Oh goodie. We’re going to have to spend the next four years (at least, maybe) trying to read between the characters of a presidential tweet to figure out what Donald J. Trump, billionaire-president, means or is trying to say.
It’ll be a little like Kremlinology, and trying to figure out who is in and who is out by seeing which Communist Party figures are in and which ones are out by where they stand stand in relation to the General Secretary in the May Day Parade reviewing stand atop Lenin’s Tomb.
(Yeah, I’m old.)
So, Trump said this:
And, apparently, Russian President Vladimir Putin said something similar, noting a need for his country to “strengthen the military potential of strategic nuclear forces, especially with missile complexes that can reliably penetrate any existing and prospective missile defense systems.”
This has some people I know wondering whether or not we’re going to be going back to the days of “duck and cover” drills when we all worried about “The Bomb” (please note: I’ve never stopped worrying, since it’s never gone away, which is why I take relations with Russia so very seriously) and wondered if Ronald Reagan was going to press the button or not.
And whether we will be going back to the time when U.S. factories churned out an H-Bomb or two a day. Make America great again!
First, let me recommend that everyone calm down a bit. The weapons producing infrastructures of both the United States and Russia have taken quite a hit in the last 25 years — Hanford, where the U.S. produced the bulk of its plutonium 239 (the kaboomable kind needed for both plain old A-Bombs and city-busting H-Bombs), has long been closed and turned into an EPA superfund site and a national grassland. While the Obama administration has wanted (and budgeted) to get the United States back into plutonium production, that is still some time away, and what supplies exist on hand are scavenged from old weapons and reclaimed from spent reactor fuel rods.
The same is true of tritium, the fuel needed to make proper fusion bombs. There is enough to keep the slow upgrade program going on the current arsenal of U.S. nuclear weapons, but not enough tritium to produce any new thermonuclear bombs.
Russia is in a similar situation regarding its nuclear weapons complex. Neither superpower (sic) is in a position to mass produce nuclear weapons. It’s not 1982 again.
While Putin’s words are measured and the reasonable talk of a national leader (more like something Obama would say and do), Trump’s require some interpreting. Because it’s not entirely clear what he is saying.
There’s a charitable reading of “until such time as the world comes to its senses regarding nukes,” the reading that has Trump eventually seeking disarmament along the lines of the infamous “Walk in the Woods” or the near-elimination of ballistic missiles at the 1986 Reykjavik Summit between President Ronald Reagan and Soviet leader Mikhail Gorbachev.
The charitable reading has “until the world comes to its senses” meaning until nation states and their leaders decide that nuclear weapons aren’t needed anymore, no one will want them, and everyone will beat their nuclear swords into plowshares. (Though, hopefully, not like this.)
In this, Trump is a Reagan figure, using his bluster for more as a way of negotiating for less. And yes, this is a real strategy and is actually worked. A lot better than, say, the Nuclear Freeze. It is also suggests that Trump believes in eventual total nuclear disarmament or something like it.
Yes, this is the charitable reading. It may be true, for all we know.
But there is a darker reading of “until the world comes to its senses.” Trump believes in force, in the willingness to make threats and keep them. His understanding of statecraft is that it isn’t much difference than being a street thug, or a mob boss. If someone is causing a problem, or attacking you, or generally being disorderly and unpleasant, it’s because they aren’t properly afraid of you. Fear is a necessary component of rule, and the willingness to follow through is essential.
In this, Trump echoes a lot of conservatives who believe that a failure to be strong, make threats, and follow through on those threats has given us the uncertain world we live in today where Daesh rules a diminishing portion of the desert between Syria and Iraq and angry Muslim immigrants drive trucks into crowds. The world coming to its senses is an acknowledgment of American power and supremacy — made flesh in the W88 and its brethren, the ultimate and most serious threat we could make.
War, for these folks, is a form of communication. (It was for these folks too.) It communicates toughness and resolve. Building more nuclear weapons is a sign of resolution, a way to tell the world, “we mean business … don’t mess with us.”
A world that has come to its senses will behave itself, will understand how tough and resolute we are, won’t attack us, and its angry young men wont blow themselves up.
I think Trump’s wrong. George W. Bush was more than willing to make threats and follow through, and it got us … just about nothing. Except the mess along the Euphrates we live with today. Obama made his fair share of war, most of it has resulted in chaos and disaster, too.
I wrote this piece more than a decade ago about comments Paul Harvey made during the height of the war in Iraqi. “With all this power at our disposal, with all our missiles and planes, why are people still resisting us? Why aren’t we winning? Why haven’t we already won?” Harvey asked, plaintively, angrily, despairingly, and quite honestly. It is very much the question, I think, hardened into almost incoherent rage, that animates many Americans now.
After more than a decade of war, after bombs and assassinations and invasions and trillions of dollars, why haven’t we won yet?
Because some people, some groups, cannot be deterred. They are willing to fight, to kill and die, for truth, for family, for home, for honor, because of our power, and not in spite of it. War is not a form of communication in which one expresses one’s seriousness, resolve, and willingness to inflict pain, suffering, and death. The North Vietnamese should have taught us THAT. The only response, IF you believe the cause is just and the war is right, is to kill your enemy until they run out of resolve.
And even then, there is no victory for us to win. Or we would have won it already.
Trump may understand this. He’s not a learned man, but I will grant him some serious smarts. He’s running rings around us, won the presidency, and I suspect gets a lot more than he lets on. (It is, after all, a good business strategy to play dumb, especially when your opponents think themselves too clever by half.) He’ll have successes in imposing his will upon the world.
But reality has a way of resisting the human will. So do other human beings.