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The 3am call



Jonathan Power
TFF Associate since 1991

Comments directly to

March 12, 2008

LONDON - So what if the phone rings in the new American president's bed room at 3am! It can only be because the radar has picked up a flock of geese.

The chances of Russia attacking the U.S. with its missiles is as close to zero as one can get without falling off the graph paper. Ditto China, Israel, Pakistan, India and North Korea. As for the putative Iranian bomb, at best within 10 years it could reach Europe in some primitive rocket but by then the White House will have changed ownership again.

Mrs Hillary Clinton's jibe, suggesting that Barack Obama wouldn't have the experience to deal with a night time emergency, is so wide of the mark and so anachronistic that it should be relegated to the basement of the Imperial War Museum. If anyone tries to make a nuclear explosion in an American city it will be some terrorist group using a so called dirty bomb, explosive materials wrapped with nuclear waste. For full effect it will be exploded in daylight whilst people are on the streets. It will kill at most far less than those who perished at the World Trade Center on 9/11.

Before the Clinton-Obama campaign gets stuck in the dirt (although let us be clear it is at present of a single origin) let's get some facts clear.

Who will be in the bedroom at 3am in Mrs Clinton's scenario? Assuming the marital relationship is still working we can assume it will be husband Bill. Knowing what we do about Bill's character can we assume he will remain silent at this crucial moment? And can we assume that in the five minutes presidents are supposed to have when warning of a missile attack has been given that in that tension filled bedroom there will be unanimity? Will that be the best atmosphere to make a cool and level headed decision? It is just the kind of crisis that could be the catalyst for bringing to the surface all the hidden and buried resentments the one has for the other. Wouldn't it be better to have the cool headed Obama as president? He is more likely say to those on the other end of the phone: “Wait a moment. I believe we have been there before. No one is to do anything, launch anything, until we have the full facts.”

A good friend of Zbigniew Brezinski told me a story that is half funny and half frightening from the time when he was President Jimmy Carter's National Security Advisor. The phone did ring in the middle of the night when he was asleep in bed with his wife beside him. He was told that the Pentagon warning system had reported that a single rocket had been launched from the Soviet Union and was on its way to Washington. Brzezinski told them to check it out and call him back in a minute. The call came. This time he was told that it wasn't a single rocket, it was at least twenty. Brzezinski, aware he had to wake the president well before the 5 minutes was up, again told them to re-check the information. A minute later the Pentagon called and told him it was a false alarm. It was geese or atmospheric interference. The friend asked Brzezinski if he woke his wife in the middle of all this? Brzezinski replied with an ironic smile, “If we were all going to die in the next few minutes it was better to let her sleep through it!”

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Mikhail Gorbachev, when he was president of the Soviet Union, had a very sensible way of looking at his responsibilities. In an interview conducted by Jonathan Schell of the Nation magazine he said: “I recall that when I was trained in the use of the nuclear button I would be told of an attack from one direction, and then, while I am thinking over what to do about that, new information comes in - that another nuclear offensive is coming from another direction. And I am supposed to make decisions!” Gorbachev laughed. “Nevertheless, I never actually pushed the button. Even during training, even though the briefcase was always there with my codes, I never touched the button.

And when Schell pressed him, “Would you have given the order to use nuclear weapons in retaliation for a nuclear attack?”, he replied, “Well, let me tell you right off that this did not concern me, not because I lacked the will or the power, but because I was quite sure that the people in the White House were not idiots.”

Mrs Clinton, please think about what Mr Gorbachev said. It couldn't be clearer.


Copyright © 2008 Jonathan Power


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Jonathan Power can be reached by phone +44 7785 351172
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Jonathan Power 2007 Book
Conundrums of Humanity
The Quest for Global Justice

“Conundrums of Humanity” poses eleven questions for our future progress, ranging from “Can we diminish War?” to “How far and fast can we push forward the frontiers of Human Rights?” to “Will China dominate the century?”
The answers to these questions, the author believes, growing out of his long experience as a foreign correspondent and columnist for the International Herald Tribune, are largely positive ones, despite the hurdles yet to be overcome. Martinus Nijhoff Publishers, London, 2007.

William Pfaff, September 17, 2007
Jonathan Power's book "Conundrums" - A Review
"His is a powerful and comprehensive statement of ways to make the world better.
Is that worth the Nobel Prize?
I say, why not?"


Jonathan Power's 2001 book

Like Water on Stone
The Story of Amnesty International

Follow this link to read about - and order - Jonathan Power's book written for the 40th Anniversary of Amnesty International



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