Reprinted with permission from Creators.
Every home should have some essential items around in case of a disaster or another emergency — including canned goods, bottled water, spare batteries and a first-aid kit. But in 2017, every American should also have at hand an answer to one question: What would you do if you had only half an hour to live?
A nuclear-tipped intercontinental ballistic missile launched from North Korea would take about 30 to 40 minutes to reach its target in the United States. North Korea has tested such missiles, and it may also have nuclear warheads small enough to be carried across the Pacific.
That’s not the worst news. The worst news is that Donald Trump is president, with the power to initiate a nuclear exchange. Should Kim Jong Un go over the line in his insults and threats, our president might have a tantrum and decide to nuke North Korea. And there is no reason to believe anyone would stop him.
The consequences would redefine the term “cataclysmic.” When Trump threatened to unleash “fire and fury like the world has never seen,” he probably had only a vague idea of what a nuclear strike would do. Millions of North Koreans would instantly be killed or injured. North Korea, however, might be able to launch its missiles before ours arrived, dooming any number of American cities and their inhabitants.
In our system of government, the president can do very few things without the assent of others. He can’t make laws. He can’t spend money. He can’t install Cabinet officers. He can’t fill a court vacancy. He can’t ban Muslims from traveling here.
As Trump has discovered to his disgust, he can’t even deploy law enforcement agencies to persecute political opponents. These mechanisms were devised to constrain the president from making hasty, ill-considered decisions or abusing his power.
But on the most consequential matter imaginable, the chief executive is unconstrained. He can order a nuclear launch with good reasons, bad reasons or no reasons. He alone has the codes required to start the countdown to Armageddon. Once the order is sent down the chain of command, it is supposed to be executed.
It may be hoped that some officer down the line would refuse — emulating Denzel Washington’s defiance of his submarine commander in “Crimson Tide.” At a Senate hearing Tuesday, retired Air Force Gen. Robert Kehler said the head of U.S. Strategic Command, a job he once held, could disobey an order he or she deems illegal.
But Bruce Blair, a Princeton security scholar and former nuclear missile launch officer, wrote recently in The Washington Post, “I believe the nuclear commanders at all levels would obey such an order, despite deep misgivings about its wisdom and legality.”
Placing all power with the president may have made sense in the days when strategists worried that the Soviet Union would wipe out our nuclear arsenal with a surprise attack. In that instance, the president would have been under intense pressure to launch in response while the enemy missiles were still in the air, with no time to consult Congress.
But those days are gone. Even if North Korea were to mount a nuclear strike, there would be no need to respond immediately. The president could take as much time as he wanted, consult with generals and security advisers, and even request authorization from Congress before proceeding to the task of making mushroom clouds. He could also choose not to.
Leaving complete authority to vaporize entire cities in the hands of one person has always been a risk. Richard Nixon once bragged, “I can go in my office and pick up a telephone, and in 25 minutes, millions of people will be dead.” But Trump gives it new urgency.
Some members of Congress propose putting the nuclear football in a vault and keeping one of two keys needed to open it. Sen. Ed Markey, D-Mass., and Rep. Ted Lieu, D-Calif., have introduced legislation requiring the president to get a declaration of war from Congress before ordering a first strike (though not a retaliatory strike).
Maybe Trump won’t succumb to the temptation to press the ultimate button. Maybe if he does, someone will intervene to foil him. Maybe our luck will hold. It’s a big gamble to leave this decision solely with him or any other fallible individual. And if we lose the bet? Well, it’s not the end of the world.
Steve Chapman blogs at http://www.chicagotribune.com/news/opinion/chapman. Follow him on Twitter @SteveChapman13 or at https://www.facebook.com/stevechapman13. To find out more about Steve Chapman and read features by other Creators Syndicate writers and cartoonists, visit the Creators Syndicate website at www.creators.com.