Women Legislators' Lobby

Tennessee Representative Karen Camper: “Corker right to question president’s power to launch nukes”

U.S. Sen. Bob Corker and I rarely agree on the issues, but it's important to give credit where credit is due. This week, Sen. Corker chaired a hearing that every Tennessean -- Republican and Democrat -- should support.

For the first time since 1976, the Senate Foreign Relations Committee began examining whether the American president, acting alone, should have the power to launch America’s nuclear weapons. 

Let me be 100 percent clear: The question is not whether the president should be able to order a retaliatory strike; it is whether one person should have the unilateral power to start a nuclear war.

For most Americans, I would hope, the answer is no, but a surprising percentage of Americans don’t realize that the president currently has that power. There are no checks and balances on that singular power.

Obviously, this question has arisen in the context of a sharp increase in the American public’s fear about the prospect of a nuclear war with North Korea, but it's much more stark.

Any nuclear strike initiated by the United States against any other nuclear power would be followed by immediate retaliation. Hundreds of thousands, if not millions, of Americans would be killed. Our economy would be devastated and our environment destroyed. States like Tennessee with nuclear facilities would be obvious targets. 

The decision to launch an attack with these catastrophic consequences should not be left to one person.

Frankly, this hearing was long overdue. During the final months of the Nixon administration, senior officials were concerned about the president’s mental health and the possibility that he could launch a nuclear strike, but they had no clear legal authority to check such a decision.

This is not a complex problem and there are several possible solutions. 

The president could be required to have the agreement of the Secretaries of State and Defense. He could be required to consult with Congress. He could be obliged to secure the support of the Joint Chiefs of staff. All of these would represent an improvement over the current situation.

The reality is that this risk has been with us for decades and Congress has failed to act. It is akin to living in a home with faulty wiring and willfully ignoring it because the house hasn’t burned yet. 

Sen. Corker should be applauded for drawing greater attention to the issue, but this hearing needs to be the beginning of a process to enact substantive policy changes that will make our country, and the word, safer.

Despite our hyper-partisan political climate, we should all recognize that this is a national security concern for all Americans. 

Giving one person the power to start a nuclear war puts all Americans at risk -- regardless of whether it's President Trump, President Obama or some future president. We all are vulnerable to a president’s emotional state, soundness of mind, and decision-making process.

People are fallible. That includes presidents. Our national security requires a greater check and balance with regard to the president’s nuclear launch authority. 

Sen. Corker is right to raise this question and Sen. Lamar Alexander and the rest of Congress should support him.

Originally published in the Commercial Appeal on November 17, 2017

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