Wednesday, August 3, 2016

The mother of all fears

That would be a President Donald Trump with absolute authority to use nuclear weapons, but no understandings of the historical, strategic, and moral proscriptions against their use. Snippets from report follow.

Wednesday morning, NBC’s Joe Scarborough said something profoundly frightening about Donald Trump. In a private conversation with a foreign policy expert, Scarborough reported, Trump asked — repeatedly — why we have nuclear weapons if we don’t use them.

"Several months ago, a foreign policy expert on the international level went to advise Donald Trump. And three times [Trump] asked about the use of nuclear weapons. Three times he asked at one point if we had them why can't we use them," Scarborough said.

Obviously, this isn’t gospel; it’s a thirdhand report of a conversation that may or may not have happened. But it tracks with what Trump has said publicly. When MSNBC’s Chris Matthews told Trump in March that presidents shouldn’t suggest they might use nukes, as Trump has done repeatedly, the candidate responded with a question: "Then why do we make them?"

This raises some very, very scary questions about Trump’s judgment. It suggests that he doesn’t know the basic way nuclear weapons are supposed to work — deterring attacks on the United States — and that he might be the first president since Harry Truman to order the use of nuclear weapons.

The natural question to ask, then, is whether he could actually do that. The answer is deceptively simple: Yes, he can. No matter what.

[Snip] Read the article for more about presidential powers and constraints regarding nuclear weapons. The only thing standing in the way of a US president launching a nuclear strike is strategic knowledge and strength of character - the things that underlie the nuclear taboo.

The nuclear taboo

Trump could be the first post-World-War-II president to break the taboo against use of nukes. His lack of knowledge, combined with his erratic character, might lead to a nuclear overreaction.

The US and other world powers don’t see nuclear weapons simply as bigger bombs. They see them as qualitatively different from conventional weapons: something that cannot be used in the ordinary course of war. No one talked about America using nukes during the Iraq War or Russia using nukes against Chechen rebels, because the very idea of using such a destructive weapon under such mundane circumstances is unthinkable.

Clearly, Trump doesn’t know the most basic thing about nuclear weapons — how the United States can launch them. This level of ignorance about the literal facts of nuclear weapons, together with his generally uneducated approach to policy, means it’s very likely he also doesn’t understand the strategic role of nuclear weapons.

Trump might order the use of nuclear weapons against ISIS — indeed, he has refused to rule it out in interviews — just because he has promised to wipe out the terrorist threat. We cannot know that he takes nuclear weapons as seriously he should.

The other reason for concern is his character.

After the Watergate scandal broke, and President Nixon became increasingly embattled politically, he turned to drink as a source of comfort. This freaked out Secretary of Defense James Schlesinger, who worried that an erratic, drunk Nixon might order a nuclear launch out of pique. Schlesinger told aides in the Pentagon war room to check with him if Nixon started talking to them about launching nukes.

Thankfully, Nixon didn’t do it. But the worry with Trump is similar: His character is so erratic that he might order a nuclear launch just because he’s mad at someone.

Think of all the bizarre feuds Trump has gotten himself into: Ghazala Khan, random fire marshals, a woman with a baby at his rally, the "short-fingered vulgarian" incident. In all of them, he has displayed a similar pattern: irrational overreaction to perceived insults and slights.

Now imagine that same tendency to overreact to insults, only with Trump’s finger on the nuclear button. Would he order a nuclear strike on a country merely because he felt its leader had disrespected him?

I hope not. But the truth is that we don’t know — which makes every stray Trump comment about nukes, even thinly sourced speculation like Scarborough’s, deeply terrifying.

You bet that's terrifying. But I have a song to soothe your fears - from Dr. Strangelove or: How I Learned to Stop Worrying and Love the Bomb.

I'll tweet again

Don't know where

Don't know when

But you know I'll tweet again

Some nuclear day

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