In part one of this article ("Launch on What?"), we looked at the danger of relying on warning systems that have yielded false positives. In part two, we examine the cost of acting as a nuclear bully.
The problems with nuclear devices is not only the possibility of another error combined with an option to launch on warning. A second problem is that these devices might be used, or their use threatened, against another country, whether it has some nuclear weapons or is trying to get them or is suspected of having them or is known n not to have them.
The U.S. Constitution gives the power to declare war not to the executive but exclusively to Congress. This power was last used in the early 1940s, after Pearl Harbor ("a date that will live in infamy"). Since then, Congress has not declared war against a country (even in the cases of Korea, Vietnam, Afghanistan, and Iraq) but has given the President an "authorization to use military force" (AUMF), a phrase that does not appear in the Constitution." So far, this authorization has been scandalously broad, both in terms of time and of groups to be targeted.
With regard to nuclear devices, what about Congress requiring a formal declaration of war prior to any use of or threat to use a nuclear device, the declaration to be granted only in the case of a nuclear attack against the U.S. or its forces, and only in proportion to that attack. In other words, if only one nuclear bomb is sent against us, the executive would be able to respond with only a single bomb, after verifying the source of the attack and after a constitutional declaration of war.
Violation of this congressional policy would be grounds for immediate impeachment and conviction, and meanwhile, for not honoring any such order.
I regard the need for a specific, prior, and short-term declaration by Congress not because I regard Congress as necessarily wise or temperate, as it was arguably not in the case of wars from Vietnam to Syria, but because this requirement might at least slow down any rash to executive action or threats and allow public debate.
The imperial presidency would be properly scaled back by each of these changes described in parts one and two of this article. As a nation, we have gone from muskets borne by men and sailing ships, to nuclear devices that are borne by missiles and could reach anywhere in the world in minutes. In the last century we have gone from a people reluctant to get involved overseas to a country with an unrivaled number of bases abroad.
A firm distinction needs to be honored between conventional weapons and civilization-wrecking nuclear devices. This is not because "conventional" war has been harmless. As survivors of the wars in Europe knew and of later attacks know, it can be horrible. But it's a vast leap from those horrors to the devastation of a nuclear exchange.
Some observers argue that nuclear devices are "obsolete." The trouble is, these devices are omnipresent (though hidden), and subject to an accident, a single one of which could be fatal. So far many of us have been ensorcelled by arguments that "they have kept the peace" and the rhetorical question, "what else can we do, given the other side?"
A display of rationality on this issue could hearten us to deal with other issues that have emerged. And meanwhile we'd have a much safer world.