Washington, We Have a Problem
The pandemic is quickly disabling our national command authority.
Every hour brings news of another Trump Administration West Wing official being diagnosed with an infection of the coronavirus. Under the best of circumstances, this would be a crisis of command and national leadership. Continuity of Operations Plans (COOP) would be under implementation in order to transition the responsibilities of key players in the Administration with the minimum-necessary disruption, confusion, and knowledge gaps. With the President himself hospitalized with symptoms of the disease and underlying health conditions that put him at a greater risk of debilitating sickness, preparations to activate temporary Presidential authority transfer under the 25th Amendment would be underway.
But this is not the best of circumstances.
The President has cloaked both his own medical status and the extent of the pandemic on daily West Wing operations under a situation that can be charitably described as less-than-transparent and less charitably depicted as hidden by secrecy and deception, even by the historic precedents of White House concealment of Presidential disabilities. As a result, the American people only know for certain that they do not know what is happening, given the constant stream of contradicting and illogical pronouncements that need not be catalogued again in this post.
The President is maintaining a facade of normalcy when his entire term of office to date has been characterized by chaos, confusion, obfuscation, and abrupt departures of critical high appointees, ranging from the head of national intelligence and key Cabinet members to the White House Chief of Staff himself.
This is a growing crisis, not just for the Trump Campaign, but for the entire United States. Our center of power is being quickly eviscerated by this pandemic and the Trump Administration continues its months-long practice of denial, excuse-making, fabrication of facts, and minimalization of the danger of Covid-19. The Republican Senate majority is aiding and abetting the White House in this disgraceful abdication of responsibility, cowardly calling for a recess during the last 30 days of the preparation for national general elections — as long as they can barrel ahead to confirm a Federalist Society candidate to the SCOTUS without any Constitutionally-dictated “advice and consent.”
I say that because so many Senators have gone on record as pledging their votes in favor of confirmation without waiting for any vetting, background investigations, or committee hearings into the fitness of the nominee. Barring any interference with Amy Coney Barrett’s confirmation, the Senators will abandon their posts in Washington and retreat to safety, leaving the Administration to its own devices and incompetency, not to mention the well-being and security of the American people.
America’s adversaries are paying close attention.
Do not think for an instant that our adversaries aren’t watching and calculating the opportunities that have appeared. Rogue nation-states, including Russia and China, along with multinational terrorist organizations, are either better informed than we are of the true weakness of the U.S. command posture at this moment by benefit of their considerable intelligence capabilities or are assuming the most optimistic circumstances from their point of view. And history has demonstrated that our adversaries are most inclined to action when America is weakest.
Following the dissolution of the Soviet Union in 1991, Western governments declassified earth-shaking state secrets of the former Soviet government. One of the most chilling revelations involved the circumstances involving the Soviet Politburo during an episode that became known as The War Scare of 1983.
Beginning with the inauguration of President Ronald Reagan in 1981, the KGB, along with the military intelligence agency GRU, began issuing warnings to the Soviet leadership that a window of opportunity for a preemptive attack on NATO was quickly closing. This was a window that had been created by four years of neglect of our conventional, chemical, biological, and nuclear forces and weapons under President Jimmy Carter from 1977 through 1980.
Under Reagan, Soviet intelligence estimated, not only would NATO under U.S. leadership remedy the weaknesses left by Carter but would also achieve a first-strike, preemptive ability to destroy Soviet and Warsaw Pact military capabilities in Europe west of the Ural Mountains. The solution, as detailed in classified Soviet briefing papers discovered in Ukraine following the disbandment of the Soviet Union, was for Soviet and Warsaw Pact forces to adopt a attack-on-warning posture rather than an attack-on-threat preparedness. In other words, preemptively attack NATO on any occasion of heightened enemy preparation.
The War Scare of 1983.
That occasion arose in 1983 with preparations for the biennial NATO Command Post Exercise (CPX) Able Archer 83. This exercise in U.S. tactical nuclear weapon release and employment under NATO command alternated each Fall with NATO CPX Crested Eagle in even-numbered years, a collateral drill in responding to and counter-attacking a surprise Soviet military assault on NATO.
In 1983, during exercise preparations for Able Archer, Soviet intelligence commenced a full-court effort to determine if the CPX was a cover for a NATO preemptive war. Communications assets, known in the trade as SIGINT, were fully mobilized and even surveillance satellites were re-positioned in their orbits, an expensive and consumptive action known as “repurposing.”
At the peak of this war tension, a crisis appeared. On September 1, 1983, the Soviet Union mistakenly shot down a South Korean civilian airliner entering the airspace of the Soviet Far East, KAL Flight 007. Already backed into a corner by their own fear and concern over a possible impending NATO attack, the Soviet leadership must have become irrational and prone to panic decisions.
We now know that the Politburo ordered extreme measures such as recalling all absent military personnel, transporting tactical nuclear weapons to delivery units, and prohibiting all military flight operations except for essential intelligence and command missions. Unaware of this, NATO proceeded with Able Archer 83 in October. The national mood in the U.S., and among the western allies as well, was that the Soviet Union was “an Evil Empire” that needed to be warned if not intimidated into submission.
We carelessly stumbled towards worldwide nuclear war with no comprehension of the game stakes at play. And that was with a national leadership that was fully cognizant, stable, and cohesive. Afterwards, Soviet Minister of Defense Ustinov announced on November 19, 1983, in Pravda that the Soviets had no ability to tell a NATO exercise from an actual attack.
Is anybody home?
The comparison with The War Scare of 1983 and the apparent dysfunction of our national command leadership during this pandemic crisis is illustrative of the dire risks and dangers we are facing right now. This is not the time for partisan bickering and jingoism; it is not an occasion for calculating the political worth of appearances and bravado.
Meanwhile, we have no sure knowledge of how our adversaries are perceiving this moment of weakness on our part. Worse, the insane hatred of America among terrorist groups makes their assessments totally unpredictable. It is a time for adults to be in charge, but by that measure nobody is home right now at the White House.
Postscript: Before I sat down to write this, the Trump Campaign was busy advancing the preposterous idea that Trump is better suited than Joe Biden to be our next President because he has personally experienced Covid-19. Okay, if you think so.
As I finish writing this piece, the White House has announced that President Trump has decided to leave Walter Reed National Medical Center this evening and return to the White House. He has Tweeted, “Don’t let coronavirus dominate your life.” Sound advice, especially if it kills you.