Obama sends Robert Gates to a 2012 proxy fight with Mitt Romney

President Obama used Defense Secretary Robert Gates on Tuesday for a stealth attack on Mitt Romney, a leading Republican presidential contender in 2012.

Obama dispatched Gates to meet Senate Republicans to discuss a U.S.-Russia nuclear arms treaty and other national security issues.

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Romney, widely seen as interested in another bid for the Oval Office, fired a shot at Obama last week in an op-ed that urged Republicans to oppose a new Strategic Arms Reduction Treaty (START) with Russia.

In what was seen as a pre-campaign shot, he wrote that the treaty could be Obama’s “worst foreign policy mistake yet” and urged Republican senators not to ratify it.

Republicans can block the accord with their 41 Senate votes because treaties require ratification by a two-thirds vote of the chamber.

Rejection of the treaty would deal a significant foreign policy setback to the administration at a time when a Washington Post/ABC News poll shows public confidence in Obama hitting a new low.

Gates has helped slow GOP opposition from coalescing. So far, Senate Republicans haven’t followed Romney’s call to scrap the treaty. They held their fire after hearing from Gates in a lunchtime meeting off the Senate floor.

Gates is “still quite popular in the caucus,” said a Republican senator who was there. President George W. Bush tapped Gates, a Republican, to head the Pentagon in 2006. President George H.W. Bush named him Director of Central Intelligence in 1991.

“We do have some concerns, particularly with missile defense,” said Sen. Roger Wicker (R-Miss.), a Foreign Relations Committee member who is studying the treaty, “but it’s entirely possible a number of Republicans will support it when it’s all said and done.

“There’s a lot of good will toward the secretary [even though he’s] working for a president who has some policies that are problematic.”

Sen. Jim Risch (R-Idaho), a conservative on the panel, and Sen. Kit Bond (Mo.), ranking Republican on the Intelligence Committee, also held back from criticizing the treaty. They said they needed more time to study it.

The treaty would limit each country to deploying 1,550 strategic warheads or 700 launchers.

Senate Republican Whip Jon Kyl (Ariz.) is negotiating on behalf of his conservative colleagues with Vice President Biden.

Kyl has not come out against the treaty but has asked the administration to take steps to bolster the national nuclear arsenal before submitting the treaty for ratification, a Senate aide said.

Kyl has asked Democrats in Congress to fund the administration’s requests to modernize the arsenal before the treaty comes up for a Senate vote.

He also wants the administration to address concerns about verification and explain what promises have been made to Russia about slowing the development of missile defense systems.

In an op-ed for The Wall Street Journal, Kyl wrote that the administration’s plan for modernizing U.S. warheads has been “sketchy.”

“The Senate should never be a rubber stamp in approving treaties, especially in the arms control field,” Kyl wrote. “My colleagues and I will be giving New Start and the administration’s nuclear modernization plan a hard look.”

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A GOP aide said Kyl has held several meetings with Biden to work out a possible agreement.

Romney’s attack received a strong rebuttal last week from Sen. Richard Lugar (Ind.), ranking Republican on the Foreign Relations Committee.

Lugar dismissed Romney’s position as “hyperbolic” and said he “appears unaware of arms control history and context.”

Lugar also cited Gates and other Republicans to build support for the proposal.

“He rejects the treaty’s unequivocal endorsement by the Defense Department led by Secretary Robert Gates and the Joint Chiefs of Staff,” Lugar wrote in reference to Romney. “He also distances himself from prominent Republican national security leaders, including Jim Schlesinger, Henry Kissinger, James Baker and Brent Scowcroft, who have backed the treaty after thoughtful analysis.”

On Wednesday, the Senate Armed Services Committee will hold a private briefing on the treaty and the Foreign Relations panel will conduct a closed-door hearing on ensuring Russia’s compliance.

The Senate’s packed summer agenda and Republican demands that Democrats first fund nuclear arsenal modernization will make it difficult for Democrats to schedule a vote on the treaty before September.

“I don’t see a real need to rush the matter,” said Wicker.

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