Donald Trump: proud of being uninformed; keeper of the nuclear keys

Author: Hal Bidlack - August 16, 2017 - Updated: September 19, 2017

Hal Bidlack

I spent the bulk of my 25-plus-year military career dealing with the fabled sword of war. I started off in 1981 as a “finger on the button” ICBM launch officer just north of here, at F.E. Warren Air Force Base in Cheyenne, Wyoming. There, with the Cold War in full bloom, I was very much at the “pointy end” of the military sword. As an ICBM Combat Crew Commander, I had direct control over 10 Minuteman III missiles, and secondary command over 40 more, each capable of carrying up to three “re-entry vehicles,” which was the “explod-y” part (we were told to call them RVs and never “warheads” because that would seem somewhat – I guess – war-like).

I was proud then, and remain so today, to serve in the now-disbanded Strategic Air Command, which had custody of two of the three legs of the nuclear triad. We in SAC had both the land-based and the aircraft-based nuclear weapons. The third leg of the triad, the nuclear-capable submarines, belonged to the Navy. The motto of SAC was “Peace is our Profession” I was proud to sit nuclear alert, some dozens of feet below the western prairie, because I was quite certain that our nuclear capability was the key factor in limiting aggression by the two big nuclear nations we pointed things at.

Following my time underground, I found myself at the Air Force Academy in Colorado Springs, teaching political science to the cadets. I would ultimately spend 15 years of my time in uniform at USAFA, mostly teaching American government, the founding, and American defense policy. Thus I departed the pointy part of the sword for the other end – wherein policy is crafted and evaluated. I enjoyed the entire 25 years, and I am quite certain that my military life played a very significant role in creating the humble columnist whose words you are now reading.

In graduate school, earning first the Masters Degree and ultimately the Ph.D. that are required to teach at USAFA, I was re-introduced to a concept I had first heard of in high school – the rational actor (RA) model. This is an attempt by political scientists to create models to help explain – and perhaps more importantly, to predict – the behaviors of those in leadership positions. Like any effort to predict behavior, the model makers had to make certain assumptions. A physicist might assume, for example, that gravity won’t vanish from the solar system. A theologian might assume that the Catholic Church will continue to be run by popes. And a sociologist might assume that parents who love their children won’t let them grow up to be Dallas Cowboy fans.

In the world of political science, the rational actor model is used a great deal to try to understand and project the future actions of both governments and the leaders therein. And here is where the RA model seems to be letting us down with the current occupant of 1600 Pennsylvania Avenue.

A rational actor will, the theory assumes, act in his or her own best interests. This is why the model doesn’t really work well for the truly mentally ill, but it actually does a pretty good job of predicting behaviors of a number of world leaders, if you make the correct assumptions. People look at the actions of, say, Saddam Hussein, and think he was not acting rationally. But he was. And so was Muammar Gaddafi. And so were lots of other “crazy” people. That is because the core assumption is that the person involved will act in their own self interest. See how the italics help there? If you understand that Hussein or Gaddafi were only interested in staying in power, and being pretty rich, their other actions seem to make a lot more sense. It’s not how we think they should act in their own interest; it’s only about how they act in their own self interest. If all you care about is staying in power, then killing your uncle, or other leaders of your dead dad’s military makes sense. So, Kim Jong-un is, in fact, acting in a rational manner, at least from his very narrow perspective and his near-pathological desire to hold on to absolute power.

But there is another key assumption in the rational actor model – that the leaders have the information, the knowledge, the facts and figures, to fully understand the situation they face. It seems unlikely that Kim actually has the complete information needed to act rationally, at least in the international politics sense of the term. I have my doubts that any of his “advisors” tell him really bad news or challenge him to defend his thinking in any meaningful way. Thus you cannot be a rational actor if you don’t have your self interest AND have near-complete information. So it is unlikely that North Korea is an appropriate place to predict behavior based on being rational actors.

This brings me to the troubling times in which we now live, here in the U.S. During my time with the nukes, and in all my years in the military that followed, I never once, regardless of the occupant of the White House, seriously doubted that the president had good information, and that his view of his own self interest was directly tied to the nation’s self interest.

But I have since had a change of heart. It started about… let me see.. six months ago, and became more acute recently.

Every presidential candidate has holes in his or her knowledge about the world. But prior to the most recent election, you saw candidates from both parties work very hard to learn about the vital issues of the day, and of the responsibilities of the office. National security was a particularly challenging area for candidates who had not served in the military, and we therefore often saw robust efforts at self-education when it came to military operations. At least we used to.

For me the most horrifying aspect of the Trump presidential campaign was his approach to issues of national security. Specifically I found two things profoundly troubling – first that he was largely ignorant of the major international security threats we face and second, that he seemed oddly proud to not know too much. Remember his “I know more than the Generals about ISIS” remark? Recall how he said being president was basically easy? This twin problem of being uninformed and proud of it came to a shocking head in one of the Republican candidate debates. Hugh Hewitt, a thoughtful gentleman who leans strongly to the right, asked what should have been a softball question on national security. Mr. Hewitt asked “what is your priority among our nuclear triad?” And it soon became very clear that Mr. Trump had absolutely no idea what the nuclear triad is.  This is akin to asking a doctor where the heart is, or an auto mechanic to find the steering wheel. This is basic fundamental military knowledge, and Mr. Trump didn’t know it.

Since that fateful day, there have been a number of additional demonstrations that Mr. Trump doesn’t really understand the military and military operations. His recent bombastic rhetoric aimed at North Korea and – bizarrely – Venezuela suggests he has not engaged in a great deal of on-the-job training regarding mil ops.

And so the Rational Actor model is imperiled by the president’s profound lack of critical knowledge. But recall that the RA model also assumes that people will act in their own rational self interest. Mr. Trump creates a challenge in this area too. He has demonstrated throughout his life, and continues to do so in the White House, a willingness to turn on those whom he feels are in his way or oppose him. It is unprecedented to have a sitting president, whose party controls all three branches of the national government, attack his own party’s leadership. Mr. Trump’s tweets about the Senate majority leader are both remarkable and shocking, though we are becoming less able to be shocked by this president.

In what analyitical framework can we say Mr. Trump is acting in his own self interest? I suspect it is only the most basic version of the theory – Mr. Trump only cares about Mr. Trump. His record of stiffing those who did work for him, of being only tangentially committed to honesty and his actions against a sitting (and Republican) FBI director call into question any broad notion of self interest. Rather, I suspect Mr. Trump operates moment to moment, and defines his self interest as that which makes him feel good at the moment. Be it two scoops of ice cream or threats of fire and fury, I just don’t think Mr. Trump contemplates the meaning of things more than a few minutes or hours in the future. This selfish trait is disquietingly similar to what we think we see in Mr. Kim.

Thus we find ourselves, in trying to understand the current problem with North Korea, in a tough spot – the Rational Actor model, a core analytical tool, seems to fail us twice. We can’t assume either leader is acting with full knowledge of the situation, nor can we assume that either leader is acting in what we would like to believe regarding self interest – that they see their nation’s self interest as more important than their own self-aggrandizement.

And we elected our guy.

We walk a dangerous road when we embrace a distain of knowledge. We put our own life at risk when we use the services of an ignorant physician. We risk our homes when we employ an under-educated HVAC tech. What can we say when we elect a man who is proud of being uninformed, and give him the nuclear launch codes?

“Good Luck” comes to mind.

Hal Bidlack

Hal Bidlack

Hal Bidlack is a retired professor of political science and a retired Air Force lieutenant colonel who taught more than 17 years at the U.S. Air Force Academy in Colorado Springs.

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