10/30/2008 05:12 am ET Updated May 25, 2011

Next President Should Take Nuclear Weapons Off Alert

Campaigns, and the media covering them, are continually (justly) criticized for trivialities and for ignoring important issues. Further discussion is in

One topic, which strangely no one ever mentions, but which is terrifying, is accidental nuclear war. The US has more than 20,000 nuclear weapons --- thousands ready to launch within minutes (!) [Carla Anne Robbins, NY Times, June 30, 2008, p. A18]. Of course Russia, for which control of nuclear weapons is weaker, has roughly the same. One accident, one mistake: our countries will be destroyed. And if we continue this long enough that will happen.

What is the reason for this immensely dangerous policy? There isn't any. It is our policy and we are not giving it up. And thinking about all these missiles is a lot of fun. Although many will disagree the purpose of the military is to protect the country, not to satisfy the emotional needs of people who love (among others) weapons, and certainly not to endanger the country (no matter how thrilling that is). Actually this country does not need politicians to run it; what it badly needs is psychiatrists.

We are concerned that if we remove these weapons from hair-trigger alert the Russians will be able to attack us, as if they didn't have enough problems, although that will delay the destruction of their own country by at most a few hours.

What should be done is to get an agreement to remove all missiles from such alert. Both getting such an agreement and changing the alert can be done very quickly. Yet no one is even thinking about this.

Then we should negotiate agreements to eliminate (at least most of) these weapons, and quickly. What is the point of having dangerous (to us) weapons if there are no targets for them, besides the great emotional satisfactions they bring? And weapons provide intense joy to (too) many.

What do the candidates say about this? Obama says he will work with Russia to take U.S. and Russian ballistic missiles off hair trigger alert. McCain does not mention it. However McCain is clearly concerned about nuclear proliferation. He goes into greater detail about his views but it seems that their views do not differ much (which may change when they have to be specific). For example they both look forward to a nuclear-weapon free world, eventually.

They do differ in their willingness to build new nuclear weapons. McCain does not believe it will be necessary but does not completely rule it out. Obama does not mention this but it does not seem like it is something he is thinking of, or wants. One difference that they do have is on anti-ballistic missile missiles --- Obama does not mention it but McCain does and is in favor of the unworkable anti-missile defense fantasy. This is an interesting psychological difference. So far we do not have a workable system (although we are building one anyway; whether it works or not is irrelevant emphasizing that is purpose is not military or for defense but for emotional satisfaction). Nor is there any purpose to it (which is of course irrelevant). Who are we defending against? If North Korea sent a missile toward us we would know that they are planning to (intercontinental missiles are difficult to hide) obliterate the country. The same is true of Iran. We are putting them in Poland to protect against Iran. Why should Iran send an ICBM to destroy Poland? And if we decide that neither N. Korea nor Iran is capable of or interested in building ICBM's then there is always the danger that Liechtenstein or Granada might and it is essential that we build ABM's to guard against these threats. This makes the emotional aspects of ABM's very clear. Although it does not work, and there is no use for it, Republicans are, like a child, determined to get their new toy no matter how useless or dangerous.

In deciding between the candidates most of their positions don't offer much to distinguish them. But in a few cases their emotional drives show through, and that is broader than the particular issue. Here we can see the difference between McCain and Obama. And with national security the emotional differences can be decisive for security and survival. We must not sacrifice these to provide emotional satisfaction.

And these differences can be of massive importance, even if they seem small. The unworkable missile defense fantasy can be highly destabilizing, greatly increasing the risk of accidental nuclear war. Is it really that important so that we are willing to risk our existence to get? For John McCain there is a danger that it is.

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