Jeffrey LewisBlack Helicopters

What is it about the New START treaty’s Bilateral Consultative Commission that seems to stir up such paranoia on the right-wing?

Jack Goldsmith and Jeremy Rabkin, two conservative legal scholars, have what at first glance to be the most boring op-ed in the history of the Washington Post — a proposal that the Senate ratify the New START treaty on the understanding that the BCC confine its deliberations only to technical treaty matters and that the Senate be notified about such deliberations.

On the other hand, the fact that conservatives are worked up enough about the BCC that Fred Hiatt would devote precious column inches to a  technical treaty matter is very revealing about the further reaches of the modern conservative movement.

It isn’t just Goldsmith and Rabkin, but also Bob Joseph and Eric Edelman, Mitt Romney, Jim Talent and the Heritage Foundation that have all warned that the BCC might undermine US sovereignty and offer Moscow the chance to negotiate secret and crippling limits on US missile defenses.

This is all completely paranoid, but that is point: Conservatives are worked-up about the BCC in the same way they are worked up about birth certificates, death panels, and black helicopters.  Just take 20 minutes to read Richard Hofstadter’s 1964 essay, The Paranoid Style in American Politics and you will encounter a very familiar story.

Now, I don’t know Goldsmith and Rabkin personally.  Perhaps they aren’t paranoid at all.  But that was precisely Hofstadter’s point about the paranoid style — “It is the use of paranoid modes of expression by more or less normal people that makes the phenomenon significant.”

Let’s get some facts straight.

Every arms control treaty has provisions for an implementing entity: the Joint Compliance and Inspection Commission (JCIC) for the START Treaty, the Special Verification Commission (SVC) for the INF Treaty, and the Bilateral Implementation Commission (BIC) for the Moscow Treaty.

As I noted last week, the JCIC has been a very successful forum for resolving technical disputes about the START treaty that range from the important (ensuring inspectors an unobstructed view during on-site inspections) to the mundane (who gets to hold the measuring tape during an on-site inspection.)

Heritage warns that the BCC could make secret agreements.  Maybe.  The JCIC Joint Statements (and other documents) are published, though not always promptly.  You can download them online. I suppose there must be some sensitive national security information that is classified — at the very least, the minutes of the meetings — but the norm has been one of transparency and openness.

But that’s paranoia for you: Sure, I suppose if you think that the Obama Administration has changed the Missile Defense Agency logo as part of an Islamofascist third column effort, then the BCC might as well be staffed with Illuminati and Freemasons cutting secret deals to leave America defenseless.  Of course, nothing remotely like that has happened in the JCIC — which just shows you how successful the conspiracy has been! (Goldsmith and Rabkin warn, for example, of what might be called “treaty creep” in other cases but utter not a word about the actual practice with arms control treaties.  For a reason, sez I.)

The more interesting question is the one unanswered by Hofstadter — why do otherwise sane and seemingly rational people engage in the paranoid style?  I suppose there is no answer — except in the case of Romney, who is clearly pandering.  But the rest of the crowd? I can only leave you with Hofstadter’s thoughts:

This glimpse across a long span of time emboldens me to make the conjecture–it is no more than that–that a mentality disposed to see the world in this way may be a persistent psychic phenomenon, more or less constantly affecting a modest minority of the population. But certain religious traditions, certain social structures and national inheritances, certain historical catastrophes or frustrations may be conducive to the release of such psychic energies, and to situations in which they can more readily be built into mass movements or political parties. In American experience ethnic and religious conflict have plainly been a major focus for militant and suspicious minds of this sort, but class conflicts also can mobilize such energies. Perhaps the central situation conducive to the diffusion of the paranoid tendency is a confrontation of opposed interests which are (or are felt to be) totally irreconcilable, and thus by nature not susceptible to the normal political processes of bargain and compromise. The situation becomes worse when the representatives of a particular social interest–perhaps because of the very unrealistic and unrealizable nature of its demands–are shut out of the political process. Having no access to political bargaining or the making of decisions, they find their original conception that the world of power is sinister and malicious fully confirmed. They see only the consequences of power–and this through distorting lenses–and have no chance to observe its actual machinery. A distinguished historian has said that one of the most valuable things about history is that it teaches us how things do not happen. It is precisely this kind of awareness that the paranoid fails to develop. He has a special resistance of his own, of course, to developing such awareness, but circumstances often deprive him of exposure to events that might enlighten him–and in any case he resists enlightenment.

Update | 4:14 A colleague writes “I do wish you wouldn’t make this so much about “conservatives” vs. the rest … On the GOP spectrum beyond Lugar, there is lukewarm support, there is reluctance, there is opposition, and then there’s this. But they’re all conservatives, except maybe in Maine.”  I suppose that’s correct, but I am just annoyed that other than Lugar, Hadley and one or two others, so few Republicans really have the courage to push back on this stuff.


  1. FSB (History)

    What is outrageous is that the hyperventilating Heritage hysteria is over missile defense — something that is known to be unworkable anyway: both the SM3 and the land based system have been shown to be failures. The Russians would be doing US taxpayers a favor by restricting our government’s love affair with missile defense.

    Why would a so-called conservative think tank be in favor of wasting HUGE amounts of US taxpayers’ money on MD?

    Alas, it is not about unworking and unworkable MD or paranoia — it is about the GOP not wanting to hand Mr. Obama a foreign affairs feather in his cap.

    Petty douchebaggery as per usual.

    And it does not help that Mr. Obama has become the triangulator-in-chief instead of standing for his principles.

  2. Paul Martin (History)

    The reason reasonable Republicans aren’t pushing back against the crazies may be a simple one: they need the votes. In a close election, the support of the crazies may be enough to make the difference. A little hysteria also does the job of getting out the vote.

    Call me a cynic, but modern politics is often the art of making a deal with the devil.

  3. Prestwick (History)

    That the American right is paranoid is not anything new. What baffles me however is why all these black helicopters and attempted government betrayals only seem to happen when a Democratic President takes office.

    Its almost as if by law all CIA and NSA black helicopters must be securely locked away when a Republican comes to power.

  4. MJ (History)

    I wish you would stop talking about politics on this blog. The technical discussions are insightful, on point, and very constructive. Ones like this that delve into finger pointing politics are wastes of time and off point. Should I and other scientific folks completely disregard the work you do, and this blog with it, because we could blanket comments that only liberal hippies would think that world peace and the eradication of nuclear arms is even possible? I could very easily say that you blanket anyone who disagrees with your particular interpretation of START treaties as a right wing nut job. I’ve seen it happen here several times. You say that conservative hysteria means funding MD that doesn’t work; a great many would make the argument that everyone knew that star wars wouldn’t work, but that wasn’t necessarily the point, was it? Also, your insight into politics isn’t very keen, either – to consider Mitt Romney a conservative would be very kind to him, indeed. Same could be said for FSB – the idea that obama really has any principles at all could also be a point of much contention.

    • FSB (History)

      That MD does not work is a technical statement. Please rebut it on technical grounds if you have them.

      MD is being pursued for political ends, and because of Raytheon, Heritage, Poland et al. lobbying. Period.

      That said, I don’t care one bit if START is ratified or not — as long as MD is abolished.

      I am against wasting taxpayer money — I hope my right-wind friends would join me in that sentiment.

      For the record, I am an independent voter.

    • Mark Lincoln (History)

      Politics, alas, must be discussed as there is no technical basis for most of the political opposition to arms control or for missile defense.

      In both cases the rejection is of almost religious fervor, and as knee-jerk as PETA at it’s worst.

      Richard Nixon was for strategic arms control, Ronald Reagan was for strategic arms control, but now it is an article of political faith that to be a conservative one must be opposed to strategic arms control.

      How can you argue that beyond enough, more is no advantage with someone who feels that you can never have enough as a matter of faith?

    • Mark Gubrud (History)

      Empty rhetoric and partisan bashing are certainly to be eschewed, but I find it hard to imagine that arms control could be reduced to a purely technical enterprise or discussed coherently (let alone intelligently) with no reference to politics.

      In any case, the current rash of feigned opposition to the utterly innocuous, status quo arms control measure known as New START, on the part of highly intelligent Republican politicians and analysts, is clearly political in nature, and deserves to be called out as such. You are quite right that Mitt Romney hardly fits the mold of the paranoid rightwinger stupid enough to believe some of the things he’s been saying.

      So you “could blanket comments that only liberal hippies would think that world peace and the eradication of nuclear arms is even possible,” you say, but is that really what you think?

      You say “everyone knew that star wars wouldn’t work, but that wasn’t necessarily the point, was it?” Well, what was the point, then? Deception (as Gerald Yonas once told me he thought it was)? Of whom? Soviets? Americans? ROW? All of the above? And to what end? Well, I know, many would make the argument that it was intended to bankrupt the Sovs, and see, it worked! But you can’t be dumb enough to believe that, can you?

      As for Obama’s principles, I don’t know. I believe he’s trying to push things as far as he can in the right direction, but I think he ought to push harder and make it look more like he stands for something and is willing to fight for it when necessary.

  5. a reader (History)

    the main theme of the Goldsmith/Rabkin op-ed is a seperation of powers concern involving the Senate’s role in foreign affairs, relying in part on the substantive concerns raised by the BCC. It is a theme obviously missed by the arms control crowd who sees any substantive concern raised about the poorly negotiated treaty as something automatically threatening ratification.

    The Goldsmith/Rabkin separation of powers concern is articulated quite clearly in the admonition, “only the Senate can protect its constitutional prerogatives.” The main counsel of the writing is right after this statement, suggesting ways for the Senate to address these concerns in the resolution of ratification.

    Never once does the writing advise the Senate to reject New START, it is about the Senate protecting its institutional prerogatives.

    boy are you guys jumpy.

    • Scott Monje (History)

      “If the Senate continually acquiesces in delegating international lawmaking to the president and international organizations, courts are unlikely to protect senatorial power in the end. . . . In short, only the Senate can protect its constitutional prerogatives.”

      No, the sort of statement advocated by Goldsmith and Rabkin would hardly kill the treaty. Something similar would have saved the Versailles Treaty in the Senate. On the other hand, if they are so concerned about preserving the separation of powers, someone should point out to them that Congress hasn’t bothered declaring a war in 69 years.

  6. joshua (History)

    Without quite seeing this episode as rising to the level of the H-bomb (as in Hofstadter), I entirely share Jeffrey’s puzzlement. How is it possible to write about the role and scope of the BCC in the abstract, without touching on the record of its predecessor body, the JCIC? Arms control wasn’t invented yesterday. Perhaps the root problem is that it’s been so long that we’ve had any serious discussions on the subject that nobody remembers or understands how these things work anymore.

    Given the actual nature of the JCIC, the separation of powers does not appear to be a legitimate concern. Of course, I’m assuming we haven’t overlooked any constitutional amendments about maximum weight of equipment and supplies.

    Unfortunately, politics, whether partisan or parochial, already seems to have entered the picture. It didn’t start with this post. I’m confident, though, that political reflexes will not guide the outcome. The alternative — the loss of START I verification measures, with nothing to replace them — is too stark.

    Arms control isn’t opposed to any particular party, and no particular party should be opposed to arms control. Robert Kagan is mistaken: New START isn’t too modest to merit partisan bickering, it’s too important.

  7. Ishmael (History)

    Why do so many people engage in the paranoid style? When a potential risk is “high” and “uncertain” (rather redundant since I already said “risk”), people tend to focus on the worst case potential consequences. An entertaining book on this subject is David Ropek’s “How Risky Is It Really?”. And no, I ain’t the author and don’t work for the publisher.

  8. Ward Wilson (History)

    Arms control is fundamentally a political activity, not a scientific one. I’m always impressed with how clearly technical discussions are rendered here. I also welcome insights into the political process.

    Paranoia derives in part from unfamiliarity. Or, rather, it flourishes best in a setting where there is little knowledge and much fear. Our society is undergoing a change. We were once a largely face-to-face culture with communities built on interaction between diverse individuals. You might disagree with conservative Republicans but you probably also knew some personally. Some significant portion of our interactions are now mediated interactions (television, internet). This cuts down on face-to-face knowledge.

    So that might be one source of increased paranoia. [Sorry to get all socio-cultural on you. It’s just going to make MJ even madder. But it seems like a reasonable explanation for the growth of black helicopter sightings.]

    • Scott Monje (History)

      But remember, Hofstadter was writing in 1964. And I understand the rallies that condemned JFK as a communist were much larger than anything the Tea Party has put together.

  9. Muskrat (History)

    Joshua is right that you cannot talk about the BCC without referring to the JCIC. I would add the SVC as well. All three are (were) empowered only to make “viability and effectiveness” agreements, and the exact scope of that authority has been subject of much learned chin-stroking since at least the INF ratification debate. See in particular “Treaties and Other International Agreements; The Role of the United States Senate,” a CRS study at

    (A 2001 rehash of a 1993 report)

    Nonetheless, as far as I know neither the SVC nor JCIC ever inked an agreement that was disputed by the Senate. That was due in part to the habit of administrations past of regularly briefing the Hill on SVC and JCIC matters and otherwise being very careful not to usurp Senate authority. When I worked SVC and JCIC issues I kept a copy of that 1993 CRS report on my bookshelf and regularly consulted it.

    Claiming the BCC has too much power is simple ignorance — or a scaremongering lie. Take your pick.

  10. joshua (History)

    State has released a fact sheet on the BCC. It touches on the precedents of the JCIC and SVC.

  11. jeannick (History)

    Simple paranoia get votes while reason doesn’t

    should ex-chief of staff got off their buts and campaign against uber-patriots ,
    calling them hypocrites or fools , waster of tax monies
    then a ready made constituency seeing Russians as the successors of Mordor would be moot

    once upon a time , the U.S. of A could had the luxury to choose its enemy .
    Now , in somewhat diminished circumstances ,
    America should worry a bit more about who exactly is the threat to their lifestyle and prosperity ,
    ready made ” press the button ” politics are not in the interest of the republic welfare , those who push this should be publicly branded for what they are ,
    objective traitors