• Biden Wants All the Points Due a Wartime President without Actually Going to War

    April 4, 2022 // 7 Comments »

    The view that war is politics by other means, the realist idea nations pursue strategic goals with some sort of calculation behind them, is not for us. Americans must reduce everything to good versus evil, democracy versus autocracy, light versus dark. Leaders throughout history have sold wars with this b.s.; America’s problem is we seem to actually believe it’s true. Let’s see how it plays out in the real world.

    Imagine facing an enemy who refuses to surrender despite overwhelming odds, leaving the other side the choice between a protracted urban war or an air attack to resolve the situation. In the case of Putin and Kiev, our nightly news is flooded with images of the targeting of civilians and screams from Washington of war crimes. The American answer in an earlier war, however, was the atomic destruction of Hiroshima and Nagasaki, two targets at the end of a long and ugly war where women and children were casually incinerated to save we were told additional casualties on the ground. It was OK because America is basically good. If you twist that logic hard enough it comes out we did the Japs a favor by nuking their cities. The cries of “but it’s different!” because of whatever, Pearl Harbor, are left unanswered by the blackened ghosts of the Japanese who died not knowing what a favor the US did them.

    And that action in 1945 (amplified by the destruction by policy of whole villages in Korea and Vietnam, never mind the scorched earth of Fallujah) leaves the United States in a unique position it pretends not to know about. As Putin and others may talk about nuclear threats, history records that we alone actually used nuclear weapons, against civilian targets. Little bitches like Putin or Kim may issue threats but only the United States has carried through with it. It’s a helluva basis for morality.

     

    America’s simplistic morality means it cannot ascribe a legitimate strategic goal to an adversary; he must instead be crazy, insane, new Hitler, bonkers, thug, bully, war criminal, driven to restore Imperial Russia, a danger to his own people, bent on world domination, Saddam, Assad, Qaddafi, anything out of the Bond villian community. Local or regional problems thus self-inflate into existential threats to democracy. We can’t just beat Putin in Ukraine, we have to destroy his economy, regime change him, murder him outright to even the moral score since he dared challenge our world view. This causes us to make serious mistakes.

    In Putin’s case, few allow that maybe he really is scared of NATO forces walking right to his border and seeks a buffer zone in the Ukraine. That is certainly what he has said (we don’t believe him.) At the end of the Cold War the west denuclearized new nation states like Ukraine, redrew their borders in line with western aims, and added Poland and the Balkan states to NATO. Most of all, with the fall of the Soviet Union, the west did not dismantle NATO. The alliance, formed for the collective defense of western Europe against the Soviets, was left not only to stand after the Soviet Union was gone, but thrust eastward, claiming territory that would have been among NATO’s first targets had the Cold War gone hot.

    Imagine the reaction inside Moscow to its worst fears being shoved at it at its weakest moment, and if you can, you may understand Putin’s not-crazy goals. As the west turned up the heat instead of bringing Russia in from the cold, NATO went from a defensive alliance to a political cudgel. From Putin’s point of view, he faces an adversary which actually believes it has the moral responsibility to dictate global political arrangements, even in regions that are more important to him than they are to the Washington.

    Putin tried to make his needs known, that Ukraine should stay neutral. His proffer was met by a coup (likely abetted by the US) which brought pro-US nationalists to power. The response was, almost had to have been, Putin’s invasion of Crimea. These are not wars of choice in the way say Putin invading Iraq might be, but wars of strategic necessity to him. Had the US had the philosophical ability to understand this, it might have found a reasonable negotiating strategy instead of poking the bear in one of his most sensitive areas until he reacted.

    That is the background, but why attack Ukraine now? In its arrogance America has decided it all has to do with America, actually the least important factor here. So we hear about Trump and Putin’s bromance, wonder if Biden is weak, speculate the horrible ending in Afghanistan is at fault. But if you think like Putin, your focus is elsewhere. He looks at the warpigs in charge today, the same Obama team from the 2014 overthrow, Blinken, Sullivan, Nuland, and Susan Rice. And it was then-VP Biden who personally ran Obama’s Ukraine policy. He knows CIA paramilitaries are on the ground in Ukraine. Then in November 2021 the US and Ukraine signed the Charter on Strategic Partnership, asserting Kiev’s right to NATO membership. The Charter was a policy statement by the Biden administration, and an intolerable prospect for Russia. By imagining Putin as nothing but a megalomaniac, America unknowingly drew a red line for him. It is easy to imagine a future historian uncovering documents showing the planning for the current invasion began at that same time.

    Convinced NATO will never reject Ukraine, Putin took his own steps to block it. By invading, he created a “frozen conflict” knowing NATO cannot realistically admit countries that don’t control their borders (how to apply Article Five when a country is already at war as it joins NATO?) Such frozen conflicts already cripple Georgia, Crimea, and Moldova, as well as the semi-independent areas of Donbas and Luhansk. Add now Ukraine to that list. If you understand this, you also know what happens next in Ukraine: not much apart from better defining borders and the new lines of control. No need to drive much further west, Putin has already got most of what he wanted. And no need to worry about nukes, they are not needed for Putin’s strategic purpose.

    This is why sanctions won’t accomplish much besides raising the price of gas for Americans. Putin is chasing a goal which has eluded Russia for three decades. Sanctions will not cause him to give that up, any more than previous sanctions caused him to hesitate striking. Russia and America are talking past one another, identifying different motivations and different end games.

    The sad news is Ukraine does not realize it is a pawn in a larger struggle. The Ukrainians bought the big lie in the 90s that if they denuclearized America would protect them. They now join the long list of countries goaded by the US into fighting to the last man in support of American foreign policy goals (ask the Iraqi Kurds, and later the Sunnis, how that worked out.) Ukrainians are very brave, but it was Americans that put them in harm’s way by using their country as a crush zone, with little consideration for the people now paying the price.

    Biden wants all the points due a wartime president without actually going to war; he is practicing political opportunism not statecraft. That will collapse mightily on old Joe if Putin declares victory first. So soon enough Zelensky will get the call from the White House letting him know time is up, he’ll have to take a deal with Russia to reset the status quo for a faux “win.” Biden needs the war to end before it starts to look like he lost. Zelensky can reject this and go down hard, like Diem in Vietnam in the 1960s who didn’t realize his time in America’s lap was up, or he can leave Ukraine a “hero,” beaten but never broken, book and biopic movie deal, presidential medal ceremony in the White House, yada yada.

    Biden at some point (it took decades in Afghanistan) will realize he misunderstood his adversary and seek to cut and run. It seems we are close. Zelensky’s propaganda campaign, the atrocity of the day/hero of the day scheme, has failed to bring NATO into the war. Americans get bored easily. He’s just about jumped the shark. If Russians bombing a children’s hospital isn’t enough, there is no enough.

    International affairs researcher Matthew Waldman wrote, “‘strategic empathy’ isn’t about agreeing with an adversary’s position. It is about understanding it so you can fashion an appropriate response.” That is the key to some sort of resolution in Ukraine, and the key to a more effective foreign policy for the US going forward. This is all uncomfortable for most Americans, raised on a steady diet of if we do it is right and moral, if they do it it is evil. But given the dubious success record of this policy across US-supported dictatorships of the Middle East, and Central and South America, and failures in Iraq, Afghanistan, Libya, Yemen and likely soon, Ukraine, maybe a new way forward is worth a look.

     

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    Copyright © 2020. All rights reserved. The views expressed here are solely those of the author(s) in their private capacity.

    Posted in Military

    Leading to War in Ukraine?

    March 11, 2022 // 19 Comments »

    The whole idea of boycotting Russian vodka reminds too much of “freedom fries” from Gulf War II. It seems stupid and silly until you realize we are stupid and silly and this is how we are led to war.

    The tsunami of pro-Ukrainian propaganda is only matched by its transparency. The Ghost of Kiev was crafted out of an aircraft computer game. The Ukrainians on that island who would rather die than surrender surrendered. The supermodels joining the army are holding toy rifles. Zelensky is Where’s Waldo, popping up in undated video with unidentifiable backgrounds, dressed in military cosplay reminiscent of George W. Bush in his flight suit. The simplistic narrative is the same simplistic narrative: plucky freedom fighters against some evil dictator. It’s the same story of the resistance fighters in Syria against Assad, the Kurds against ISIS, the Northern Resistance, the Sunnis who joined our side, the Taliban who Ronald Reagan called the equivalent of our Founding Fathers for their fight against the Red Army.

    Putin now is the most evil man on earth, unhinged, mentally unwell. Saddam once was, Assad used to be, and Quaddafi was to the point where America cheered as he was sodomized with a knife on TV.  Putin is so unstable we don’t know what he’ll do. Familiar voices are raised: The Brookings Institution’s Ben Wittes demands: “Regime change: Russia.” The Council on Foreign Relations’ Richard Haass roared that “the conversation has shifted to include the possibility of desired regime change in Russia.” One headline wishfully notes “knocking Putin’s teams off the sports stage leaves him exposed to his own people.” No one seems to recall, however, our last attempt at regime change in Russia is what put Putin into power in the first place.

    Putin’s goals have gone in a matter of days from sorting out Cold War borders to “the restoration of a triumphalist, imperialistic Russian identity, or another bloodstained nationalistic surge to cover for the criminality of his regime, or whether he just has come egotistically unmoored.” One former Iraqi War cheerleader tells us Ukraine, the “front line between democracy and autocracy, is a core interest of the United States… Ukraine is where the battle for democracy’s survival is most urgent. ”

    Others are more direct. Rep. Adam Kinzinger, Senator Roger Wicker, and Zelensky demand a no-fly zone. They have friends; a poll as the invasion began found “52 percent of Americans see the conflict between Russia and Ukraine as a critical threat to US vital interests” with almost no partisan division. No polling on what those vital interests might be. Rep. Eric Swalwell and Rep. Ruben Gallego want all Russians deported from the US. As if preparing for war, the U.S. has already closed its embassies in Ukraine and Belarus, and placed Embassy Moscow on “Authorized Departure” status for non-emergency staff and family members. On the other end of the government, the CIA is training Ukrainians for an insurgency. You know, like with the mujahedeen in Afghanistan years ago. Lawmakers at a congressional hearing discussed having American intelligence provide more direct assistance to Ukraine, including ground operatives.

    No dissent is allowed. You are either “with us or against us.” The homogeneity of our social and MSM is terrifying. Censorship is in full fury; the fact checkers are hands off even the most outrageous claims (the Ukrainians have trained cats to spot Russian laser sights) and Twitter calls out Russian sources but not pro-Ukrainian ones. Facebook and YouTube post Ukrainian propaganda made in violation of the Geneva Convention. Google News will not include anything from Russian state media. The NYT is running anonymously-sourced tales claiming the Russians are deserting or sabotaging their own vehicles. Rolling Stone is naming “the American right-wingers covering for Putin as Russia invades Ukraine,” currently Tucker Carlson, Alex Jones, J.D. Vance, and Tulsi Gabbard. The worst of all of course is Trump, whom Liz Cheney claims “aids our enemies” and whose “interests don’t seem to align with the interests of the United States.” When he proposed Congress vote on military escalations by the US in Ukraine, Senator Mike Lee was quickly called “Moscow Mike.”

    If all that isn’t laying the ground work for a fight, it has been an awful lot of work for nothing.

    We’ve been here before when everything was the same but not the same. Following Putin’s 2014 seizure of Crimea, and feints toward Ukraine, then-President Barack Obama said Ukraine is a core Russian interest but not an American one, so Russia will always be able to maintain escalatory dominance there. “The fact is that Ukraine, which is a non-NATO country, is going to be vulnerable to military domination by Russia no matter what we do.” Obama showed the same realism in 2013 when in the face of war-mongering over Assad “gassing his own people in Syria” he backed away from widening the war (if only Obama had been equally pragmatic over Libya.)

    But Biden is not Obama. Biden, due to age and background, is not a strong man. Unlike Obama, he does not see himself awash in the stream of history, but more as a caretaker until the Democratic Party can regroup, the Gerald Ford of his era. Biden is a weak man who will come under increasing pressure to “do something” as it becomes apparent the newest layer of sanctions against Russia accomplishes as little as the last layer of sanctions. The previous sanctions, among other things, did not stop Putin from invading Ukraine.

    But more than anything else, Joe Biden is a Cold Warrior, burdened fully with a world view Obama was not. That world view says the role of the United States is to create a global system and enforce its rules. We can invade nations that did not attack us and demand regime change but you cannot. We decide which nations have nuclear weapons and which can not. We can walk our NATO-alliance right to your border but you cannot do the same with yours. We decide what systems control international commerce and who can participate in them. It is right and just for us to talk about crippling an economy, but not you. It was all best expressed by Condoleezza Rice, who commented with a straight face on Putin’s invasion of Ukraine “When you invade a sovereign nation, that is a war crime.”

    This world view says the United States can empower former Soviet satellites and grow American influence by expanding NATO eastward (Lithuania, Latvia, Estonia, Poland, and Romania formally joined the alliance, East Germany by default) and to do this while taking the nuclear weapons away from those states so that none of them would become a threat or rival in Europe. It was American policy to have weak but not too weak states between Russia and the “good” part of Europe, dependent on America for defense.

    As the Soviet Union collapsed, borders were redrawn to match the West’s needs (the same mistake was made earlier by the British post-WWI in the Middle East.) The reality of 2022 is Putin is seeking to redraw borders. Ukraine as a possible NATO member is a threat to Putin and he is now taking care of that. Americans live in a country that has no border threats and fails to understand the mindset time after time; imagine Mexico joining the Warsaw Pact in 1970.

    We were warned. After the Senate ratified NATO expansion in 1998 despite the collapse of the Soviet Union, Ambassador George Kennan stated “I think it is the beginning of a new cold war. I think the Russians will gradually react quite adversely. I think it is a tragic mistake. No one was threatening anybody else. We have signed up to protect a whole series of countries, even though we have neither the resources nor the intention to do so in any serious way.”

    That’s the circa-1998 trap Joe Biden is being lured back into. Only months after the America collapse and retreat from Afghanistan, Biden learned nothing. Our defeat did not teach us humility and restraint. It did not school us that America can no longer dictate global rules, sitting as judge while an ally invades a neighbor and then turning to hurl lightening bolts when an enemy invades one. It did not budge us a hair away from the destructive moral certainty that fuels our foreign policy. All that’s missing now is for someone to claim Russia and China are a new Axis of Evil.

    Putin invaded Ukraine because, unlike Biden, he understands the new, new world order has different rules. Joe Biden, not always a quick study, has two choices. He can give in to the voices for war and try and prop up the myth of World’s Policemen for another round, or he can understand the consistent failures of American crusades and the global Pax Americana since WWII, especially those in the Middle East of the past two decades, plus the rise of multipolar economic powers to include China, have changed the rules. Negotiation is no longer appeasement. We aren’t in control anymore, and despite Iraq and Afghanistan, Biden may seek another bloody confirmation of that. Or he can understand America’s core interests are not in Ukraine and keep the peace.

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    Copyright © 2020. All rights reserved. The views expressed here are solely those of the author(s) in their private capacity.

    Posted in Military

    Taiwan is Not Ukraine is Not Taiwan

    March 5, 2022 // 6 Comments »

    I have a medal for winning the Cold War. It was issuable to any member of the military, or civilian employee of the federal government, who served during the Cold War. That included me, at the tail end, with the State Department. Ironically my so-called Cold War service was on Taiwan. I probably should return the thing; the Cold War is far from over.

    Part of the Cold War’s real conclusion is playing out in Ukraine in real time. Is Taiwan, another hanging chad from the Cold War, next? Is President Xi watching a weakened America giving in to the Russians and seeing his chance to seize Taiwan?

    Nope. Taiwan is not Ukraine is not Taiwan. The two states only exist next to each other in articles like this because both are the results of American policy. Each exists alongside its nemesis only because the rules the U.S. created after WWII are not subscribed to anymore by most of the world, if they ever really were. But that does not mean Taiwan is in imminent danger.

    While Putin‘s instant invasion timing may or may not have had something to do with Joe Biden (if Trump were really his puppet that would have seemed an easier time to do this) the reality is what is unfolding in the Ukraine reaches back much further than Biden or Trump, to the collapse of the Soviet Union. It was then the policy of the United States to empower the former Soviet satellite states and grow American influence by expanding NATO eastward (Lithuania, Latvia, Estonia, Poland, and Romania formally joined the alliance, East Germany as well by default) and to do this while taking the nuclear weapons away from those states so that none of them would become a threat or rival in Europe. We took their people, too. As a young State Department officer in London in the early 1990s I was told to issue visa after visa to former nuclear scientists from the Ukraine, as well as all sorts of rogues headed to the United States to get them out of the ‘Stans. We created a brain drain to ensure none of the new nation states could rise above the nuclear threshold the United States established unilaterally for them. It was American policy to have weak but not too weak border states between Russia and the “good” part of Europe.

    Understanding why an adversary does something is not the same as supporting him. As the Soviet Union collapsed, borders were redrawn with more attention to the West’s needs than any natural flow of those borders (the same mistake was made earlier by the British post-WWI in the Middle East.) Historically at some point in time all those borders were just glaciers, so it is always possible to argue some slip of history means somewhere used to be owned by someone going all the way back to mastodons. The reality of 2022 is Putin is seeking to redraw borders created by his adversaries, something now possible as Russia has been allowed by the West to re-grow its fangs. Ukraine as a possible NATO member was a threat to Putin and he this week is taking care of that. Americans live in a country that essentially has no border threats and fail to understand this time after time. We believe when we invade countries (Vietnam, Cambodia, Grenada, Iraq, Libya, Afghanistan) it’s part of international law.

    Geopolitically, it was easy. A pro-Russian faction exists inside Ukraine, and Ukraine exists outside the NATO umbrella. Putin’s proof-of-concept, his 2014 takeover of Crimea, assured him NATO would not militarily intervene. About the only real obstacle he faced was the likely pleas of President Xi to hold off a couple of weeks and not spoil the Olympics.

    Taiwan is another Cold War relic. The U.S. propped up Taiwan’s very undemocratic military government for decades as an ironic bulkhead against communism. Taiwan grew into an economic powerhouse and in that lies the fundamental difference between the relationships of Russia and Ukraine, and China and Taiwan.

    China and Taiwan are economic partners. Between 1991 and March 2020 Taiwan’s investment in China totaled $188.5 billion, more than China’s investment in the United States. In 2019, the value of cross-strait trade was $149.2 billion. China is Taiwan’s largest trading partner. China and Taiwan are ethnically the same people, enjoying an enormous amount of cross strait commerce, culture, student exchanges, visits among relatives, and other ties that indicate a growing, positive relationship not an adversarial one. What incentive would China have to drop bombs on one of its best customers?

    There’s also the U.S. to consider, as any cross-strait violence would affect US-China relations; Ukraine has little effect on the already poor state of US-Russia relations. The total Chinese investment in the U.S. economy is over $145 billion. U.S. investment in China passed $1 trillion. China is the second largest foreign holder of U.S. government debt. If something interfered with all that commerce, China would have to find a way to use unfinished iPhones as food.

    One of the problems with the sanctions Biden is claiming he’s going to use to punish Russia is how unintegrated Russia is in the world economy after so many years of sanctions. Really, what’s left that will sting? Biden promises “economic consequences like none [Putin]’s ever seen.” But the Panama Papers already showed much of the so-called oligarch money, including Putin’s, is not in the U.S. or its allies’ banking systems anyway. Germany is temporarily halting certification of the Nord Stream 2 pipeline, but no one is talking about tearing it down. if U.S. sanction drive up gas prices without affecting the situation on the ground in Ukraine, who is sanctioning whom?

    China on the other hand is deeply integrated into the global economy and vulnerable to sanctions and disruptions of commerce following an attack on Taiwan. The risk in calculatable dollars is beyond any gain owning Taiwan would bring; imagine the impact of closing U.S. ports to Chinese cargo vessels.

    On the military side, Russia was able to literally drive into Ukraine, something the mighty Red Army has been perfecting since 1945. Taiwan famously is an island, and a Chinese amphibious invasion would represent something larger than the Normandy D-Day landings. Whereas the Ukrainians have limited ability to respond to a blitzkrieg land invasion, Taiwan fields Harpoon missiles with the range to put Chinese forces under fire almost as they leave port. Militarily there is no comparison between the flat plains of the Ukraine and the rocky coast of Taiwan. Nobody undertakes an invasion they are very likely to lose.

    An invasion of Taiwan would leave China politically isolated, economically damaged, and reputationally crippled. Not so for Russia and Ukraine where the benefits to Russia outweigh the risk. Taiwan is not Ukraine is not Taiwan.

     

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    Posted in Military

    Tell Us Why We’re At War in Iraq Again, Mr. President

    October 30, 2015 // 18 Comments »

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    When I was a kid, three presidents told us we had to fight in Vietnam, Cambodia and Laos, because if we didn’t fight them over there, we’d have to fight them on the beaches of California. We believed. It was a lie.

    I was a teenager during the Cold War, and several presidents told us we needed to create massive stockpiles of nuclear weapons, garrison the world, invade Cuba, fight in odd little places and use the CIA to overthrow democratically elected governments and replace them with dictators, or the Russians would destroy us. We believed. It was a lie.

    When I was in college our president told us that we needed to fight in El Salvador, Guatemala, Honduras and Nicaragua or the Sandinistas would come to the United States. He told us Managua was closer to Washington DC than LA was. He told us we needed to fight in Lebanon, Grenada and Libya to protect ourselves. We believed. It was a lie.

    When I was a little older our president told us how evil Saddam Hussein was, how his soldiers bayoneted babies in Kuwait. He told us Saddam was a threat to America. He told us we needed to invade Panama to oust a dictator to protect America. We believed. It was a lie.

    The next president told us we had to fight terrorists in Somalia, as well as bomb Iraq, to protect ourselves. We believed. It was a lie.


    The one after him told us that because a group of Saudis from a group loosely tied to Afghanistan attacked us on 9/11, we needed to occupy that country and destroy the Taliban, who had not attacked us, for our own safety. The Taliban are still there. But we believed. It was a lie.

    After that we were told that Saddam Hussein threatened every one of us with weapons of mass destruction, that the smoking gun would be a mushroom cloud, that Saddam was in league with al Qaeda. We believed. It was a lie.

    In 2011 the president and his secretary of state told us we needed regime change in Libya, to protect us from an evil dictator. We believed. It was a lie.

    In August 2014 the same president told us we needed to intervene again in Iraq, on a humanitarian mission to save the Yazidis. No boots on the ground, a simple act of humanness that only the United States could conduct, and then leave. We believed. It was a lie.

    Now we are told by that same president that Americans will again fight on the ground in Iraq, and Syria, and that Americans have and will die. He says that this is necessary to protect us, because if we do not defeat Islamic State over there, they will come here, to what we now call without shame or irony The Homeland.


    We want to believe, Mr. President. We want to know it is not a lie.

    So please address us, explain why what you are doing in Iraq is different than everything listed above. Tell us why we should believe you — this time — because history says you lie.




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    Copyright © 2020. All rights reserved. The views expressed here are solely those of the author(s) in their private capacity.

    Posted in Military