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Trump’s Finger on the Button: Why No President Should Have the Authority to Launch Nuclear Weapons

Photo by The Official CTBTO Photo | CC BY 2.0

Maybe having a president in the White House who acts like an impulsive child is a good thing — at least if it convinces the Senate, a body that has for decades surrendered its vital Constitutional power over war and peace to the Executive Branch, to wrest it back.

This is particularly important in the case of nuclear weapons. As things stand, going back all the way to Harry Truman, the only world leader to have actually ordered the use of nuclear weapons in war (twice!), US presidents have been accorded the unfettered power and the technical ability to launch a nuclear strike with no input from Congress.

President Trump has alluded ominously and even gloatingly to his having that awesome power, literally at his fingertips.

That has led the Senate Foreign Relations Committee, headed by Sen. Bob Corker (R-Tenn.), who has publicly referred to the Trump White House as an “adult daycare center,” to hold a hearing earlier this week to at least consider putting constraints on Trump’s power to launch nukes. No conclusions were reached, but the issue will likely come up again.

As one might have expected, critics are already decrying the idea of tying this or any president’s hands when it comes to the decision to launch nuclear missiles because they claim that a nuclear missile, even if fired from the opposite side of the earth, would only need 15 minutes to reach the US — far too little time for the Senate to debate and authorize a counter-attack.

But that argument is a red-herring. Nobody is proposing that a president should not have the authority to order a retaliatory strike the minute it were to be confirmed that some country had launched missiles towards the US. (Looked at objectively, it seems stupid to order an action that would insure the total destruction of the earth in retaliation for an attack that might only destroy part of it, but I suppose that as long as we have countries with nuclear weapons, there has to be a credible threat of mutually assured destruction or such an attack could happen. Crazy or not, the policy of MAD appears to have successfully prevented a nuclear attack anywhere in the world for 72 years since they were first used by the US, back when it faced no such risk of retaliation in kind.)

Rather, the issue Corker is proposing be debated is whether a president should be able to launch a pre-emptive first strike on an enemy using nuclear weapons, or to decide to use nuclear weapons in a non-nuclear conflict already underway.

I would offer a resounding “No!” to those situations.

Let’s look at them separately.

First, take the idea of a US first strike.  Should a president — and go ahead and think in terms of our current mentally unbalanced President Trump as you ponder this question — be able on his own with no input from the Senate to decide to launch nuclear-tipped missiles at another country that is not attacking us, simply to deter them from doing so?

Some might say, well these days most wars and invasions the US has launched have been set in motion by presidents on their own. The last time Congress was asked to weigh in at all was in 2003, and even then the debate was just pro forma, since the Bush/Cheney administration had already moved US forces into position to invade Iraq, and would probably have gone ahead and invaded even if Congress had voted “no.”  But in any case, nuclear war is different. It is likely to quickly expand beyond existing battlefields and countries. China, for example, has noted pointedly that it has a defense treaty with North Korea which states that if North Korea is attacked, China will come to its defense (as it did during the Korean War). So deciding to launch nukes against North Korea could mean triggering a Chinese nuclear attack on the US. And because of the nature of nuclear weapons and how they are delivered, such decisions and such a spreading of the conflict would all be happening in minutes, not days or weeks. Indeed a president considering an attack North Korea might well decide to attack China simultaneously with North Korea, knowing that if he didn’t he’d be risking having the US attacked first by China.

Clearly this should not be allowed to happen. A president should not have the authority to launch a pre-emptive nuclear strike under any circumstances. (Indeed presidents should not be able to initiate wars on their own, nuclear or not. Whatever facile legal hacks like former G W Bush Justice Department attorney John Yoo might argue, that was clearly the position of the authors of the US Constitution, which states that only Congress may declare war. But that’s a subject for another article.)

But, you might ask, what if satellite images showed some country like North Korea preparing to launch several large presumably nuclear-tipped ICBMs towards the US? Shouldn’t a president then have the right to strike first to prevent such an attack?

I would argue no. It would be overkill and could, as mentioned above, trigger a nuclear attack from China on the US. The president would have the right and duty, if convinced that an attack on the US was imminent (and that means imminent, not possible in a month or two or a year down the road), to destroy the threat, but the US has that capability without relying on nuclear weapons. Missiles may be dangerous weapons and hard to knock down once launched, but on the ground they are delicate machines, easily disabled or destroyed. A president has the authority to order such an action without going nuclear. (In fact, unlike the US Iraq invasion or Libyan invasion or this country’s current military action in Syria – al violations of international law — such an attack would be legal under the terms of the UN Charter, which permits the initiation of a war if a country feels an attack on itself is imminent.)

I should note here that while Trump and the majority of the US media have been portraying North Korea’s leader, Kim Jong-un, as a crazy person who might commit national suicide by lobbing a missile or two at the US, or at the US military base on Guam, to prove some insane point, experts who know North Korea and understand its history say Kim is not crazy at all, and has no intention or desire to destroy his country and himself. Rather, he has recognized that nuclear nations don’t get invaded by the US, and sees having a demonstrably credible nuclear weapon and delivery system as a way to finally have his country recognized and to force the US to finally agree to negotiate a formal end to the Korean War.

As to the second possible situation: consider a hot, non-nuclear war that is perhaps going badly for the US (think Vietnam or Afghanistan). Do we want a president, including this president, to have the power to order the use of even so-called “battlefield” nuclear weapons to turn the tide?  Imagine several possible scenarios: war with a non-nuclear nation, war with a small nation that might have a nuke or three, and war against a major nuclear power like Russia or China:

*  A hot war with a non-nuclear power — like Syria, Venezuela or maybe Mexico (all places Trump has talked about sending in troops). Turning to the use of nukes in such conflicts would be a disaster internationally, opening the door to casual use of nukes in all future conflicts and a scramble by countless countries to obtain them. So that should simply be outlawed: No nuclear weapons to be used against non-nuclear nations. Period.

*   A war with a smaller country that has a few nukes. Here we can just use North Korea as the example. Since the country has nuclear bombs and missiles that can deliver them, at least hitting South Korea, Japan and Guam, and perhaps even parts of the United States, it seems unlikely that the US would invade without having a plan to neutralize those weapons and delivery systems. Such an invasion should it happen, clearly should be first approved by the Senate with a declaration of war, if only to prove the seriousness of the intent, as that public process would give North Korea a chance to sue for peace and begin serious negotiations. Furthermore, the president should not be able to order such an attack on his own for the reason mentioned earlier — China’s defense treaty with North Korea, which obliges it to defend Korea from invasion — a factor that Senators would certainly want to consider in their debate over a war resolution. And that brings us to the third scenario…

*   A war with another major nuclear power.  The mere fact that two nations with large nuclear arsenals were to find themselves in a border conflict of some kind or confronting some major incident such as the downing of one country’s jet by the other’s should not automatically mean a quantum jump to nuclear Armageddon, though that jump could obviously happen very quickly. The likelihood is that both sides, whether Russia and the US or China and the US, or perhaps all three countries, would be seeking desperately to avoid escalation to a nuclear exchange, which would destroy not just the warring parties, but the entire earth. The last thing we’d want in such a situation is for a hot-head president to just order the use of nukes, whether “battlefield” ones or an all-out nuclear attack against the other side, especially because both sides would be in hair-trigger retaliation mode. Far better to have the Senate in session debating the use of nuclear weapons, which could help stress the seriousness of the situation, which would hopefully lead to a cease-fire and negotiations to end the conflict. The alternative would be too awful to contemplate for both sides.

So clearly then, Sen. Corker and his Senate Foreign Relations Committee should come to the conclusion that no president should not have the power to launch nuclear weapons against anyone, except in retaliation against a nuclear attack.

Frankly though, I think that while, as long as we have nuclear weapons, it may be necessary to be able to credibly threaten any nuclear attacker with an equally devastating counter-attack in order to prevent one, once such an attack were to be launched anyhow, given that the result of such a double whammy on the biosphere of the earth would likely be the end of civilization, possibly the end of the human race, and conceivably the end to virtually all life on earth, the nobler decision would be for the US to accept annihilation and to nobly decline to retaliate. Such a startling decision by a country about to be wiped off the face of the earth would offer any survivors of the attack, including the people of the attacking nation, a new model of humankind: one that knows that peace, and not war, is the answer.

Talk about that admonition by Jesus to “turn the other cheek!” What better legacy could a nation wish for itself?

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Dave Lindorff is a founding member of ThisCantBeHappening!, an online newspaper collective, and is a contributor to Hopeless: Barack Obama and the Politics of Illusion (AK Press).

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