Who would you rather have in control of America’s nuclear weapons, Skynet or Donald Trump?
Stay with me on this. In Arnold Schwarzenegger’s Terminator films, humanity is nearly eliminated when Skynet, a computer program designed to automate missile defense, “wakes up” and decides that humans are the main threat to the planet. “It used our own bombs against us. Three billion died in the nuclear fire,” hero Kyle Reese explains in the latest movie, Terminator Genisys.
In this story, despite the obvious insanity of doing so, the public overwhelmingly supported the government plan to put Skynet in charge. By contrast, in the real world, polls show that only 27 percent of Americans trust Donald Trump to make the right decisions about the use of nuclear weapons.
The nuclear issue is the only issue that moves swing white voters on Trump, according to some independent focus groups. It is not his misogyny, or racism, or bankruptcies, but his ability as president to destroy the world that gives even dedicated supporters pause.
Hillary Clinton’s campaign seems to have unearthed the same results. It is likely not an accident that she lead her June 2 speech on national security with, “This is not someone who should ever have the nuclear codes.” Her most widely-cited convention speech quip was also on nuclear responsibility: “A man you can bait with a tweet is not a man we can trust with nuclear weapons.”
But this is more than a campaign advantage. Fears of a nuclear-armed Trump have opened up a major policy opportunity for President Obama.
More people are discussing the dangers of nuclear use now than at any moment in the past six years. Thanks to Trump’s reported question to his briefers, “Why do we have nuclear weapons if we can’t use them?” millions of Americans have suddenly learned that the U.S. president can launch Armageddon without any check or balance.
Nuclear weapons policy and the king-like powers of the president to obliterate a city or a planet without debate, deliberation, or vote, are the most undemocratic aspect of our government. Congress never authorized this system and gives it little oversight. Congress devoted thousands more hours to the four who died in Benghazi than to the four billion who could die in a nuclear war.
Obama can now change that. In a policy review that is taking far too long and has suffered from far too many leaks, the president is considering several options to reducing the risks inherent in the current posture:
- First strike. He might declare America would never use a nuclear weapon first. We have overwhelming conventional military superiority over any foe or combination of foes. We don’t need to use a nuclear weapon. It would further our national security interests to discourage anyone from using a nuclear bomb against us.
- Hair trigger. He might announce that he no longer requires our military to keep almost 1000 nuclear warheads ready to launch in minutes. This serves no useful military purpose, increases the risk of accident or miscalculation, and ending this Cold War practice could allow future presidents a bit more time to reconsider the most fateful decision our nation can make than the current four-to-six minute window allows.
- The test ban. He might go to the United Nations to increase global strictures against nuclear tests. We have conducted more tests than almost all the other nuclear nations in the world combined, have no need for more, and want to stop any other country from ever testing again.
- No new nukes. He might cancel or delay some of the destabilizing new nuclear weapons he has ordered.
Republicans and the entire nuclear-industrial complex, including the defense department oppose any changes to the status quo, and so do some foreign allied defense ministries. But this has always been the case. Colin Powell writes in his autobiography how, as chairman of the Joint Chiefs of Staff, he was blocked from changing obsolete policies by the “nuclear nuts” in the Pentagon, including Dick Cheney, Paul Wolfowitz, and Richard Perle. A year later, President George H.W. Bush intervened and eliminated thousands of unnecessary weapons by executive order in September 1991.
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Obama also has built up considerable chips for this policy fight. He has launched the biggest nuclear weapons build-up in U.S. history. Just this month, three new weapons advanced in the procurement process. The new B-61 nuclear bomb was green-lighted and at an estimated $11 billion, the 400 new weapons will cost more than twice their weight in gold. The Pentagon put out a request for proposal for a new nuclear cruise missile, expected to cost up to $30 billion. The Pentagon also requested bids for a new long-range ballistic missile estimated at over $60 billion. And the Air Force’s plans for new long-range bomber moved ahead despite lawmakers concern that the service will not reveal the full budget for a program estimated to cost at least $111 billion for 100 new planes.
Obama has more than proven his dedication to nuclear contracts. He can effect change from a position of strength and will enjoy more popular support than his successor. Polls show that only 38 percent of America’s trust Clinton to make the right nuclear decisions.
Hardly inspiring, but the public’s distrust is fully warranted. It’s not just a crazy president; it’s our crazy nuclear policy that puts us at risk. There have been scores of near-misses and almost wars over the past 71 years. Nuclear analyst Jeffrey Lewis documented that in addition to the 32 accidents involving nuclear weapons between 1950 and 1980 the defense department acknowledges, there were also 1,152 “ ‘moderately serious’ false alarms between 1977 and 1984 — roughly three a week.”
No matter who is elected in November, these weapons and policies pose unacceptable dangers. Obama should do all he can to ensure that no single person will say “hasta la vista, baby” to all of human civilization.