opposition to the White House’s every effort at the start of the Obama administration was largely a matter of political calculation.

The case of Rose Gottemoeller goes beyond even the most recent post-2000 examples of political opposition to arms control nominees. Unlike past opposition, the senators who opposed her confirmation essentially kept their reasons to themselves; there was no public debate on why the nominee’s merits or the administration’s approach to arms control policies would justify blocking the vote. Instead, there was an objection to a hypothetical policy that the Obama administration hasn’t even endorsed. A recent op-ed by Rubio only added to the list of explanations given for blocking the vote, using the ongoing crisis in Ukraine to call on Majority Leader Harry Reid to “halt his effort to force a Senate vote on Rose Gottemoeller.” 

The senators who stalled the process are not taking arms control issues seriously enough to stand up publicly and defend their real reasons for opposition, whatever they are.

Notes

1. “Arms and the Man,” The Washington Post, March 24, 1977, p. A19

2. Spencer Rich, “Warnke Deliberations Begin,” The Washington Post, March 5, 1977, p. A11

3. “The Warnke Arithmetic,” The Washington Post, March 9, 1977, editorial, p. A10

4. Spencer Rich, “Warnke Deliberations Begin,” The Washington Post, March 5, 1977, p. A11

5. Warren Weaver Jr., “Senate Confirms Warnke, 58–40; Vote Falls Short of Carter’s Hopes,” The New York Times, March 10, 1977, p. 1

6. “The Warnke Arithmetic,” The Washington Post, March 9, 1977, editorial, p. A10

7. Joanne Omang, “Close Vote on Adelman Predicted,” The Washington Post, April 13, 1983, p. A3

8. Walter Pincus, “Senate Confirms Adelman for Arms Agency,” The Washington Post, April 15, 1983, p. A1

9. Joanne Omang, “Close Vote on Adelman Predicted,” The Washington Post, April 13, 1983, p. A3

10. Leslie H. Gelb “Ranks Break Over Defense But President Hangs Tough,” The New York Times, April 17, 1983, p. 1

11. Russ Feingold (WI), Evan Bayh (IN), John Breaux (LA), Mary Landrieu (LA), Joseph Lieberman (CT), Zell Miller (GA), and Ben Nelson (NE)