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Donald Trump, Foreign Policy Incoherence and Inadvertent Nuclear War

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“In a surrealist year….some cool clown pressed an inedible mushroom button, and an inaudible Sunday bomb fell down, catching the president at his prayers on the 19th green.”-Lawrence Ferlinghetti, A Coney Island of the Mind (1958)

From the start of his presidency,  Donald Trump has displayed unmistakable signs of debility, venality and intellectual impoverishment. Most conspicuous, in this regard, is Mr. Trump’s evident unfamiliarity with history, diplomacy, intelligence and law. Slightly less obvious, but only if one were willfully blind to unassailable evidence, is this president’s rancorous and brittle emotional state.

Even when considered separately, these presidential liabilities are worrisome.

Taken together, however, they become palpably fearful and potentially intolerable.

This cumulative liability reaches its nadir when considered with a debilitated  president’s lawful exercise of nuclear command authority.

In principle, at least, these risks and consequences of US presidential shortcoming are generic; that is, they are not necessarily “Trump specific.” At this level, they also represent bewilderingly complex matters about which I have been lecturing and publishing for half a century. Some of my long term personal conclusions can be pried interpretively from historical examination and from certain more-or-less coinciding logical extrapolations.

In all such matters, analytic competence and confidence must stem from calculably valid assurances that both complementary operations are being carried out dispassionately, and in tandem.

The bottom line here is unhidden. Principal national security risks America currently faces as a nation are prospectively immediate and formidably existential. Such risks can be fully understood only in light of the plausible or at least conceivable intersections arising between them. This is because such critical intersections are more-or-less likely (a conclusion based on formal logic, and not on any actual history) and because some of these reinforcing intersections could sometime prove “synergistic.”

Contradicting what was first learned in the eighth grade, this means (by definition)  that the “whole” of  intersectional nuclear risk effects must be greater than the simple arithmetic sum of component “parts.”

Always, in any staggeringly complex strategic risk assessments regarding military nuclear intentions and military nuclear forces, the concept ofsynergy must be included.[1]

Always, any such necessary inclusion must be reasonable, rational and purposeful.

The only conceivable argument for a president ignoring possible effects of synergy  is that US defense policy consideration is “too complex” (i.e., intellectually bewildering) and therefore “too daunting.”

When US national security is at stake – as it is in this case – any such dismissive argument is unacceptable.

Prima facie.

How could it not be?

I have been thinking about precisely such difficult issues for fifty years. For analytic purposes, the development of my own personal conclusions about strategic national security decision-making can be summed up in the following brief paragraph:

 After four years of doctoral study at Princeton in the late 1960s, long an intellectual center of American nuclear thought (recall especially Albert Einstein and J. Robert Oppenheimer) I began to consider adding a modest personal contribution to an already evolving nuclear literatures.  By the late 1970s, I was cautiously preparing a manuscript on US nuclear strategy, and by variously disciplined processes of correct inference, on  certain corresponding risks of a nuclear war.[2]  

Already, at that early time, I was especially interested in US presidential authority to order the use of American nuclear weapons.

From day one of my studies, I learned, inter alia, that allegedly reliable safeguards had very systematically been built into all operational nuclear command/control decisions, but that these same safeguards could not be applied at the highest or presidential level. To a young scholar searching optimistically for nuclear war avoidance opportunities, this ironic disjunction didn’t make any obvious sense.  Nonetheless, within the broader context of credible nuclear deterrence requirements, there did exist a reasonable argument for accepting such a significant gap in relevant decisional protections.

For needed clarifications, I had reached out directly to retired General Maxwell D. Taylor, a former Chairman of the US Joint Chiefs of Staff. In reassuringly rapid response to my query, General Taylor sent me a detailed handwritten reply. Dated 14 March 1976, the distinguished General’s informed letter concluded presciently: “As to those dangers arising from an irrational American president, the only protection is not to elect one.”

Until recently, I had never given any extended thought to this candid and authoritative response. Today, during the increasingly problematic presidency of  Donald J. Trump, General Taylor’s 1976 warning must take on  substantially greater and more demonstrably urgent meanings. Based on ascertainable facts and logical derivations (technically called “entailments” in philosophy of science terminology) rather than on narrowly wishful thinking, we should reasonably assume that if President Trump were ever to exhibit any accessible signs of emotional instability, irrationality or openly delusional behavior, he could still order the use of American nuclear weapons. He could so this officially, legally and without any compelling expectations of  nuclear chain-of-command “disobedience.”

Still more worrisome, President Trump could become emotionally unstable, irrational or delusional, but still not exhibit such intolerable liabilities manifestly or plainly.

What then?

A corollary core question must now also come to mind:

What precise stance should be assumed by the National Command Authority (Secretary of Defense, Chairman of the Joint Chiefs of Staff, and several others) if it should ever decide to oppose an “inappropriate” presidential order to launch American nuclear weapons?

Could the National Command Authority (NCA) “save the day,” informally, by acting in an impromptu or creatively ad hoc fashion? Or should indispensable preparatory steps already have been taken, preemptively – that is, should there already be in place certain credible and effective statutory measures to (1) assess the ordering president’s reason and judgment; and (2) countermand the presumptively inappropriate or wrongful order?

 Presumptively, in US law, Article 1 (Congressional) war-declaring expectations of the Constitution aside, any presidential order to use nuclear weapons, whether issued by an apparently irrational president or by an otherwise incapacitated one, would have to be obeyed. To do otherwise, in such incomparably dire circumstances, would be illegal. Here, in other words, any chain-of-command disobedience would be impermissible on its face.

There is more. In principle, at least, US President Donald Trump could order the first use of American nuclear weapons even if this country were not under any specifically nuclear attack. In this connection –  again, in principle at least – some further strategic and legal distinctions would need to be made between a nuclear “first use” and a nuclear “first strike.”

While there exists an elementary yet markedly substantive difference between these two options, it is a distinction that candidate Donald Trump had fully failed to understand during the 2016 presidential campaign debates.

What next? Where should the American polity and government go from here on such urgent decision-making issues? To begin, a coherent and comprehensive  answer will need to be prepared for the following basic question:

If faced with any presidential order to use nuclear weapons, and not offered sufficiently appropriate corroborative evidence of any actually impending existential threat, would the  National Command Authority be: (1) be willing to disobey, and (2) be capable of enforcing such expressions of disobedience?

In any such literally unprecedented crisis-decision circumstances, all authoritative decisions could have to be made in a compressively time-urgent matter of minutes, not hours or days. As far as any useful policy guidance from the past might be concerned, there could be no scientifically valid way to assess the true probabilities of possible outcomes. This is because absolutely all scientific judgments of probability – whatever the salient issue or subject – must be based firmly upon the discernible frequency of pertinent past events.

In relevant matters of nuclear war, there are no pertinent past events. This is, of course, a markedly fortunate absence, but one that would inevitably stand in the way of rendering reliable decision-making predictions. The irony here is both conspicuous and problematic.

Still, whatever the scientific obstacles, the optimal time to prepare for any such incomparably vital US national security difficulties is now.

In the immediately specific matter of North Korea (Iran is not yet nuclear), President Trump must take special care to avoid any seat-of-the-pants analogies  (whether openly expressed or “merely” internalized) between commercial and military brinksmanship. Faced with dramatic uncertainties about his counterpart Kim Jung Un’s own expected willingness to push the escalatory envelope, the American president could sometime (suddenly and unexpectedly) find himself faced with a stark choice between outright capitulation and nuclear war.

Even for a genuinely gifted US president, any such grievously stark choice could prove paralyzing.

To avoid being placed in such a limited choice strategic environment, Mr. Trump should understand from the start that having a larger national nuclear force (a “bigger button”) in these sorts of negotiations might not bestow any critical bargaining advantages. To the contrary, it could actually generate unwarranted US presidential overconfidence and various resultant forms of decisional miscalculation. In essence, in any such wholly unfamiliar, many-sided and basically unprecedented matters, size might “count” inversely, or even not at all.

The field of international foreign policy making is not comparable to the commercial bargaining arenas of hotel construction and casino gaming. While the search for “escalation dominance” may be common to both sorts of deal-making, the cumulative costs of any corollary losses would be wholly incomparable. In brief, money or status losses in the commercial sector can never reasonably be compared to mass death or civilian dismemberment.

In  certain matters of world politics, even an  inadvertent decisional outcome could sometime be a nuclear war.

Here, whether occasioned by accident, hacking, or “simple” miscalculation, there could be absolutely no meaningful “winner,” not even for the side with the once cherished “bigger button.”

In the paroxysmal aftermath of any unintended nuclear conflict, those authoritative American decision-makers who had once accepted President Donald J. Trump’s stated preference for “attitude” over  “preparation” in strategic negotiations would question their once-visceral loyalties. But it would assuredly be too late. Most plausibly, as survivors of a previously preventable conflagration, these now-disoriented officials would merely envy the dead.

With their president, they too would have been caught unprepared on the “19th green.”


[1] See earlier, by this author, at Harvard National Security Journal (Harvard Law School): https://harvardnsj.org/2015/06/core-synergies-in-israels-strategic-planning-when-the-adversarial-whole-is-greater-than-the-sum-of-its-parts/

[2] This book was subsequently published in 1980 by the University of Chicago Press: Louis René Beres, Apocalypse: Nuclear Catastrophe in World Politics. http://www.amazon.com/Apocalypse-Nuclear-Catastrophe-World-Politics/dp/0226043606

LOUIS RENÉ BERES (Ph.D., Princeton, 1971) is Emeritus Professor of International Law at Purdue. His twelfth and most recent book is Surviving Amid Chaos: Israel's Nuclear Strategy (2016) (2nd ed., 2018) https://paw.princeton.edu/new-books/surviving-amid-chaos-israel%E2%80%99s-nuclear-strategy Some of his principal strategic writings have appeared in Harvard National Security Journal (Harvard Law School); International Security (Harvard University); Yale Global Online (Yale University); Oxford University Press (Oxford University); Oxford Yearbook of International Law (Oxford University Press); Parameters: Journal of the US Army War College (Pentagon); Special Warfare (Pentagon); Modern War Institute (Pentagon); The War Room (Pentagon); World Politics (Princeton); INSS (The Institute for National Security Studies)(Tel Aviv); Israel Defense (Tel Aviv); BESA Perspectives (Israel); International Journal of Intelligence and Counterintelligence; The Atlantic; The New York Times and the Bulletin of the Atomic Scientists.

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The 4 groups of Senate Republicans that will decide Trump’s impeachment trial

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With Senate Minority Leader Mitch McConnell pushing back the Trump impeachment trial to mid-February to make sure things cool down, Senate Republicans’ positions on the vote are far from crystallized yet. Here are the four groups of Senate Republicans, according to views and likely vote. The numbers and composition of these four groups will decide Trump’s future political faith. Which group Mitch McConnell chooses to position himself in will also be a deciding factor in the unusual and curious impeachment trial of a former US president no longer sitting in office.

Group 1: The Willing Executioners

There surely are those in the Republican Party such as Senator Mitt Romney and Senator Ben Sasse who cannot wait to give that Yea and the final boot to disgraced former President Trump, and will do that with joy and relief. Both the Utah Senator and the Nebraska Senator may be vying for the leadership spot in the Republican Party themselves but that is not the whole story. Senator Lisa Murkowski of Alaska openly said “I want him out.” This group is unlikely to reach as many as 17 Senators, however, needed for the two thirds Senate majority to convict Trump.

Group 2: The Never Give up on Trumpers

There are also those Republican Senators who will stick with Trump through thick and thin until the end – some out of conviction, but most as someone who cannot afford to alienate the Trump supporter base in their state – a supporter base which is still as strong. 

At least 21 Republican Senators are strongly opposed to voting to convict former President Trump, as reported by Newsweek. They realize that doing so would be a political suicide. Republican voters, on the whole, are unified in their belief that the presidential elections were not fair and Joe Biden did not win legitimately, with 68% of Republican voters holding the belief that the elections were “rigged”. The majority of the Republican Party constituents are Never Give up on Trumpers themselves.

Among them are Senators Cruz and Hawley. Both will fight at all cost a vote which certifies as incitement to violence and insurrection the same rhetoric they both themselves used to incite the Trump crowd. Cruz and Hawley will try to avoid at all cost the legal certification of the same rhetoric as criminal in order to avoid their own removal under the 14th Amendment, as argued already by Senator Manchin and many others.

Senator Ron Johnson even called upon Biden and Pelosi to choose between the Trump impeachment trial and the Biden new cabinet confirmation. Group 2 will fight fierce over the next weeks and you will recognize them by the public rhetoric.

Group 3: I’d really like to but I can’t be on the record for convincing a President of my own party

Then there is a large group of Republican Senators – maybe the largest – who would really like to give that Yea vote and leave Trump behind but they do not wish to go on the record as having voted to convict a US President from their own party. Some of these Senators will share their intention to vote Yea in private or off the record with the media, but when push comes to shove and the final vote, they will be hesitant and in the end will vote Nay. Senator Marco Rubio of Florida falls under Group 3.

Senator Pat Toomey of Pennsylvania is also the illustration of the average Republican Senator right now – someone who said that Trump committed “impeachable offenses” but who is not sure about convicting him through trial, so that probably means a Nay. 

The BBC quoted a New York Time’s estimate from mid-January that as many as 20 Republican Senators are open to voting to convict Trump, but it should be recalled that in the first Trump impeachment trial in 2020, several Republican Senators also shared in private and off the record that they would be willing to convict. After so much discussion, calculations and prognosis, in the end, it was only Senator Mitt Romney who broke ranks on only one of the two impeachment articles, and voted to convict.

The Capitol events, of course, are incomparable to the Ukraine impeachment saga, but it should be accounted for that the trial vote will likely take place sometime in March 2021, or two months after the Capitol events, when most of the tension and high emotion would have subsided and much of American society will be oriented towards “moving forward”. Group 3 will host the majority of Senate Republicans who in the end will decide to let it go. Most of the 21 Republican Senators who already expressed their opposition to convicting Trump actually belong to Group 3 and not Group 2 Never Give up on Trumpers.

Group 4: I am a Never Give up on Trumper but I really want to look like Group 3

And finally, there is the most interesting group of Republican Senators who are secretly a Never Give up on Trumpers but would like to be perceived as belonging to the hesitant and deliberative Group 3 – willing and outraged but unwilling to go all the way on the record to eliminate a former Republican President.

Senator Ted Cruz might move into Group 4 in terms of rhetoric. Never Give up on Trumpers will vote Nay willingly but will try to present themselves as conflicted Group 3 politicians doing it for different reasons.

Which group Mitch McConnel chooses will be the decisive factor in aligning the Senate Republican votes. McConnel himself seems to be a Group 3 Senator who, in the end, is unlikely to rally the rest of the Senators to convict Trump even though McConnel would really like Trump out of the Republican Party, once and for all. The very fact that McConnel is not in a hurry and is in fact extending the cool-off period places him in Group 3. 

Yea voters don’t need time to think about it and look at things. It took House Democrats exactly three days to get it over and done with. McConnel is quoted as willing to give time to “both sides to properly prepare”, allowing former president Trump enjoy due process. But Trump’s legal team will notice quickly that there is not much to prepare for, as they won’t find plenty of legal precedent in the jurisprudence on American Presidents’ incitement to violent insurrection for stopping the democratic certification process on an opponent who is the democratically elected President.

McConnel himself has said that he is “undecided” and that speaks volumes. He is a Group 3 Senate Republican, and with that, Group 3 will describe the mainstream Senate Republicans’ position in the impeachment trial. 

Senate Majority Leader Chuck Schumer set 8 February as the start of the impeachment trial, pushing earlier McConnel’s time frame. This is when it all starts.

It is my prediction that when all is said and done, there won’t be as many as 17 Senate Republicans to vote to convict former President Trump. Trump will walk away, but not without the political damage he has incurred himself and has also left in American political life.

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Two Ways that Trump Spread Covid-19 in U.S.

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Official White House Photo by Tia Dufour

1. Encouraging infected workers to continue working even if it infects others:

On 12 May 2020, two hundred and twenty five labor organizations signed a letter to Antonin Scalia’s son Eugene Scalia who was Donald Trump’s appointed Secretary of Labor, and it urged his Department to change its policies “that address the standards that apply under the federal U[nemployment] I[insurance] law to determine when workers remain eligible for regular state UI or P[andemic] U[nemployment] A[ssistance] if they leave work or refuse to work due to COVID-19 health and safety concerns.” In more-common language, an economist Jared Bernstein headlined in the Washington Post six days later on May 18th, “The Labor Department is forcing workers back to jobs that could make them sick” and he explained that Scalia’s Department “has issued guidance that virtually ignores health risks and encourages employers to report workers who refuse job offers [while unemployed] so their unemployment payments can be taken away. The agency is busy urging employers to snitch on ‘claimants that have turned down suitable work.’” Trump’s Labor Department ignored the labor-organizations’ letter. Then, a barista headlined at Huffpost on 22 January 2021, “I Work In A Coffee Shop In Montana. Anti-Maskers Have Made My Job Hell.” She complained that the many customers who refused to wear masks were causing her to fear working there — she was blaming those customers, but not Trump. However, Trump and his Labor Secretary were responsible and simply didn’t care about the safety of workers, such as her, and were instead encouraging employers to force these workers to stay on the job, though doing so endangered themselves and their co-workers. Millions of infected workers were infecting others because not to would cause them to become fired and could ultimately force them into homelessness. Maybe the billionaires who funded Trump’s political career profited from such exploitation of their employees, but nationally this policy helped to increase the spreading of Covid-19. Also: since so many of those bottom-of-the-totem-pole employees are Blacks and Hispanics, etc., this Trump policy helped to cause the drastically higher infection-rates that have been reported among such groups.

2. Refusing to deal with the pandemic on a national basis:

On 15 July 2020, the Washington Post headlined “As the coronavirus crisis spins out of control, Trump issues directives — but still no clear plan” and reported that, “health professionals have urged the White House to offer a disciplined and unified national message to help people who are fatigued more than five months into the crisis and resistant to changing social behaviors, such as wearing masks and keeping a distance from others. Trump, for instance, refused to be seen publicly wearing a mask until last weekend, when he sported one during a trip to Walter Reed National Military Medical Center. ‘You can get a really strong and eloquent governor who can help at the state level, but it does seem like we need some more national messaging around the fact that for many people, this is the most adversity they’ve faced in their life,’ said Marcus Plescia, chief medical officer with the Association of State and Territorial Health Officials.” Every country (such as China, Vietnam, Venezuela, South Korea, Thailand, New Zealand, and Finland) that has been far more successful than America is at having a low number of Covid-19 cases (and deaths) per million residents has dealt with the pandemic on a national and not merely local basis, but all of the worst-performing countries (such as America, which now is at 76,407 “Tot Cases/1M pop”) have not.

It therefore also stands to reason that 

which ranks all 50 states according to how high is the number of Covid-19 infections per million inhabitants, shows (and links to the data proving) that “In 2016, the top 17 [most Covid-infected states] voted for Trump, and the bottom 5 voted for Clinton. All but 3 of the top 24 voted for Trump.” The correlation of high Covid-infection-rate with Trump-voting was astoundingly high. Trump, it seems, gave the high-infection-rate states what they had wanted. But what he gave to America is the highest Covid-19 infection-rate of any nation that has at least 11 million population. It is the 7th-highest Covid-19 infection-rate among all 219 reporting nations. Trump’s policies produced the type of results that had been expected by well-informed people around the world.

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A Most Unusual Inaugural

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President Joe Biden and his wife Dr. Jill Biden enter the inauguration platform during the 59th Presidential Inauguration ceremony in Washington, Jan. 20, 2021. President Joe Biden and Vice President Kamala Harris took the oath of office on the West Front of the U.S. Capitol. (DOD Photo by Navy Petty Officer 1st Class Carlos M. Vazquez II)

Sic transit gloria mundi — thus passes worldly glory, which seems an apt phrase for the peaceful transition of power from one administration to the next.

Joseph Robinette Biden, Jr. became the 46th president of the United States at noon on January 20th, and earlier  Donald J. Trump departed the White House quietly for Florida — his last ride on Air Force One as president — leaving behind a generous and gracious letter for Biden.  So it is described by Joe Biden himself.  Trump did not attend the inauguration, the first president not to do so since Woodrow Wilson in 1921, who remained inside the Capitol building because of poor health while his successor Warren G. Harding was installed.

It was a most unusual inauguration this time.  There were no crowds on the lawns outside; instead row upon row of American flags representing them.  The official attendees all wore masks and included three former Presidents (Obama, the younger Bush and Clinton).  President Carter, who is in his 90s and frail, sent his apologies. 

The usual late breakfast before the ceremony and the lunch afterwards were also cancelled — one cannot eat with a mask in place!  No evening inaugural balls either.  These were sometimes so many that the new president and his lady could only spend a few minutes at each.  In their stead, there was a virtual inaugural celebration hosted by Tom Hanks the actor.  It consisted mostly of pop-singers who supported Biden plus a disappointing rendering of Amazing Grace by Yo-Yo Ma on his cello. 

Biden’s first act was to sign a series of executive orders to undo some of Trump’s policies.  He announced the U.S. would not leave the World Health Organization (WHO) and would continue to contribute to it.  On climate change a complete policy reversal now means the U.S. will abide by the Paris climate accord.   

Biden’s other executive orders totalling 15 responded to the coronavirus crisis with the goal of giving 100 million vaccine shots by the end of April.  He proposes to establish vaccine centers at stadiums and community facilities and also plans to speed up production of the supplies required for making vaccines.

The U.S. now has lost 406,000 lives (and counting) from COVID-19.  That number is noted to be greater than U.S. deaths during WW2.  The virus has so far infected 24.5 million people.  However, the problem is more complicated than simply inoculating everyone.

Swedish authorities report that 23 people, mostly elderly and having other health issues, have died after being given the Pfizer vaccine.  Its side effects apparently can be severe and mimic the disease itself.  Thus given a choice, one would prefer the Moderna vaccine.  

Old age is a poignant sight to behold.  Biden the ex high school football star now having difficulty lifting his feet to walk.  Very gamely, he even tried a jog or two to say a quick hello to bystanders during his short walk to the White House.  We wish him well and hope for a successful presidential term.  Thirty-six years as senator and eight years as vice-president certainly make him one of the most experienced to sit in the White House Oval Office.   Good luck Mr. President!  

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