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A Realist Proposal: How the Vietnam War Can Help the US End its Afghan War

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On December 28, 2014, the US and NATO formally declared an end to the Afghan war despite an ongoing insurgency. Nevertheless, a treaty was signed by the US to allow for the retention of some troops to serve in an advisory and counter-terrorism role.

The reassignment in role began a new phase of the war in which the Afghan forces would lead the fight. Since then, the Afghan government has found itself inept and incapable in defending the country despite more than 14 years of training by foreign forces.

President Obama has recently become more active in Afghanistan despite vowing to end the war during his presidential candidacy. First, the newly elected leader of the Taliban was killed by a drone strike and recently, President Obama announced a more involved role for US forces in the country. While many believed the US was slowly withdrawing from the longest war in its history, it appears to be back in the fight. The situation in Afghanistan is as precarious as ever, with the presence of ISIS in parts of the country coupled with a raging Taliban insurgency, the US objective has never been bleaker in the region. It is clear; the Afghan government is incapable of restraining the Taliban militarily or integrating them politically, without the US presence the Afghan government will fall quickly. On the other hand, the US cannot perpetually sit in Afghanistan to fight the Taliban because neither time nor money is on their side.

The Afghan government’s composition makes it inherently incapable of ever being able to take on the Taliban on its own. The government is an ironic web of warlords, criminals, technocrats, and fanatics that are swathed together by the US Dollar. The US finds itself in a true quagmire; it cannot stay forever nor withdraw anytime soon, so what to do?

President Obama recently traveled to Vietnam to fully normalize relations with a former enemy. Despite fighting a long drawn out war, the US and Vietnam find itself today working together to help contain a larger regional threat, China. The possibility of the US military going back to the country appears more plausible as each day goes by, but not as an invader but rather ally. What can the improved ties between the US and Vietnam teach Americans about its current war in Afghanistan? On occasion, losing a battle can lead to a greater victory in the long run if a nation’s strategic interests are viewed through a non-myopic lens. While the US attempts to preserve a fledgling regime in Afghanistan comprised of people as worse as the Taliban, it should not allow the current situation to blind its strategic ambitions for the region. Similar to Vietnam, once the US is fully withdrawn from the area, whether sooner or later, the Afghan government will collapse and the country will resume the civil war it was fighting before the American intervention. With the exception that the Taliban are much stronger now, while the former Northern Alliance network is essentially eliminated since many of its former leaders have been killed. It would behoove the US to negotiate with the Taliban directly rather than carry on an expensive and futile war.

Vietnam and the South China Sea

Due to nationalistic and ideological hubris, the US isolated Vietnam while the Cold War continued on. After the fall of the Soviet Union, Vietnam’s largest patron, relations with the US began to warm up. President Clinton recognized the country and President Bush normalized them. President Obama’s recent visit to Vietnam came with the lifting of the arms embargo, finalizing the full recognition process. The improved relationship was not due to humanitarian concerns but rather geopolitical. The fear of a rising China has created an opportunity for both Vietnam and the US to restore ties. Both countries see a mutual interest in working with each other in containing the Chinese expansion in the South China Sea. The decades long freeze in relations could have been avoided if American planners better understood the local dynamics among the regional nations.

After the US withdrew from Vietnam in 1975, the unpopular US-backed government of South Vietnam fell to the invading North Vietnamese forces. Despite losing the war, the US global clout allowed it to isolate Vietnam from most of the world. What the US ignored was Vietnam and China’s centuries of animosity trumped their provisional wartime alliance, which erupted into another war due to North Vietnam’s intervention in Pol Pot’s Cambodia. Nevertheless, the US continued to neglect Vietnam for another decade.

As the Cold War came to an end, China began to emerge as a long-term threat to American regional interests in the Pacific. Vietnam and the US fearing a more assertive China looked to each other for help. In particular, Vietnam’s Cam Rahn Bay offers a deep water port, perfect for larger naval ships. The rise of China offered both nations a quid pro quo situation in terms of military cooperation and even an alliance.

Afghanistan and the Lessons of Vietnam

When the US invaded Afghanistan in 2001, it had done so on the basis of destroying Al Qaeda’s terror network along with removing the Taliban from power for providing such havens. After successfully deposing the Taliban regime, the US put together an Afghan government that was unfortunately comprised of corrupt warlords and criminals similar to Diem’s government in South Vietnam. These warlords were the same murderous bandits that were once chased out by the Taliban to the delight of the people in Afghanistan. Shortly thereafter, the Taliban’s true nature was demonstrated through their extreme and misogynistic rule.

The US’s next misstep was before fully defeating the Taliban; there was a focus shift to Iraq. As the US began to become bogged down there, the Taliban regrouped and began to win popular support while the Afghan government was losing it due to corruption. The success of any insurgency resides with the local population. Despite a military surge by President Obama, the war has gone on to become the longest in US history and the end doesn’t appear to be anywhere near. So what will happen after the US withdraws?

A Faustian Bargain?

The most likely event after a complete US withdrawal from the region is that the government in Kabul will disintegrate along ethnic lines and a small pitch civil war will be fought. Due to the state of the war in the past 14 years, the Taliban have been able to structure, plan, and organize the insurgency to be a proper fighting force. Any pockets of resistance in a civil war would be short-lived due to the lack of any cohesion or leadership amongst any type of opposition to the Taliban. Without any troops in the fight, the US will condemn the Taliban but nothing more than sanctions and verbal condemnation. This situation provides an opportunity to learn from previous conflicts such as Vietnam.

The US needs to be fully cognizant that the fragile Afghan government it has spent billions in treasures and blood to prop up, can never move forward with the mantle of democracy that it was designed for because of the politicians that were instituted to run it. Many that wield power in the Afghan government are illiterate, leave alone fluent in the understanding the concepts involved in running a Democratic government. The US needs to begin direct negotiations with the Taliban without any preconditions. It should then withdraw from the region on an understanding that the Taliban will not revert back to its old ways but instead renounce terrorism, ensure equality for women and minorities, as well as not become an oppressive regime again. If the Taliban are meant to ascend to power, the US should, albeit with certain boundaries, embrace it as long as it works to its interests. The US needs to ensure the situation with Afghanistan is stable to ensure its regional strategic interests are secured. Retaining an ally country can serve the US very well in the region similar to how Vietnam is now unfolding with respect to China. Afghanistan is geographically situated in a strategically imperative location; Iran to the West, Central Asia and Russia to the North, Pakistan to the South, and China to the East.

The Iranian expansion in the Middle East is becoming a threat to US interests in the region. Potentially the only way to stop the Persian flood is with a polar opposite government at its border. While the Shiite Mullahs rule Tehran, Kabul’s Sunni Mullahs can damper Persian regional ambitions. Despite being nominal allies in the current war, like China and Vietnam, the Iranians and Taliban have a turbulent history. Simultaneously, as Russia continues to exercise its power in Eastern Europe, it’s looking to Central Asia to reestablish its foothold there. Once again the Taliban and Russia do not see each in other in the best of light due to their tumultuous dealings in the past. China has been somewhat neutral with respect to the Taliban prior to 9/11 and desires a stable region no matter who is in power. Yet, the Chinese were apprehensive of the Taliban influence on the Uighur population in its volatile Xinjiang Province, who want an independent state. Finally, the Pakistanis in the south have been the Taliban’s main patron and ally since the formation of the group in the early 1990s. The instability in Pakistan creates more complication in an already intricate web of regional politics. An understanding between the Taliban and the US can create the necessary environment for the group to wean away from its reliance on the Pakistani government. If the US carries out similar diplomatic relations with the group as it does with Vietnam now, Afghanistan can end up being more strategically valuable then Vietnam for American interests even with the Taliban in power.

Luis Durani is currently employed in the oil and gas industry. He previously worked in the nuclear energy industry. He has a M.A. in international affairs with a focus on Chinese foreign policy and the South China Sea, MBA, M.S. in nuclear engineering, B.S. in mechanical engineering and B.A. in political science. He is also author of "Afghanistan: It’s No Nebraska – How to do Deal with a Tribal State" and "China and the South China Sea: The Emergence of the Huaqing Doctrine." Follow him for other articles on Instagram: @Luis_Durani

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Eastern seas after Afghanistan: UK and Australia come to the rescue of the U.S. in a clumsy way

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In March 2021 the People’s Republic of China emerged as the world’s largest naval fleet, surpassing the US Navy. An advantage of around 60 ships, which will increase in 2024, when China will count on a fleet of at least 400 units. A goal already announced in 2018 by President Xi Jinping.

After the unsuccessful withdrawal from Afghanistan, the United States announced the establishment of a new security cooperation alliance with the United Kingdom and Australia, whose first task is to assist Australia in building nuclear-powered submarines.

Considering its allies, the White House has shared only nuclear propulsion technology with the UK and Australia will be the next. Although the officials from the three countries denied that the new alliance was targeted to any country, European and US media believe that the move is intended to counter Chinese power and strength.

In addition to nuclear-powered submarines, the three countries will also strengthen cooperation in the areas of network technology, artificial intelligence and quantum technology. White House officials revealed that Britain played a strategic leadership role in reaching the alliance.

In Global Britain in a Competitive Age. The Integrated Review of Security, Defence, Development and Foreign Policy of March 2021 – which sets out the government’s geopolitical strategy after Brexit and outlines the UK role in the world over the next 10 years – the British Prime Minister, Boris Johnson, proposed to reposition UK’s global strategy after Brexit. He announced the foreign and defence policy, stressing that the country would be deeply involved in the Indo-Pacific region in the future.

According to a statement released by the White House on September 15, the US-UK-Australia security alliance is named AUKUS, and is designed to strengthen the three countries’ diplomatic, security and defence cooperation in the said region.

Under the new regional arrangement, the three countries will further strengthen information and technology sharing, as well as integrate science and supply chains and security and defence-related industrial bases.

The first key basis of the arrangement is the United States of America and the United Kingdom, with the aim of assisting Australia in building nuclear-powered submarines. The three countries will spend 18 months discussing how to implement the plan.

As said above, before Australia the United Kingdom was the only country with which the United States shared nuclear propulsion technology. It should be recalled that during the Cold War, after the Soviet Union had launched the first artificial satellite (the Sputnik 1 on October 4, 1957), the United States and Britain signed a joint defence agreement on July 3, 1958 (the US-UK Mutual Defence Agreement) to share key military nuclear technology. Britain obviously ignored the rest of Europe, about which, even before Napoleon, it had cared very little except as a rampart from the South and the East. However, let us revert to the present day.

Compared to conventional submarines, nuclear-powered ones are faster; they have greater endurance and attack capabilities and are more difficult to detect. Currently, only six countries in the world have this type of weapon: the United States, the People’s Republic of China, Russia, France, India and the United Kingdom.

According to the AUKUS plan, these submarines will be built in Adelaide, the capital of the State of South Australia, but the Commonwealth of Australia has no nuclear industry nor the necessary fissile materials. US officials have revealed that nuclear materials can be shipped from other countries to that federal State. The USA and Australia already signed an agreement in 2010, which stipulates that Australia will not retract or increase the amount of nuclear materials sent to the country from the United States, and it should also be recalled that Australia is also a signatory to the Nuclear Non-Proliferation Treaty.

Australia’s Prime Minister Scott Morrison, however, has already put his hands on, declaring that the construction of nuclear-powered submarines does not necessarily mean the production of nuclear weapons. He emphasised that Australia did not seek to acquire nuclear weapons, nor did it seek a chance in civilian nuclear power.

Nevertheless, some experts believe that Australia’s construction of nuclear-powered submarines is off to a bad start. In an interview with The Washington Post, James Acton – Director of the nuclear policy program at the Carnegie Foundation for International Peace – pointed out that the move severely undermined the nuclear non-proliferation system and could also trigger an arms race.

He sharply predicted that, after Australia’s precedent, Iran might also announce the construction of nuclear-powered submarines: after all, Iran is a subject of international law and a co-signatory to the Nuclear Non-Proliferation Treaty as is Australia.

In the past, while such a possible Iranian request might have been opposed by the international community, with AUKUS it will be lent credence, unless the aforementioned international law also formally establishes the existence of first-ranking and second-ranking States.

On the political level, Hugh White, a former Australian defence official, stated in an interview with The New York Times that Australia’s move was not just to build nuclear-powered submarines, but also a strategic adjustment to significantly deepen anti-Chinese cooperation with the United States.

When the new Indo-Pacific security alliance was announced on September 15, US President Joseph Biden, British Prime Minister Boris Johnson, and Australian Prime Minister Scott Morrison were careful not to mention the People’s Republic of China.

President Biden said that the establishment of the new alliance was used for ensuring long-term peace and stability in the Indo-Pacific region. US officials stressed that the trilateral cooperation was not directed against any other country, but was designed to safeguard the strategic interests of the three countries.

But whether it is the Australian media, the British media such as The Guardian or the US media such as CNN, they all agree that the alliance is directly targeting China.

Over the next few days, President Biden will also meet at the White House with the leaders of the “four-country group”: the United States, Japan, India and Australia.

Chinese Foreign Ministry spokesman Zhao Lijian, on the other hand, said at a press conference on September 16 that mutual respect and trust are the prerequisites for dialogue and cooperation between the countries.

He stressed that the current difficult situation in China-Australia relations stemmed solely from Australia. The most urgent task for Australia is to address the setback in relations between the two countries, as well as seriously assess whether it views the People’s Republic of China as a partner or a threat, and hence sincerely uphold mutual respect and treat each other as equals.

Let the principles and spirit of a comprehensive strategic partnership – not a sectoral one targeted against someone – govern the relations between the two countries.

In an interview with The Guardian, a senior White House official revealed that, when the new understanding was established, the UK played the role of mediator on all key issues and was “a very strong strategic leader”.

It should be noted that, on the issue of troop withdrawal from Afghanistan, Britain and the USA had severe divergences. The British Secretary of State for Defence, Robert Ben Lobban Wallace, repeatedly criticised the United States. Therefore, in theory, the USA can also bypass Britain and directly reach an agreement with Australia on nuclear-powered submarines.

The senior White House official – who disclosed the above mentioned issue – believes that this time the UK is so active in the three-nation military alliance because it had to “pay a deposit” for the policy described in Global Britain.

Global Britain, in itself, is a grandiose and vague concept. According to the UK government’s official website, the core of Global Britain is to invest again in UK’s relations with other countries, so as to promote an international order based on well-defined rules, and to demonstrate that the UK is a well-advised and trusted country in the international arena.

Some analysts believe that Boris Johnson’s Global Britain is trying to emulate Churchill’s three-circle diplomacy, e.g. the three areas of influence in British foreign policy: the Empire and the Commonwealth, the Anglo-Saxon world – in particular, the special relationship with the United States, i.e. the 51st star – and Europe.

The UK uses its close relationship with the second circle to act as a link between the other two circles to safeguard Britain’s interests and status as a (former) great power.

Meanwhile, let us see what France thinks about it. The French Ambassador to Australia, Jean-Pierre Thebault, was recalled to Paris on September 18. Before leaving, he criticised Australia for having made a “huge mistake” on the issue of submarine construction. Ambassador Thebault arrived at Sydney airport on the evening of September 18th, from where he took a flight to leave Australia and return to France.

On September 17, the French Foreign Ministry issued a communiqué announcing the immediate recall of the Ambassador to the United States, Philippe Étienne, and of the Ambassador to Australia, the aforementioned Thebault.

The communiqué stated that Australia had abandoned the submarine-building agreement reached with France and had instead established a “new partnership” with the United States on the development of nuclear submarines – an “unacceptable behaviour” between allies.

Before returning to France, Ambassador Thebault said that Australia’s cancellation of the submarine contract with France was a “big mistake” and that Australia’s handling of the partnership was “very bad”. He revealed that this was not just a contractual issue, but an issue of partnership based on trust and mutual understanding.

Ambassador Thebault reiterated that at no time did Australia give France any clear signal to suspend the relevant contract. He said that France was kept completely in the dark about the steps taken and during that period many Australian officials not only continued to discuss the project with France, but also expressed their willingness to make the project a success.

No comments have come so far from Australia.

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AUKUS: Human-made disaster

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AUKUS is a new military alliance that emerged recently, among Australia, UK, and The US. Under this alliance, it has been declared that Australia will be equipped with nuclear submarines. There exists a panic in the region as Australia was not a declared nuclear state and if equipped with a nuclear submarine, whether or not, it is safe? Scholars and intellectuals have various opinions, but, agreed on one point that it will promote a nuclear race in the region. I believe, the spread of nuclear weapons, especially those who have no experience of handling nuclear submarines, maybe not be safe. It can be mishandled or accidentally, can cause any incident of disaster not only for Australia but for the whole region. Keeping nuclear weapons, need special safeguards and different temperament. To be a mature and responsible state is a prerequisite for having nuclear weapons, it also needs different ethics and principles to be equipped with such lethal weapons.

On the other hand, while NATO is there and Quad was created to specifically counter China, was there any genuine need for creating a new alliance like AUKUS? Is NATO abandoned? How the NATO member state thinks to ward AUKUS, one can imagine. Anyhow, they are hurt and mistrust has been created among NATO and the US.  First of all, The US is not at its peak to offend or compel any other country, like EU member states, and on other hand, the US economy is not in such a state, where it can support the luxury of defense expenditure like before. It is right to approach to cut defense expenditures and spend more of the socio-economic welfare of the country, but to create a new alliance is negating such an approach.

Many EU member states are confused and upset and in the days to come, the gap may widen further. First of all, some of the EU countries are in close cooperation with China economically. China has become the largest trading partner and investor for many EU countries. Dependency on the US has reduced considerably.

Especially, France is offended as it was in the advanced stage of negotiations with Australia for a similar deal but suddenly hijacked by the US and UK. France has lost a big opportunity and it’s her right to react and protest. France has called back its Ambassadors from Australia and the US. This is an initial reaction, but, more actions may be seen in the near future.

France, in a reaction, has announced to collaborate with India in a similar manner, which is not welcomed by Asian partners, as it will create a race in the region. Furthermore, India is in the hands of an extremist Hindu political party – RSS. RSS is a fanatic party and can go to any extent, without thinking about the consequences. It is not safe for the region to equip India with nuclear submarines.

This region is highly populous, China with its population of 1.4 billion, India itself is 1.2 billion, and the rest of countries like Pakistan, Bangladesh, Sri Lanka, Nepal, Myanmar, Maldives, collectively constitutes almost half of the world’s population. If any misadventure happened in this region, half of the population of the whole world is under threat.

It will be not a wise decision to promote nuclearization, either by the US, UK, or France. One mistake cannot be compensated for by making another one. It will be a total disaster for humankind.

Humankind needs peace and prosperity. Human-made disasters can be averted and must be averted. It is the right time to take appropriate measures to stop nuclearization and the promotion of the nuclear race in this part of the world or any other part of the world. It is our individual’s responsibility to raise our voice and bring public awareness of such human-made disasters. Collectively we may avert such disasters, all peace-loving nations and individuals must join efforts to neutralize such deals and agreements. Countering China, to take such extreme actions is not justified. The US may review its decisions and avert disaster to humankind.

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Presidential Irrationality and Wrongdoing in US Nuclear Command Authority

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Credit: U.S. Air Force

Abstract: In post-World War II memory, no greater political danger has confronted the United States than the presidency of Donald J. Trump. Endowed with nuclear command authority, this unstable and openly law-violating American leader pointed the United States toward existential harms.[1] Recognizing this threat to the nation’s physical survival, General Mark Milley acted honorably and effectively to protect an imperiled republic. By expanding pertinent safeguards against any presidential abuse of nuclear command authority,[2] the Chairman of the US Joint Chiefs of Staff did what was necessary and proper. The following assessment by Professor Louis René Beres, who has been publishing on nuclear war-related issues[3] for more than half a century, underscores what should never again be allowed to defile America’s national security decision-making. “The safety of the people,” reminds Cicero in The Laws, “shall be the highest law.”

——————

“As to dangers arising from an irrational American president, the best protection is not to elect one.”

General Maxwell D. Taylor, from personal letter to the author, 14 March 1976[4]

Meanings of Decisional Irrationality

Strictly speaking, irrationality is not a proper medical or psychiatric term; rather, it is a more-or-less scientific description of human distortion and behavioral disposition.[5] Still, as a convenient shorthand for exploring mental or emotional debility in US presidential decision-making, this colloquial reference is adequate, timely and potentially useful. In essence, though now just retrospective, America’s most senior general officer revealed assorted verifiable grounds for questioning former President Donald J. Trump’s mental stability. Now, looking ahead, it is necessary to take a longer term and generic look at US presidential nuclear authority.

               This look must become a task for disciplined strategic thinkers, not politicians.

               How to begin? This uniquely critical area of presidential decision-making – one that has remained ambiguous or deliberately “opaque” – concerns both the right and capacity to order a launch of US nuclear weapons. To be tangibly meaningful, these intersecting decisional components must always be examined together. This is the case though any presidential nuclear capacity functioning without correct antecedent authority would be worrisome per se.

               By definition, as I have discovered personally over the past half century, these are all complicated intellectual matters. In 1976, then just five years out of Princeton as a newly-minted Ph.D., I began work on an original book about nuclear war and nuclear terrorism.[6]  From the start, I focused especially on US presidential prerogatives to order the firing of nuclear weapons.  I was most particularly interested in the potentially-plausible prospect of presidential nuclear irrationality and/or wrongdoing.

               In technically scientific terms, this did not mean a US president who was “clinically insane” (obviously the most fearsome sort of scenario), but “only” a Head of State who might sometime value some specific preference or combination of preferences more highly than American national survival. Today, at least until General Milley’s revelations, we worry more about leadership irrationality in certain other countries, most conspicuously in North Korea and Iran.[7] Nonetheless, as the JCS Chair recently disclosed, the worst atomic decisional errors could happen here. Even if this were not the case, there could still take place  variously unforeseen decisional synergies between (1) a fully rational American president and his irrational negotiating counterparts in Pyongyang or Tehran;[8] or (2) an irrational American president and his expectedly rational counterparts in such conspicuously adversarial states.[9]

In the Beginning

               Back “in the early days” of apocalyptic nuclear issues, and with an expressly American decision-making focus in mind, I entered into ongoing communication with then-former JCS Chairman Maxwell Taylor. In my last correspondence with the distinguished and decorated general, he responded with a handwritten letter (attached hereto) dated 14 March 1976. As the Taylor response explicitly referenced only the dangers of an “irrational American president,” I could legitimately undertake no automatic extrapolation of his diagnosis to other strategic risks.[10]

Still, there are various related hazards that ought never be disregarded prima facie.  For example, we must become better prepared to deal with a US Chief Executive who appears more than irrational. This means a president who was seemingly “crazy,” “insane,” or “mad.”[11]

               It is difficult for me to imagine that General Taylor would have hesitated to adapt these characterizations of more advanced decisional “pathology” to the extant subject-matter scope of nuclear decision making. This is the case even though such characterizations could never be seriously scientific. To obtain authentically scientific assessments of nuclear event probability, there must first exist a determinable frequency record of pertinent past events. Unassailably (and fortunately), there has never been a nuclear war from which to draw valid strategic inferences.

               There is more. Any US presidential order to launch nuclear weapons would be effectively sui generis. The US bombings of Hiroshima and Nagasaki at the end of World War II did not constitute a nuclear war, but rather the American use of nuclear weapons in an otherwise conventional war. In August 1945 (the month of my own birth in war-torn Europe), there were no other atomic bombs anywhere on earth.

               Not a one.

Whether concerned with presidential irrationality or madness, present analytic concern should be focused upon an emotionally or mentally debilitated president.[12]  Whichever applies, the truly vital questions going forward will have to do with Constitutional, statutory and other recognizable sources of US war-making authority, especially presidential right to order the use of nuclear weapons.

International Law and US Law

Urgent questions here will relate to assorted and sometimes subtle intersections of international law and US law. From the beginning of the United States, international law has been an integral part of its national law. Early on, Chief Justice John Marshall asserted and reasserted that all international law – whatever its source – had been incorporated into the domestic law of the United States.[13] Before Marshall, William Blackstone’s Commentaries on The Law of England clarified that the “law of nations” is always “a necessary part of  the law of the land.”

These Commentaries represent the authoritative foundation of all United States law.

               Under current US law, whatever its apparent jurisprudential origins, a president may correctly use military force once Congress has declared a war or after the US (and/or its citizens) have been attacked.[14] As to the permissible kinds of force and levels of force, these operational decisions would have to be determinable according to longstanding laws of war of international law (the comprehensive law of armed conflict or humanitarian international law), and also the municipal law of the United States. In any such foreseeable circumstances, there would exist no clearly identifiable prohibitions against nuclear force per se.[15]

               For better or for worse, non-weapon-specific prohibitions would apply broadly, to the extent that any US retaliation or counter-retaliation would violate the always-binding expectations of discrimination (sometimes called “distinction”), proportionality,[16] or military necessity.[17]

               Both the US Constitution and the War Powers Act place strict limits on any president’s authority to initiate hostilities with a foreign power, whether by conventional or nuclear means. A significant grey area has to do with the Commander-in- Chief’s right to strike first defensively or preemptively; that is, as a presumptive expression of “anticipatory self-defense.[18] Here, the authorizing component of permissibility must be the perception of any grave danger that is “imminent in point of time.”

               Logically, the relevant criteria of “imminence” could not reasonably be the same today as they were back in a pre-nuclear 1837. That was the year of the Caroline, the classic case setting the correct legal standard for all subsequent preemptive national action.[19]

Matters of Chronology and Crisis

               What should we have expected from former President Donald Trump if he had sometime reasoned that a nuclear attack on the United States or its allies was “imminent in point of time?” Should we have remained comfortable with leaving such a prospectively existential judgment to his own personal decisional standards of the moment? Or should this eleventh-hour option have been be a matter of more plainly shared or “concurrent authority” with the US Congress?[20]

               In actual state practice, applicable questions of law are apt to be subordinated to the overarching and ubiquitous assumption[21] that any  president’s final authority in defending the United States should never be challenged during an impending or already-ongoing crisis. This sort of assumption would become especially worrisome in circumstances where an enemy nuclear attack could be contemplated and anticipated. In brief, this means that a verifiably irrational or mad American president would likely have his military commands obeyed, up to and including an order to use nuclear weapons. This reasoning applies also to preemptive American strikes, whether launched in retaliation or counter-retaliation. It also means that while a wide variety of redundant safeguards already exists to prevent unauthorized uses of American nuclear weapons up and down the identifiable nuclear chain of command, no parallel safeguards can exist at the top or apex of this unique decisional hierarchy.

               This was the precise conclusion reached in General Maxwell Taylor’s 1976 letter to me (attached hereto) on nuclear command authority.

               There is more. It remains possible, of course, and even potentially desirable, that a presidential order to use nuclear weapons would be disobeyed at one or another recognizable level of implementation. Strictly speaking, however, as any such expression of disobedience would be “illegal,” it is not sufficiently probable or reliable in extremis atomicum. The staggering irony of actually having to hope for certain high-level instances of disobedience or chain-of-command failures ought not be too casually set aside.

               Prima facie, this irony reveals that extant US nuclear-decision safeguards are sorely and overwhelmingly inadequate.

The Best Protection Lies with the American Voter           

               Is the US nuclear presidential authority dilemma remediable in any still-promising ways? “The best protection,” I learned from General Maxwell Taylor almost fifty years ago, is “not to elect” an irrational president. But now, as such straightforward advice cannot be acted upon retroactively, the residually “best protection” must lie elsewhere Among potentially gainful sources, this suggests more vigilant statutory oversight by the Secretary of Defense, the Chairman of the Joint Chiefs of Staff, the National Security Advisor and certain select others. This oversight also includes a more predictably reliable willingness – either singly or in appropriate collaboration with the others – to disobey any presumptively irrational or insane presidential nuclear command.

               Such willingness could be correctly defended as law-enforcing under those universally binding Nuremberg Principles (1946)[22] that obligate all persons (especially senior government officials everywhere)  to resist “crimes of state.” Because war and crimes against humanity are not mutually exclusive, compliance with overriding Nuremberg Principles could become necessary not only to limit aggression, but also to prevent genocide.[23]

               Ultimately, America’s best chance of avoiding or surviving such a grievous threat could depend less upon any codified law or tangible institutions than the last-minute or impromptu courage of a handful of senior officials. Though any such estimation must be less than ideal or optimal, it may simply be “realistic.” To wit, it was the courage and insight of a single senior decision-maker, JCS Chair Mark Milley, that firmed up necessary Constitutional protections against a severely debilitated commander-in-chief.

Buttressed by national and international law, it is incumbent upon voting American citizens to act upon General Maxwell Taylor’s 1976 warning.[24] That earlier alarm, which cautioned “not to elect” a potentially “irrational” American president, should be extended to include even a potentially “insane” Commander-in-Chief. In the final analysis, however, we may not be able to rely upon prudential and law-oriented voters to effectively save the United States from itself – that is, from prospectively aberrant nuclear decision-making. In that intolerable case, all narrowly statutory or technical directions on nuclear decision making would be overtaken by  visceral expectations of American “mass.”[25]

               Then it would be too late.

 American democracy owes a sincere debt to US General Mark Milley. In the sycophancy-driven Trump world, a world of determined anti-reason, Milley’s reliance upon law and virtue was much more than merely acceptable.[26] For US national integrity and survival, it was indispensable.

But what should we do now?


[1] For informed accounts by this author of nuclear attack effects, see: Louis René Beres,  The Management of World Power: A Theoretical Analysis (1973); Louis René Beres, Transforming World Politics: The National Roots of World Peace (1975);  Louis René Beres, Apocalypse: Nuclear Catastrophe in World Politics (Chicago and London: University of Chicago Press, 1980); Louis René Beres, Mimicking Sisyphus: America’s Countervailing Nuclear Strategy ((Lexington, Mass: Lexington Books, 1983); Louis René Beres, Reason and Realpolitik: U.S. Foreign Policy and World Order (Lexington, Mass: Lexington Books, 1984); Louis René Beres, Security or Armageddon: Israel’s Nuclear Strategy (Lexington, Mass: Lexington Books, 1986); and Louis René Beres, Surviving Amid Chaos: Israel’s Nuclear Strategy (2016; 2nd ed., 2018).

[2] This expansion included urgent consultations with chiefs of the armed forces and conversations with foreign leaders concerned about Trump-induced US instabilities.

[3] These publications have been both strategic and legal in focus.

[4] General Taylor was an earlier Chairman of the US Joint Chiefs of Staff. His handwritten letter to Professor Beres follows this article and the author’s bio. On August 18, 2017, Rep. Zoe Lofgren introduced a bill to the US House of Representatives that would have required President Donald Trump to undergo a mental health examination to determine if he is emotionally stable enough to remain in office. The proposed legislation expressly invoked the 25th Amendment, a rarely-used Constitutional provision allowing the vice-president and members of the Cabinet to remove a president from office. Rep. Lofgren’s bill did not become law.

[5] “Science,” says 20th-century Spanish philosopher Jose Ortega y’Gasset in Man and Crisis, ” by which I mean the entire body of knowledge about things, whether corporeal or spiritual – is as much a work of imagination as it is of observation…. the latter is not possible without the former.”

[6] This book was published by the University of Chicago Press as Louis René Beres, Apocalypse: Nuclear Catastrophe in World Politics (1980).

[7]Irrational adversaries would likely not be deterred by the same threats directed at presumptively rational foes. On pertinent errors of correct deterrence reasoning (here regarding Iran in particular) see: Louis René Beres and General John T. Chain, “Could Israel Safely Deter a Nuclear Iran?”  The Atlantic, August 2012; and Professor Louis René Beres and General John T. Chain, “Israel and Iran at the Eleventh Hour,” Oxford University Press (OUP Blog). February 23, 2012. General Chain (USAF/ret.) served as Commander-in-Chief, U.S. Strategic Air Command (CINCSAC).

[8] Expressions of decisional irrationality could take different or overlapping forms. These include a disorderly or inconsistent value system; computational errors in calculation; an incapacity to communicate efficiently; random or haphazard influences in the making or transmittal of particular decisions; and the internal dissonance generated by any structure of collective decision-making (i.e., assemblies of pertinent individuals who lack identical value systems and/or whose organizational arrangements impact their willing capacity to act as a single or unitary national decision maker).

[9] Nuclear risks threatening US security could form an intricately interconnected network. Capable assessments of such risk must eventually include a patient search for synergies, and also for possible cascades of failures that would represent one especially serious iteration of synergy. Other risk properties that will warrant careful assessment within this genre include contagion potential and persistence.

[10] One such generally ignored risk is “playing to the audience,” that is, seeking personal popularity at the expense of national security. Accordingly, see Sophocles, Antigone, Speech of Creon, King of Thebes: “I hold despicable and always have…. anyone who puts his own popularity before his country.”

[11] Donald Trump’s presidency brings to mind those fragments of Euripides that concern tragic endings. Here we may learn from the classical playwright, “Whom God wishes to destroy, He first makes mad.” Inter alia, Greek tragedy explores the wider civil harms that any deranged “sovereign” mind can produce. Looking at the United States today, struggling with rampant “plague” and with extraordinary domestic instability, there is a still-discoverable wisdom in classical Greek tragedy.

[12] Significantly, neither the irrational/rational nor insane/sane distinction is narrowly dichotomous. There are, rather, multiple or “continuous” variations of each pairing, an indisputable fact that makes any more far-reaching psychological or legal analysis of these already-complex nuclear decision-making issues even more problematic.

[13]  See also “Supremacy Clause” of the US Constitution (Article VI); The Paquette Habana, 175 US 677,700 (1900); and Tel-Oren v. Libyan Arab Republic, 726, F.2d. 774, 781, 788 (D.C. Cir. 1984) per curiam).

[14] For the crime of aggression under international law, see: Resolution on the Definition of Aggression, adopted by the UN General Assembly, Dec. 14, 1974. U.N.G.A. Res. 3314 (XXIX), 29 UN GAOR, Supp. (No. 31), 142, UN Doc A/9631 (1975) reprinted in 13 I.L.M., 710 (1974).

[15] See, on such issues: Summary of the Legality of the Threat or Use of Nuclear Weapons (Advisory Opinion), 1996.

[16]  The principle of proportionality has its jurisprudential and philosophic origins in the Biblical Lex Talionis, the law of exact retaliation. The “eye for eye, tooth for tooth” can be found in three separate passages of the Jewish Torah, or Biblical Pentateuch.

[17] The principle of “military necessity” is defined authoritatively as follows: “Only that degree and kind of force, not otherwise prohibited by the law of armed conflict, required for the partial or complete submission of the enemy with a minimum expenditure of time, life, and physical resources may be applied.” See: United States, Department of the Navy, jointly with Headquarters, U.S. Marine Corps; and Department of Transportation, U.S. Coast Guard, The Commander’s Handbook on the Law of Naval Operations, NWP 1-14M, Norfolk, Virginia, October 1995, p. 5-1.

[18] Long before the nuclear age, Swiss scholar Emmerich de Vattel took a position in strong favor of anticipatory self-defense. Vattel concludes The Law of Nations (1758) as follows: “The safest plan is to prevent evil, where that is possible. A nation has the right to resist the injury another seeks to inflict upon it, and to use force and every other just means of resistance against the aggressor.” (See Vattel, “The Right of Self-Protection and the Effects of the Sovereignty and Independence of Nations,” reprinted in 3 Classics of International Law, 130 (Carnegie Endowment Trust 1916 (1758). Vattel, in the conspicuously earlier fashion of Dutch scholar Hugo Grotius, (The Law of War and Peace, 1625) drew widely upon ancient Hebrew Scripture and Jewish law.

[19] The Caroline concerned the unsuccessful rebellion of 1837 in Upper Canada against British rule. Following this case, the serious threat of armed attack has generally been sufficient in law to justify certain appropriate militarily defensive actions. In a formal exchange of diplomatic notes between the governments of the United States and Great Britain, then US Secretary of State Daniel Webster outlined a framework for national self-defense that did not require antecedent attack. Accordingly, the authoritative jurisprudential framework now permitted a military response to threat as long as the danger posed was “instant, overwhelming, leaving no choice of means, and no moment for deliberation.” Naturally, this standard could sometimes be more easily met in our time-compressed and prospectively apocalyptic nuclear age.

[20] Reflecting this second point-of-view, Congressman Ted W. Lieu (D, LA County) and Senator Edward J. Markey (D, Massachusetts) introduced H.R. 669 (Restricting First Use of Nuclear Weapons Act of 2017) back on 24 January 2017. Although this proposed legislation would have prohibited the president from launching a nuclear first strike without a Congressional Declaration of War, it’s not clear that it could also have dealt satisfactorily with the irrationality/insanity issues herein under discussion. Moreover, the proposed legislation seemed to make no meaningful distinction between a nuclear first-strike and a nuclear first-use. https://lieu.house.gov/media-center/press-releases/congressman-lieu-senator-markey-introduce-restricting-first-use-0

[21] In part, at least, this implicitly core assumption is rooted in our continuously-anarchic system of international relations, a decentralized structure often referred to by the professors as “Westphalian.” The reference here is to the landmark Peace of Westphalia (1648), which concluded the Thirty-Years War and created the still-extant state system. See: Treaty of Peace of Munster, Oct. 1648, 1 Consol. T.S. 271; and Treaty of Peace of Osnabruck, Oct. 1648, 1, Consol. T.S. 119. Together, these two major agreements comprise the historic “Peace of Westphalia.”

[22] See Affirmation of the Principles of International Law Recognized by the Charter of the Nuremberg Tribunal, Adopted by the UN General Assembly, 11 December 1946. Inter alia, these Principles underscore the formal jurisprudential assumption of solidarity between states. This peremptory expectation, known in formal law as a jus cogens assumption, was already evident in Justinian, Corpus Juris Civilis (533 CE); Hugo Grotius, 2 The Law of War and Peace (1625; Chapter 20); and Emmerich de Vattel, The Law of Nations (1758; Chapter 19).

[23] See Convention on the Prevention and Punishment of the Crime of Genocide, 9 December 1948; Entered into force, 12 January 1951.

[24] “The safety of the people,” Cicero warns prophetically in The Laws, “shall be the highest law.”

[25] The “mass-man,” we may learn from 20th century Spanish philosopher Jose Ortega y’Gasset The Revolt of the Masses, “learns only in his own flesh.” Seem, also, by Professor Beres, at Yale: Louis Rene Beres,  https://archive-yaleglobal.yale.edu/content/call-intellect-and-courage; and at Princeton: Louis Rene Beres: https://www.dailyprincetonian.com/article/2018/02/emptiness-and-consciousness

[26] There is no longer a virtuous nation,” warns the Irish poet William Butler Yeats, “and the best of us live by candlelight.”

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