If one could adjectivize the president, there has never been anything Trumpier than Donald Trump’s posture on nuclear weapons. It’s an issue where he embraces contradictory thoughts in the same breath with routine. In candidate Trump’s debate with Hillary Clinton on September 26, 2016, he said, “I would certainly not do first strike” and “I can’t take anything off the table” within the space of seconds. In between, he pulled a Reagan and told a homespun tale on the subject, except his made no sense. “I looked the other night, I was seeing B-52s,” he said (where? In his head? On Sixth Avenue?). “They’re old enough that your father, your grandfather could be flying them,” he added. “We are not keeping up with other countries.”
Nukes are the ultimate Trump policy problem because it’s a subject that requires scientific knowledge he completely lacks, while also forcing him to choose between two of his most sharply conflicting narcissistic affectations: the deal-making man of peace vs. the “I love war” Lieutenenant Schiesskopf-style missile-humping parade-master.
Remember, candidate Trump ran as a quasi-isolationist who was too smart to waste treasure and lives on pointless regional confrontations in Middle Eastern countries. His first major foreign policy address in April of 2016 was an extended diatribe against post-Cold War interventionism.
In it, he decried military adventures from Syria to Iraq to Libya that unleashed “civil war, religious fanaticism, thousands of Americans… killed… many trillions of dollars… lost…” etc. etc.
But Trump, like Americans generally, can’t handle even the possibility of people thinking he’s a wimp for a second. So even as he ran as an isolationist, an issue that probably won him some key votes – studies showed Trump did well in areas hit hardest by military casualties from our recent dumb wars – he also constantly hyped himself as someone so crazy and unpredictable, he just might use nuclear weapons (as if we needed to be told this!).
Recall Trump telling Face the Nation this, in response to a question by CBS host John Dickerson, about nuke use:
I made a great business deal. And the person on the other side was interviewed by a newspaper. And how did Trump do this? And they said, he’s so unpredictable. And I didn’t know if he meant it positively or negative. It turned out he meant it positively. We have to be somewhat unpredictable in this whole thing. Nuclear, though, has to be absolute last stance.
Now, on the heels of reports that Trump wants his own version of a Bastille Day parade – classically Soviet behavior in the mold of George W. Bush or Nikita Khruschev, lifelong political creatures who craved military affirmation in the form of medals, unis, and parades – we get the release of Trump’s “Nuclear Posture Review.” And it’s every bit as bad as could be expected.
The scariest passage in the NPR is meant to clarify a word used with incredible frequency in the massive document: flexibility (I counted 38 usages). After explaining that Russia may feel it has a tactical advantage over the United States because of its greater diversity of nuclear weapons, and in particular its “limited first nuclear use” capability, the NPR explains new technologies are needed.
America will answer in kind, the paper says, by replacing our arsenal with newer and more “flexible” weapons:
To address these types of challenges and preserve deterrence stability, the United States will enhance the flexibility and range of its tailored deterrence options. To be clear, this is not intended to, nor does it enable, “nuclear war-fighting.” Expanding flexible U.S. nuclear options now, to include low-yield options, is important for the preservation of credible deterrence against regional aggression.
Translation: not that we want to enable “nuclear war-fighting,” but we want to have the option of “nuclear war-fighting” should we need to opt for… “nuclear war-fighting.” Therefore, we need “low-yield options.”
The Swiss-based International Campaign to Abolish Nuclear Weapons (ICAN) won the Nobel Prize in 2017 for its work campaigning for the Treaty for the Prohibition of Nuclear Weapons, which was adopted by the U.N. in July.
The ICAN-lobbied Treaty – similar maybe to the Paris accord, or International treaties on land mines or chemical weapons – would effectively outlaw nuclear weapons and represents the latest thinking of most educated people on the subject, which is that nuclear weapons pose an unacceptable health and safety risk no matter how they’re deployed or “modernized.”
Certainly pushing a program that involves the mass-construction of “low-yield options” that would create in the mind (or what passes for the mind) of someone like Trump a more “usable” nuclear weapon is pretty much the worst-case scenario.
The reality is that we’ve been incredibly lucky since 1945 that there haven’t been more nuclear disasters. Only the quick thinking of a Soviet army lieutenant in 1983 (after a mistaken launch detection) and half-dead Boris Yeltsin in 1995 (in the so-called “Norweigan rocket incident“) prevented global annihilation.
“If you’re going to have nuclear weapons forever, they will be used, by accident, intention, or misunderstanding,” says Beatrice Fihn, who accepted the Nobel Prize on behalf of ICAN.
Fihn told Rolling Stone that the problem was bad enough before. But now “it’s a completely different scenario than when it was just two blocs threatening each other.”
Remember, back then, at the height of the Cold War, even the morons who sat in positions of responsibility in both the Pentagon and in the Soviet Union recognized the inherent danger that nuclear weapons posed to humanity. Even people who stood to benefit politically and financially from endless campaigns of weapons development and propaganda about “missile gaps” nonetheless managed to head in the right direction on this issue.
From a high of 60,000-70,000 warheads the two sides managed, through a series of treaties (from ABM to SALT to START to START II), to reduce international stockpiles to somewhere around 15,000 warheads or below.
Which is all well and good, but two problems have emerged of late.
One is this new re-proliferation direction continued (and worsened) by Trump. Barack Obama, too, went from being practically an antinuke activist – he famously called for a “world without nuclear weapons” – to green-lighting a trillion-dollar “modernization” program.
Trump’s NPR continues and expands on that idea, and the emphasis on low-yield, Hiroshima-sized weapons that might offer more strategic “flexibility” is exactly the problem.
In 2007, a study by Alan Robock and other scientists in “Atmospheric Chemistry and Physics” estimated that a “limited” nuclear war involving just 100 Hiroshima-sized bombs could have a devastating effect on the world’s food supply.
An updated study published by the Physicians for Social Responsibility concluded that more than two billion people could end up threatened by reduced food stocks after just such a “limited” exchange of “low-yield” weapons (the study posited an exchange of warheads between India and Pakistan). This means that a “regional” war would kill in less than a week more than in all over World War II. Two billion dead from starvation would be a few hundred holocausts. And yet, this is the strategy we’re moving toward, not away from.
This is why the situation with Trump, his plans for a more “flexible” arsenal, and moreover his ongoing saber-rattling with North Korea, are so troubling. Donald Trump, guaranteed, is not thinking about what’s going to happen to American and Chinese soybean crops if he has to lob a few missiles back and forth with “little Rocket man” Kim Jong-Un.
That’s the problem with the embrace of “low-yield” strategies. They assume survivability on one side anyway, but they don’t explain what methodology they’re using to make these assumptions.
“Who would clean up afterwards?” Fihn asks. “Where would you bury the bodies? If there’s a nuclear war over a densely populated area, what do you do with the bodies to prevent infections from spreading?”
The nuclear powers “don’t engage on these questions,” says Fihn, so no one knows how they’re doing the math to bring us back to “flexible” nuclear options.
This is also what made Trump’s State of the Union address so hair-raising. A fair portion of it was devoted to making emotional appeals about the evil nature of the North Korea regime, including a gruesome story about the dual amputation/torture of dissident Ji-Seong-ho.
The telling of a horrifying human rights abuse story about a foe by the president is often a precursor to some kind of military action.
Those of us old enough to remember will recall the tale of Iraqi soldiers occupying Kuwait taking babies out of incubators and leaving them to die.
The story turned out to have dubious provenance, but George H.W. Bush repeated it in a news conference prior to the first Gulf War. Bill Clinton compared Milosevic to Hitler. George W. Bush ran through a litany of human rights abuses ascribed to former U.S. ally Saddam Hussein prior to the second invasion, citing “beating, burning, electric shock, starvation, mutilation, and rape.”
This is not to say these things weren’t or aren’t true, just that if you go by the U.S. playbook of military conflict, there is almost always a high-profile human rights abuse accusation that comes shortly before the exchange of hostilities. And as Bob Dreyfuss wrote in this space a few days ago, Trump’s saber-rattling with North Korea could easily push us to the one place we can’t go – a nuclear exchange.
Trump’s new NPR shows that the president and the people around him believe in the usability of nuclear weapons. They’re ignorant enough to not have asked questions about what happens after we hit “send” on that one. After all, this is a president who clearly didn’t even consider the next steps of winning an election. And we expect him to have plans for how to manage nuclear war? Of all the nightmares of the Trump era, this, Elizabeth, is the big one.
Actually it isn’t. In part because we’ve backed away from anti-proliferation efforts, the Russians have apparently developed a real-life Doomsday Device – the Ocean Multipurpose System Status-6 or “Kanyon” bomb, which is 1,000 times the size of the Hiroshima bomb and apparently would be delivered by drone submarine. So that’s awesome. Now we get to go back in time to worrying for real about the specter of mutual mass-annihilation, only this time with more devastating weapons.