Here’s an idea. Before we stumble into a war over Ukraine with Russia, let’s figure out the answer to this very simple question. Why?
What are our national interests that are so vital that we need to enter into what will probably be the biggest, true conventional conflict we have fought since 1945? What will be our precise objectives in this conflict? How will we know when we have won?
The last time we went to war and made any pretense of being able to answer these kinds of questions was probably the First Gulf War in 1991. We went to war with Iraq in response to Saddam Hussein’s invasion of Kuwait. We drove him out. We went home.
After that in 2001, we invaded Afghanistan to drive out Al Qaeda and topple the Taliban. Having accomplished that in a matter of months we decided to hang around for twenty years and attempt to turn a 12th-century collection of tribes and city-states into a European-style nation-state. That insane crusade ended in a debacle and left American national security significantly the worse for the effort.
But the defense contractors made out like bandits, and lots of bureaucrats got to build huge empires on all the funding that was provided.
We then invaded Iraq to topple Saddam Hussein and remove that threat from the Middle East. After a war that lasted only weeks and put us in a position to install a new government and go home congratulating ourselves on a job well done, we decided instead it would be a good idea to disband the military and the intelligence services, fire effectively all the public servants in the country, unleash a bunch of 1500-year-old hatreds and take on the task of running the country ourselves.
We are still waiting to see how that one ends. But the national security state is bigger than ever. The kid down the block may not have any legs anymore, but I can guarantee a bunch of guys wearing stars at the Pentagon made rank without hearing a shot fired in anger.
I will skip the slightly more distant example of Vietnam. The point is made. War is not something to be played at. It is brutal. It is horrible. People die, cities are destroyed, and it unfolds in all sorts of unpredictable directions.
No one should ever enter into war lightly. Yes, there are things worth fighting for, but those things need to be clearly articulated in advance of the firing of the first shot. Just as clearly it needs to be understood how and why military conflict is the only means of achieving those objectives.
And then, once we go to war, and we use all necessary force, and we achieve those objectives, we need to declare victory and go home. Going to war to crush Al Qaeda and then deciding the conflict is really about gender equality, electrification, and paving roads is a prescription for disaster.
We are careening toward disaster in Ukraine. That nation sits on the border of the Russian heartland. For Putin, what happens there is not an abstraction. It is not some conflict of marginal interest on the far side of the globe. When he contemplates a Ukraine fully integrated into the European Union and part of NATO, he sees a dagger pointed at the heart of Mother Russia.
Make no mistake. If he thinks he must, Putin will go to war over Ukraine, and he will commit the entire Russian military to winning that war.
We have no idea what we are doing in regard to Ukraine. For most of his time in office, Joe Biden has done virtually everything he can think of to signal weakness to Moscow and the rest of the world. As Vice-President, he was part of Obama’s policy of sending medical kits to Kyiv when the Ukrainians wanted anti-tank missiles. Biden is surrounded in office by the weakest foreign policy team ever assembled. On any given day they do more work for Xi Jinping than they do for the American people.
Now, as things threaten to spiral out of control and leadership is essential, Biden babbles incoherently out of alternate sides of his mouth on the issue. Putin will pay a “heavy price” if he invades Ukraine. There will be “severe consequences.” But those consequences will not include military force. American troops are not going to Ukraine. Unless the Europeans want to join in, in which case, maybe.
Meanwhile, Senator Roger Wicker, a Republican from Mississippi is talking about our ability to “rain destruction” on Russia and the possibility of a nuclear first strike. Always helpful when you are trying to deescalate a situation and avoid getting very large numbers of people killed.
Nowhere in any of this is a sober, rational analysis. What are American national interests? How can they best be achieved?
A rational man might conclude that we want a prosperous, democratic Ukraine free of Russian influence. He might also conclude that having Ukraine become part of NATO, is a red line for Putin for a reason. It puts Western forces within striking distance of Vlad’s capital.
A policy that is a mix of carrot and stick might then be crafted. Perhaps a good place to start would be with shutting down Moscow’s efforts to build the Nordstrom 2 pipeline and give itself the ability to export natural gas to Western Europe without requiring Ukrainian permission for that gas to transit Ukraine. That move coupled with a rollback of measures limiting the production and export of American natural gas ought to get Vladimir’s attention. The Europeans will buy American natural gas just as readily as gas from Russia.
At this point, the Russian economy is its energy sector, and nobody fights a war without cash.
Having prepped the battlefield then perhaps from a position of strength we could sit down with the Russians and find a way forward. Ukraine goes its own way. It becomes part of the European Union. It does not join NATO.
Putin does not get a puppet state on his border. He also does not get an American armored division and a NATO headquarters.
All of this, of course, presupposes a rational policy-making process, which at this point is probably too much to ask for. We are facing a potential foreign policy disaster, which will dwarf anything we have seen before. Our national security apparatus is owned by defense contractors, which view war as a profit-making enterprise. Lawmakers, virtually none of whom have ever worn the uniform, are acting tough and demanding we draw “red lines.”
And, at the head of it all is a man who may be in the pay of the Communist Chinese, and who is, seen in the best possible light, the most incompetent President in American history. We are careening toward the rocks, and nobody is at the wheel.