Be­tween a nu­clear strike and Don­ald Trump

If he feels like it, the pres­i­dent can an­ni­hi­late the peo­ple of North Korea.

Los Angeles Times - - OP-ED - doyle.mcmanus@la­times.com DOYLE MCMANUS

Here, in a nut­shell, are the laws and pro­ce­dures that limit Pres­i­dent Trump’s power to launch a nu­clear strike against North Korea any­time he likes: There aren’t any. If the pres­i­dent wakes up one morn­ing, turns on Fox News and de­cides that Kim Jong Un has ig­nored his warn­ings of “fire and fury” — by an­nounc­ing, for ex­am­ple, that he has built a nu­clear war­head that can reach the West Coast of the United States — Trump can an­ni­hi­late the peo­ple of North Korea en­tirely on his own.

He isn’t re­quired to con­sult his sec­re­tary of De­fense and other ad­vi­sors, al­though that would be a good idea. He isn’t re­quired to ask Congress for per­mis­sion, ei­ther, even though the Con­sti­tu­tion re­serves the power to de­clare war for the leg­is­la­ture.

All he has to do is call in the mil­i­tary of­fi­cer who car­ries the “foot­ball,” the bulky brief­case con­tain­ing the nu­clear codes, and work through a brief pro­ce­dure to trans­mit launch or­ders to U.S. Strate­gic Com­mand.

“There are re­ally no checks and bal­ances,” said Bruce G. Blair, a for­mer nu­clear launch con­trol of­fi­cer who is now a re­searcher at Prince­ton Univer­sity. “The pres­i­dency has be­come a nu­clear monar­chy.”

The stream­lined pro­ce­dure was de­signed dur­ing the Cold War for speed and cer­tainty, in case Washington was in im­mi­nent dan­ger of de­struc­tion by a Soviet at­tack. It re­lies, to an as­ton­ish­ing ex­tent, on the judg­ment and steadi­ness of just one per­son. It wasn’t de­signed for a case like North Korea: a small nu­clear power with the power to threaten but not de­stroy the United States. Nor, of course, was it de­signed for a pres­i­dent like Trump, whose tem­per­a­ment tends to­ward im­pul­sive­ness.

And that’s why the Se­nate For­eign Re­la­tions Com­mit­tee con­vened on Tues­day to dis­cuss whether the rules need to change — the first time in 41 years that Congress has re­ex­am­ined the dooms­day pro­ce­dures.

The chair­man of the panel, Repub­li­can Sen. Bob Corker of Ten­nessee, said the in­quiry wasn’t aimed at one pres­i­dent in par­tic­u­lar. “This is not par­tic­u­lar to any­body,” he claimed.

But since Corker has fre­quently com­plained that Trump lacks the com­pe­tence and sta­bil­ity to be pres­i­dent, and once de­scribed the White House as “an adult day-care cen­ter,” no­body was fooled.

“Let’s just rec­og­nize the ex­cep­tional na­ture of this mo­ment,” said Sen. Christo­pher S. Mur­phy, a Con­necti­cut Demo­crat. “We are con­cerned that the pres­i­dent of the United States is so un­sta­ble, so vo­latile … that he might or­der a nu­clear weapons strike that is wildly out of step with U.S. na­tional se­cu­rity in­ter­ests.”

Need­less to say, the se­na­tors didn’t ar­rive at any kind of con­sen­sus.

Mur­phy and other Democrats ar­gued that Congress needed to take ac­tion to rein in the pres­i­dent.

Sen. Marco Ru­bio of Florida and other Repub­li­cans fret­ted about the dan­ger of weak­en­ing nu­clear de­ter­rence or re­duc­ing “strate­gic am­bi­gu­ity” by lim­it­ing Trump’s free­dom to blus­ter.

A for­mer com­man­der of U.S. nu­clear forces, re­tired Air Force Gen. C. Robert Kehler, told the com­mit­tee that mil­i­tary of­fi­cers could pre­vent a dis­as­ter by ob­ject­ing to an or­der they con­sid­ered il­le­gal. But he ac­knowl­edged that ob­ject­ing wouldn’t stop the or­der from be­ing car­ried out. In­stead, he said dryly, it would lead to “a very dif­fi­cult con­ver­sa­tion.”

Blair, the nu­clear scholar, has sug­gested re­quir­ing more than one sig­na­ture on a nu­clear war or­der — ide­ally, the sec­re­tary of De­fense and the at­tor­ney gen­eral as well as the pres­i­dent. Every other step in launch­ing nu­clear weapons, he noted, holds to a “two-man rule,” re­quir­ing two peo­ple to con­cur; only the de­ci­sion to be­gin a nu­clear war is given to just one per­son.

Some Democrats, in­clud­ing Sen. Ed­ward J. Markey of Mas­sachusetts and Rep. Ted Lieu of Tor­rance, have pro­posed re­quir­ing that a pres­i­dent ob­tain autho­riza­tion from Congress be­fore us­ing nu­clear weapons, ex­cept in re­sponse to a nu­clear at­tack.

That’s not a crazy idea. It wouldn’t bind a pres­i­dent’s hands in a gen­uine emer­gency. It’s been en­dorsed by for­mer De­fense Sec­re­tary Wil­liam J. Perry, a nu­clear tech­nol­o­gist who was will­ing, dur­ing the Clin­ton ad­min­is­tra­tion, to go to war against North Korea.

(Diplo­macy made that war un­nec­es­sary, he says.)

Ap­par­ently, how­ever, that con­sti­tu­tional rem­edy is a bridge too far for most. Markey has col­lected only 13 cospon­sors for his bill, all Democrats — just onethird of his party’s mem­bers in the Se­nate.

That leaves the se­na­tors united in a sin­gle sen­ti­ment: wish­ing they had a less vo­latile pres­i­dent to worry about. Just like most of the rest of us.

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