You may have missed it. Perhaps you dozed off. Or wandered into the kitchen to grab a snack. Or by that point in the proceedings were checking out Seinfeld reruns. During the latter part of the much hyped but excruciating-to-watch first presidential debate, NBC Nightly News anchor Lester Holt posed a seemingly straightforward but cunningly devised question. His purpose was to test whether the candidates understood the essentials of nuclear strategy.
A moderator given to plain speaking might have said this: “Explain why the United States keeps such a large arsenal of nuclear weapons and when you might consider using those weapons.”
What Holt actually said was: “On nuclear weapons, President Obama reportedly considered changing the nation’s longstanding policy on first use. Do you support the current policy?”
The framing of the question posited no small amount of knowledge on the part of the two candidates. Specifically, it assumed that Donald Trump and Hillary Clinton each possess some familiarity with the longstanding policy to which Holt referred, and with the modifications that Obama had contemplated making to it.
If you will permit the equivalent of a commercial break as this piece begins, let me explain why I’m about to parse in detail each candidate’s actual answer to Holt’s question. Amid deep dives into, and expansive punditry regarding, issues like how “fat” a former Miss Universe may have been and how tall an imagined future wall on our southern border might prove to be, national security issues likely to test the judgment of a commander-in-chief have received remarkably little attention. So indulge me. This largely ignored moment in last week’s presidential debate is worth examining.
With regard to the issue of “first use,”every president since Harry Truman has subscribed to the same posture: The United States retains the prerogative of employing nuclear weapons to defend itself and its allies against even nonnuclear threats. In other words, as a matter of policy, the United States rejects the concept of “no first use,” which would prohibit any employment of nuclear weapons except in retaliation for a nuclear attack. According to press reports, President Obama had toyed with but then rejected the idea of committing the United States to a “no first use” posture. Holt wanted to know where the two candidates aspiring to succeed Obama stood on the matter.
Cruelly, the moderator invited Trump to respond first. The look in the Republican nominee’s eyes made it instantly clear that Holt could have been speaking Farsi for all he understood. A lesser candidate might then have begun with the nuclear equivalent of “What is Aleppo?“
Yet Trump being Trump, he gamely—or naively—charged headlong into the ambush that Holt had carefully laid, using his allotted two minutes to offer his insights into how as president he would address the nuclear conundrum that previous presidents had done so much to create. The result owed less to early Cold War thinkers-of-the-unthinkable like Herman Kahn or Albert Wohlstetter, who created the field of nuclear strategy, than to Dr. Strangelove—make that Dr. Strangelove on meth.
Trump turned first to Russia, expressing concern that it might be gaining an edge in doomsday weaponry. “They have a much newer capability than we do,” he said. “We have not been updating from the new standpoint.” The American bomber fleet in particular, he added, needs modernization. Presumably referring to the recent employment of Vietnam-era bombers in the wars in Afghanistan, Iraq, and Syria, he continued somewhat opaquely, “I looked the other night. I was seeing B-52s, they’re old enough that your father, your grandfather, could be flying them. We are not—we are not keeping up with other countries.”
Trump then professed an appreciation for the awfulness of nuclear weaponry. “I would like everybody to end it, just get rid of it. But I would certainly not do first strike. I think that once the nuclear alternative happens, it’s over.”
Give Trump this much: Even in a field that tends to favor abstraction and obfuscating euphemisms like “fallout”or “dirty bomb,”classifying Armageddon as the “nuclear alternative” represents something of a contribution.
Still, it’s worth noting that, in the arcane theology of nuclear strategy, “first strike”and “first use”are anything but synonymous. “First strike” implies a one-sided, preventive war of annihilation. The logic of a first strike, such as it is, is based on the calculation that a surprise nuclear attack could inflict the “nuclear alternative” on your adversary while sparing your own side from suffering a comparable fate. A successful first strike would be a one-punch knockout, delivered while your opponent still sits in his corner of the ring.
Yet whatever reassurance was to be found in Trump’s vow never to order a first strike—not the question Lester Holt was asking—was immediately squandered. The Republican nominee promptly revoked his “no first strike” pledge by insisting, in a cliché much favored in Washington, that “I can’t take anything off the table.”
Piling non sequitur upon non sequitur, he next turned to the threat posed by a nuclear-armed North Korea, where “we’re doing nothing.” Yet, worrisome as this threat might be, keeping Pyongyang in check, he added, ought to be Beijing’s job. “China should solve that problem for us,” Trump insisted. “China should go into North Korea. China is totally powerful as it relates to North Korea.”
If China wouldn’t help with North Korea, however, what could be more obvious than that Iran, many thousands of miles away, should do so—and might have, if only President Obama had incorporated the necessary proviso into the Iran nuclear deal. “Iran is one of their biggest trading partners. Iran has power over North Korea.” When the Obama administration “made that horrible deal with Iran, they should have included the fact that they do something with respect to North Korea.” But why stop with North Korea? Iran “should have done something with respect to Yemen and all these other places,” Trump continued, wandering into the nonnuclear world. US negotiators suitably skilled in the Trumpian art of the deal, he implied, could easily have maneuvered Iran into solving such problems on Washington’s behalf.
Veering further off course, Trump took a passing swipe at Secretary of State John Kerry: “Why didn’t you add other things into the deal?” Why, in “one of the great giveaways of all time,” did the Obama administration fork over $400 million in cash? At which point he promptly threw in another figure without the slightest explanation—”It was actually $1.7 billion in cash”—in “one of the worst deals ever made by any country in history.”
Trump then wrapped up his meandering tour d’horizon by decrying the one action of the Obama administration that arguably has reduced the prospect of nuclear war, at least in the near future. “The deal with Iran will lead to nuclear problems,” Trump stated with conviction. “All they have to do is sit back 10 years, and they don’t have to do much. And they’re going to end up getting nuclear.” For proof, he concluded, talk to the Israelis: “I met with Bibi Netanyahu the other day,” he added for no reason in particular. “Believe me, he’s not a happy camper.”
On this indecipherable note, his allotted time exhausted, Trump’s recitation ended. In its way, it had been a Joycean performance.
It was now Clinton’s turn to show her stuff. If Trump had responded to Holt like a voluble golf caddy being asked to discuss the finer points of ice hockey, Hillary Clinton chose a different course: She changed the subject. She would moderate her own debate. Perhaps Trump thought Holt was in charge of the proceedings; Clinton knew better.
What followed was vintage Clinton: vapid sentiments, smoothly delivered in the knowing tone of a seasoned Washington operative. During her two minutes, she never came within a country mile of discussing the question Holt had asked, or the thoughts she evidently actually has about nuclear issues.
“[L]et me start by saying, words matter,” Clinton began. “Words matter when you run for president. And they really matter when you are president. And I want to reassure our allies in Japan and South Korea and elsewhere that we have mutual defense treaties and we will honor them.”
It was as if Clinton were already speaking from the Oval Office. Trump had addressed his remarks to Lester Holt. Clinton directed hers to the nation at large, to people the world over, indeed to history itself. Warming to her task, she was soon rolling out the sort of profundities that play well at the Brookings Institution, the Carnegie Endowment, or the Council on Foreign Relations, causing audiences to nod—or nod off.
“It is essential that America’s word be good,” Clinton continued. “And so I know that this campaign has caused some questioning and worries on the part of many leaders across the globe. I’ve talked with a number of them. But I want to—on behalf of myself, and I think on behalf of a majority of the American people, say that, you know, our word is good.”
Then, after inserting a tepid, better-than-nothing endorsement of the Iran deal, she hammered Trump for not offering an alternative. “Would he have started a war? Would he have bombed Iran?” If you’re going to criticize, she pointed out, you need to offer something better. Trump never does, she charged. “It’s like his plan to defeat ISIS. He says it’s a secret plan, but the only secret is that he has no plan.”
With that, she reverted to platitudes. “So we need to be more precise in how we talk about these issues. People around the word follow our presidential campaigns so closely, trying to get hints about what we will do. Can they rely on us? Are we going to lead the world with strength and in accordance with our values? That’s what I intend to do. I intend to be a leader of our country that people can count on, both here at home and around the world, to make decisions that will further peace and prosperity, but also stand up to bullies, whether they’re abroad or at home.”
Like Trump, she offered no specifics. Which bullies? Where? How? In what order? Would she start with Russia’s Putin? North Korea’s Kim Jong-Un? Perhaps Rodrigo Duterte of the Philippines? How about Turkey’s Recep Tayyip Erdogan? Or Bibi?
In contrast to Trump, however, Clinton did speak in complete sentences. She thereby came across as at least nominally qualified to govern the country, much like, say, Warren G. Harding nearly a century ago. And what worked for Harding in 1920 may well work for Clinton in 2016.
Of Harding’s speechifying, H.L. Mencken wrote at the time, “It reminds me of a string of wet sponges.” Mencken characterized Harding’s rhetoric as “so bad that a sort of grandeur creeps into it. It drags itself out of the dark abysm of pish, and crawls insanely up the topmost pinnacle of posh. It is rumble and bumble. It is flap and doodle. It is balder and dash.” So, too, with Hillary Clinton. She is our Warren G. Harding. In her oratory, flapdoodle and balderdash live on.
If I’ve taxed your patience by recounting this non-debate and non-discussion of nuclear first use, it’s to make a larger point. The absence of relevant information elicited by Lester Holt’s excellent question speaks directly to what has become a central flaw in this entire presidential campaign: the dearth of attention given to matters basic to US national security policy.
In the nuclear arena, the issue of first use is only one of several on which anyone aspiring to become the next commander-in-chief should be able to offer an informed judgment. Others include questions such as these:
- What is the present-day justification for maintaining the US nuclear “triad,” a strike force consisting of manned bombers and land-based ballistic missiles and submarine-launched ballistic missiles?
- Why is the Pentagon embarking upon a decades-long, trillion-dollar program to modernize that triad, fielding a new generation of bombers, missiles, and submarines along with an arsenal of new warheads? Is that program necessary?
- How do advances in non-nuclear weaponry—for example, in the realm of cyberwarfare—affect theories of nuclear deterrence devised by the likes of Kahn and Wohlstetter during the 1950s and 1960s? Does the logic of those theories still pertain?
Beyond the realm of nuclear strategy, there are any number of other security-related questions about which the American people deserve to hear directly from both Trump and Clinton, testing their knowledge of the subject matter and the quality of their judgments. One in particular screams out for attention. Consider it the question that Washington has declared off-limits: What lessons should be drawn from America’s costly and disappointing post-9/11 wars and how should those lessons apply to future policy?
With Election Day now merely a month away, there is no more reason to believe that such questions will receive serious consideration than to expect Trump to come clean on his personal finances or Clinton to release the transcripts of her handsomely compensated Goldman Sachs speeches.
When outcomes don’t accord with his wishes, Trump reflexively blames a “rigged” system. But a system that makes someone like Trump a finalist for the presidency isn’t rigged. It is manifestly absurd—a fact that has left most of the national media grasping wildly for explanations (albeit none that tag them with having facilitated the transformation of politics into theater).
I’ll take a backseat to no one in finding Trump unfit to serve as president. Yet beyond the outsized presence of one particular personality, the real travesty of our predicament lies elsewhere—in the utter shallowness of our political discourse, no more vividly on display than in the realm of national security.
What do our presidential candidates talk about when they don’t want to talk about nuclear war? The one, in a vain effort to conceal his own ignorance, offers rambling nonsense. The other, accustomed to making her own rules, simply changes the subject. The American people thereby remain in darkness. On that score, Trump, Clinton, and the parties they represent are not adversaries. They are collaborators.
Andrew Bacevich is the author, most recently, of America’s War for the Greater Middle East: A Military History, which has been longlisted for the National Book Award.