What’s the Quickest Path to World War III?

THE RETURN OF GREAT POWERS: Russia, China, and the Next World War, by Jim Sciutto

UP IN ARMS: How Military Aid Stabilizes — and Destabilizes — Foreign Autocrats, by Adam E. Casey

Every few months in the years that Donald J. Trump was president, Iran made a show of its ballistic missiles — the powerful rockets that can deliver nuclear warheads from one nation to another — and set off a small panic in Washington. The tests went like this: A missile flew up from one part of Iran, traveled through the country’s airspace and, ideally, blew up harmlessly in another part of Iran, hundreds of miles away.

The former White House political adviser John Kelly remembers that, on one such occasion, after intelligence of an impending missile launch came in, Trump said he wanted to shoot the weapon down. “Well, sir, that’s an act of war,” Kelly recalls telling him. “You really need to go over to Congress and get at least an authorization.”

“They’ll never go along with it,” Trump apparently replied.

“Well, I know,” Kelly said. “But that’s our system.”

This anecdote and many other alarming scenes appear in Jim Sciutto’s “The Return of Great Powers,” an absorbing account of 21st-century brinkmanship. Sciutto has interviewed several of Trump’s former advisers, including Kelly, who explains that he managed to talk his old boss out of some of his worst ideas only by suggesting they would hurt his standing in public opinion. “Americans, generally speaking by polling, think that we should be involved in the world,” he recalls telling Trump when the president threatened to pull the United States out of NATO.

The former national security adviser John Bolton is even more blunt about this episode. “Honest to God,” Bolton says, “it was frightening because we didn’t know what he was going to do up until the last minute.”

That such political figures would speak so candidly can be partly credited to Sciutto’s standing as CNN’s chief national security analyst and his earlier stint with the State Department under Barack Obama. He’s the kind of well-connected reporter who, as we learn in this book, gets a call at 3 a.m., in February 2022, from an unnamed Congress member to warn him that a war in Ukraine is imminent.

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