Friday, August 05, 2016

Trump Deals "The Nuclear Card" -
On The Table or Off The Table?

 Metaphor for the Trump campaign? 
On Wednesday MSNBC broadcast a Morning Joe interview with retired general Michael Hayden. In the course of the interview Joe Scarborough related a second hand anecdote from an unattributed international affairs adviser's presumably private conversation with Donald Trump four months earlier:

Scarborough's story set the twitterverse a-twitter, which is weird, given that Donald Trump said exactly the same thing in a very public televised MSNBC Townhall with Chris Mathews on March 30:

MATTHEWS:  ... They're hearing a guy running for president of the United States talking of maybe using nuclear weapons.  Nobody wants to hear that about an American president.
TRUMP:  Then why are we making them?  Why do we make them? [...] 
TRUMP:  Let me explain.  Somebody hits us within ISIS, you wouldn't fight back with a nuke?
MATTHEWS:  No.  To drop a nuclear weapon on a community of people ...
TRUMP:  No, no, but you don't want to say, "Take everything off the table" because you'd be a bad negotiator if you do that. [...] 
MATTHEWS:  Can you tell the Middle East we're not using a nuclear weapon on anybody?
TRUMP:  I would never say that.  I would never take any of my cards off the table.
MATTHEWS:  How about Europe?  We won't use it in Europe?
TRUMP:  I'm not going to take it off the table.
MATTHEWS:  You might use it in Europe?
TRUMP:  No, I don't think so.  But I am not taking cards off the table.
And this interview with Bloomberg in March:


So what are we to make of this?  Let's put the potential political impact of the "Trump Doctrine"aside and consider the far greater international realpolitik ramifications. Let's play...


Conventional wisdom informs us that Donald Trump is too thin skinned, easily baited, unbalanced, narcissistic, unstable, intemperate - choose your adjectives - to be trusted with the nuclear codes. Hillary Clinton explicitly invoked this sentiment in her nomination acceptance speech.


I get it. Trump is an asshole. Stipulated. But I also get what Trump is saying. He is a businessman. Everything he was quoted as saying by Scarborough and in the Matthews interview can be understood as an accurate and acceptable negotiating posture in a business context.

In a business negotiation you do not want to take any cards off the table. You do not want your opponent to know what you are going to do. You do want them guessing your next move. In a business negotiation it is to your advantage if the opposing party is unsure of where you stand and wondering whether you will upend the table and walk away. Trump is simply applying a lifetime of business experience as a deal-maker to international politics. For him, refusing to take the nuclear option "off the table" is just being a good negotiator. Trump and his followers probably believe that this kind of "outsider" thinking is exactly the reason why he was nominated and, if elected, to serve as President. 

Problem being, while this negotiating posture may or may not be applicable to international trade agreements, it is singularly dangerous in the context of nuclear weapons. The problem is not whether Donald Trump is going to launch a nuclear strike out of personal pique.  Let's be real. That is simply not going to happen. A President Donald Trump is not going to launch a nuclear first strike because Kim Jong-Un made fun of Trump's stubby little fingers, nor for any other perceived slights. In fact, there is no realistic likelihood of Donald Trump ordering an  unjustified American first strike for any reason whatsoever, despite anything he says now.  It's not going to happen. But there is a bigger problem with what he said.

The real problem is not the prospect of a President Donald Trump having his finger on the nuclear trigger. The real problem is every other leader in the world with their finger on a nuclear trigger wondering what a President Trump might do

The United States continues to maintain a nuclear first-use policy under specific, narrow conditions. The policy is intended to communicate a consistent and predictable policy on our use of nuclear weapons. We have a greater nuclear strike capability than everyone else on the planet combined. We don't want any other nuclear powers to be guessing at our intentions when it comes to nuclear weapons. We don't ever want to be unpredictable about how we might use nuclear weapons. 

In the event of a nuclear exchange, there is very little time between the detection of a first strike and the ability for a potential nuclear target to counter-strike.  President Reagan from his memoirs:
"We had many contingency plans for responding to a nuclear attack. But everything would happen so fast that I wondered how much planning or reason could be applied in such a crisis … Six minutes to decide how to respond to a blip on a radar scope and decide whether to unleash Armageddon! How could anyone apply reason at a time like that?"
In an imperfect world subject to technology failures, human error and miscommunication, the very last thing we want is for the Russians (or any other nuclear power) to be guessing at our intentions and wondering whether a nuclear first strike from the United States is "on the table". That is a prescription for a catastrophic accidental hair-trigger response. The difference between a misunderstood international event either ending without incident or  resulting in a worldwide catastrophe is a decision that must be taken within a 10 minute window.  By any measure, the decision to counter-strike with nuclear weapons is a high-stress snap decision based on incomplete information. A key factor in that decision would be influenced by whether whoever has their finger on the trigger believes the American President is willing to put a nuclear first strike "on the table"

This is not a hypothetical scenario.  Documented decisions to launch or not launch were seriously considered and debated by both Russian and American leadership.  The annals of the cold war are replete with episodes of technical and political misunderstandings and miscommunication that came close to precipitating a nuclear exchange. Consider these examples:

1979 - False Alarm
"Robert Gates recounted in his memoirs that on November 9, 1979, Brzezinski "was awakened at three in the morning by military assistant William Odom, who told him that some 250 Soviet missiles had been launched against the United States. Brzezinski knew that the President's decision time to order retaliation was from three to seven minutes …. Thus he told Odom he would stand by for a further call to confirm Soviet launch and the intended targets before calling the President. Brzezinski was convinced we had to hit back and told Odom to confirm that the Strategic Air Command was launching its planes. When Odom called back, he reported that … 2,200 missiles had been launched — it was an all — out attack. One minute before Brzezinski intended to call the President, Odom called a third time to say that other warning systems were not reporting Soviet launches. Sitting alone in the middle of the night, Brzezinski had not awakened his wife, reckoning that everyone would be dead in half an hour. It had been a false alarm. Someone had mistakenly put military exercise tapes into the computer system."
1983 - ABLE ARCHER NATO War Game
"The most terrifying thing about ABLE ARCHER was that we may have been on the brink of nuclear war and not even known it." - Robert Gates
In 1980 we elected President Ronald Reagan. He ran on a bellicose platform of strong leadership with a muscular foreign policy. Early in his administration he publicly characterized the Soviet Union as the "evil empire", deployed Pershing nuclear missiles in Europe, and initiated the "Star Wars" Strategic Missile Defense initiative. 
In 1983 NATO executed a multi week routine communication exercise called ABLE ARCHER to practice and coordinate their response to a Soviet attack. The game included the mock use of nuclear weapons to defend Europe and destroy the Soviet Union. The Soviets monitored the exercise and many in the Kremlin were convinced that the war game was a cover for an actual first strike nuclear attack.  They were on red alert and a hair trigger for a counter strike. 
On September 26, 1983 the Soviet Early Warning System detected 5 missile launches from the U.S. targeting the U.S.S.R. Lieutenant Colonel Stanislav Petrov was on duty in the underground early warning bunker outside of Moscow.  He had 10 minutes to call in the alarm which could have triggered the Soviet counter strike on the U.S. Based only on his common sense, Petrov decided it was probably a false alarm, did not call in the alert, and sweated out the 10 minutes until the bombs were expected to fall. No one in the West knew how close we came to Armageddon. 1984 almost didn't happen.


During the Cold War, fear of a an accidental nuclear war was real and  a common theme in popular culture. Movies like The Day After, Fail-Safe, War Games, and Doctor Strangelove reflected these fears.


We've learned that those fears were grounded in reality. The examples cited above were not the only near misses during the cold war.

We should recognize that we are potentially engaged in a similar period of increasing cold war tensions.

Here is an idea. Let's learn from the past. When selecting a leader who will have their finger on the nuclear button, let's consider whether they have a steady hand. Let's consider whether they are "predictable". Let's consider whether leaders of other countries with itchy nuclear trigger fingers will find our elected leaders to be predictable.

We don't want or need a President who thinks there is an advantage to being unpredictable when it comes to nuclear weapons. There are enough random variables in the game of Global Thermonuclear War. We don't need to put another wild card in the deck.

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