I was listening to the Radiolab podcast yesterday, and they were discussing the history of presidential authority regarding the use of nuclear weapons (specifically, whether there was any check on the President’s authority to order a nuclear strike). Harry Truman had no idea about the atomic bomb until he became President, and the authority to use the bombs that were dropped on Hiroshima and Nagasaki basically rested with the military. After learning of the horrific death tolls and destruction caused by the bombs, President Truman assumed control of the nuclear arsenal, and forbade the military from using any more atomic weapons without his explicit consent. Truman believed that if the military had a new weapon, they would want to use it.
I’m struck by the similarities of the use of MOAB today. The weapon was developed for use in the invasion of Iraq, but never used. Some have suggested that this is President Trump’s work- that after the praise he received for the missile strike in Syria last week, he’s going to bomb his way into popularity. However, it should be noted that while President Trump had to approve the strike on Syria, according to CNN, authorization to use MOAB today came from General John Nicholson, the commander of US forces in Afghanistan. Maybe this isn’t a big deal; after all, putting aside the rightness or wrongness of the bombing itself, the President shouldn’t have to authorize every use of conventional weapons. Yet Trump’s refusal to directly answer the question about whether he authorized MOAB’s use (followed by Sean Spicer’s similar refusal at the White House press briefing) has at least the appearance of saving face- the White House was caught off guard by the use of the weapon and can’t honestly say that they authorized it, but also can’t admit that they weren’t in on the decision, so we get silence and obfuscation. The military had a new weapon to play with, and with Trump’s hands largely off the wheel, that’s what they did.
We are seeing military escalation on nearly every front the United States is engaged in. The Trump administration has relaxed the rules regarding drone strikes; we’ve engaged directly in Syria for the first time; we’ve dramatically increased our presence in Yemen; a US carrier strike force is operating near the Korean Penninsula, and we’ve introduced new weaponry into Afghanistan. All of these decisions have been made with almost no public discussion or debate, either in Congress or among Americans. We may be facing one of two possibilities: that President Trump truly is trying to bomb his way into popularity, or that the US military is flexing its muscle independently of civilian control, with no Truman-like figure to reign them in. I’m not sure which of these scenarios is actually worse.