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The national security implications of the White House coronavirus outbreak

Will Washington finally realize that more bombs won’t make us more secure?

Analysis | Analysis

The COVID-19 outbreak in the White House, most importantly the infection of the president of the United States, has profound national security implications. The traditional concerns revolve around the integrity of the chain of command and the reaction of global powers. If these short-term risks can be managed — and there is every indication that they can be — the long-term impacts may be turn out to be positive. We may finally transition to a more comprehensive definition of national security that recognizes that most threats to our country do not have military solutions.

The very first issue is the command and control of U.S. military forces and strategy. The president is the commander-in-chief. He has the sole authority to launch nuclear weapons, for example. He also makes the final decisions on how to react should a military conflict erupt in any region of the globe. If he is incapacitated, there needs to be a clear transfer of authority.

Donald Trump’s physician issued a statement on October 1 optimistically declaring that the president can carry out his duties “without disruption” during his illness and quarantine. But what if he can’t? It will be imperative to convince him to avoid the kind of confusion that followed when President Ronald Reagan was shot and then-Secretary of State Alexander Haig erroneously claimed, “I am in control here, in the White House.” In this case, there is enough time to prepare for a transfer of authority, or if necessary, to invoke the 25th Amendment procedures to ensure continuity of government even if the infections spread to many in the senior levels.

There is also the fear that America’s adversaries will take advantage of these days of confusion. Many respected analysts worry that, as Tyler Rogoway writes in The Warzone blog, “that America's increasingly belligerent adversaries could decide to act, taking advantage of weaknesses in the U.S. military and foreign policy decision-making chain of command.” But it is hard to find evidence of “increasingly belligerent adversaries.” There are many conflicts involving U.S. forces and allies, but these are not more severe or more uncertain than they were five or 15 years ago. Nor is it likely that China will seize the moment to invade Taiwan, for example, or Russia will make a grab for all of Ukraine.

America’s national security infrastructure is vast and layered. There are highly capable military commanders, defense officials, and treaty allies standing watch. With an orderly mechanism in place in Washington, even with the president sidelined, these structures should hold.

In some ways, it may improve U.S. security if the erratic and strategically compromised Donald Trump were removed from crucial security decisions. It will actually improve U.S. security, for example, if Trump does not have his finger on the nuclear button, able to launch one or a thousand nuclear weapons whenever he wants, for whatever reason he wants.

Regardless of what happens the next few weeks, the long-term implications of a president who declared the coronavirus a hoax being felled by the virus may actually be positive. It helps clarify that the major threat to our nation is the pandemic. Short of nuclear war, it threatens us like no foe ever could. More Americans will die from the virus than have died in all the wars America has fought in this century and the last. It may help us to begin an overdue re-definition of our national security to include pandemics, climate change, income inequity and racial injustice — none of which have military solutions.

I wrote with my colleague, budget expert William Hartung at the Center for International Policy, at the beginning of the pandemic:

“Since the 9/11 attacks, Pentagon spending soared from $300 billion a year to the current $740 billion. We have spent over $11 trillion dollars on foreign wars, military equipment, pay, and operations since that attack by nineteen Saudi and Egyptian terrorists that—by one estimate—cost them less than $1 million to carry out. Counting veterans’ benefits, debt payments and other indirect costs, the United States has spent $6.4 trillion on the wars in Afghanistan and Iraq alone, with little to show for it. Yet at a time when Washington should be doing everything in our power to stop the global pandemic and prevent future outbreaks, the U.S. budget for global public health is just $11 billion per year.”

The current Pentagon budget is “indefensible” former president of the Carnegie Endowment for International Peace Jessica Mathews, wrote in The New York Review of Books last year and “defense spending crowds out funds for everything else a prosperous economy and a healthy society need.”

Ironically, the illness of a pandemic-denier may be exactly the shock America’s elite needed to make dramatic and overdue changes to our priorities, strategies and budgets.

U.S. President Donald Trump exits the Oval Office as he departs on campaign travel to Minnesota from the South Lawn at the White House in Washington, U.S., September 30, 2020. Picture taken September 30, 2020. REUTERS/Carlos Barria
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