Trump's Nuclear Vulnerability

There is every reason to believe that as the direct Hillary / Donald campaign heats up, the Clinton camp will make a significant issue of Trump’s temperament controlling the nuclear trigger.  While it has been a long time since nuclear weapons have been in the front of the public mind, they represent an issue which can transcend others – other failings can be corrected over time (even ObamaCare), but the “steady hand” is important if the public is focused on the nuclear risk.  As much as those concerned about national security dislike the Obama administration – efforts to prosecute CIA interrogators at Guantanamo; the refusal to come to the aid of those under attack at Benghazi; dangerously restrictive rules of engagement in Afghanistan; politically correct personnel policies in the military – the nuclear issue should give reason to pause.

With different emphasis and result, past campaigns have raised the specter of a president without the background and stability to be in charge of the national defense in a major crisis.

– In truth, John F. Kennedy was unprepared. In his brief term as president, he supported, then abandoned the Cuban opposition to Fidel Castro. When Nikita Khrushchev tried to use the opportunity to place intermediate range nuclear weapons in Cuba in 1962, the world came perilously close to nuclear war. Fail Safe (1964) and  Dr. Strangelove (1964) reflected the public mood. When Barry Goldwater ran against Lyndon Johnson in 1964, he was painted as being too eager to go to war – both in Vietnam, and with nuclear weapons. In the “Daisy ad“, perhaps the most famous political advertisement of all time, Johnson effectively cast the election as between his peace and Goldwater’s nuclear war.

– Hillary doesn’t need to go very far to recycle her 2008 “3 am phone call” ad which touted her experience as First Lady and in the Senate in contrast to Barack Obama’s equally brief Senate record. It isn’t about accomplishments (or lack thereof) – it is about having developed an even hand that is required when momentous decisions need to be made unexpectedly. Not Trump’s forte.

Voters may forgive Trump for his habit of speaking offensively about things he has not studied. He can learn; he can have good advisers; he is negotiating and will back away from extreme positions; errors can be corrected. But national security, and particularly the nuclear component of national security, does require being ready on Day One. The source and nature of a crisis are unknowable in advance and the nation needs a leader who can be relied on to make reasoned, difficult decisions based in large part on what they already know. Usually there can be briefings and advice, but the person making the decision needs to synthesize information quickly and apply it against a set of understandings and policies which they have previously digested. Trump has offered some troubling examples:

– In one of the early debates he seemed unfamiliar with the term “nuclear triad” – the combination of bombers, missiles, and submarine-launched missiles. In truth, most of the candidates other than John Kasich, Lindsay Graham, and Marco Rubio would not have understood the nuances of each, but Trump was portrayed as an amateur. When the time comes to prepare for presidential debates, we will see if he understands the deficiency and has done his homework.

– A more troubling example of Trump’s unpreparedness is his riff in late March about how we have protected our allies for too long, and it might be time for Japan, South Korea, and Saudi Arabia to develop their own nuclear weapons. Perhaps this is an opening bid in a negotiation to gain greater compensation for our efforts, or to convince China that they need to rein in North Korea, but the discussion itself is destabilizing. Japan and South Korea quickly rejected the thought, but the Saudi’s will be tempted, given the Iranian nuclear and missile programs approved by the Obama administration.

Hillary’s direct approach will be to claim credit for the negotiation of the 2010 Strategic Arms Reduction Treaty with Russia which called for capping the number of deployed nuclear warheads at 1550 for each side. Since then, the deployed US warheads have been reduced from 5916 to 1481, while the Russians have been reduced from 3897 to 1735.  The Heritage Foundation finds many flaws with the treaty, such as the exclusion of tactical nuclear weapons (particularly in Europe) where the Russians have a large numerical advantage. Others note that the warheads have been returned to inventory rather than being destroyed. Expect an exchange of expert white papers and  a lesson on negotiating.

For those willing to stay with the subject for awhile, Hillary has several other negatives.

– For decades the nuclear club has consisted of the United States, Russia, China, Britain, France, Israel, India, and Pakistan. Others – South Africa, Libya, former Soviet republics – gave up their programs voluntarily, and Israel took out Syria’s development facilities in 2007. Beyond “the club”, others were made to understand that nuclear weapons would make them tempting targets, and that protection by the West was better than trying it themselves. The overthrow of Khaddafi in Libya and the West’s reticence to support the Ukraine against dismemberment by Russia were direct refutations of that Faustian bargain, and have served as a spur for North Korea to accelerate its rogue program. Whether the fault lies with Hillary or Obama can be debated.

– John Kerry and Barack Obama deserve the blame for the unverifiable, temporizing, “peace in our time” Iran deal, but Hillary will of necessity be a defender and Trump will be an attacker. He will need a proposition beyond “tear it up”.

For those sincerely concerned about the nation’s policies in the nuclear arena, as well as those simply interested in the political contest, there are several things that Trump needs to do.

– He needs to identify a serious national security team. Thus far his announced advisers amount to little known third tier players. He needs a David Petreus, a Condi Rice, and a few top academics.

– He needs to prepare for the presidential debates in an entirely different way than he prepared for the Republican contests. Mitt Romney’s sessions with Rob Portman before the first 2012 debate provide a good model. He could start now.

– He needs to moderate his foreign policy pronouncements – particularly those touching on the global nuclear balance.  Other countries are actually influenced by what a major party nominee for the American presidency thinks and says.


This week’s video is a first (and probably last on RightinSanFrancisco) discussion with Libertarian candidate Gary Johnson.

www.RightinSanFrancisco.com – 6/3/16