The fifth debate took place at the Venetian Hotel in Las Vegas last December 15, about fifteen weeks ago, with nine candidates in prime time. Donald Trump was center stage, flanked by Ben Carson (then a contender, now Trump’s supporter) and Ted Cruz (now Trump’s main challenger). The other eight candidates were Jeb Bush and Carly Fiorina, both now for Cruz, and Chris Christie, now for Trump, and John Kasich, still in the race. Rand Paul has not endorsed.
Radio talk show host Hugh Hewitt asked Trump what leg of the supposedly outdated nuclear triad was most crucial to update. Trump did not answer but instead talked about his opposition to the Iraq war and the importance of limiting nuclear proliferation. He concluded: “I think for me nuclear — the power, the devastation is very important to me.”
Donald Trump obviously did now know what the nuclear triad is. It is the three components of the strategic nuclear arsenal of the United States. — land-based missiles, bomber aircraft, and submarine launched missiles.
The intercontinental ballistic missiles (ICBMs) were based on land, in fixed silos or, in some cases, supposedly movable to different locations. There were questions of reliability and targeting. One disadvantage was that the missiles could not be recalled.
This was not true of the strategic bombers, that were mainly land based but also could be carried based. Pilots could be asked to change targets or turn around altogether. But the aircraft were more vulnerable at their base to Soviet attack, and slower in their mission, and perhaps exposed in the air. One has images of the colorful Gen. Curtis LeMay, a Barry Goldwater supporter in 1964; Gen. LeMay once headed the Strategic Air Command.
Finally, there was the uniquely American innovation —nuclear missiles launched from nuclear submarines. We might think of the legendary Hyman Rickover, who fought against the Pentagon naysayers to develop the nuclear subs, which could remain underwater for months. Some nuclear submarines were always at sea, just as perhaps one-third of the SAC bombers might be airborne at any time.
Surviving a first strike was part of the American deterrent. Even if somehow the bombers and missiles on the ground were destroyed, there was enough bomber capability in the air and missile capability underwater to destroy the Soviet Union. This was part of the doctrine of mutually assured destruction (MAD) to deter the Soviets from attacking the United States.
I learned all this in high school when the debate topic for the National Forensics League was: “Resolved, that nuclear weapons should be controlled by an international organization.” For the bulk of the Cold War, the triad was the cornerstone of our national defense. But the triad is not a mystical and arcane concept, like asking Trump to name the last three leaders of a small country in Africa.
It’s hard to imagine anyone running for president (except maybe Bernie Sanders) who doesn’t know what the triad is.
I should have mentioned that Marco Rubio also was in that Las Vegas debate that night. He did quite well. He also explained to Donald Trump what the nuclear triad is. A tutoring lesson by the pedantic Marco Rubio no doubt did not sit well with Mr. Trump, and he likely plotted his revenge. A couple of months later the frontrunner was referring to Sen. Rubio condescendingly as “Little Marco.” Precisely three months after the Las Vegas debate, Marco Rubio suspended his campaign, the night (March 15) he lost the Florida primary.
Perhaps Donald Trump learned the wrong lesson from the exchange. Marco Rubio’s campaign collapsed not because he knew about the nuclear triad, but despite his fluency in issues. And Donald Trump did not win primaries because he was unaware of the nuclear triad, but despite his lack of knowledge.
The nuclear triad question should have been a wake-up call for Trump. Instead, he has continued to wing it on foreign policy. In that Las Vegas debate he properly worried aloud about nuclear proliferation. But this week he seemed to suggest that Japan in the Far East and Saudi Arabia in the Middle East should get nukes. What does he think other countries would do? They would also get nuclear weapons. Greater instability would increase the likelihood of conflict and war, and put the U.S. at risk.
Trump makes it up as he goes along. Recently he has gone into the big leagues — before two formidable editorial boards — the Washington Post and the New York Times. The transcripts of both meetings show not that he differed with his hosts on policy but that he was unprepared for the meetings. Why would his campaign manager, who accompanied him, enable this charade? What about the campaign’s communications director Hope Hicks, or others on Trump’s campaign team? Absent the most basic knowledge of foreign affairs and national defense, there was no reason for Trump to do the meetings. Trump’s reaction should have been to his campaign manager, “Why did you schedule this? Why did you let me schedule it? Why didn’t anyone prepare me?…You’re fired!”
Trump scores points and resonates not just with Republicans but also with independents and some Democrats, but after he has made the sale, he enables buyer’s remorse. For example, Trump plausibly argues: (a) The U.S. should wage war only in self-interest, and to win, not for nation-building; (b) the U.S. should expediently deal with bad actors (Assad in Syria) to defeat worse actors (ISIS); (c) as commander in chief, he won’t “put all our cards on the table” but keep the bad guys guessing; (d) our allies — Japan, Korea, and others — spend too little on defense, and the U.S. is stuck with the tab; (e) NATO may be outmoded, and NATO nations should contribute more toward their defense.
Then, for no reason in particular, Trump gets off message.
Trump correctly opposed Obama’s Iran nuclear deal, which will stimulate a regional conventional arms race, and possibly nuclear, as well. That’s why it’s silly for Trump to talk about Saudi Arabia getting nuclear weapons. And the North Korean nuclear capability is because Bill Clinton gave away the store to North Korea, and three administrations — his, George W. Bush’s, and Barack Obama’s —facilitated Kim Jong-il’s pursuit of nukes. Just yesterday, North Korea did another missile test.
Kim is a nut. But that’s what Trump doesn’t get. The U.S. has opposed nuclear proliferation for many reasons, including that smaller nations are unstable, and the nuclear capability could fall into the wrong hands, whether a change of regime or terrorist groups. And there is the problem of safety and nuclear accidents, or miscalculation and an unintended nuclear launch. Simply put, the U.S.-USSR model of MAD probably does not apply.
Trump is fortunate that Hillary Clinton says foreign leaders are calling her in dismay about Trump. Trump’s base feels most of these “foreign leaders” are not friends of America, that they are socialists or dictators, or both, or they are bad trade partners, or allies who don’t pay their fair share, or just plain anti-American. At best, they may show a bizarre lack of judgment — case in point, German Chancellor Angela Merkel, who with other European leaders, is determined to increase the Muslim population of Europe, despite security concerns and the lack of assimilation or, even worse, despite the radical Islamist goal to transform Europe into an Islamic continent governed by Sharia.
Trump thus makes a point that NATO, if not obsolete, is dated. Its mission to counter the Soviet Union and Soviet bloc is off by a quarter of a century. Trump allowed Hillary and others to make this charge: that in the aftermath of Brussels, Trump is irresponsible, because NATO should be stronger. Trump lacks the substance to complete his syllogism: Brussels shows the potential threat from a growing Fifth Column within the European Union.
Trump refuses to read up on issues. He won’t devote time to serious briefings. His meeting yesterday in Washington with his “national security team” was an anticlimactic prop that took him away from Wisconsin, where he is in trouble, mainly due to his self-inflicted wounds on national television. Instead, a foreign policy/national security expert could be educating and briefing him daily, even on his campaign plane.
It was just a month ago that Trump said he would do waterboarding “or worse.” That was at the eleventh debate in Detroit March 3. “They’re chopping off heads,” Trump repeated, as an appealing justification for extraordinary means. Last year Trump repeatedly raised the straw man, that people criticized “my tone… when they are drowning people in cages and throwing them off roofs.” Of course, the criticism of his tone was not his rage toward ISIS and Islamo-fascism, but his tone toward his fellow candidates and some journalists.
Many Americans agreed with Trump’s approach on terrorism, even if he did not know the difference between the terrorists held at Guantanamo and military prisoners from a nation-state. But Trump didn’t stop while he was ahead. He had to go further — the U.S. should go after the families of terrorists. Even when told this violated international law, and he was asked how the military could carry out an illegal order, he responded in the debate: “If I say do it, they’re going to do it.” The next day he had to retract this statement that reflected ignorance of how the U.S. military works, and which also revealed his own hubris. One of his foreign policy team, a retired military officer, gave Trump an urgent dose of reality, and consequently a carefully worded brief statement the next morning disowned the prior evening Trumpism.
Apparently not a learning experience at all, it was for Trump immediately back to business as usual — giving as many speeches and interviews as possible (allowing no time to get up to speed on macro-issues or daily updating) without knowing what he is talking about. Trump thinks, or at least acts like, he is a talking head for the candidate. But he is the candidate, not an unprepared spin artist who can be replaced by someone more informed and articulate. And Trump’s “tone” raises recurring questions about his temperament and whether and how he could function as president, not pissed off protester-in-chief. He doesn’t really understand politics, or he would know his conduct is not GITMO waterboarding, but the slow water torture of eroding his once solid base, and alienating potential new supporters, as he, inexplicably self-destructive, keeps making a fool of himself, as if he doesn’t want the nomination or the presidency. Most recently, he even celebrated trivial pursuits, involving wife-photo tweets, and juvenile “Lyin’ Ted started it” — all this during what should have been a momentous and pivotal week for him, if not the Republican Party, when Brussels should have been the centerpiece of Trump’s campaign, not to mention Obama’s self-humiliation in Cuba and Argentina.
Except for Trump’s prepared AIPAC speech, Trump has shown no growth in foreign policy and national defense, even after he retracted his pledge to give the military those orders that are illegal. This pledge was an egregious mistake, but apparently not a humbling experience for the candidate who would rather talk about polls than policy. In the month since, instead of showing depth, we see more of the same.
Perhaps the foreign policy meeting in Washington yesterday was partly for show, a demonstration of seriousness hardly apparent in Trump’s casual pronouncements on assorted trivial issues like nuclear policy. Trump says that’s why he was in Washington — to meet with his national defense advisers, actually an odd time because a nuclear proliferation conference was in town at the same time. But more likely he was in town at the urging of his new consultant, Paul Manafort, a veteran of national convention infighting, who wanted Trump to meet face to face with Reince Priebus at the Republican National Committee. This is Trump’s belated recognition (of what Manafort knows): if Trump can’t win on the first ballot, many of his pledged delegates would leave him.
If Trump loses Wisconsin on Tuesday, he could fall short of a majority to win on the first ballot. That means an open convention. Trump needs to understand that Paul Manafort is only a technician. He can help before and during Cleveland for Trump’s team to maneuver the labyrinth of state delegate rules, and plot how to identify delegates who are hard-Trump, hard-Cruz, and so forth, and to game the permutations of convention rules changes and delegate switching. But Manafort is not the candidate, Trump is.