The New York Times Editorial board suggested Thursday that President Donald Trump shouldn’t have nuclear weapons, but used several inaccuracies to make the case.
To start, the article was, at least in part, inspired by a report senior members of the Trump administration have declared “absolutely false.” Trump supposedly requested a ten-fold increase in the size of the nuclear arsenal this past summer during a national security meeting with senior U.S. officials.
“This kind of erroneous reporting is irresponsible,” Secretary of Defense James Mattis said after discrediting the report. TheNYT article does not note that the NBC report is contested and potentially false.
Calling Trump’s command of the nuclear arsenal “troubling,” because the president “can unilaterally order a nuclear strike at any time” (like past American presidents), TheNYT asserts that his nuclear arsenal could “decimate” foreign countries. The word “decimate” indicates “at least a quarter of the population could be killed,” TheNYT states. The word “decimate” traditionally means one in ten or ten percent.
The biggest problem with the editorial board’s article is TheNYT’s understanding of nuclear targeting.
Citing former Secretary of Defense Robert McNamara, who served in the 1960s, and his definition of “mutually assured destruction,” which entails the destruction of one-quarter of a country’s population in a nuclear attack, TheNYT argues that “guaranteeing ‘mutually assured destruction’ would require launching dozens, if not hundreds, of warheads on a target’s densest population centers.” The paper’s editorial board appears to suggest this is the current targeting approach.
An Obama-era report on the nuclear employment strategy set forth new guidance for nuclear employment. “Plans will seek to minimize collateral damage to civilian populations and civilian objects,” the report, submitted by the secretary of defense, explained. “The United States will not intentionally target civilian populations or civilian targets.”
The NYT describes a counter-value scenario, appearing to cite statistics from a 2001 report from the National Resources Defense Council (NRDC) that uses information from 1999, but the U.S. nuclear strategy is decidedly different now, even if there are always some exceptions.
“The new guidance requires the United States to maintain significant counterforce capabilities against potential adversaries. The new guidance does not rely on a ‘counter-value’ strategy,” the aforementioned U.S. defense report, which was submitted only a few years ago, explains, indicating the U.S. military would target an enemy’s strategic assets, not its civilian population. A Department of State publication from October 2016 emphasized the same points.
TheNYT provides important information about the size of the nuclear arsenal and its destructive capability, noting the U.S. could actually maintain its current nuclear deterrence capabilities with less, even though America’s nuclear stockpile is much smaller than it was at the height of the Cold War. Given the editorial board’s understanding of nuclear targeting and domestic strategy, perhaps it should not be passing judgement on whether or not the president should have his hands on the so-called nuclear football.
“Consistent with decades-long practice, the President, as Commander in Chief of the U.S. Armed Forces, has the sole authority to order the employment of U.S. nuclear forces,” the defense document also makes clear.
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