So what if the phone rings in the new American president’s bedroom at 3am? It can only be because the radar has picked up a flock of geese. The chances of Russia attacking the US with its missiles is as close to zero as one can get without falling off the graph paper. Ditto China, Israel, Pakistan, India and North Korea and any of the other nuclear powers. As for the putative Iranian bomb, at best within ten years it could reach Europe in some primitive rocket but by then the White House will have changed ownership again.
Hillary Clinton’s jibe, suggesting that Barack Obama wouldn’t have the experience to deal with a night-time emergency, is so wide of the mark and so anachronistic that it should be relegated to the basement of the Imperial War Museum. If anyone tries to make a nuclear explosion in an American city it will be some terrorist group using a so-called “dirty bomb,” explosive materials wrapped in nuclear waste. For full effect it will be exploded in daylight whilst people are on the streets. It will kill at most far less than those who perished at the World Trade Centre on 9/11.
Before the Clinton-Obama campaign gets stuck in the dirt, let’s get some facts clear. Who will be in the bedroom at 3am in the Clinton scenario? Assuming the marital relationship is still working, we can assume it will be husband Bill. Knowing what we do about Bill’s character, can we assume he will remain silent at this crucial moment? And can we assume that, in the five minutes presidents are supposed to have when warning of a missile attack has been given, there will be unanimity in that tension-filled bedroom? Will that be the best atmosphere to make a level-headed decision? It is just the kind of crisis that could be the catalyst for bringing to the surface all the hidden resentments one Clinton has for the other. Wouldn’t it be better to have the cool and calm Obama as president? He is more likely to say to those on the other end of the phone: Wait a moment. I believe we have been here before. No one is to do anything, launch anything, until we have the full facts.
A good friend of Zbigniew Brzezinski once told me a half-funny, half-frightening story about the former national security adviser. The phone did ring in the middle of the night when he was asleep in bed with his wife beside him. He was told that the Pentagon warning system had reported that a single rocket had been launched from the Soviet Union and was on its way to Washington. Brzezinski told them to check it out and call him back in a minute. When the second call came, he was told that it wasn’t a single rocket, it was at least 20. Brzezinski, aware he had to wake the president well before the five minutes was up, again told them to recheck the information. A minute later, the Pentagon called and told him it was a false alarm, triggered by geese or atmospheric interference. On hearing this tale, Brzezinski’s friend asked him if he woke his wife up while this was going on. Brzezinski replied, with an ironic smile, “If we were all going to die in the next few minutes, it was better to let her sleep through it.”
Mikhail Gorbachev, when he was president of the Soviet Union, had a very sensible way of looking at his responsibilities. In an interview conducted by Jonathan Schell of the Nation, he said: “I recall that when I was trained in the use of the nuclear button, I would be told of an attack from one direction, and then, while I am thinking over what to do about that, new information comes in—that another nuclear offensive is coming from another direction. And I am supposed to make decisions!” Gorbachev laughed. “Nevertheless, I never actually pushed the button. Even during training, even though the briefcase was always there with my codes, I never touched the button.”
When Schell pressed him, “Would you have given the order to use nuclear weapons in retaliation for a nuclear attack?,” he replied, “Well, let me tell you right off that this did not concern me, not because I lacked the will or the power, but because I was quite sure that the people in the White House were not idiots.”
Mrs Clinton could do worse to think about what Gorbachev said. It couldn’t be clearer.