Andrew J. Bacevich – Informed Comment Thoughts on the Middle East, History and Religion Fri, 08 Dec 2023 02:51:20 +0000 en-US hourly 1 Israel’s War on Gaza shouldn’t be America’s War Fri, 08 Dec 2023 05:06:20 +0000 ( ) – One way of understanding the ongoing bloodbath pitting Israel against Hamas is to see it as just the latest chapter in an existential struggle dating back to the founding of the Jewish state in 1948. While the appalling scope, destructiveness, and duration of the fighting in Gaza may outstrip previous episodes, this latest go-around serves chiefly to reaffirm the remarkable intractability of the underlying Arab-Israeli conflict. 

Although the shape of that war has changed over time, certain constants remain. Neither side, for instance, seems capable of achieving its ultimate political goals through violence. And each side adamantly refuses to concede to the core demands of its adversary. In truth, while the actual fighting may ebb and flow, pause and resume, the Holy Land has become the site of what is effectively permanent conflict.

For several decades, the United States sought to keep its distance from that war by casting itself in the role of regional arbiter. While providing Israel with arms and diplomatic cover, successive administrations have simultaneously sought to position the U.S. as an “honest broker,” committed to advancing the larger cause of Middle Eastern peace and stability. Of course, a generous dose of cynicism has always informed this “peace process.”

On that score, however, the present moment has let the cat fully out of the bag. The Biden administration responded to the gruesome terrorist attack on October 7th by unequivocally endorsing and underwriting Israeli efforts to annihilate Hamas, with Gazans thereby subjected to a World War II-style obliteration bombing campaign. Meanwhile, ignoring tepid Biden administration protests, Israeli settlers continue to expel Palestinians from parts of the West Bank where they have lived for generations. If Hamas’s October assault was a tragedy, proponents of a Greater Israel also saw it as a unique opportunity that they’ve seized with alacrity. As for the peace process, already on life support, it now seems altogether defunct. Prospects of reviving it anytime soon appear remote.

More or less offstage, the fighting is having this ancillary effect: as Israeli Defense Forces (IDF) employ U.S.-provided weapons and munitions to turn Gaza into rubble, the “rules-based international order” touted by the Biden administration as the latest organizing principle of American statecraft has forfeited whatever slight credibility it might have possessed. Russia’s assault on Ukraine appears almost measured and humane by comparison.

As if to emphasize Washington’s own limited fealty to that rules-based order, President Biden’s immediate response to the events of October 7th focused on unilateral military action, bolstering U.S. naval and air forces in the Middle East while shoveling even more weapons to Israel. Ostensibly tasked with checking any further spread of violence, American forces in the region have instead been steadily edging toward becoming full-fledged combatants.

In recent weeks, U.S. forces have sustained dozens of casualty-producing attacks, primarily from rockets and armed drones. Attributing those attacks to “Iran-affiliated groups,” the U.S. has responded with air strikes targeting warehouses, training facilities, and command posts in Syria and Iraq.

According to a Pentagon spokesman, the overall purpose of American military action in the region is “to message very strongly to Iran and their affiliated groups to stop.” Thus far, the impact of such messaging has been ambiguous at best. Certainly, U.S. retaliatory efforts haven’t dissuaded Iran from pursuing its proxy war against American military outposts in the region. On the other hand, the scale of those Iran-supported attacks remains modest. Notably, no U.S. troops have been killed — yet.

For the moment at least, that fact may well be the administration’s operative definition of success. As long as no flag-draped coffins show up at Dover Air Force Base in Delaware, Joe Biden may find it perfectly tolerable for the U.S.-Iran subset of the Israel-Hamas war to simmer indefinitely on the back burner.

This pattern of tit-for-tat violence has received, at best, sporadic public attention. Where (if anywhere) it will lead remains uncertain. Even so, the U.S. is at risk of effectively opening up a new front in what used to be called the Global War on Terror. That war is now nearly dormant, or at least hidden from public view. The very real possibility of either side misinterpreting or willfully ignoring the other’s “messaging” could reignite it, with an expanded war that directly pits the U.S. against Iran making the Israel-Gaza war look like a petty squabble.

Then there are the potential domestic implications. No doubt President Biden’s political advisers are alive to the possibility of a major war affecting the outcome of the 2024 elections (and not necessarily to the incumbent’s benefit either). One can easily imagine Donald Trump seizing on even a handful of U.S. military fatalities in Middle East skirmishing as definitive proof of presidential ineptitude, akin to the bungled withdrawal from Kabul, Afghanistan, during Biden’s first year in office.

Two Wars Converge

Understanding the larger implications of these developments requires putting them in a broader context. In Gaza in the last two months, two protracted meta-conflicts that had unfolded on parallel tracks for decades have finally converged. That is likely to have profound implications for basic U.S. national security policy, even if few in Washington appear aware of the potential implications.

On the one track, dating from 1948 (although its preliminaries occurred decades earlier) is the Arab-Israeli conflict. Enshrined among Israelis as the War for Independence, for Arabs the events of 1948 are seen as the Nakba, or “Catastrophe.” Subsequent eruptions of violence have ensued from time to time, as Arab nations vented their anger at the Jewish state and Israel pursued opportunities to create a strategically more coherent and more economically viable, not to mention biblically endorsed, “Greater Israel.”

Initially intent on steering clear of the Arab-Israeli conflict — occasionally even denouncing Israeli misbehavior — American officials allowed themselves over time to be incrementally drawn into becoming Israel’s closest ally. Yet under the terms of the relationship as it evolved, the Israeli leaders insisted on retaining a large measure of strategic autonomy. Over Washington’s vociferous objections, for example, it acquired a robust nuclear arsenal. To guarantee their security, Israelis placed paramount emphasis on their own military capabilities, not those of the United States.

Meanwhile, on the other track, dating from the promulgation of President Jimmy Carter’s Carter Doctrine in 1980, U.S. forces have had their hands full in the region. With Israel exacerbating or fending off threats to its own security, successive American administrations undertook a series of new military commitments, interventions, and occupations across the Greater Middle East that had little or nothing to do with protecting Israel.

In the Persian Gulf, the Levant, the Horn of Africa, the Balkans, and Central Asia, the Pentagon dealt with problems of its own as those regions became venues for hosting American forces engaged in operations intended to protect, punish, or even “liberate.” Such military exertions and the presence of U.S. forces became commonplace throughout the Middle East — except in Israel. In the wake of the 9/11 attacks, Washington’s military actions reached their apotheosis when President George W. Bush embarked on a global campaign with the aim of eliminating evil.

Meanwhile, the various engagements undertaken by Israeli forces from the 1950s into the present century achieved mixed results. On the one hand, the Jewish state persists and has even expanded — a minimalist definition of “success.” On the other hand, recent events affirm that threats to Israel’s existence also persist.

In comparison, the U.S.-led Global War on Terror proved an outright failure, even if strikingly few ordinary Americans (and even fewer members of the political establishment) appear willing to acknowledge that fact.

Once the U.S.-supported regime in Kabul collapsed in 2021, it appeared American military misadventures in the Greater Middle East might be petering out. The humiliating result of Operation Enduring Freedom in Afghanistan in the wake of the disappointing outcome of Operation Iraqi Freedom had seemingly exhausted Washington’s appetite for remaking the region. Besides, there was Russia to tend to — and China. Strategic priorities seemed to be shifting.

Alarm Bells, American-Style

Now, however, in the wake of the atrocities committed on October 7th and Washington’s tacit acquiescence in Israel’s maximalist war aims, the dubious notion that vital American interests are still at stake in the Greater Middle East has taken on new life. Dating from the 1980s, Washington had cycled through a variety of arguments for why that part of the world was worthy of spending American blood and treasure: the threat of Soviet aggression, U.S. reliance on foreign oil, radical Arab dictators, Islamic jihadism, weapons of mass destruction falling into hostile hands, potential ethnic cleansing and genocide. All of those were pressed into service at one time or another to justify continuing to treat the Middle East as a strategic U.S. priority.

In truth, though, none of them has stood the test of time. Each has proven to be fallacious. Indeed, efforts to cure the sources of dysfunction afflicting the region proved to be a fool’s errand that has cost the United States dearly in money and lives while yielding little of value.

For that reason, allowing Israel’s conflict with Hamas to draw the United States into a new Middle Eastern crusade would be the height of folly. In fact, however, with little public attention and even less congressional oversight, that is precisely what may be happening. The Global War on Terror seems on the verge of absorbing the Gaza War into its current configuration.

In recent years, a shift in Pentagon priorities to the Indo-Pacific and to a future face-off with China has left only about 2,500 U.S. troops in Iraq and 900 more in Syria. The nominal mission of such modestly sized garrisons is to carry on the fight against the remnants of ISIS.

White House officials have, however, never gone out of their way to explain what those troops are really doing there. In practice, they have effectively become inviting stationary targets. As a consequence and not for the first time, “protecting the troops” has emerged as a convenient pretext for mounting a broader punitive response.

With Congress accepting claims that the Authorization for Use of Military Force (AUMF) enacted in response to 9/11 suffices to cover whatever U.S. forces in the region may be up to 22 years later, the Biden administration functionally has a free hand to act as it wishes. The course it has chosen is to use Israel’s war in Gaza as a rationale for reversing course in the Middle East and once again making violence and threats of violence the basis of U.S. policy there. On that score, the fact that some American forces are now covertly operating in Israel itself should set off alarm bells.

The Gaza War will change Israel in ways that may be difficult to foresee. The failure of its vaunted military and intelligence establishments to anticipate and thwart the worst terrorist attack in that country’s history leaves Jewish Israelis with a sense of unprecedented vulnerability. It will hardly be surprising if they look to Washington for protection, in which case Israel’s survival could become an American responsibility.

The invitation is one that the United States would do well to refuse. Accepting it will confront Americans with challenges they are ill-equipped to meet and with obligations they can ill afford. Deepening the Pentagon’s involvement in the Greater Middle East will only compound the failures to which the Carter Doctrine has already subjected this nation, while scrambling U.S. strategic priorities in ways sure to prove counterproductive.

In 1796, George Washington warned his countrymen of the dangers of allowing a “passionate attachment” to another nation to affect policy. That warning remains relevant today. The Gaza War is not and should not become America’s war.


The Compulsion to Intervene: Why Washington Underwrites Violence in Ukraine Fri, 02 Jun 2023 04:02:45 +0000 ( ) – Allow me to come clean: I worry every time Max Boot vents enthusiastically about a prospective military action. Whenever that Washington Post columnist professes optimism about some upcoming bloodletting, misfortune tends to follow. And as it happens, he’s positively bullish about the prospect of Ukraine handing Russia a decisive defeat in its upcoming, widely anticipated, sure-to-happen-any-day-now spring counteroffensive.

In a recent column reported from the Ukrainian capital — headline: “I was just in Kyiv under fire” — Boot writes that actual signs of war there are few. Something akin to normalcy prevails and the mood is remarkably upbeat. With the front “only [his word!] about 360 miles away,” Kyiv is a “bustling, vibrant metropolis with traffic jams and crowded bars and restaurants.” Better yet, most of the residents who fled that city when the Russians invaded in February 2022 have since returned home.

And despite what you might read elsewhere, incoming Russian missiles are little more than annoyances, as Boot testifies from personal experience. “From my vantage point in a hotel room in the center of Kyiv,” he writes, “the whole attack was no big deal — just a matter of losing a little sleep and hearing some loud thumps,” as air defenses provided by Washington did their work.

While Boot was there, Ukrainians repeatedly assured him that they would cruise to ultimate victory. “That’s how confident they are.” He shares their confidence. “In the past, such talk may have contained a large element of bravado and wishful thinking, but now it is a product of hard-won experience.” From his vantage point in a downtown hotel, Boot reports that “continued Russian attacks on urban areas are only making Ukrainians angrier at the invaders and more determined to resist their onslaught.” Meanwhile, “the Kremlin appears to be in disarray and mired in the blame game.”

Well, all I can say is: from Boot’s prayerful lips to God’s ear.

Courageous Ukrainians certainly deserve to have their stalwart defense of their country rewarded with success. Yet the long history of warfare sounds a distinctly cautionary note. The fact is that the good guys don’t necessarily win. Stuff happens. Chance intervenes. As Winston Churchill put it in one of his less well-remembered “always remember” axioms: “The Statesman who yields to war fever must realize that once the signal is given, he is no longer the master of policy but the slave of unforeseeable and uncontrollable events.”

President George W. Bush for one can certainly testify to the truth of that dictum. So too, assuming he’s still sentient, can Vladimir Putin. For either Ukrainian President Volodymyr Zelenskyy or Joe Biden to suppose that they’re exempt from its provisions would be daring indeed.

Boot is hardly alone in expecting the much-hyped Ukrainian operation — with June upon us, will it become a summer counteroffensive? — to break the months-long stalemate. The optimism voiced throughout Western quarters stems in significant part from a belief that new weapons systems promised to but not yet actually fielded by Ukraine — Abrams tanks and F-16 fighter jets, for example — will have a decisive impact on the battlefield.

There’s a term for that: It’s called cashing a check before it clears.

Punching Holes?

Even so, for Boot, the operational imperative appears obvious. With the Russian army currently defending a 600-mile front, he writes, “they cannot be strong everywhere.” As a consequence, “the Ukrainians just have to find a weak spot and punch through it.”

However unintentionally, Boot thereby recalls the infamous theory of warfare devised by German General Erich Ludendorff to break the deadlock on the Western Front in 1918: “Punch a hole and let the rest follow.” In their spring offensive that year, German armies under Ludendorff’s command did indeed punch a gaping hole in the Allied trench lines. Yet that tactical success yielded not a favorable operational result but exhaustion and ultimate German defeat.

Punching holes is a poor substitute for strategy. I make no pretense to be able to divine the thinking that prevails within senior Ukrainian military circles, but the basic math does them no favors. Russia’s population is roughly four times greater than Ukraine’s, its economy 10 times larger.

Western support, especially the more than $75 billion in assistance the U.S. has so far committed, has certainly kept Ukraine in the fight. The West’s implicit game plan is one of mutual attrition — bleeding Ukraine as a way to bleed Russia — with the apparent expectation that the Kremlin will eventually say uncle.

Prospects of success depend on either of two factors: a change in leadership in the Kremlin or a change of heart on the part of President Putin. Neither of those, however, appears imminent.

In the meantime, the bloodletting continues, a depressing reality that at least some in the U.S. national security apparatus actually find agreeable. Put simply, a war of attrition in which the U.S. suffers no casualties while plenty of Russians die suits some key players in Washington. In such circles, whether it comports with the well-being of the Ukrainian people receives no more than lip service.

American enthusiasm for punishing Russia might actually have made strategic sense if the zero-sum logic of the Cold War still pertained. In that case, the Ukraine War might be seen as a sort of do-over of the 1980s Afghan War. (Forget what the next version of that war did to this country in the twenty-first century.) Back then, the U.S. used the Afghan mujahideen as proxies in a campaign to weaken Washington’s principal Cold War global adversary. In its time (and overlooking the subsequent sequence of events that led to 9/11), it proved a brilliant stroke.

In the present moment, however, Russia is anything but America’s principal global adversary; nor is it obvious, given the pressing problems facing the United States domestically and in our own near abroad, why baiting Ivan should figure as a strategic priority. Beating up on the Russian army on battlefields several thousand miles away won’t, for example, provide an antidote to Trumpism or solve the problem of this country’s porous borders. Nor will it alleviate the climate crisis.

If anything, in fact, Washington’s preoccupation with Ukraine only testifies to the impoverished state of American strategic thinking. In some quarters, framing the present historical moment as a contest between democracy and autocracy passes for fresh thinking, as does characterizing American policy as focused on defending a so-called rules-based international order. Neither of those claims, however, can withstand nominal scrutiny, even if it seems bad form to cite close U.S. ties with autocracies like the Kingdom of Saudi Arabia and Egypt or to point out the innumerable instances in which this country has exempted itself from norms to which it insists others must adhere.

Granted, hypocrisy is endemic to statecraft. My complaint isn’t with President Biden fist-bumping Saudi Crown Prince Mohammed bin Salman or conveniently forgetting his support for the illegal 2003 invasion of Iraq. My complaint is more fundamental: it concerns the apparent inability of our political establishment to wean itself from obsolete thinking.

Classifying the survival and well-being of the Saudi monarchy as a vital U.S. security interest offers a specific example of obsolescence. Assuming that the rules that apply to others need not apply to the United States is certainly another more egregious one. In such a context, the Ukraine War offers Washington a convenient opportunity to wipe its own slate clean by striking a virtuous pose as it defends innocent Ukraine against brutal Russian aggression.

Think of U.S. participation in the Ukraine War as a means of washing away unhappy memories of its own war in Afghanistan, an Operation that began as “Enduring Freedom” but has become Instant Amnesia.

A Pattern of Intervention

The gung-ho American journalists summoning Ukrainians to punch holes in enemy lines might better serve their readers by reflecting on the larger pattern of American interventionism that began several decades ago and culminated in the disastrous fall of Kabul in 2021. To cite a particular point of origin is necessarily arbitrary, but the U.S. “peacekeeping” intervention in Beirut, its 40th anniversary now fast approaching, offers a convenient marker. That bizarre episode, today largely forgotten, ended with 241 U.S. Marines, sailors, and soldiers killed in a single devastating terrorist attack, their sacrifice neither keeping nor making peace.

Frustrated by developments in Beirut, President Ronald Reagan wrote in his diary on September 7, 1983, “I can’t get the idea out of my head that some” U.S. Navy fighters “coming in at about 200 ft… would be a tonic for the Marines & at the same time would deliver a message to those gun happy middle east terrorists.” Alas, by blowing up the Marines’ barracks, the terrorists delivered their message first.

Yet Reagan’s belief that the application of force could somehow provide a tidy solution to dauntingly complex geopolitical problems expressed what would become a continuing all-American theme. In Central America, the Persian Gulf, the Maghreb, the Balkans, and Central Asia, successive administrations embarked on a series of interventions that rarely produced any long-term successes, while exacting staggering cumulative costs.

Since 9/11 alone, U.S. military interventions in distant lands have cost American taxpayers an estimated $8 trillion and still counting. And that’s not even considering the tens of thousands of G.I.s killed, maimed, or otherwise left bearing the scars of war or the millions of people in the countries where the U.S. fought its wars who would prove to be direct or indirect victims of American policy-making.

Memorial Day commemorations, such as those just past, should remind us of the costs that result from punching holes, both real and metaphorical. With something close to unanimity, Americans profess to care about the sacrifices of those who serve the nation in uniform. Why don’t we care enough to keep them from harm in the first place?

That’s my question. But don’t look to the likes of Max Boot to provide an answer.

Via )

On Missing Dr. Strangelove: Or how Americans learned to Stop Worrying and forgot the Bomb Mon, 20 Mar 2023 04:02:28 +0000 ( – Bosley Crowther, chief film critic for the New York Times, didn’t quite know what to make of Dr. Strangelove at the time of its release in January 1964. Stanley Kubrick’s dark antiwar satire was “beyond any question the most shattering sick joke I’ve ever come across,” he wrote. But if the film had its hilarious moments, Crowther found its overall effect distinctly unnerving. What exactly was Kubrick’s point? “When virtually everybody turns up stupid or insane — or, what is worse, psychopathic — I want to know what this picture proves.”

We may find it odd for an influential critic to expect a movie to “prove” anything. Kubrick’s aim was manifestly not to prove, but to subvert and discomfit.

With feature-length hyperbole — not a wisp of subtlety allowed — Dr. Strangelove made the case that a deep strain of madness had infected the entire U.S. national security apparatus. From the “War Room” that was the Pentagon’s holiest of holies all the way to the cockpit of a B-52 hurtling toward its assigned Russian target with a massive nuclear bomb in its belly, whack jobs were in charge.

A mere two years after the Cuban missile crisis, few Americans viewed the prospect of nuclear Armageddon as a joking matter. Yet here was Dr. Strangelove treating this deadly serious topic as suitable for raucous (and slightly raunchy) comedy. That’s what bothered Crowther, who admitted to being “troubled by the feeling, which runs through the film, of discredit and even contempt for our whole defense establishment, up to and even including the hypothetical Commander-in-Chief.”

If the nation owed its very survival to that defense establishment — a widely accepted supposition during the Cold War — Kubrick’s contemptuous attitude was nothing short of blasphemous.

We may imagine other inhabitants of the circle in which Crowther lived and worked sharing his unease. Collectively, they comprised a world of believers — not a faith community in a religious sense but an elite establishment. Members of that establishment accepted as gospel an identifiable set of political, cultural, and moral propositions that defined mid-twentieth-century American life.

Chief among them was a conviction that communism — monolithic, aggressive, and armed to the teeth — posed an existential threat to what was then known as the Free World. In the face of that, it had become incumbent upon the United States to arm itself to the teeth. The preeminent symbol of U.S. readiness to thwart that Red threat was a massive nuclear strike force held on hair-trigger alert to obliterate the entire Soviet empire. (A typical 1961 report from the Joint Chiefs of Staff suggested that a full-scale U.S. nuclear attack on the Soviet Union would kill half its population, or 108 million people. An analysis the Joint Chiefs provided to the Kennedy White House that same year put the dead for Russia and China together at upwards of 600 million.)

Instant readiness to wage World War III thereby held the key to averting World War III. Politicians, generals, and PhD-wielding “defense intellectuals” all affirmed the impeccable logic of such an arrangement. As the menacing motto of the Strategic Air Command, which controlled America’s nuclear bombers and missiles, put it: “Peace Is Our Profession.”

Kubrick was not alone in expressing concern that such a saber-rattling pursuit of peace might yield an altogether different outcome. Could policies supposedly designed to prevent a nuclear holocaust actually produce it?

Arbiters of American culture like Crowther might have bridled at such a thought but proved unable to prevent it from gaining purchase. For authors of pulp fiction thrillers and Hollywood studio executives, the anxieties induced by the possibility of nuclear war were pure catnip. In 1964 alone, in addition to Dr. Strangelove, major movie releases included Fail Safe (Moscow and New York City are vaporized) and Seven Days in May (a military plot to overthrow a dovish U.S. president is barely averted). The near-miss of the Cuban missile crisis endowed such fictional plots with an eerie element of verisimilitude. So, too, did the USSR’s atmospheric detonation of a 50-megaton nuclear weapon in October 1961. That “Tsar Bomba” was over 1,500 times more powerful than both of the obliterating atomic bombs dropped on the Japanese cities of Hiroshima and Nagasaki in August 1945 to end World War II.

As long as the Cold War continued, popular worries about a single spasm of violence extinguishing humankind persisted, with national leaders obliged to offer at least gestures of sympathetic concern. Thus was born the project that came to be known as “nuclear disarmament,” which dated from President John F. Kennedy’s justifiably famous June 1963 speech at American University. Here was his inaugural “pay any price, bear any burden” speech of 1961 turned inside out and upside down. As if anticipating the cultural mood of our own day, the commander-in-chief vowed to “help make the world safe for diversity.” What followed was JFK at his most eloquent:

“For, in the final analysis, our most basic common link is that we all inhabit this small planet. We all breathe the same air. We all cherish our children’s future. And we are all mortal.”

From that moment on, Washington’s enthusiasm for ever larger nuclear arsenals containing ever more powerful weapons began to ebb. So, too, did public deference to the proponents of “overkill.” Crucially, however, the U.S. military’s ability to incinerate millions at a moment’s notice remained intact — as it does to this day, with a “modernization” of the American arsenal at a cost of a couple of trillion dollars now well underway.

In a sense, the “disarmament” movement of those years compares to the collective American response to the climate crisis of our own day. Sometimes the most expeditious approach to preserving the status quo, after all, is to make a pretense of embracing change. Think of Frank Sinatra partnering with Elvis Presley in a duet of “Love Me Tender.” Even without Irving Berlin and the Gershwins, Old Blue Eyes kept on selling records well into the era of rock-and-roll.

Putin Spoils the Party

Then came the collapse of communism.

As if at a stroke, worries about World War III dissipated. American schoolchildren soon forgot all about mandatory duck-and-cover drills. Dr. Strangelove became a curiosity from another era like The Maltese Falcon or Gone with the Wind. And while the Bulletin of the Atomic Scientists continued to update its creepy “Doomsday Clock,” the public ceased to pay much attention.

Considered in retrospect, Bosley Crowther had seemingly gotten the better of Stanley Kubrick in their little tiff. After all, a quarter-century after Dr. Strangelove appeared, the Cold War ended peacefully without a hint of World War III. Yes, a nuclear holocaust remained hypothetically possible, but it was no longer something worth fretting about.

Yet as nuclear nightmares faded, blissful dreams of peace did not take their place. Indeed, the ensuing post-Cold-War era, extending from the fall of the Berlin Wall in 1989 to the Russian invasion of Ukraine in 2022, found the United States perpetually at war or verging on war. During that period, however, few paid serious attention to the possibility that any of our conflicts might involve the use of nuclear weapons.

Nukes did retain occasional utility as a rationale for war. Consider, for instance, the decision of President George W. Bush and crew to invade Iraq in 2003, supposedly to eliminate Saddam Hussein’s (non-existent) nuclear arsenal. Still, among the subjects that riled up American politicians, newspaper columnists, and late-night TV hosts, nuclear worries seldom made the cut. Even as the Pentagon embarked on that multi-trillion-dollar program of nuclear (re)armament — marketed as needed safety upgrades — few seemed to notice. For Americans, culture wars, real and ongoing, took precedence over the theoretical prospect of replaying Hiroshima on a grander scale.

One might have thought that Russia’s attack on Ukraine and the protracted conflict that followed would have revived the nuclear nightmares of an earlier era. After all, Vladimir Putin has shown no reticence when it comes to sowing death and destruction (nor to implicitly threatening the use of “tactical” nuclear weapons). His determination to achieve Russia’s political objectives regardless of cost seems readily apparent.

Furthermore, U.S. officials and major media outlets have concurred in classifying the Russian president as uniquely dangerous. For example, a recent front-page news article in the New York Times — not an editorial or opinion piece — described Putin as beset by “grievances, paranoia and [an] imperialist mind-set” (that is, as an embittered nutcase).

Putin’s ostensible paranoia in combination with Russia’s gigantic nuclear arsenal would seem to justify a hair-on-fire response from Washington national security officials. Certainly, the danger of nuclear weapons use today greatly exceeds that of 20 years ago when the Bush administration argued that the Iraqi nuclear threat justified a Ukraine-style invasion.

The Biden administration’s insouciance regarding Russian nukes therefore qualifies as, at the very least, odd. According to my colleague at the Quincy Institute for Responsible Statecraft Anatol Lieven, “The greatest threat of nuclear catastrophe that humanity has ever faced is now centered on the Crimean peninsula.” His understanding of all things Russian greatly exceeds my own, but that assessment strikes me as about right. And while Planet Earth dangles on the edge of an abyss, the U.S. response is to debate whether or not to supply Ukraine with F-16s.

As far as I can tell, Biden administration policy regarding that embattled land rests on one crucial assumption: in the face of an open-ended, incremental U.S. escalation, the Kremlin will ultimately submit. In turn, Ukraine’s inevitable victory will endow Europe with peace and security until the end of time.

How that assumption meshes with the conviction that Putin is mentally unbalanced isn’t clear. Counting on an irrational actor to behave rationally is an inherently risky proposition.

Who’s in Charge Here?

Ukraine has become the locus of a conflict that, willy-nilly, pits Russia against the West — which means against the United States. How far can Washington push Putin before he tries to retaliate in some fashion against his primary adversary? Does President Biden even recognize the urgency of that question? If he does, he’s chosen not to share his concerns with the American people.

Granted, Biden has made clear his determination to prevent any direct American involvement in combat with Russia. The president likely calculates that the willingness of Americans to support Ukraine with billions of dollars in weapons and munitions stems in part from the fact that no U.S. troops are fighting and dying.

But there may well be another assumption that underlies popular support for U.S. involvement in Ukraine — namely, that the people in charge, beginning with the man in the White House, know what’s actually going on. Dr. Strangelove confronted that assumption head-on 69 years ago and rejected it utterly, depicting the people then in charge as somewhere between clueless and just plain dangerous.

Not for a moment would I liken Mr. Biden to that movie’s President Merkin Muffley, current chairman of the Joint Chiefs of Staff Mark Milley to Buck Turgidson, or any senior officer on active duty to Brigadier General Jack D. Ripper, the crazed commander of that film’s Burpelson Air Force Base. (Although I do wonder why the four-star Air Force General who recently told his troops to get ready for war with China in two years wasn’t immediately canned.)

Here’s the problem, at least as I see it: however smart and well intentioned, the people in charge in Washington today don’t know everything they think they know — and everything they need to know either. Detailed studies of the Cuban missile crisis have revealed that Kennedy and his men were acting on information that was all too often inadequate or simply wrong. They thought themselves in a position to control events when they weren’t. To a considerable extent, the U.S. and the Soviet Union avoided war in October 1962 through sheer dumb luck — and the selective disobedience of certain U.S. and Soviet junior officers who knew a stupid order when they heard one.

Of course, that was way back in the 1960s, ancient history as far as most Americans are concerned. Today, thanks to the wonders of advanced technology, U.S. intelligence and decision-making are much improved, right? Alas, recent screwups, including the disastrous termination of the Afghan War, don’t treat that claim kindly.

A proxy war pitting the United States against a paranoid adversary with a massive nuclear arsenal at his command: What could possibly go wrong? Kubrick’s timeless masterpiece invites us to reflect on that question — and the sooner we do, the better.


Annals of American Folly: Was Civilization Really at Stake in Iraq? Is it in Ukraine? Mon, 13 Feb 2023 05:02:01 +0000 ( ) – “To defend civilization, defeat Russia.” Writing in the unfailingly bellicose Atlantic, an American academic of my acquaintance recently issued that dramatic call to arms. And lest there be any confusion about the stakes involved, the image accompanying his essay depicted Russian President Vladimir Putin with a Hitler mustache and haircut.

Cast Putin as the latest manifestation of the Führer and the resurrection of Winston Churchill can’t be far behind. And, lo, more than a few observers have already begun depicting Ukrainian President Volodymyr Zelensky as the latest reincarnation of America’s favorite British prime minister.

These days, it may be Western-supplied missiles downing “kamikaze drones” rather than Spitfires tangling with Messerschmitts over southern England, but the basic scenario remains intact. In the skies above Ukraine and on the battlefields below, the “finest hour” of 1940 is being reenacted. Best of all, we know how this story ends — or at least how it’s supposed to end: with evil vanquished and freedom triumphant. Americans have long found comfort in such simplified narratives. Reducing history to a morality play washes away annoying complexities. Why bother to think when the answers are self-evident? 

A Case of Whataboutism?

Not that donning the mantle of Churchill necessarily guarantees a happy outcome — or even continued U.S. support. Recall, for example, that during a visit to Saigon in May 1961, Vice President Lyndon Johnson infamously anointed South Vietnamese President Ngo Dinh Diem the “Churchill of Asia.”

Alas, that exalted title didn’t spare Diem from being overthrown and murdered in a CIA-facilitated coup slightly more than two years later. U.S. complicity in bumping off South Vietnam’s stand-in for Churchill marked a critical turning point in the Vietnam War, transforming an annoyance into an out-and-out debacle. An appreciation for such ironies may help explain why Zelensky’s preferred anti-Nazi isn’t Winston Churchill but Charlie Chaplin.

All of that said, defending civilization is an honorable and necessary cause that deserves the support of every American. Where things get sticky is in deciding how to frame such an essential task. Put bluntly, who gets to choose what’s both honorable and necessary? In the editorial offices of the Atlantic and similarly Russophobic quarters, the unacknowledged assumption is, of course, that we do, where “we” means the West and, above all, the United States.

Timothy Snyder, a self-described “historian of political atrocity” who teaches at Yale, subscribes to this proposition. He recently weighed in with 15 reasons “Why the World Needs Ukrainian Victory.” Those 15 range widely indeed. A Ukrainian victory, Snyder asserts, will (#1) “defeat an ongoing genocidal project”; (#3) “end an era of empire”; and (#6) “weaken the prestige of tyrants.” By teaching an object lesson to China, it will also (#9) “lift the threat of major war in Asia.” For those worried about the climate crisis, defeating Russia will also (#14) “accelerate the shift from fossil fuels.” My own #1 is Snyder’s #13: a win for Ukraine will “guarantee food supplies and prevent future starvation.”

Put simply, according to Synder, a Ukrainian victory over Russia will have a redemptive impact on just about any imaginable subject, transforming the global order along with humanity itself. Ukrainians, he writes, “have given us a chance to turn this century around.” Again, let me emphasize that what gives me pause is the “us.”

That Professor Snyder along with the editors of the Atlantic (and similarly pugnacious publications) should focus so intently on the unfolding events in Ukraine is understandable enough. After all, the war there is a horror. And while Vladimir Putin’s crimes may fall well short of Hitler’s — whatever his malign intent may have been, stalwart Ukrainian resistance has certainly taken genocide off the table — he is indeed a menace of the first order and his reckless aggression deserves to fail.

Whether Ukrainian bravery combined with advanced Western weaponry will, however, have more than a passing impact on world history strikes me as a dubious proposition. Granted, on that score, I may be in the minority. Along with causing immense suffering, Putin’s war has unleashed a tidal wave of hyperbole, with Professor Snyder’s 15 reasons but one example.

As someone who makes no pretense to being an “historian of political atrocity” — the most I can muster is to classify myself as a “student of American folly” — my guess is that Russia’s invasion of Ukraine will have about as much lasting impact as our own invasion of Iraq, its 20th anniversary now approaching.

Bold to the point of recklessness, George W. Bush and his associates set out to alter the course of history. By invading a distant land deemed critical for this country’s national security, they sought to inaugurate a new era of American global dominance (styled “liberation” for propaganda purposes). The results achieved, to put it mildly, were different than expected.

However grotesque, Putin’s ambitions in Ukraine seem almost modest by comparison. Through an invasion and war of choice (styled an anti-fascist crusade for propaganda purposes), he sought to reassert Russian dominance over a nation the Kremlin had long deemed essential to its security. The results achieved so far, we can safely say, have proven to be other than those he expected.

When the Russian president embarked on his war in 2022, he had no idea what he was getting into, any more than George W. Bush did in 2003. Admittedly, the two make odd bedfellows and one can easily imagine each taking offense at being compared to the other. Still, the comparison is unavoidable: In the present century, Putin and Bush have been de facto collaborators in perpetrating havoc.

Some might charge me with committing the sin of whataboutism, pointing an accusing finger in one direction to excuse iniquity in another, but that’s hardly my intent. There’s no letting Putin off the hook: his actions have been those of a vile criminal.

Civilization at Risk?

But if Putin is a criminal, how then are we to judge those who conceived of, sold, launched, and thoroughly botched the Iraq War? With the passing of 20 years, has some statute of limitations kicked in to drain that conflict of relevance? My own sense is that the national security establishment is now strongly inclined to pretend that the Iraq War (and the Afghanistan War as well) never happened. Such an exercise in selective memory helps validate the insistence that Ukraine has once more conferred on the United States the primary responsibility for defending “civilization.” That no one else can assume that role is simply taken for granted in Washington.

Which brings us back to the nub of the issue: How is it that this particular conflict puts civilization itself at risk? Why should rescuing Ukraine take priority over rescuing Haiti or Sudan? Why should fears of genocide in Ukraine matter more than the ongoing genocide targeting the Rohingya in Myanmar? Why should supplying Ukraine with modern arms qualify as a national priority, while equipping El Paso, Texas, to deal with a flood of undocumented migrants figures as an afterthought? Why do Ukrainians killed by Russia generate headlines, while deaths attributable to Mexican drug cartels — 100,000 Americans from drug overdoses annually – are treated as mere statistics?

Of the various possible answers to such questions, three stand out and merit reflection.

The first is that “civilization,” as the term is commonly employed in American political discourse, doesn’t encompass places like Haiti or Sudan. Civilization derives from Europe and remains centered in Europe. Civilization implies Western culture and values. So, at least, Americans — especially members of our elite — have been conditioned to believe. And even in an age that celebrates diversity, that belief persists, however subliminally.

What makes Russian aggression so heinous, therefore, is that it victimizes Europeans, whose lives are deemed to possess greater value than the lives of those who reside in implicitly less important regions of the world. That there is a racialist dimension to such a valuation goes without saying, however much U.S. officials may deny that fact. Bluntly, the lives of white Ukrainians matter more than the lives of the non-whites who populate Africa, Asia, or Latin America.

The second answer is that casting the Ukraine War as a struggle to defend civilization creates a perfect opportunity for the United States to reclaim its place at the forefront of that very civilization. After years wasted wandering in the desert, the United States can now ostensibly return to its true calling.

President Zelensky’s astutely crafted address to Congress emphasized that return. By comparing his own troops to the G.I.s who fought in the Battle of the Bulge and quoting President Franklin Roosevelt on the inevitability of “absolute victory,” it was as if Winston Churchill himself had indeed reappeared in the Capitol to enlist Americans in the cause of righteousness.

Needless to say, Zelensky skipped past the distinctly un-Churchillian lapse in that tradition signified by the presidency of Donald Trump. Nor did he mention his own flirtation with Trump, which included assurances that “you are a great teacher for us.”

“America is back,” Joe Biden declared on multiple occasions during the first weeks of his presidency, and the Ukrainian president has been only too happy to repeatedly validate that claim as long as the flow of arms and munitions to sustain his forces continues. This country’s disastrous post-9/11 wars may have raised doubts about whether the United States had kept its proper place on the right side of history. With Zelensky signaling his approval, however, Washington’s participation in a proxy war — our treasure, someone else’s blood — seems to have quieted those doubts.

One final factor may contribute to this eagerness to see civilization itself under deadly siege in Ukraine.  Demonizing Russia provides a convenient excuse for postponing or avoiding altogether a critical reckoning with the present American version of that civilization. Classifying Russia as a de facto enemy of the civilized world has effectively diminished the urgency of examining our own culture and values. 

Think of it as an inverse conception of whataboutism. Shocking Russian brutality and callous disregard for Ukrainian lives divert attention from similar qualities not exactly uncommon on our very own streets.

As I began work on this essay, the Biden administration had just announced its decision to provide Ukraine with a handful of this country’s most advanced M-1 Abrams tanks. Hailed in some quarters as a “game changer,” the arrival of relatively small numbers of those tanks months or more from now is unlikely to make a decisive difference on the battlefield.   

Yet the decision has had this immediate effect: It affirms the U.S. commitment to prolonging the Ukraine War. And when credit earned for sending tanks is exhausted, the editors of the Atlantic backed by professors from Yale will undoubtedly press for F-16 fighter jets and long-range rockets President Zelensky is already requesting.    

Consider all of this, then, a signature of America in our time. Under the guise of turning the century around, we underwrite violence in faraway lands and thereby dodge the actual challenges of changing our own culture. Unfortunately, when it comes to rehabilitating our own democracy, all the Abrams tanks in the world won’t save us.


Deaf to History’s Questions: A Tale of Two Elizabeths, One Joe, One Donald, and Us Wed, 16 Nov 2022 05:02:40 +0000 ( ) – Britons mourned the recent passing of Queen Elizabeth II, and understandably so. The outpouring of affection for their long-serving monarch was more than commendable, it was touching. Yet count me among those mystified that so many Americans also professed to care. With all due respect to Queen Latifah, we decided way back in 1776 that we’d had our fill of royalty.

Mere weeks after the death of Elizabeth II came the demise of another Elizabeth, better known as Liz, whose tenure as British prime minister shattered all previous records for brevity. Forty-four days after Her Majesty had asked her to form a government, Liz Truss announced her decision to step down. Cries of “No, Liz, stay on!” were muted indeed, while she herself seemed to feel a sense of relief that her moment at the pinnacle of British politics had ended so swiftly.

As a general rule, I no more care who resides at 10 Downing Street than who lives in Buckingham Palace, since neither bears more than the most marginal relevance to the well-being of the United States. Even so, I confess that I found the made-for-tabloids tale of Truss’s rise and fall riveting — not a Shakespearean tragedy perhaps but a compelling dramedy offering raw material — most memorably in the form of lettuce — sufficient to supply stand-up comics the world over.

That Truss was manifestly unsuited to serve as prime minister should count as the understatement of the month. Her perpetually wide-eyed look seemingly expressed her own amazement at having high office thrust upon her and gave the game away. Along with the entire Tory party leadership, she was, it seemed, in on the caper — a huge joke at the expense of the British people.

Here was so-called liberal democracy in action. And not just any democracy, mind you, but an ancient and hallowed one. In American political circles, the notion persists that our own system of government somehow derives from that of Great Britain, that despite the many historical and substantive differences between the way Washington and Westminster work, we both share the same political space.

We and they are exemplars, models of popular government for the rest of the world. We and they stand arm-in-arm against autocrats and authoritarians. The legitimacy of the British democratic system affirms the legitimacy of our own. To others around the world aspiring to liberty, it proclaims: This is how it’s done. Now, go and do likewise.

In this particular instance, passing the torch in that ostensibly great democracy occurred in a matter of days. Notably, however, the British people played no part whatsoever in deciding who should succeed Truss. Of course, neither had they played any role in installing her as prime minister in the first place. Roughly 172,000 dues-paying members of the Conservative Party had made that decision on their behalf. And when her government abruptly imploded, even party members found themselves consigned to the role of spectators. In a nation of some 46 million registered voters, a grand total of 357 Conservative members of parliament decided who would form the next government — the equivalent of the Democratic caucus in the House of Representatives deciding it had had enough of Joe Biden and choosing his successor.

British Conservatives dismissed out of hand suggestions that a general election might be in order, that ordinary Britons should have some say in who would govern them. They did so for the most understandable of reasons: opinion polls indicated that in any election the Tory party would suffer catastrophic losses. It turns out that, in the hierarchy of values to which members of Parliament adhere, self-preservation ranks first. Students of American politics should not find that surprising.

To be clear, all of this falls completely within the rules of the game. Were the situation reversed, Britain’s Labour Party would surely have done likewise.

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In the United Kingdom, this is how democracy works. “The People” play the role allotted to them. That role expands or contracts to suit the convenience of those who actually call the shots. In practice, liberal democracy thereby becomes a euphemism for cynical manipulation. While the results may entertain, as the saga of Liz Truss surely did, they offer little to admire or emulate.

The entire spectacle should, however, give Americans food for thought. If extreme partisanship, greed, and hunger for power displace any recognizable conception of the common good, this is where we’re liable to end up.

Charles to the Rescue

But give the Brits this: when faced with a crisis at the heart of their politics, their politicians dealt with it expeditiously, even ruthlessly. In announcing economic policies to which their financial markets objected, Truss had seemingly forgotten whom she was actually working for. Because of that, she was promptly sacked and then just as quickly dispatched to the political wilderness.

Credit the sovereign with saving the day. Advised to invite Conservative MP Rishi Sunak to form a new government, Charles III did just that and then returned to Windsor or Balmoral or whichever royal property he and the queen consort are currently using.

Granted, the action by the new-to-the-job king was purely symbolic. Yet its importance can hardly be overestimated. Charles affirmed the legitimacy of what otherwise might have looked suspiciously like a bloodless coup engineered by panicky MPs less interested in governance than saving their own skins. He thereby more than earned his generous paycheck, just as his mother had over the course of seven decades when inviting pols of varying distinction to form governments.

Of course, little of this has anything to do with democratic practice per se. After all, no one elected Charles king, just as no one had elected his mum queen. And while Charles inherits the title “Defender of the Faith,” no one has ever looked to a British monarch to serve as a “Defender of Democracy.” The role of the monarch is to sustain a political order that keeps at bay the forces of anarchy, thereby enabling some version of representative government, however flawed, to survive.

By that measure, Britons have good cause to proclaim, “God Save the King.”

Still Legit?

All of which should invite us Americans to consider this long-taken-for-granted question: When it comes to the legitimacy of our own political system, how are we doing? Given the startling proliferation of illiberal and antidemocratic tendencies in the American polity, how should we rate the health of our own liberal democracy? Indeed, does the phrase “liberal democracy” even accurately describe what goes on in Washington and in several dozen state capitals?

That such a question has acquired genuine urgency speaks volumes about American politics in our time. Nor does that urgency derive entirely – perhaps not even primarily — from the malignant presence of Donald Trump on the national scene, regardless of what panicky reporting in mainstream media outlets may suggest.

On all matters related to Trump, our fellow citizens — those who are sentient anyway — tend to fall into two camps. In one are those who see the former president as a transformational figure, whether for good (Make America Great Again) or ill (paving the way for fascism). In the other are those who view him less as cause than effect, his lingering prominence stemming from pathologies he’s skillfully exploited but had little role in creating.

I happen to inhabit that second camp. I loathe Donald Trump. But I fear a political, intellectual, and cultural elite that appears incapable of responding effectively to the crisis presently engulfing the United States.

Innumerable writers (including me) have attempted to lay out the origins and scope of that crisis and propose antidotes. None in my estimation (myself again included) have fully succeeded. Or at least none have persuaded Americans as to the true source of our collective malaise and discontent.

The resulting void explains the inclination to view Trump as the root cause of the nation’s troubles — or alternatively as our last best hope of salvation. Yet despite the palpable hunger in some quarters to imagine him locked up and in others to return him to the White House, Trump is neither a demon nor a wizard. He is instead a physical manifestation of the collective fears and fantasies to which Americans of all political persuasions have in recent years become susceptible.

Should Trump regain the presidency in 2024 — admittedly, a dreadful prospect — the crisis gripping our country would undoubtedly deepen. But were a benign storm to sweep the Master of Mar-a-Lago into the vast ocean depths never to be seen again, that crisis would persist.

Factors contributing to that crisis are not difficult to identify. They include:

Collectively, these add up to a Bigger Truth that easily eclipses in importance the Big Lie that presently dominates so much of American political discourse. While obsessing over the false claim that Trump won reelection in 2020 may be understandable, it diverts attention from the real meaning of that Bigger Truth, namely that liberal democracy no longer describes the bizarrely elaborate, increasingly disfunctional system of governance that prevails in the United States.

Reducing the existing system to a single phrase is a daunting proposition. It is sui generis, mixing myth, greed, rank dishonesty, and a refusal to face the music. But this much is for sure: It’s anything but governance by elected representatives chosen by an informed electorate who deliberate and decide in the interests of the American people as a whole.

Siri, Where Are We?

In my estimation, Joe Biden is a man of goodwill but limited abilities. In ousting Donald Trump from the White House, he performed a vitally important service to the nation. But President Biden is not just very old. His entire outlook is as stale as a week-old bagel.

Biden clearly believes that he has a firm grasp on what our times require. He regularly insists that we have arrived at an “inflection point.” Drawing on the familiar narrative of the twentieth century, he believes that he has deciphered the meaning of that inflection point. His interpretation, shared by many others among the current crop of the Best and Brightest, centers on a conviction that a global competition between freedom and unfreedom, democracy and autocracy defines the overarching challenge of our time. It’s us against them — the United States (with accommodating allies holding Uncle Sam’s coat) pitted against China and Russia, the outcome of this competition guaranteed to determine the fate of humankind.

Forty years ago, dealing with the array of concerns that defined the late Cold War era — avoiding World War III, outcompeting the Soviets, and keeping the gas pumps from running dry — Biden might have been an effective president. Today, he’s as clueless as Liz Truss self-evidently was, spouting bromides and advocating for programs left over from the heyday of American liberalism.

As Biden stumbles wearily from one verbal gaffe to the next, he embodies the exhaustion of that earlier political era. If reinvigorating the American political order defines the urgent calling of our present moment, he hasn’t the least idea where to begin.

At the risk of violating the prevailing canons of political correctness, let me suggest that we turn for counsel to Russia. No, not Vladimir Putin, but Leo Tolstoy. In the conclusion to his novel War and Peace, Tolstoy wrote that “modern history, like a deaf man, answers questions no one has asked.” That pithy observation captures the essence of our own predicament: It’s the questions that go unasked that are likely to do us in.

Consider, for example, these: What if the vaunted “American way of life” doesn’t define the destiny of humankind? What if true freedom means something different than the conception promoted in Washington or New York, Hollywood or Silicon Valley? What if Biden’s inflection point — should it exist — doesn’t come with a Made-in-the-U.S.A. label?

The first step toward enlightenment is to ask the right questions. Joe Biden and the American political establishment seem remarkably blind to the need to do just that. So are the tens of millions of Americans, whether angry or simply baffled, who vainly stare at their smartphones in search of answers or who look at the results of the midterm elections and ask: Is that the best we can do?

As a nation, we are adrift in uncharted waters — and we can’t look to King Charles to save us.

Copyright 2022 Andrew Bacevich


US Smug about Russia’s Failures in Ukraine, Forgetting the Iraq and Afghanistan Quagmires Wed, 14 Sep 2022 04:08:01 +0000 ( – In Washington, wide agreement exists that the Russian army’s performance in the Kremlin’s ongoing Ukraine “special military operation” ranks somewhere between lousy and truly abysmal. The question is: Why? The answer in American policy circles, both civilian and military, appears all but self-evident. Vladimir Putin’s Russia has stubbornly insisted on ignoring the principles, practices, and methods identified as necessary for success in war and perfected in this century by the armed forces of the United States. Put simply, by refusing to do things the American way, the Russians are failing badly against a far weaker foe.

Granted, American analysts — especially the retired military officers who opine on national news shows — concede that other factors have contributed to Russia’s sorry predicament. Yes, heroic Ukrainian resistance, reminiscent of the Winter War of 1939-1940 when Finland tenaciously defended itself against the Soviet Union’s more powerful military, caught the Russians by surprise. Expectations that Ukrainians would stand by while the invaders swept across their country proved wildly misplaced. In addition, comprehensive economic sanctions imposed by the West in response to the invasion have complicated the Russian war effort. By no means least of all, the flood of modern weaponry provided by the United States and its allies — God bless the military-industrial-congressional complex — have appreciably enhanced Ukrainian fighting power.

Still, in the view of American military figures, all of those factors take a backseat to Russia’s manifest inability (or refusal) to grasp the basic prerequisites of modern warfare. The fact that Western observers possess a limited understanding of how that country’s military leadership functions makes it all the easier to render such definitive judgments. It’s like speculating about Donald Trump’s innermost convictions. Since nobody really knows, any forcefully expressed opinion acquires at least passing credibility.

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The prevailing self-referential American explanation for Russian military ineptitude emphasizes at least four key points:

* First, the Russians don’t understand jointness, the military doctrine that provides for the seamless integration of ground, air, and maritime operations, not only on Planet Earth but in cyberspace and outer space;

* Second, Russia’s land forces haven’t adhered to the principles of combined arms warfare, first perfected by the Germans in World War II, that emphasizes the close tactical collaboration of tanks, infantry, and artillery;

* Third, Russia’s longstanding tradition of top-down leadership inhibits flexibility at the front, leaving junior officers and noncommissioned officers to relay orders from on high without demonstrating any capacity to, or instinct for, exercising initiative on their own;

* Finally, the Russians appear to lack even the most rudimentary understanding of battlefield logistics — the mechanisms that provide a steady and reliable supply of the fuel, food, munitions, medical support, and spare parts needed to sustain a campaign.

Implicit in this critique, voiced by self-proclaimed American experts, is the suggestion that, if the Russian army had paid more attention to how U.S. forces deal with such matters, they would have fared better in Ukraine. That they don’t — and perhaps can’t — comes as good news for Russia’s enemies, of course. By implication, Russian military ineptitude obliquely affirms the military mastery of the United States. We define the standard of excellence to which others can only aspire.

Reducing War to a Formula

All of which begs a larger question the national security establishment remains steadfastly oblivious to: If jointness, combined arms tactics, flexible leadership, and responsive logistics hold the keys to victory, why haven’t American forces — supposedly possessing such qualities in abundance — been able to win their own equivalents of the Ukraine War? After all, Russia has only been stuck in Ukraine for six months, while the U.S. was stuck in Afghanistan for 20 years and still has troops in Iraq almost two decades after its disastrous invasion of that country.

To rephrase the question: Why does explaining the Russian underperformance in Ukraine attract so much smug commentary here, while American military underperformance gets written off?

Perhaps written off is too harsh. After all, when the U.S. military fails to meet expectations, there are always some who will hasten to point the finger at civilian leaders for screwing up. Certainly, this was the case with the chaotic U.S. military withdrawal from Afghanistan in August 2021. Critics were quick to pin the blame on President Biden for that debacle, while the commanders who had presided over the war there for those 20 years escaped largely unscathed. Indeed, some of those former commanders like retired general and ex-CIA Director David Petraeus, aka “King David,” were eagerly sought after by the media as Kabul fell.

So, if the U.S. military performance since the Global War on Terror was launched more than two decades ago rates as, to put it politely, a disappointment — and that would be my view — it might be tempting to lay responsibility at the feet of the four presidents, eight secretaries of defense (including two former four-star generals), and the various deputy secretaries, undersecretaries, assistant secretaries, and ambassadors who designed and implemented American policy in those years. In essence, this becomes an argument for sustained generational incompetence.

There’s a flipside to that argument, however. It would tag the parade of generals who presided over the wars in Afghanistan and Iraq (and lesser conflicts like those in Libya, Somalia, and Syria) as uniformly not up to the job — another argument for generational incompetence. Members of the once-dominant Petraeus fan club might cite him as a notable exception. Yet, with the passage of time, King David’s achievements as general-in-chief first in Baghdad and then in Kabul have lost much of their luster. The late “Stormin’ Norman” Schwarzkopf and General Tommy Franks, their own “victories” diminished by subsequent events, might sympathize.

Allow me to suggest another explanation, however, for the performance gap that afflicts the twenty-first-century U.S. military establishment. The real problem hasn’t been arrogant, ill-informed civilians or generals who lack the right stuff or suffer from bad luck. It’s the way Americans, especially those wielding influence in national security circles, including journalists, think tankers, lobbyists, corporate officials in the military-industrial complex, and members of Congress, have come to think of war as an attractive, affordable means of solving problems.

Military theorists have long emphasized that by its very nature, war is fluid, elusive, capricious, and permeated with chance and uncertainty. Practitioners tend to respond by suggesting that, though true, such descriptions are not helpful. They prefer to conceive of war as essentially knowable, predictable, and eminently useful — the Swiss Army knife of international politics.

Hence, the tendency, among both civilian and military officials in Washington, not to mention journalists and policy intellectuals, to reduce war to a phrase or formula (or better yet to a set of acronyms), so that the entire subject can be summarized in a slick 30-minute slide presentation. That urge to simplify — to boil things down to their essence — is anything but incidental. In Washington, the avoidance of complexity and ambiguity facilitates marketing (that is, shaking down Congress for money).

To cite one small example of this, consider a recent military document entitled

Army Readiness and Modernization in 2022,” produced by propagandists at the Association of the United States Army, purports to describe where the U.S. Army is headed. It identifies “eight cross-functional teams” meant to focus on “six priorities.” If properly resourced and vigorously pursued, these teams and priorities will ensure, it claims, that “the army maintains all-domain overmatch against all adversaries in future fights.”

Set aside the uncomfortable fact that, when it counted last year in Kabul, American forces demonstrated anything but all-domain overmatch. Still, what the Army’s leadership aims to do between now and 2035 is create “a transformed multi-domain army” by fielding a plethora of new systems, described in a blizzard of acronyms: ERCA, PrSM, LRHW, OMVF, MPF, RCV, AMPV, FVL, FLRAA, FARA, BLADE, CROWS, MMHEL, and so on, more or less ad infinitum.

Perhaps you won’t be surprised to learn that the Army’s plan, or rather vision, for its future avoids the slightest mention of costs. Nor does it consider potential complications — adversaries equipped with nuclear weapons, for example — that might interfere with its aspirations to all-domain overmatch.

Yet the document deserves our attention as an exquisite example of Pentagon-think. It provides the Army’s preferred answer to a question of nearly existential importance — not “How can the Army help keep Americans safe?” but “How can the Army maintain, and ideally increase, its budget?”

Hidden inside that question is an implicit assumption that sustaining even the pretense of keeping Americans safe requires a military of global reach that maintains a massive global presence. Given the spectacular findings of the James Webb Telescope, perhaps galactic will one day replace global in the Pentagon’s lexicon. In the meantime, while maintaining perhaps 750 military bases on every continent except Antarctica, that military rejects out of hand the proposition that defending Americans where they live — that is, within the boundaries of the 50 states comprising the United States — can suffice to define its overarching purpose.

And here we arrive at the crux of the matter: militarized globalism, the Pentagon’s preferred paradigm for basic policy, has become increasingly unaffordable. With the passage of time, it’s also become beside the point. Americans simply don’t have the wallet to satisfy budgetary claims concocted in the Pentagon, especially those that ignore the most elemental concerns we face, including disease, drought, fire, floods, and sea-level rise, not to mention averting the potential collapse of our constitutional order. All-domain overmatch is of doubtful relevance to such threats.

To provide for the safety and well-being of our republic, we don’t need further enhancements to jointness, combined arms tactics, flexible leadership, and responsive logistics. Instead, we need an entirely different approach to national security.

Come Home, America, Before It’s Too Late

Given the precarious state of American democracy, aptly described by President Biden in his recent address in Philadelphia, our most pressing priority is repairing the damage to our domestic political fabric, not engaging in another round of “great power competition” dreamed up by fevered minds in Washington. Put simply, the Constitution is more important than the fate of Taiwan.

I apologize: I know that I have blasphemed. But the times suggest that we weigh the pros and cons of blasphemy. With serious people publicly warning about the possible approach of civil war and many of our far-too-well armed fellow citizens welcoming the prospect, perhaps the moment has come to reconsider the taken-for-granted premises that have sustained U.S. national security policy since the immediate aftermath of World War II.

More blasphemy! Did I just advocate a policy of isolationism?

Heaven forfend! What I would settle for instead is a modicum of modesty and prudence, along with a lively respect for (rather than infatuation with) war.

Here is the unacknowledged bind in which the Pentagon has placed itself — and the rest of us: by gearing up to fight (however ineffectively) anywhere against any foe in any kind of conflict, it finds itself prepared to fight nowhere in particular. Hence, the urge to extemporize on the fly, as has been the pattern in every conflict of ours since the Vietnam War. On occasion, things work out, as in the long-forgotten, essentially meaningless 1983 invasion of the Caribbean island of Grenada. More often than not, however, they don’t, no matter how vigorously our generals and our troops apply the principles of jointness, combined arms, leadership, and logistics.

Americans spend a lot of time these days trying to figure out what makes Vladimir Putin tick. I don’t pretend to know, nor do I really much care. I would say this, however: Putin’s plunge into Ukraine confirms that he learned nothing from the folly of post-9/11 U.S. military policy.

Will we, in our turn, learn anything from Putin’s folly? Don’t count on it.

Copyright 2022 Andrew Bacevich


Imperial Detritus: Henry Luce’s “American Century” Comes Undone Thu, 14 Jul 2022 04:02:56 +0000 ( ) – “The American Century Is Over.” So claims the July 2022 cover of Harper’s Magazine, adding an all-too-pertinent question: “What’s Next?”

What, indeed? Eighty years after the United States embarked upon the Great Crusade of World War II, a generation after it laid claim to the status of sole superpower following the fall of the Berlin Wall, and two decades after the Global War on Terror was to remove any lingering doubts about who calls the shots on Planet Earth, the question could hardly be more timely.

Empire Burlesque,” Daniel Bessner’s Harper’s cover story, provides a useful, if preliminary, answer to a question most members of our political class, preoccupied with other matters, would prefer to ignore. Yet the title of the essay contains a touch of genius, capturing as it does in a single concise phrase the essence of the American Century in its waning days.

On the one hand, given Washington’s freewheeling penchant for using force to impose its claimed prerogatives abroad, the imperial nature of the American project has become self-evident. When the U.S. invades and occupies distant lands or subjects them to punishment, concepts like freedom, democracy, and human rights rarely figure as more than afterthoughts. Submission, not liberation defines the underlying, if rarely acknowledged, motivation behind Washington’s military actions, actual or threatened, direct or through proxies.

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On the other hand, the reckless squandering of American power in recent decades suggests that those who preside over the American imperium are either stunningly incompetent or simply mad as hatters. Intent on perpetuating some form of global hegemony, they have accelerated trends toward national decline, while seemingly oblivious to the actual results of their handiwork.

Consider the January 6, 2021, assault on the Capitol. It has rightly prompted a thorough congressional investigation aimed at establishing accountability. All of us should be grateful for the conscientious efforts of the House Select Committee to expose the criminality of the Trump presidency. Meanwhile, however, the trillions of dollars wasted and the hundreds of thousands of lives lost during our post-9/11 wars have been essentially written off as the cost of doing business. Here we glimpse the essence of twenty-first-century bipartisanship, both parties colluding to ignore disasters for which they share joint responsibility, while effectively consigning the vast majority of ordinary citizens to the status of passive accomplices.

Bessner, who teaches at the University of Washington, is appropriately tough on the (mis)managers of the contemporary American empire. And he does a good job of tracing the ideological underpinnings of that empire back to their point of origin. On that score, the key date is not 1776, but 1941. That was the year when the case for American global primacy swept into the marketplace of ideas, making a mark that persists to the present day.

God on Our Side

The marketing began with the February 17, 1941, issue of Life magazine, which contained a simply and elegantly titled essay by Henry Luce, its founder and publisher. With the American public then sharply divided over the question of whether to intervene on behalf of Great Britain in its war against Nazi Germany — this was 10 months before Pearl Harbor — Luce weighed in with a definitive answer: he was all in for war. Through war, he believed, the United States would not only overcome evil but inaugurate a golden age of American global dominion.

Life was then, in the heyday of the print media, the most influential mass-circulation publication in the United States. As the impresario who presided over the rapidly expanding Time-Life publishing empire, Luce himself was perhaps the most influential press baron of his age. Less colorful than his flamboyant contemporary William Randolph Hearst, he was politically more astute. And yet nothing Luce would say or do over the course of a long career promoting causes (mostly conservative) and candidates (mostly Republican) would come close to matching the legacy left by that one perfectly timed editorial in Life’s pages.

When it hit the newsstands, “The American Century” did nothing to resolve public ambivalence about how to deal with Adolf Hitler. Events did that, above all Japan’s December 7th attack on Pearl Harbor. Yet once the United States did enter the war, the evocative title of Luce’s essay formed the basis for expectations destined to transcend World War II and become a fixture in American political discourse.

During the war years, government propaganda offered copious instruction on “Why We Fight.” So, too, did a torrent of posters, books, radio programs, hit songs, and Hollywood movies, not to speak of publications produced by Luce’s fellow press moguls. Yet when it came to crispness, durability, and poignancy, none held a candle to “The American Century.” Before the age was fully launched, Luce had named it.

Even today, in attenuated form, expectations Luce articulated in 1941 persist. Peel back the cliched phrases that senior officials in the White House, the State Department, and the Pentagon routinely utter in the Biden years — “American global leadership” and “the rules-based international order” are favorites — and you encounter their unspoken purpose: to perpetuate unchallengeable American global primacy until the end of time.

To put it another way, whatever the ”rules” of global life, the United States will devise them. And if ensuring compliance with those rules should entail a resort to violence, justifications articulated in Washington will suffice to legitimize the use of force.

In other words, Luce’s essay marks the point of departure for what was, in remarkably short order, to become an era when American primacy would be a birthright. It stands in relation to the American empire as the Declaration of Independence once did to the American republic. It remains the urtext, even if some of its breathtakingly bombastic passages are now difficult to read with a straight face.

Using that 1941 issue of Life as his bully pulpit, Luce summoned his fellow citizens to “accept wholeheartedly our duty and our opportunity as the most powerful and vital nation in the world” to assert “the full impact of our influence, for such purposes as we see fit and by such means as we see fit.” (Emphasis added.) For the United States duty, opportunity, and destiny aligned. That American purposes and the means employed to fulfill them were benign, indeed enlightened, was simply self-evident. How could they be otherwise?

Crucially — and this point Bessner overlooks — the duty and opportunity to which Luce alluded expressed God’s will. Born in China where his parents were serving as Protestant missionaries and himself a convert to Roman Catholicism, Luce saw America’s imperial calling as a Judeo-Christian religious obligation. God, he wrote, had summoned the United States to become “the Good Samaritan to the entire world.” Here was the nation’s true vocation: to fulfill the “mysterious work of lifting the life of mankind from the level of the beasts to what the Psalmist called a little lower than the angels.”

In the present day, such towering ambition, drenched in religious imagery, invites mockery. Yet it actually offers a reasonably accurate (if overripe) depiction of how American elites have conceived of the nation’s purpose in the decades since.

Today, the explicitly religious frame has largely faded from view. Even so, the insistence on American singularity persists. Indeed, in the face of mounting evidence to the contrary — did someone mention China? — it may be stronger than ever.

In no way should my reference to a moral consensus imply moral superiority. Indeed, the list of sins to which Americans were susceptible, even at the outset of the American Century, was long. With the passage of time, it has only evolved, even as our awareness of our nation’s historical flaws, particularly in the realm of race, gender, and ethnicity, has grown more acute. Still, the religiosity inherent in Luce’s initial call to arms resonated then and survives today, even if in subdued form.

While anything but an original thinker, Luce possessed a notable gift for packaging and promotion. Life’s unspoken purpose was to sell a way of life based on values that he believed his fellow citizens should embrace, even if his own personal adherence to those values was, at best, spotty.

The American Century was the ultimate expression of that ambitious undertaking. So even as growing numbers of citizens in subsequent decades concluded that God might be otherwise occupied, something of a killjoy, or simply dead, the conviction that U.S. global primacy grew out of a divinely inspired covenant took deep root. Our presence at the top of the heap testified to some cosmic purpose. It was meant to be. In that regard, imbuing the American Century with a sacred veneer was a stroke of pure genius.

In God We Trust?

By the time Life ended its run as a weekly magazine in 1972, the American Century, as a phrase and as an expectation, had etched itself into the nation’s collective consciousness. Yet today, Luce’s America — the America that once cast itself as the protagonist in a Christian parable — has ceased to exist. And it’s not likely to return anytime soon.

At the outset of that American Century, Luce could confidently expound on the nation’s role in furthering God’s purposes, taking for granted a generic religious sensibility to which the vast majority of Americans subscribed. Back then, especially during the presidencies of Franklin Roosevelt, Harry Truman, and Dwight D. Eisenhower, most of those not personally endorsing that consensus at least found it expedient to play along. After all, except among hipsters, beatniks, dropouts, and other renegades, doing so was a precondition for getting by or getting ahead.

As Eisenhower famously declared shortly after being elected president, “Our form of government has no sense unless it is founded in a deeply felt religious faith, and I don’t care what it is.” Today, however, Ike’s ecumenical 11th commandment no longer garners anything like universal assent, whether authentic or feigned. As defining elements of the American way of life, consumption, lifestyle, and expectations of unhindered mobility persist, much as they did when he occupied the White House. But a deeply felt religious faith melded with a similarly deep faith in an open-ended American Century has become, at best, optional. Those nursing the hope that the American Century may yet make a comeback are more likely to put their trust in AI than in God.

Occurring in tandem with this country’s global decline has been a fracturing of the contemporary moral landscape. For evidence, look no further than the furies unleashed by recent Supreme Court decisions related to guns and abortion. Or contemplate Donald Trump’s place in the American political landscape — twice impeached, yet adored by tens of millions, even while held in utter contempt by tens of millions more. That Trump or another similarly divisive figure could succeed Joe Biden in the White House looms as a real, if baffling, possibility.

More broadly still, take stock of the prevailing American conception of personal freedom, big on privileges, disdainful of obligations, awash with self-indulgence, and tinged with nihilism. If you think our collective culture is healthy, you haven’t been paying attention.

For “a nation with the soul of a church,” to cite British writer G.K. Chesterton’s famed description of the United States, Luce’s proposal of a marriage between a generic Judeo-Christianity and national purpose seemed eminently plausible. But plausible is not inevitable, nor irreversible. A union rocked by recurring quarrels and trial separations has today ended in divorce. The full implications of that divorce for American policy abroad remain to be seen, but at a minimum suggest that anyone proposing to unveil a “New American Century” is living in a dreamworld.

Bessner concludes his essay by suggesting that the American Century should give way to a “Global Century… in which U.S. power is not only restrained but reduced, and in which every nation is dedicated to solving the problems that threaten us all.” Such a proposal strikes me as broadly appealing, assuming that the world’s other 190-plus nations, especially the richer, more powerful ones, sign on. That, of course, is a very large assumption, indeed. Negotiating the terms that will define such a Global Century, including reapportioning wealth and privileges between haves and have-nots, promises to be a daunting proposition.

Meanwhile, what fate awaits the American Century itself? Some in the upper reaches of the establishment will, of course, exert themselves to avert its passing by advocating more bouts of military muscle-flexing, as if a repetition of Afghanistan and Iraq or deepening involvement in Ukraine will impart to our threadbare empire a new lease on life. That Americans in significant numbers will more willingly die for Kyiv than they did for Kabul seems improbable.

Better in my estimation to give up entirely the pretensions Henry Luce articulated back in 1941. Rather than attempting to resurrect the American Century, perhaps it’s time to focus on the more modest goal of salvaging a unified American republic. One glance at the contemporary political landscape suggests that such a goal alone is a tall order. On that score, however, reconstituting a common moral framework would surely be the place to begin.

Copyright 2022 Andrew Bacevich


Let’s avoid the Other F-Word: If it is Democracies versus Fascism, We’re Stuck in Forever Wars Wed, 08 Jun 2022 04:02:39 +0000 ( ) – Timothy Snyder, Levin Professor of History at Yale University, is a scholar of surpassing brilliance. His 2010 book Bloodlands: Europe Between Hitler and Stalin chronicles in harrowing detail the de facto collaboration of the Third Reich and the Soviet Union that resulted in the murder of millions of innocents. On any bookshelf reserved for accounts that reveal essential truths of our past, Bloodlands deserves a place of honor. It’s a towering achievement.

I just wish Professor Snyder would stick to history.

According to an old chestnut, the past is a foreign country. Even so, similarities between then and now frequently interest historians more than differences. Few, it seems, can resist the temptation to press their particular piece of the past into service as a vehicle for interpreting the here-and-now, even when doing so means oversimplifying and distorting the present. Historians of twentieth-century Europe, Snyder among them, seem particularly susceptible to this temptation. Synder’s mid-May op-ed in the New York Times offers a case in point. “We Should Say It,” the title advises. “Russia Is Fascist.”

Introducing the F-word into any conversation is intended to connote moral seriousness. Yet all too often, as with its first cousin “genocide,” it serves less to enlighten than to convey a sense of repugnance combined with condemnation. Such is the case here.

Depicting Vladimir Putin as a fascist all but explicitly puts today’s Russia in the same category as the murderous totalitarian regimes that Snyder indicts in Bloodlands. Doing so, in effect, summons the United States and its NATO allies to wage something akin to total war in Europe. After all, this country should no more compromise with the evil of present-day Russia than it did with the evil of Hitler’s Germany during World War II or Stalin’s Soviet Union during the Cold War.

For Snyder, therefore, the job immediately at hand is not just the honorable one of assisting the Ukrainians in defending themselves. The real task — the obligation, even — is to decisively defeat Russia, ensuring nothing less than democracy’s very survival. “As in the 1930s,” he writes, “democracy is in retreat around the world and fascists have moved to make war on their neighbors.”

As a consequence, “if Russia wins in Ukraine,” he insists, the result won’t simply be the brutal destruction of one imperfect democracy, but “a demoralization for democracies everywhere.” A Kremlin victory would affirm “that might makes right, that reason is for the losers, that democracies must fail.” If Russia prevails, in other words, “fascists around the world will be comforted.” And “if Ukraine does not win” — and winning, Snyder implies, will require regime change in Moscow — then “we can expect decades of darkness.”

So once again, as in the 1930s, it’s time to choose sides. To paraphrase a recent American president, you are either with us or you’re with the fascists.

Who Are You Calling Fascist?

Allow me to confess that I was once susceptible to this sort of either/or binary thinking as an organizing principle of global politics. I grew up during the Cold War, when bipolarity — a U.S.-led Free World pitted against a Soviet-controlled communist bloc — offered a conceptual framework that any patriotic adolescent could grasp. Emphasizing clarity at the expense of empirical precision, such an us-against-them approach allowed little room for nuance. And as it happened, Americans paid dearly for the misjudgments that ensued thanks to just such thinking, the disastrous war in Vietnam being an especially vivid example. Ultimately, of course, our country did indeed “win” the Cold War, even if we have yet to tally up the cumulative costs of victory.

With an ample display of moral outrage, Professor Snyder appears intent on resurrecting that framework. By greenlighting this piece for their op-ed pages, the editors of the New York Times implicitly endowed it with establishment-approved respectability. In this way, the remembered politics of Europe in the 1930s finds renewed relevance as a source of instruction for the present moment.

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How Americans responded then offers a model for how the United States should respond today, albeit with a sense of urgency rather than the foot-dragging that characterized U.S. policy prior to Pearl Harbor. Put simply, stopping fascism has once again emerged as an imperative surpassing all others in importance. The climate crisis? That can surely wait. Problems on the border with Mexico? Talk to me later. A never-ending pandemic? Just roll up your sleeve and follow Dr. Fauci’s orders. Recurring school massacres? Blame the Second Amendment.

“Russia Is Fascist” offers a definitive rebuttal to the Trump-promoted revival of “America First.” It’s a call to action, with a prospective anti-fascist crusade serving as an antidote to the setbacks, disappointments, and sense of decline that have haunted Washington’s foreign-policy establishment since the United States invaded Afghanistan and Iraq after 9/11.

In a broader sense, targeting fascism may fill a vacuum that dates from the very end of the Cold War, one that the subsequent Global War on Terror never adequately addressed. Finally, America again has an Enemy Worthy of the Name. Vladimir Putin’s criminal aggression in Ukraine seemingly validates the idea that “great-power competition” defines the emerging world order, even if including Putin’s Russia in the ranks of legitimate great powers requires a distinctly elastic definition of that term. Nonetheless, given the complications that the United States encountered when taking on Saddam Hussein, Slobodan Milošević, Osama bin Laden, Muammar Gaddafi, and sundry other villains, a rivalry with Russia appears not only familiar and straightforward, but almost welcome.

On that score, the issue immediately at hand is as much psychological as geopolitical. After all, if the course of the war in Ukraine has made one thing abundantly clear, it’s that Russia’s heavily armed but strikingly inept armed forces pose no more than a negligible conventional threat to the rest of Europe. Military effectiveness requires more than a capacity to reduce cities to rubble. So if Putin represents the latest reincarnation of Adolf Hitler, he’s a Hitler saddled with Benito Mussolini’s maladroit legions.

Yet declaring Russia to be the embodiment of fascism revises the stakes. For Professor Snyder, Russia’s lack of military prowess matters less than Vladimir Putin’s twisted worldview. Centered on a “cult of the dead,” a “myth of a past golden age,” and a belief in the “healing violence” of war, Putin’s outlook expresses the essence of Russian-style fascism. Exposing that outlook as false is a precondition for destroying the Putin mystique. Only then, Snyder writes, will the myths he has perpetrated “come crashing down.”

This, for Professor Snyder and for many Washington insiders, describes the actual stakes in Ukraine. Rather than merely regional, they are nothing short of cosmic. Defeating Putin will enable the United States to refurbish its own tarnished myths, while safely tucking away our own sanctification of violence as an instrument of liberation. It will restore America to the pinnacle of global power.

There are, however, at least two problems with this optimistic scenario. The first relates to our own ostensible susceptibility to a homegrown variant of fascism, the second to tagging Putinism as an existential threat. Both divert attention from more pressing issues that ought to command the attention of the American people.

To the Barricades?

Is Donald Trump a fascist? My own inclination is to see him as a narcissistic fraud and swindler. That said, from the very moment he emerged as a major political figure, critics cited the f-word to describe him. Let the testimony of New York Times columnist Paul Krugman stand in for similar commentary offered by so many others. Donald Trump “is indeed a fascist,” Krugman wrote in January 2021, “an authoritarian willing to use violence to achieve his racial nationalist goals.” It was obviously incumbent upon Americans to resist him as “appeasement is what got us to where we are. It has to stop, now.”

While Krugman’s counsel is crystal clear, let us consider the possibility that it may already be too late. That Trump or some Trump clone could win the presidency in 2024 looms as a real, if depressing, prospect. Indeed, his supporters may well gain control of Congress (and several statehouses) in this year’s elections as well.

Should that occur, will Krugman (and Snyder) find that the United States has followed Russia in succumbing to 1930s-style fascism? If so, with what implications for the legitimacy of the existing political order? Will resistance to Trumpism then become a civic obligation for righteous citizens intent on exercising their own right to bear arms? Paul Krugman’s reference to the dangers of further appeasement would suggest that the answer to that question must be yes. After all, in the American political lexicon few sins are more heinous than appeasement.

Yet down that road lies revolution, counterrevolution, and the end of the American republic. Recklessly unleashing charges of fascism could inadvertently pave the way for just such an outcome.

As an epithet, fascism retains considerable emotional appeal. As a term of analysis applied to contemporary American politics, however, it possesses limited utility. Talk may be cheap, but baseless talk can also be dangerously subversive — a concern equally applicable to those who level preposterous charges about communists and socialists overrunning the halls of government in Washington.

The truth is that we don’t live in the 1930s. Our world is not that world. Whether for good or ill, the United States of that era has long since vanished.

Professor Snyder’s assertion that “democracy is in retreat around the world” posits a model of history that has two gears: forward and reverse. In fact, history has multiple gears and moves in various directions, many of them unanticipated and unrelated to the prospects of democracy. So far at least, no algorithm exists to forecast where it will head next.

What threatens the United States today is not fascism but the continuing erosion of a domestic political consensus without which democratic governance becomes difficult, if not impossible. Surprisingly few politicians appear willing to acknowledge the extent of that danger. Instead, passions unleashed by issues like critical race theory or guaranteed access to assault rifles take over center stage, shrinking the space left for mutual understanding and accommodation.

Considered in this light, embarking on an anti-fascist crusade on the eastern fringes of Europe is unlikely to restore a sense of the common good at home. Waging war on behalf of Ukrainian democracy is more likely to serve as a diversion, an excuse to avoid matters of more immediate relevance to the waning health of our democracy. On that score, the tens of billions of dollars that an otherwise gridlocked Congress has appropriated to arm Ukraine speak volumes about the nation’s actual political priorities.

Ukrainians need, want, and deserve U.S. support in ejecting the Russian invader. But the fate of the American experiment will not be determined in Kyiv. It will be decided right here in the United States of America. When Joe Biden first announced his intention to oust Donald Trump from office, he seemed to understand that. He presented himself as someone voters could count on to bring Americans together and reverse our all-too-obvious decline. With this country having arrived at an “inflection point,” he vowed to guide it along “a path of hope and light” enabling it “to heal, to be reborn, and to unite.”

At some level, Biden surely meant those words, which implied that repairing the domestic disarray Trump had fostered should receive priority attention. But the Biden presidency has not yielded healing, rebirth, and unity – far from it. Now facing the prospect of major losses in this year’s congressional elections and long odds in the 2024 presidential contest, Biden appears intent on employing a familiar tactic in a desperate effort to salvage his political fortunes: using problems abroad to distract attention from challenges at home.

Russia poses one such problem, even if one that policymakers and pundits join in exaggerating, as if criminal misconduct automatically connotes existential threat. Hovering in the background is a much larger problem: China. Given a sufficiently loose definition, it, too, can be described as fascist. So the Biden administration’s confrontational attitude regarding Russia finds its counterpart in an equally hard-nosed policy toward China.

Downplaying the realities of Sino-American mutual interdependence and the imperative of cooperation on issues of common concern such as climate change, the administration appears hellbent on conjuring up yet another axis of evil as a rationale for a fresh round of U.S. muscle-flexing. Once again, as when 9/11 provided a spurious rationale for concocting the previous axis (not to speak of invading Afghanistan and then Iraq), the urge to ignore complexity and downplay risk is sadly apparent.

In Washington, the conviction that military might adroitly applied will restore the United States to a position of global primacy has tacitly found renewed favor. The ostensible lessons of an ongoing conflict in which U.S. forces are participating on a proxy basis superseded any lessons of the recently concluded Afghan War where the United States failed outright. Rarely has the selective memory of the national security apparatus been so vividly on display. Much the same can be said about the Congress, where a no-questions-asked enthusiasm for underwriting the Ukraine War has provided a handy excuse for simply writing off the entire 20-year misadventure in Afghanistan.

The truth is that neither Russian “fascism” nor its Chinese variant poses a significant danger to American democracy, which is actually threatened from within. Joe Biden once appeared to grasp this reality, even if he now finds it politically expedient to pretend otherwise.

Our salvation lies not in flinging around the f-word to justify more wars, but in rediscovering a different lexicon. To start with, consider this precept to which Americans were once devoted: Charity begins at home. Charity, as in tolerance, compassion, generosity, and understanding: that’s where the preservation of our democracy ought to begin.

Copyright 2022 Andrew Bacevich


Don’t Let War Hawks use Putin to Shift our Gaze from Our Huge Social Problems, from Racism to Climate Fri, 15 Apr 2022 04:02:57 +0000 ( ) – I recently participated in a commemoration of Martin Luther King’s address “Beyond Vietnam — A Time to Break Silence,” originally delivered on April 2, 1967, at New York City’s Riverside Church. King used the occasion to announce his opposition to the ongoing war in Vietnam. Although a long time coming in the eyes of some in the antiwar movement, his decision was one for which he was roundly criticized, even by supporters of the Civil Rights Movement. He was straying out of his prescribed lane, they charged, and needed to get back where he belonged.

This year’s 55th anniversary event, also held in Riverside Church’s magnificent sanctuary, featured inspiring Christian music and a thoughtful discussion of King’s remarks. Most powerful of all, however, was a public reading of the address itself. “Beyond Vietnam” contains many famously moving passages. King, for example, cited “the cruel irony of watching Negro and white boys on TV screens as they kill and die together for a nation that has been unable to seat them together in the same schools” and would not allow them to live “on the same block in Chicago.” And he reflected on the incongruity of young Black men being sent “eight thousand miles away to guarantee liberties in Southeast Asia which they had not found in southwest Georgia and East Harlem.”

For me, at least, what that commemorative moment brought into sharp focus was his lacerating critique of American freedom. And there, to my mind, lies its lasting value.

Between theory and practice — between the aspirations expressed in the Declaration of Independence and the Constitution, on the one hand, and the pervasive presence of what King labeled the “giant triplets” of racism, materialism, and militarism on the other — there still looms, even in our own day, a massive gap. His address eloquently reflected on that gap, which, with the passage of time, has not appreciably narrowed.

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King was neither the first nor the last observer to note the debased and shoddy nature of American-style freedom as actually practiced. Nor was he unique in pointing out the hypocrisy pervading our politics. Yet because of the moral heights to which he had ascended, his critique had a particular bite.

In 2022, we have arrived at a moment, however belatedly and reluctantly, when most (though by no means all) Americans at least acknowledge that racism forms an ugly thread that runs through our nation’s history, mocking our professed devotion to liberty and equality for all. Of course, acknowledgment alone hardly entails remedy. At best, it makes remedies plausible. At worst, it offers an excuse for inaction, as if merely confessing to sin suffices to expunge it.

The attention given to racism of late has had exactly that unintended effect — relieving Americans of any obligation even to acknowledge the insidious implications of materialism and militarism. In that sense, even now, two of King’s giant triplets barely qualify for lip-service. In the political sphere, they are either ignored or, at best, treated as afterthoughts.

Presidents typically have lots to say about lots of things and Joe Biden has very much adhered to that tradition. Rarely indeed — Jimmy Carter being the only exception I can think of — do they train their sights on the impact of materialism and militarism on American life. On those two subjects the otherwise garrulous Biden has been silent.

Speaking in a prophetic register in his address, King had described the Vietnam War as “but a symptom of a far deeper malady within the American spirit.” And although that war ended half a century ago, the deeper malady still persists. It can be seen in the widespread inequality and crippling poverty that pervade what is still the world’s richest nation, as well as in our country’s continuing appetite for war, whether waged directly or through proxies. Above all, we see it in a stubborn refusal to recognize the kinship of lingering racism, ubiquitous materialism, and corrosive militarism, each drawing on and sustaining the others.

At Riverside Church, King charged that while the U.S. government might profess a principled commitment to peace, it had become “the greatest purveyor of violence in the world.” Given the crescendo of death and destruction still building in Vietnam, the truth of that statement in 1967 was — or ought to have been — indisputable. Even taking into account the Russian invasion of Ukraine and the ensuing destruction and slaughter there, it still remains true today. Tally up the consequences of the various misbegotten post-9/11 campaigns undertaken pursuant to the “Global War on Terror” and the facts speak for themselves.

In 1967, King laid down this challenge: “We as a nation must undergo a radical revolution of values.” In the decades that followed, no such revolution occurred. Indeed, those who wield power, whether in Washington or Hollywood, on Wall Street or in Silicon Valley, generally exert themselves to suppress any such inclination, except perhaps when there is money to be made. So today, materialism and militarism remain hidden in plain sight.

Reloading for the Next War

For those proponents of the status quo intent on sustaining an American proclivity for materialism and militarism, the Russo-Ukraine War could not have happened at a better time. Indeed, it comes as if a gift from the gods.

In terms of immediate impact, that war has affected the American polity in two ways. First, it is diverting attention from Washington’s manifest inability to deal effectively with an accumulation of problems to which our profligate conception of freedom has given rise, preeminently the climate crisis. The horrifying news out of Kharkiv or Mariupol buried the latest report warning that ongoing climate mitigation efforts are almost certain to fall short, with catastrophic consequences.

Meanwhile, naked Russian aggression in Ukraine has also offered an excuse for Washington to treat as old news or no news the embarrassing debacle of the U.S. withdrawal from Kabul in August 2021. The Pentagon thereby effectively shrugs off a humiliating episode that capped 20 years of misguided and mismanaged military efforts in Afghanistan. Among the proponents of American militarism, few things are more important than forgetting — no, obliterating — those two decades of dismal failure and disappointment. In essence, Russia’s invasion of Ukraine has enabled Washington to do just that. As if by magic, Putin has changed the subject.

As an illustration of how this works consider a recent essay in Foreign Affairs, the flagship journal of the foreign-policy establishment. It carries the title “The Return of the Pax Americana?

The question mark is misleading. An exclamation point would more accurately have captured the aims of its authors. Michael Beckley and Hal Brands teach at Tufts and Johns Hopkins, respectively. Both are also senior fellows at the hawkish American Enterprise Institute in Washington, D.C. And both welcome the Ukraine War as the medium that will reignite an American commitment to the sort of assertive and muscular approach to global policy favored in militaristic quarters. Russian President Vladimir Putin, they write, has handed the United States “a historic opportunity to regroup and reload for an era of intense competition” — with not only Russia but also China meant to be in our crosshairs. The call to reload is central to their message.

The authors blame a “prevailing public apathy” and “strategic lethargy” for reducing the U.S. to a position of weakness. Notably, their essay contains only a single passing reference to the wars in Afghanistan and Iraq, and no mention whatsoever of what two decades of post-9/11 U.S. war-making yielded and at what cost. At least implicitly, Beckley and Brands deem such conflicts irrelevant.

Considered from this perspective, the war in Ukraine could hardly have come at a better moment. According to Beckley and Brands, it opens “a window of strategic opportunity” to deal with “the coming wave of autocratic aggression” the authors see lurking just over the horizon. Seizing that opportunity will require the United States — its military budget already far and away the world’s largest — to undertake “massive investments in military forces geared for high-intensity combat,” while displaying a “willingness to confront adversaries and even risk war” in the process. That prospect is one they welcome.

From any perspective, in my judgment, the Ukraine War is proving to be a disaster for all parties involved (weapons manufacturers excluded). Whenever and however that conflict finally ends, there will be no victors, just victims. Even so, Beckley and Brands celebrate the war as the occasion for a great awakening in Washington — the moment when policymakers rediscovered “the value of hard power.”

What Would Martin Say?

I cite the views of Beckley and Brands not because they are original or even particularly interesting, but because they capture the essence of the conventional wisdom in Washington. Unapologetic and unembarrassed by its string of recent failures, the war party — the sole surviving expression of Congressional bipartisanship — is once again climbing back into the saddle.

Just as the foreign-policy establishment once absolved itself of responsibility for Vietnam and labored to ignore its lessons, so, too, the current generation of that establishment is palpably eager to move on. Its members welcome the prospect of a “New Cold War” that would enable the United States to relive the ostensible glory days of the last one, which included, of course, not only the Vietnam War but also Korea, a nuclear arms race, and a pattern of CIA “dirty tricks” among other abominations. Beckley and Brands have functionally volunteered to serve as scribes for this diabolical project. Should Washington heed their call to action, they will leave to others the infamies that will inevitably ensue.

Although there’s no way to know with certainty what Martin Luther King would have made of this undertaking, it’s not hard to guess. In all likelihood, he would have condemned it without reservation. He would have rejected any propagandistic effort to disguise the imperial underpinnings of the latest emerging version of a Pax Americana. He would have demanded an honest accounting of our just-concluded wars before embarking upon what Beckley and Brands misleadingly characterize as another “long twilight struggle.” He would have reiterated his call for a radical revolution in values, leading to a society in which people matter more than things. He would almost certainly have cited the impending climate crisis (which Beckley and Brands ignore) to drive home the point that the United States of 2022 has more important priorities than embarking on a new great-power competition likely to yield nothing but tears.

“We are now faced with the fact,” King said, concluding his speech at Riverside Church in April 1967,

“that tomorrow is today. We are confronted with the fierce urgency of now. In this unfolding conundrum of life and history, there is such a thing as being too late. Procrastination is still the thief of time. Life often leaves us standing bare, naked, and dejected with a lost opportunity. The tide in the affairs of men does not remain at flood — it ebbs. We may cry out desperately for time to pause in her passage, but time is adamant to every plea and rushes on. Over the bleached bones and jumbled residues of numerous civilizations are written the pathetic words, ‘Too late.’”

This has become the question of our time: Is it already too late? We must hope not. But if sufficient time remains to save the planet and ourselves — not to mention our troubled democracy — it is likely to prove, at best, barely enough. Certainly, we have no time to waste on further militarized fecklessness of the sort that has, in recent years, cost our country and others all too dearly. We can ill afford to defer King’s revolution in values further.

Copyright 2022 Andrew Bacevich