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In first debate, both presidential candidates dodged Lester Holt’s very good question about nuclear first-strike

Lester Holt
REUTERS/Randall Hill
Debate moderator Lester Holt

Forgive me for looping back to the first Trump-Clinton debate, but I just read a piece by Retired Col. Andrew Bacevich, my favorite commentator on military matters, that I want to share with you because it is edifying, but also because it calls attention to the near substancelessness (yes, I know, that’s not exactly an official word) of the debates.

Lester Holt of NBC generally got poor reviews for his moderation of that debate, but it turns out that he asked quite a brilliant question that Donald Trump was too ill-informed to even grasp, and that Hillary Clinton was too slippery to honestly address. Here’s the question:

HOLT: Which leads to my next question, as we enter our last segment here on the subject of securing America. On nuclear weapons, President Obama reportedly considered changing the nation's longstanding policy on first use. Do you support the current policy? Mr. Trump, you have two minutes on that.

I’m sure I heard the question at the time, but didn’t know how brilliant it was. Thanks to Bacevich, and a bit of looking more deeply in to the issue, here’s what I now know:

Three countries that possess nuclear weapons capabilities — China, India and North Korea — have, at least informally, pledged not to make a “first use” of nuclear weapons, which means that they pledge (whether you believe them or not) not to fire a nuclear missile unless one of the other nuclear powers has already crossed the threshold and used one.

The United States (the only nation ever to drop atomic weapons, at the end of World War II), has not made that “no first use” pledge. Its publicly announced policy, most recently updated in a 2010 statement of its “nuclear posture,” is that the United States "reserves the right to use" nuclear weapons first in the case of conflict, although the policy adds that: "The United States will not use or threaten to use nuclear weapons against non-nuclear weapons states that are party to the Nuclear Non-Proliferation Treaty and in compliance with their nuclear non-proliferation obligations."

President Obama recently considered whether to go further toward adopting a strict, “no-first-use” policy. But Holt did not specify, in his question to Clinton and Trump, what change in U.S. posture Obama considered. Bacevich assumes (and I suspect he is right) that Holt was, in addition to seeking each candidate’s thoughts on whether and under what circumstances to use nuclear weapons, seeking to flush out whether the candidates — and perhaps especially Trump — even knew about the issue and about Obama’s recent consideration of changing the U.S. posture on when to contemplate a first use of nuclear weapons.

At the bottom of this post, I’ll paste in the full exchange including the responses of both candidates. As Bacevich points out, Trump’s answer was gibberish. If you read it (below), you’ll see that he managed, within three sentences near the beginning of his ramble, to say both that “I would certainly not do first strike,” and “I can't take anything off the table,” which sounds like a pretty serious contradiction, since “I would certainly not do first strike” amounts taking something off the table.

He spent the rest of his two minutes criticizing the alleged lack of deal-making prowess, including Clinton’s lack of prowess (although she was not a player in the actual U.S.-Iran negotiations since she left the cabinet by the time) that led to the (according to Trump) horrible deal that stopped Iran’s progress toward a nuclear weapon for at least the next 10 years.

Clinton, when her time came, used her full two minutes and made exactly zero references to the question about first use of nuclear weapons. Personally, I have little doubt that Clinton is familiar with the issue and probably has thoughts about Obama’s recent reconsideration of the U.S. posture.

But she used her time to bring up something barely related to the first use of nuclear weapons but which, obviously, was a worked-out-in-advance talking point designed to bring up one of Trump’s perceived weak points, namely his rhetoric that called into question whether the U.S. would honor its commitment to come to the aid of any NATO member nation that is attacked.

(Trump, as you probably know, has complained that many NATO members don’t spend as much on their military as they are obligated to under the NATO treaty, because they take us for suckers and poor deal-makers, and deal-making, in case you hadn’t heard, is one of his strengths.)

She also noted that Trump, while complaining about the bad deal with Iran, has never said what he would have done to get a better deal. (“Would he have started a war?”)

At that point, both candidates had used up their full two minutes allotted to address Holt’s excellent question, although neither had addressed it in even a minimally serious way. Trump then, in that adorable way he has, stole another minute to continue not addressing the first-use question but to generally denounce Clinton’s alleged fecklessness, leading with this not-about-first-use grammatically challenged sentence:

“But I will tell you that Hillary will tell you to go to her website and read all about how to defeat ISIS, which she could have defeated by never having it, you know, get going in the first place.”

So, if you would actually like to hear an informed discussion of the “no first use” issue, coming from a retired military man who has become of one of the most articulate critics of U.S. military actions, please read Bacevich’s explanation here.

And lastly, as promised, so you can check my work, here’s that portion of the first debate:

HOLT: Which leads to my next question, as we enter our last segment here (inaudible) the subject of securing America. On nuclear weapons, President Obama reportedly considered changing the nation's longstanding policy on first use. Do you support the current policy? Mr. Trump, you have two minutes on that.

TRUMP: Well, I have to say that, you know, for what Secretary Clinton was saying about nuclear with Russia, she's very cavalier in the way she talks about various countries. But Russia has been expanding their — they have a much newer capability than we do. We have not been updating from the new standpoint.

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. 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. At the same time, we have to be prepared. I can't take anything off the table. Because you look at some of these countries, you look at North Korea, we're doing nothing there. China should solve that problem for us. China should go into North Korea. China is totally powerful as it relates to North Korea.

And by the way, another one powerful is the worst deal I think I've ever seen negotiated that you started is the Iran deal. Iran is one of their biggest trading partners. Iran has power over North Korea.

And when they made that horrible deal with Iran, they should have included the fact that they do something with respect to North Korea. And they should have done something with respect to Yemen and all these other places.

And when asked to Secretary Kerry, why didn't you do that? Why didn't you add other things into the deal? One of the great giveaways of all time, of all time, including $400 million in cash. Nobody's ever seen that before. That turned out to be wrong. It was actually $1.7 billion in cash, obviously, I guess for the hostages. It certainly looks that way.

So you say to yourself, why didn't they make the right deal? This is one of the worst deals ever made by any country in history. The deal with Iran will lead to nuclear problems. All they have to do is sit back 10 years, and they don't have to do much.

HOLT: Your two minutes is expired.

TRUMP: And they're going to end up getting nuclear. I met with Bibi Netanyahu the other day. Believe me, he's not a happy camper.

HOLT: All right. Mrs. Clinton, Secretary Clinton, you have two minutes.

CLINTON: Well, let me —let me start by saying, words matter. 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 is essential that America's word be good. 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.

It's also important that we look at the entire global situation. There's no doubt that we have other problems with Iran. But personally, I'd rather deal with the other problems having put that lid on their nuclear program than still to be facing that.

And Donald never tells you what he would do. Would he have started a war? Would he have bombed Iran? If he's going to criticize a deal that has been very successful in giving us access to Iranian facilities that we never had before, then he should tell us what his alternative would be. But 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.

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.

We cannot let those who would try to destabilize the world to interfere with American interests and security...

HOLT: Your two minutes is...

CLINTON: ... to be given any opportunities at all.

HOLT: ... is expired.

TRUMP: Lester, one thing I'd like to say.

HOLT: Very quickly. Twenty seconds.

TRUMP: I will go very quickly. But I will tell you that Hillary will tell you to go to her website and read all about how to defeat ISIS, which she could have defeated by never having it, you know, get going in the first place. Right now, it's getting tougher and tougher to defeat them, because they're in more and more places, more and more states, more and more nations.

HOLT: Mr. Trump...

TRUMP: And it's a big problem. And as far as Japan is concerned, I want to help all of our allies, but we are losing billions and billions of dollars. We cannot be the policemen of the world. We cannot protect countries all over the world...

HOLT: We have just...

TRUMP: ... where they're not paying us what we need.

HOLT: We have just a few final questions...

TRUMP: And she doesn't say that, because she's got no business ability. We need heart. We need a lot of things. But you have to have some basic ability. And sadly, she doesn't have that. All of the things that she's talking about could have been taken care of during the last 10 years, let's say, while she had great power. But they weren't taken care of. And if she ever wins this race, they won't be taken care of.

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Comments (8)

"[O]nce the nuclear alternative happens, it's over."

It's drowned out by the rest of his word salad, but Trump is correct with this observation. Nuclear weapons are pretty much the end of everything. It still isn't an answer to the first use question.

If my recollection is correct, leaving first use on the table has been US policy for the past 70 years. It sounds awfully barbaric--it's saying the US reserves for itself the option of triggering Armageddon. Nevertheless, one has to ask what would have happened without the threat of nuclear destruction hanging over the world? Would the Soviet Union had left Europe alone, if the leaders did not think an invasion could trigger nuclear war?

A given, true...

I rather believe Holt's question was therefore superfluous, and wisely avoided. We do have more imminent practical concerns these days. I'd hate to think that current younger generations would be sidetracked from more realistic pressing world issues.
[North Korea, for example, can be neutered in a few hours without nukes, if we wish.]

Sadly

…Bacevich is right on target. A public that is almost criminally uninformed about such matters will have learned nothing from the responses of the two candidates to Holt's question. We've also learned nothing since the debate about the response either candidate might have. Substance has been drowned out by a tsunami of analysis of Trump's misogynistic boorishness, about which the framework has been readily visible for decades, even if there are new details, and by a deafening silence regarding Mrs. Clinton's (lack of) response to Holt's question.

Having lived through the era of "duck and cover" in elementary school, I'm inclined to think that the point raised by RB Holbrook in his 2nd paragraph is a worthwhile one, but that hasn't appeared in public discussion widely available to the electorate. I confess I've never been part of a dinner-table discussion of the ethical distinction to be made between "first strike" and "first use," and whether, or under what circumstances, either one of them is justifiable.

I got the feeling...

That Trump actually was familiar with the policy in question much less the rationale's for or against it. Sure he was busy trying to score his own points but it didn't look to me like he actually comprehended the question.

I'm sure Clinton is familiar with the policy and it's rationale but she didn't take the question seriously. My guess is that she disagrees with Obama and would keep first strike on the table.

I'm not sure it really matters because no president is going to be bound by any policy if nuclear warfare is imminent.

Oh, it does matte who's there!

Can we bury our cynicism for a minute to take this election seriously? If someone attacks the U. S. with nuclear weapons, do you really want a panicked Donald Trump to be sitting in the situation room, trying to decide what to do? Donald Trump?

Some Cynicism Certainly Warranted

[GenXers may wish to skip this one.]

Look, many of us here are old..yes, too old to be wigged out about 1960's realities in today's realities. Why force a pointless paranoia on generations that should be freed of such anxiety so that they may work toward their goals of various levels of social unification? We are absolutely the Nuke Generation. Let's not force them into our retrospection. They need to create solutions for the important stuff they believe, and can accomplish. Let's not distract them.

Let's give 'em a break. Articles this day state that 70% of our population is engaged to some extent and seriously worried about this election for various reasons. 70% are not happy about these candidates and truly concerned more than nearly ever. We do not need to reflectively deflect to our rather anachronistic positions of possibilities. Most everyone else already owns some valid portion of all this angst.

Let's give 'em a break. It's time for these younger generations to pick up whatever banners and modify the world. If they don't, they don't. And, it's simply no longer our direct responsibility (and otherwise unworkable) in our respective remaining years of ultimately marginal influence after our younger years of certain influence. Yup, we absolutely should relax a little bit, not ignore, but definitely relax. Unless we pre-ordered, we all will leave the crematorium in a plastic bag within a cardboard carton.

Besides, the Russians are not about to nuke anybody, at least not until Iran has practical inventory of launchables, when they do complete their reactor efforts. They most assuredly already have a workable deal with North Korea for the delivery elements of their nuclear effort. Please consider that North Korea is launching its stuff in its own commercial marketing campaign to countries like Iran. As noted elsewhere, I'm sure we can pretty much knock out North Korean operations without nukes. I'm not worried about Russia.

As for burying my admitted wry edge of slight cynicism for any minute of 2016, well, not likely before Christmas. Who can celebrate in November for getting the least worst creep of the current season.
HRC has the victory, given lack of the missile you seem to still fear here. It's time for Bernie Backers to breath and relax. Nice effort with preordained outcomes. It's all over but the bad taste and resignation to reality. It's time to relax in near certainty of ongoing doubt, regardless of current position.

A few points

A few points here. First, it’s funny to see someone listing China and North Korea as exemplary countries – in anything, and especially North Korea when it comes to nukes. Second, Mr. Holbrook made a good point showing that maintaining the option of first strike does not necessarily (and in the America’s case, for sure) constitute an aggressive approach to foreign policy. Third, Clinton was a part of Iran deal because it started when she was a Secretary of State and because she bragged about it. Fourth, Iran deal did not stop “Iran’s progress toward a nuclear weapon for at least the next 10 years” because we actually don’t know what they are doing; but it for sure let Iran the power to dictate events in Syria. Fifth, our European NATO allies do indeed pay very little in military expenses and have survived at our expense (which is why comparing their social safety net with ours is pointless). Sixth, Mr. Million is right, too, and this question is mostly irrelevant now. And seventh, to answer Ms. Sullivan, in any case I do not want to have anyone as feckless as Obama in the situation room who draws red lines on the sand.

Duck and cover

I recall the potion of the first debate where Lester Holt asked the question and the candidates answered. The answer from both candidates seem pretty "canned". While I'm generally a big fan of Andrew Bacevich, I'm not sure I'd read as much into the candidates respective answers as he does. I'd be surprised if Bacevich expects any different outcome from current policy toward the "Washington consensus" as he calls it from either candidate. Which is to keep all options open and most of all not cut back on commitments in defense or armaments than exist at present levels and if possible, increase them.

There's a lot to be liked in Mr. Million's rather poetic response. Which I interpret as "let's not worry our youngsters like we were." That would be nice if we did not still live in the reality of a multilateral nuclear weapon world where in principle, no one country claims to want to be the first user or striker of such weaponry. Given my still vivid memories of the 1962 Cuban missile crisis, I'm with Ms. Sullivan in believing that under no circumstances can we allow a lose cannon like Trump be within 100 miles of the nuclear codes. We cannot afford to be complacent about this, as enticing as it is. Nor can we allow the "youngsters" to be complacent about this either. Lest they be drawn into the complacency that shocked the country in 2008 when the nation peered into the abyss of financial collapse. Or the complacency of 2001 that led many to assume, as many still do, that this country has done nothing around the world that could possibly justify creating any resentment against us, let alone igniting it into a horrible attack.

It's one thing to become Dr. Doom, predicting depression, catastrophe and the End Times in every downturn. In one sense, we've become complacent because too many people have too often cried "wolf" when there is no wolf. But it's also wrong, seriously wrong, I think, to ignore serious and palpable risks, which allow people to assume they live in little isolated bubbles looking at the world through rose colored glasses. This campaign has not helped any of us face the realities of this world in that respect.