Robert Joseph is a former government official who worked on arms control policy in both the State Department and the National Security Council during the George W. Bush presidency. After leaving the administration, Joseph became a senior fellow at the National Institute for Public Policy (NIPP), a hawkish think tank that has supported the controversial security policies of various Republican administrations, focusing mainly on missile defense and nuclear weapons warfighting strategy. Joseph has also served as an adviser to the neoconservative Center for Security Policy (CSP) and been a professor at various universities, including Tufts University and Tulane.
In 2011, Joseph was named as an adviser to the Mitt Romney presidential campaign, joining a number of former Bush administration figures and neoconservatives as members of the campaign's foreign and defense policy team. In March 2012, Joseph contributed his name to a Romney campaign open letter addressed to President Barack Obama that lambasted the president's record on foreign policy and claimed his administration had been marked by "weakness and inconstancy"—this despite Obama's record of having ordered the killings of numerous Al Qaeda figures, including Osama bin Laden, and expanded aerial bombardments of militants in many countries. Signatories claimed to be concerned that the president was weakening the United States by cutting back on missile defense, going easy on Russia, pressuring "the Israelis to grant one-sided concessions to the Palestinians," and cutting defense budgets. Additional signatories to the letter included John Bolton, Eliot Cohen, Eric Edelman, Robert Kagan, Dan Senor, and Walid Phares.
Joseph has been an outspoken critic of the Obama administration's efforts to reform U.S. strategic policies. In September 2009, for example, Joseph criticized the administration's decision to shift the focus of missile defense from continental "Star Wars"-type defenses—which many independent experts have argued is an expansive, unworkable project that would ultimately decrease U.S. security—to focusing on containing potential regional threats from Iran in the Middle East and Europe. Despite the limited range of Iran's missiles, Joseph suggested that Iran could threaten the United States, telling the New York Times, "Iran hasalready demonstrated it has the capability to develop long-range missiles. They have both the capability and intention to move forward."
In May 2010, Joseph added his voice to a right-wing backlash against President Obama's new START agreement with Russia, which builds on efforts to limit warheads and delivery devices. In an op-ed for the right-wing National Review that he cowrote with Eric Edelman, Joseph urged the Senate to be cautious about the new treaty, arguing that it could limit missile defense and diminish the ability of the United States to field other strategic weapons systems. This claim, which was repeated by a number of conservative foreign policy pundits, has been vigorously rejected by many arms control specialists, who have pointed out that the new treaty places no limitations on missile defense (see, for instance, Pavel Podvig, "New START on Rail-Mobile ICBMs and Reloads").
George W. Bush Administration
Joseph's first post in the George W. Bush administration was in the National Security Council, working on weapons proliferation and homeland defense. In 2005, he was named undersecretary for arms control and international security in the State Department. This appointment appeared to confirm the continued influence of a faction in the Bush administration intent on pursuing a unilateralist, get-tough approach to global affairs. This approach, heavily promoted by neoconservatives in and outside the administration, had long been championed by Joseph.
Among the initiatives Joseph helped spearhead while in the administration were the Proliferation Security Initiative, a multilateral initiative aimed at disrupting shipments of weapons of mass destruction and related materials; and the U.S. National Strategy to Combat Weapons of Mass Destruction, which sought to "deter, detect, defend against, and defeat WMD in the hands of our enemies." In March 2006 testimony before the Senate Armed Services Emerging Threats and Capabilities Subcommittee, Joseph pointed to "four cross-cutting enabling functions that are critical to combating WMD: intelligence collection and analysis; research and development; bilateral and multilateral cooperation; and targeted strategies against hostile states and terrorists."
He added: "Because deterrence may not always succeed, our military forces must be able to detect and destroy an adversary's WMD before they are used, and to prevent [a] WMD attack from succeeding through robust active and passive defenses and mitigation measures. ... While we have made substantial progress in countering today's proliferation threats, we cannot be satisfied. We must continue to heed the warning that the president gave in 2002: 'History will judge harshly those who saw this coming danger but failed to act. In the new world we have entered, the only path to peace and security is the path of action.'"
Joseph also championed the deployment of an ambitious national missile defense system, defending his ideas by referencing the 1998 Donald Rumsfeld-chaired Commission to Assess the Ballistic Missile Threat to the United States, whose findings were widely disputed. He once argued: "The unanimous findings of the bipartisan Rumsfeld Commission and the most recent assessments of the intelligence community leave little reasonable doubt about the growing challenges to the security of the American homeland from missile attack. A comprehensive long-term strategy is required to counter this threat. ... These efforts are essential but, as evident from the threat, insufficient. As a consequence, we must also pursue the deployment of effective missile defenses."
Responding to Joseph's argument, Melvin Goodman, a noted expert on proliferation issues at the National War College, said: "Should the system work or, more likely, should the international community perceive that the United States can make it work, a series of national security problems will ensue. Ties between Russia and China will improve; the angry reaction of our European allies will weaken our leadership of NATO; we will weaken our counterproliferation and disarmament policies; and we will lose our limited leverage on the nuclear policies of India and Pakistan. Thus, any U.S. decision to pursue [national missile defense] will have negative consequences for most aspects of U.S. national security."
Joseph was embroiled in the scandal over the famous "16 words" in President Bush's 2003 State of the Union Address regarding Iraq's alleged nuclear weapons development and efforts to secure uranium from Africa. The address, which laid out the administration's case for a preemptive invasion of Iraq, used unconfirmed intelligence reports about Iraq's WMD programs. Press reports and congressional testimony by CIA officials later revealed that the CIA had vigorously protested the inclusion of any assertion that Iraq was developing nuclear weapons since their intelligence would not support such a conclusion. In congressional testimony, intelligence officials connected Joseph to the language, saying that he had repeatedly pressed the CIA to back the inclusion in Bush's speech of a statement about Iraq's attempts to buy uranium from Niger. Joseph later argued that he did not recall the CIA raising concerns about the credibility of the information to be included in the speech.
Frank Gaffney, head of the Center for Security Policy, defended Joseph's role in the incident, arguing in a National Review op-ed: "It should come as no surprise that bureaucracies that are hostile to President Bush have taken a dim view of Joseph and others who have proven so effective in helping him to articulate and advance his Reaganesque philosophy of international peace through American strength. Neither should anyone be surprised that the NSC counterproliferation chief's foes would try to take him out, or at least diminish his authority, by making him a scapegoat for the present controversy."
Joseph resigned from the Bush administration in early 2007, just as signs of a negotiated solution to North Korea's nuclear weapons program seemed to be gaining traction, prompting speculation that the resignation was tied to his disapproval of the impending deal. His resignation also followed closely on the heels of resignations of other administration hardliners, including former UN representative John Bolton, who was Joseph's predecessor as undersecretary of state.
Asked during a January 25 press briefing about the reasons for Joseph's resignation, a State Department spokesman said: "Secretary [Condoleezza] Rice has the greatest respect for Bob personally as well as professionally. He has been an important voice in the administration's policymaking on nonproliferation as well as other matters. He is—the president proposed it, but I think Bob is—I'll take some liberty, Bob is the godfather of the Proliferation Security Initiative. He really was the driving intellectual force behind that and we—certainly, we in the administration wish Bob all the best."
Joseph got his start in government during the Ronald Reagan presidency, during which he was associated with a militarist faction in the Pentagon that argued against détente and for an offensive or rollback strategy against the Soviet Union. Among the posts he held under Reagan were principal deputy assistant secretary of defense for international security policy and deputy assistant secretary of defense for nuclear forces and arms control policy.
Joseph now says that the Soviet Union was a competitor Washington could reason and forge deals with, unlike the leaders of rogue states and China. Such countries as North Korea "are much more prone to risk-taking than was the Soviet leadership," Joseph has said, and there is no possibility for establishing security relationships based on "mutual understandings, effective communications, and symmetrical interest and risks." Thus, argues Joseph, U.S. security strategy should "not include signing up for arms control for the sake of arms control. At best that would be a needless diversion of effort when the real threat requires all of our attention. At worst, as we discovered in the draft [Biological Weapons Convention] Protocol that we inherited, an arms control approach would actually harm our ability to deal with the WMD threat."
Before the 9/11 attacks, proponents of national missile defense and a more "flexible" nuclear defense strategy focused almost exclusively on the WMD threat from "competitor" states such as Russia and especially China, as well as from "rogue" states such as Iran, Iraq, Libya, Syria, and North Korea. Joseph and other hardline strategists advocated large increases in military spending to counter these threats while paying little or no attention to the warnings that the most likely attack on the United States and its armed forces abroad would come from non-state terrorist networks.
Instead of advocating improved intelligence on such terrorist networks as al-Qaeda, which had an established record of attacking the United States, militarist policy institutes such as the NIPP and the CSP focused almost exclusively on proposals for high-tech, high-priced items such as space weapons, missile defense, and nuclear weapons development. After 9/11, Joseph and other administration militarists quickly placed the terrorist threat at the center of their assessments, without changing their recommendations for U.S. security strategy.
Although not typically identified as a neoconservative, Joseph moves in the same circles as other neocon military strategists such as Frank Gaffney of the CSP, Richard Perle, and Paul Wolfowitz. In a Washington Post article, "Who's Pulling the Foreign Policy Strings," Dana Milbank wrote: "The vice president sometimes stays neutral but his sympathies undoubtedly are with the Perle crowd. [Dick] Cheney deputies Lewis 'Scooter' Libby and Eric Edelman relay neoconservative views to Rice at the National Security Council. At the NSC, they have a sympathetic audience in Elliott Abrams, Robert Joseph, Wayne Downing, and Zalmay Khalilzad."
Joseph participated as a team member in crafting the influential 2001 NIPP report titled "Rationale and Requirements for U.S. Nuclear Forces and Arms Control." The report recommended that the U.S. government develop a new generation of "usable" lower-yield nuclear arms. The NIPP study also recommended that the government expand the nuclear "hit list" to include countries without nuclear capacity themselves as well as expanding the array of scenarios that would justify U.S. nuclear strikes. The NIPP study seemed to serve as the blueprint for George W. Bush's controversial Nuclear Posture Review.
In addition to Joseph, other NIPP study team participants entered the Bush administration as officials or advisers, including Stephen Hadley and Stephen Cambone, both of whom oversaw the administration's nuclear review process; and Kurt Guthe, Linton Brooks, James Woolsey, and Keith Payne, who served on the Deterrence Concepts Advisory Panel during Bush's first term.
Earlier, in 1999, Joseph told the Senate Armed Services Committee that the country was unprepared to defend the homeland against new WMD threats. He recommended that the "United States acquire the capabilities to deny an enemy the benefits of these weapons. These capabilities—including passive and active defenses as well as improved counterforce means such as the ability to destroy mobile missiles—offer the best chance to strengthen deterrence, and provide the best hedge against deterrence failure."
Joseph told the Senate committee: "We are making progress in improving our ability to strike deep underground targets, as well as in protecting the release of agents [radioactive fallout]. We are revising a joint doctrine for the conduct of military operations in an NBC [nuclear, biological, chemical] environment, based on the assumption that chemical and biological use will be a likely condition of future warfare."
In an October 2002 address at Fletcher, Joseph said: "Counterproliferation must also be an integral part of the basic doctrine, training, and equipping of our forces as well as those of our allies to insure that we can operate and prevail in any conflict with WMD-armed adversaries. Counterproliferation can no longer be a specialty or an afterthought. The threat to the homeland, to our friends and allies, and to our military forces abroad, will not allow this luxury." For Joseph, diplomacy, deterrence, and international agreements are at best weak instruments of U.S. national security. He believes that the concept of defense has to be updated "in light of the new threats we face" from WMDs, particularly because "many of our adversaries will be targeting, not military forces alone, but also our civilian populations. ... We simply can't wait until that occurs before we protect ourselves."
"In the new world we have entered, the only path to peace and security is the path of action," said Joseph. Such action presumably includes the U.S. preemptive use of WMDs.
Writing in the New York Times Magazine, Bill Keller compared the skepticism of counterproliferationists like Joseph about nuclear disarmament and arms control to the convictions of the National Rifle Association, resembling "the tautology of an N.R.A. bumper sticker: If nukes are outlawed, only outlaws will have nukes. The Bush policy is to worry about the outlaws rather than the nukes."
According to Keller, "The senior policymakers in the area of arms control—at the Pentagon, the State Department, and the White House—are pretty uniformly of the diplomacy-has-failed school. The principal players, like Under Secretary John Bolton at State, Under Secretary Douglas Feith and Assistant Secretary J.D. Crouch at Defense, and Robert Joseph, who runs the nuclear franchise at the National Security Council, have voluminous records as fierce critics of the arms-control gospel from their days on the outside."