Negotiate to End the Russia-Ukraine War

W.J. Astore

Zelensky is no Chamberlain; talking is not appeasement

A fascinating aspect of the Russia-Ukraine War is the argument that negotiation would be unwise, especially if Ukraine were to initiate it.  Typical arguments include that you can’t negotiate with a dictator like Putin, that negotiation would be a sign of weakness and would somehow reward Putin for his invasion, and that negotiation is ipso facto appeasement that would lead to further (and much wider) Russian attacks.  All these arguments are faulty.

First, my pro-Ukrainian friends tell me that Ukraine is winning the war and therefore resolution will come with total victory at the front.  Perhaps so, but fortunes of war often prove fickle.  If indeed Ukraine has a winning edge, what better time to negotiate?  It’s always preferable to negotiate from a position of strength, so now is the time, assuming Putin is amenable.  What’s to be lost by asking?

Second, negotiation, again from a position of strength, is the very opposite of appeasement.  When Neville Chamberlain infamously negotiated with Adolf Hitler in 1938, he was doing so from a position of relative weakness.  Nazi Germany was rearming and mobilizing for World War II, and Great Britain and its allies were very much behind.  Hitler, of course, lied that territory in Czechoslovakia was his “last demand,” but few in the know were truly fooled about the danger Hitler and the German military represented.  Still, Chamberlain hoped that a viable treaty to prevent war was possible, even as Britain and its allies began in earnest to prepare for war as the “peace” deal was being struck.

Interestingly, Hitler didn’t see Chamberlain’s “appeasement” as a victory.  He was livid.  Hitler wanted to go to war in 1938.  The deal Hitler struck delayed his attack on Poland until September of 1939.  By the time Germany attacked Britain and France in May of 1940, the British were better prepared, materially and mentally, to resist Hitler. (The shockingly quick fall of France is another story entirely.)

One could argue that Chamberlain’s failed appeasement delayed Hitler’s war plans to an extent that ultimately favored eventual allied victory.  Hitler was, after all, decisively defeated five years after he launched his invasion of France.  And, after Hitler betrayed his promises to Chamberlain, there was no doubt whatsoever among the allies that military victory was the only way to end the Nazi threat.

My point is that even Chamberlain’s dreadful “appeasement” wasn’t quite as bad as we’re so often told.  More importantly to this moment: No one mistakes Zelensky and his soldier-like image for Chamberlain with his umbrella.  Again, Zelensky and Ukraine have fought well; their resistance has been steadfast.  Why not negotiate?  Ukraine may win more at the negotiating table than it ever could on the battlefield, while sparing the lives of countless Ukrainian (and Russian) troops.

Third, another argument I’ve heard is that, if the war ends by negotiation, Putin and Russia will just reinvade after a period of rest and rearming.  Anything is possible, but why would Putin relaunch a war that’s already proven to be a quagmire?  And won’t Ukraine also use the time to rest and rearm, with plenty of help from the U.S. and NATO?

Wars don’t have to end in total victory or total defeat.  One side doesn’t have to collapse in exhaustion or to flee ignominiously.  Wars can be ended by negotiation if both parties are open to compromise. Temper tantrums at the negotiating table are better than more bullets and bombs and bodies.

Ukraine and Russia share a long border and a tempestuous history.  They need to learn to live together, else they will surely die together, as they are now.  Why not talk and choose life over more death?

The Disastrous War in Ukraine

W.J. Astore

A blank check of support is often a dangerous thing, especially in war

Remarkably, U.S. aid to Ukraine may soon exceed $100 billion if the Biden administration’s latest ask is approved. And more than a few Americans believe Ukraine merits this vast sum—and more.

They argue the Ukraine war is a necessary one and applaud the Biden administration for taking a firm stance against Russian aggression.  They see Putin as a dangerous dictator who seeks to revive a Russian empire at the expense of Europe, and they wholeheartedly approve of U.S. and NATO military aid.  They argue Ukraine is winning the war and that, once the war is won, Ukraine should be invited to join NATO.  They see NATO as a benign presence and dismiss Russian concerns that NATO expansion is in any way provocative. And they see negotiation with Putin as at best premature and at worst as rewarding Putin for his Hitlerian aggression.

My stance is different.  Yes, I denounce Putin’s invasion of Ukraine and hope that he loses, but I’d prefer to see a negotiated settlement.  The longer the war lasts, the more people die, Russian and Ukrainian, and the greater the chance of miscalculationfollowed by escalation, possibly even to nuclear weapons.

I don’t think the U.S. government cares a whit about defending democracy in Ukraine; heck, it barely defends democracy in America. I think the government and specifically the MICC (military-industrial-congressional complex) has several goals:

1.     To weaken Russia militarily and economically via what some term a proxy war.

2.     To sell more natural gas to Europe (hence the sabotage of the Nord Stream pipelines).

3.     To sell massive amounts of weaponry to Ukraine.

4.     To elevate Russia to an “evil empire” once again, ensuring higher Pentagon spending.  Notice how there’s been no “peace dividend” in the aftermath of the Afghan War. Indeed, Pentagon budgets have soared since the Russian invasion.

5.     To support the narrative of a new cold war against Russia and China, ensuring even more spending on weapons and wars.

6.     Finally, as Biden stated openly, the desire to effect regime change in Russia, i.e. the overthrow of Putin by his own people.

Again, I’m no Putin fan, and I truly wish he’d give up and withdraw his forces. But I very much doubt he’ll do that. It seems more likely that both sides, Ukraine and Russia, will continue launching missiles and drones at each other while the war escalates further. Consider recent reports of Ukrainian attacks on Russian barracks in the Crimea even as Russia targets infrastructure in Odesa.

So, while it’s true U.S. and NATO aid will keep Ukraine in the war, it’s also true Ukrainians and Russians will continue to suffer and die in a war that is already escalating in dangerous ways. It all has the makings of a far-reaching disaster, but what we’re encouraged to do is to ask no questions while flying the Ukrainian flag just below our American ones.

A blank check of support is often a dangerous thing, especially in war.

Thinking About the Russia-Ukraine War

W.J. Astore

Shooting for total victory for Ukraine may only lead to total war for the world

Recently, I’ve been discussing the Russia-Ukraine War with a friend.  He sees it as a “war of national liberation” for Ukraine and fully supports extensive U.S. military aid in weaponry, intelligence, and logistics. Supporters of Ukraine, he said, are much like those who supported republican Spain against the fascist forces of Franco in the 1930s.  Vladimir Putin is a dangerous dictator bent on Ukraine’s total subjugation.  He must be stopped, and the best way to ensure that is total military victory for Ukraine.  He also opined that Ukraine is winning the war and that the $100 billion or so that the U.S. government has pledged is money well spent.

Once Ukraine wins the war, he concluded, it should be fully integrated into NATO, still a vitally important alliance against Russian imperial expansion and exploitation.  Ukraine only seeks to protect its own sovereignty and to join European democracies and the EU, a goal the U.S. should actively seek to facilitate.  

I wish I could be as confident and certain as my friend of the nobility of both Ukraine’s cause and U.S. participation in Ukrainian politics and the war.  Why am I more skeptical than my friend?  For several reasons:

  1. The U.S. government has done nothing to facilitate diplomacy and negotiation between Ukraine and Russia.  Indeed, the Biden administration has worked to discourage diplomacy.
  2. Ukraine may see itself as engaged in a “war of national liberation,” but for U.S. officials it’s more of a proxy war to weaken Russia.  Various sanctions and the destruction of the Nord Stream pipelines suggest powerful economic and financial motives that have nothing to do with safeguarding Ukrainian territory or its “democracy.”
  3. Undeniably, U.S. aid to Ukraine, commitments of which have already exceeded $100 billion, are a major boon to the military-industrial complex in America.  When people profit massively from war and death, it’s reasonable to question their motives.
  4. The U.S. military/government exists to safeguard national security and the U.S. Constitution.  In that context, the territorial integrity of Ukraine is not a vital concern.
  5. The danger of military escalation in Europe is real.  A longer war means more dead and wounded soldiers on both sides; more destruction and collateral damage; and more inflammatory rhetoric about nuclear red lines, dirty bombs, and the like. The longer the war lasts, the more inflamed passions will become, and the more likely efforts “to end Russian occupation” of Ukraine will escalate into something far more ambitious — and likely far deadlier.
  6. To me, neither side appears to be clearly winning and neither is on the verge of victory.  If the war lasts another year, or two, or three, any kind of Ukrainian “victory” may be pyrrhic indeed if the country is a blasted husk as a result.
War is ugly. Long wars are uglier still.

As I explained to my friend, I deplore Putin’s decision back in February to invade.  I hope Ukraine prevails.  But I believe Russia, Ukraine, and indeed the world would be better off if the war ends via negotiated settlement, the sooner the better.  History teaches us that wars often spin out of control when estranged sides insist on total victory.

I added that I’d be careful indeed in placing faith in the wisdom of U.S. leaders or in appeals to ideals of the Lincoln Brigade of the Spanish Civil War of the 1930s.  Recent wars (Vietnam, Iraq, Afghanistan, etc.) should teach us how frequently U.S. leaders lie, and how willing they are to wage long and disastrous wars that compromise U.S. security.

Also, talk of “facilitating Ukraine’s liberation” is both open-ended and ill-defined. For the U.S., is that limited to weaponry and training and the like?  Or does “facilitating” mean much more than that, including combat by U.S. troops and the risk of dying or being grievously wounded in the cause of Ukraine’s liberation?  If the latter, would you send your sons and daughters to fight in such a war?

Talking about Ukrainian national liberation and protecting democracy seems unproblematic, but, as I asked my friend, are you and yours willing to fight and die for it?  When did Ukrainian “liberation” become so vitally important to U.S. national defense?  So much so that $100 billion or more of your money is sent there, so much so that the 101st Airborne Division is deployed to Romania as a form of tripwire or deterrent, so much so that plans to deploy upgraded U.S. tactical nuclear weapons to Europe are being accelerated even as recent exercises featured dry runs of nuclear weapons attacks.

Already the Russia-Ukraine War has lasted far longer than experts predicted.  Already it has cost far more than anyone expected.  Shooting for total victory for Ukraine may only lead to total war for the world.

(Please go to Bracing Views on Substack if you’d like to comment.)

Who or What Comes After Putin?

Will the world be safer if these men lose power?

W.J. Astore

The U.S. and NATO have apparently decided that the world is better (for them) if Russia is weak and chaotic instead of being comparatively strong and orderly.

Something tells me a strong and orderly Russia might be better. A weak and chaotic Russia, with nuclear weapons, is likely to be far less predictable. For example, who or what comes after Vladimir Putin if he’s overthrown? Is the West sure that a divided or disorganized Russia is a “better” one?

As Margaret Thatcher said of Mikhail Gorbachev, we can do business with him. Putin is a rational actor. Who or what follows him in Russia may be much more vengeful than rational — and vengeance and nukes are a potent, perhaps genocidal, mix.

Recently, I was thinking about the difference between the end stages of the Cold War, when I entered the Air Force in the 1980s, and the current crisis with Russia. To me, one big thing stands out. In the 1980s, the U.S. was willing to negotiate on equal terms with the USSR. Reagan and Gorbachev, despite their differences, talked to each other with respect. Today, Joe Biden refers to Putin and the Russians with disdain. Biden seems to see Putin as little more than a thug, someone not worth talking to. As Biden himself said, “For God’s sake, this man cannot remain in power.”

The U.S. has been a dominant superpower for so long that its leaders simply take it for granted and have little (if any) empathy for others. Weakening Russia is not a sign of American cleverness or strength but rather of shortsightedness.

In the 1980s, Reagan and Gorbachev talked sincerely of nuclear arms reductions, even of their eventual elimination. Nothing like this exists today. Indeed, the U.S. now speaks of “investing” in a new generation of nuclear weapons at a cost of a trillion dollars (or more). Basically, the U.S. is in a nuclear arms race with itself, even as Russia and China are trotted out as the looming nuclear threats.

In demonizing Putin and Russia, the U.S. is closing doors to negotiation and potentially opening missile silo doors to obliteration. By not bargaining at all, Biden and company are not being resolute, they’re being pigheaded.

As Winston Churchill famously said, “Meeting jaw to jaw is better than war.” Politics and war are not and should not be antithetical to each other. A negotiated settlement is better than more dead Ukrainians, more dead Russians, more blasted terrain, and even higher risks of nuclear escalation.

Haven’t we heard enough already about nuclear red lines and dirty bombs? Stability is what’s needed today based on some measure of respect, however grudgingly given. If avowed Cold War warriors like Reagan and Thatcher in the 1980s could do business with Gorbachev and the Soviet Union, America’s leaders today, from a much stronger position, should be able and willing to do business with Putin.

This is not about appeasing or rewarding Putin for his invasion. It’s about stopping a war before it potentially grows wider — and far more deadly.

Note for readers: If you care to comment on this post, please go to Bracing Views on Substack. Thanks.

The Russia-Ukraine War as a World War

W.J. Astore

I haven’t written much about the progress of the Russia-Ukraine War. I have no special insight into what’s going on in Ukraine, or in Putin’s head, but I think I know something about the USA and its leadership.

The war itself: Russia and Ukraine are both losing. Russia is losing men and materiel; Ukraine is losing land and suffering all the destruction of a war fought on their turf. Many Americans seem to be cheering Ukraine and its resolute resistance, but at what cost, and for what purpose?

Historical analogies: American commentators like to refer to 1938 and Munich. Putin, naturally, is Hitler, and the world must stand up to him since Ukraine is only the first country on his list of potential conquests. If Putin wins in Ukraine, Poland would be next. Or the Baltic States. Because Putin wants to re-create the Soviet empire. Or the Russia of the Tsars.

But I think it’s much more like 1914. A regional conflict that may spin wildly out of control as more and more countries get swept into its escalatory spiral. Russian threats and nuclear red lines are more than worrisome. After all, wars are inherently chaotic and unpredictable, often creating their own bizarre logic of what’s right and wrong, what’s rational and irrational. Anyone who thinks they know how this war is going to end is overestimating the predictability of war. We’re all engaged in guess-work, and where nuclear threats are involved, guess-work is less than reassuring.

The Russia-Ukraine War could escalate to a world war: Already we’ve seen major economic sanctions involving the US, NATO countries, and Russia. Already we’ve seen Russia working with China and other countries to sell its fuel and other products as it seeks to evade those sanctions. Already we’ve seen inflation and recession in the US economy that can be tied back to those sanctions. Meanwhile, the US and NATO have sent tens of billions in weaponry to Ukraine to wage its war, which, to be blunt, is a form of proxy war for the US and NATO. The US president has called for regime change in Russia, declaring that Putin must go. Both Nord Stream pipelines have been attacked. This is not a simple regional war between Russia and Ukraine. It’s already a war with global implications openly funded by the US with the explicit goal of weakening Russia and removing Putin from power.

Boris Spassky versus Bobby Fischer: the good old days

To use chess terminology, the war still appears to be in its opening stages. Perhaps the middle game has begun; what’s certain is the end game is nowhere in sight. As Matt Taibbi recently noted, the Washington Post observed that “recent events have only added to the sense that the war will be a long slog,” and “all of this adds up to a war that looks increasingly open-ended.” Even worse, the paper noted:

Privately, U.S. officials say neither Russia nor Ukraine is capable of winning the war outright, but they have ruled out the idea of pushing or even nudging Ukraine to the negotiating table. They say they do not know what the end of the war looks like, or how it might end or when, insisting that is up to Kyiv.

Taibbi’s response is telling: “What??? If the White House doesn’t think the war can be won, but also refuses to negotiate itself, or ‘nudge’ others to do it for them, what exactly is its end strategy? Waiting for things to get worse and then reassessing?”

To return to chess: In games involving highly skilled players, often draws are agreed upon early in the middle game, as both players realize they have no prospects for victory and that further play will merely prolong the inevitable. It’s time for the major players in this conflict to agree to some version of a draw, a negotiated settlement, an end to conflict. Chess, after all, is just a game. The players don’t have to worry about dying in a nuclear cataclysm. We do.

Hypocrisy and “Tactical” Nukes

Don’t worry, it’s just a “little” tactical nuke!

W.J. Astore

With Russia issuing warnings about using all weapons at its disposal to protect its position in Ukraine, it’s a good time to talk about the distinction between “tactical” and “strategic” nuclear weapons.

Put bluntly, there’s no real distinction. All nuclear weapons, regardless of size and yield, are devastating and potentially escalatory to a full-scale nuclear war. Were Russia to use “tactical” nuclear weapons, the U.S. and NATO would likely respond in kind.  Even if a major nuclear war could be avoided, resulting political disruptions would likely aggravate ongoing economic dislocation, triggering a serious global recession, even a Great Depression, further feeding the growth of fascism and authoritarianism.

When you build weapons, there’s a temptation to use them. Weapons don’t exist in a vacuum. Within the military, people are trained to use them. Doctrine is developed along with contingency plans. Exercises are run to prepare for deployment and use in wartime, “just in case.” In short, we can’t count on sane heads to prevail here, not when some people seem to think you can use a “little” nuke to send a message.

Fortunately for the world, nuclear weapons haven’t been used in war since Hiroshima and Nagasaki in 1945. But they are used daily in the sense of intimidating other countries.  Currently, Russia is using its nuclear forces to try to contain US/NATO aid to Ukraine and involvement in the Russia-Ukraine War. Russia is drawing a nuclear red line, and I doubt it’s a bluff.

It’s hypocritical of both the US and Russia to accuse the other of nuclear brinksmanship since both countries have contingency plans to use nukes. Hopefully, it’s obvious to both countries how devastating it would be if a nuclear exchange, even a “limited” or “tactical” one, were to occur.

Even as bluffs, nuclear threats are reckless, since there’s always some fool who may seek to call the bluff. Let’s hope the US/NATO collective doesn’t play the fool. We have enough problems in the world without tossing nuclear warheads of whatever size or yield at each other.

More “Great Power” Competition!

Near-Peers? Peers? Competitors? Great Powers?

W.J. Astore

A colleague who teaches at one of America’s many war schools tells me that great power competition is trendy again, the U.S., it goes without saying, being the greatest power of all, and China and Russia being the main “near-peer” rivals to greatness.  The competition, of course, is defined primarily in military terms and is measured, at least at the Pentagon, by the amount of money Congress allocates to each year’s defense budget.  Thus the U.S. military, in (falsely) arguing that it’s falling behind the Chinese navy in ships, for example, establishes the quick-fix solution as lots more money for the U.S. Navy to build more ships.  Similarly, the Air Force wants more F-35 jet fighters, B-21 nuclear bombers, and new land-based ICBMs, also measures of “greatness,” and the Army wants 500,000 troops on active duty, presumably because it’s a nice round number, even as it’s failing miserably to meet yearly recruiting goals, forcing it to settle on a force of roughly 450,000 (more or less) effectives.

Naturally, the solution is never to downsize the mission given a somewhat smaller force; it’s to do whatever is possible to expand the pool of recruits, even if that means “fat camps” and remedial teaching to help potential soldiers reach weight goals and test scores so that they qualify for basic training.  Too fat or too dumb?  Join the pre-Army!  Lose weight fast and get smart quick so that you too can eventually enlist and be sent to foreign lands to kill people.

Recruitment shortfalls is a micro issue garnering attention in Congress even as the macro issue of China and Russia as great power competitors serves as a welcome change of subject from colossal military failures in Iraq and Afghanistan.  And there’s the rub: the U.S. military has learned nothing from those failures except, as Barack Obama might say, to look forward, not backward, and to inflate China and Russia from regional powers to near-pears or even to peers.  As my war school colleague put it to me, somewhat ambiguously, “they” have big battalions and lots of nukes and have shown the will to use them, so America must be ready to respond in kind.  Yet the only country to have used nukes against cities is the United States at Hiroshima and Nagasaki, and the U.S. continues to outspend China on weapons and war roughly by a factor of three and Russia by a factor of ten. 

So, which country is really driving all this militarized “competition” among the so-called great powers?

Is Ukraine Winning?

The detritus of war, but it’s Ukraine that’s bearing the brunt of war damage

W.J. Astore

At NBC News today, I saw this headline: “Ukraine’s offensive in the east surprised Russia — and it may be a turning point in the war.” Russian forces are retreating, but whether this represents a decisive turning point remains to be seen. Still, Ukraine resistance seems steady, and Russian will unsteady, at this moment in the war.

Surely, this is good news — or is it? With all the fighting taking place in Ukraine, the longer the war lasts, the worst it will likely turn out for Ukrainians. Turning points often are illusory: just ask all those U.S. generals who spoke of turning points in Afghanistan and Iraq over the last two decades. The best case scenario here is for Ukraine to use its military advantage and push for a favorable diplomatic settlement. I would hope Vladimir Putin might also see the wisdom of ending a war that has cost him more than he likely imagined when he started it earlier this year (as Andrew Bacevich explains at TomDispatch).

Too many Americans, it seems to me, are determined to see Russia suffer as much as possible. With Russia, the Pentagon’s argument goes something like this: Putin is a malevolent and irredentist dictator.  Without NATO expansion, the Baltic States would already have been reabsorbed by Russia, with Poland and other (former) eastern bloc nations next on Putin’s target list.  Putin, a “clear and present danger,” is only kept in line by U.S. and NATO military power, because his goal is a new Russian empire with borders much like those that Russia had in 1914 or, if that proves overly ambitious, 1989 before the Soviet collapse.  Only a resolute America (and now Ukraine) stands in his way, but that requires massive military spending in a renewed effort at containment, together with yet more spending on America’s nuclear triad.  “Containment” and “deterrence,” once again, are the neutral-sounding words that enable open-ended U.S. military spending against Russia (and of course Red China as well).

Truly what we don’t need is Cold War 2.0. The world barely survived the first one, and that was before climate change emerged as the serious threat that it is today.

In the 1990s, the U.S. and NATO rejected the idea that Russia maybe, just maybe, could be incorporated into the European Community in a security architecture respectful of Russian history and goals while also securing nascent democracies in former Warsaw Pact countries. Today, that rejection is complete, as Russia and Putin are dismissed as irredeemable deplorables, to borrow a phrase from Hillary Clinton.

Yet I wouldn’t underestimate Russian resilience. Just ask Hitler, Napoleon, or Charles XII about that. They all invaded Russia and got spanked. The time has come not to continue the vilification of Russia but to reach accords that Russians, Ukrainians, and other Europeans can all live with.

You wage war long, you wage it wrong, especially when it’s being waged on your turf. Short of total capitulation by either side, which is unlikely, let’s hope Zelensky and Putin can find a way to resolve their differences Let’s hope as well that the U.S. sees the wisdom of facilitating a diplomatic settlement that ends the killing.

Though President Biden previously has suggested Putin must go, I’d be very careful what he wishes for. Russia under new leaders may prove even more volatile and vengeful than U.S. leaders think it’s been under Putin.

Are Joe Biden and Donald Trump Too Old to Serve?

W.J. Astore

President Joe Biden turns 80 this year. If he chooses to run and is reelected in 2024, he’ll be 82 and will serve as president until he’s 86. His Republican rival, Donald Trump, will be 78 in 2024 and is overweight and perhaps obese. Biden, meanwhile, is moving more slowly and appears to be experiencing signs of age-related cognitive decline. Leaving aside their politics and policies and personalities, are either of these men truly fit to be president?

We all age differently, of course. But it used to be said that being POTUS was the toughest job in the world. Younger men like Jimmy Carter, Bill Clinton, and George W. Bush aged noticeably in office due to the strains of the job. Yet pointing out the rigors of the presidency, and raising questions about whether men in their 80s are truly capable of handling such rigors, exposes one to claims of bias based on age.

A lot of jobs have mandatory retirement ages. My dad was a firefighter and he had to retire at 65. While we don’t expect the POTUS to climb ladders or charge into burning buildings or carry bodies, there’s still something to be said for the difficulty of men in the twilight of their lives serving as the “leader of the free world.”

(I say men here because women live longer and often age more gracefully. But I think it’s also true in the U.S. that a woman “pushing 80” would be dismissed out of hand as too old for the presidency; societal bias against older women still exists, though of course older women can cling to power with the same tenacity as men: just look at House Speaker Nancy Pelosi.)

I remember the bad old days of the Cold War when Soviet leaders were mocked in the U.S. as a gerontocracy of sorts. So when Leonid Brezhnev died at the age of 75, he was briefly succeeded by Yuri Andropov (died at 69) and Konstantin Chernenko (died at 74 after serving for just over a year as General Secretary). Then the much younger Mikhail Gorbachev took over at age 54 and more than anyone helped to revolutionize U.S.-Soviet relations.

In a way, Joe Biden is the U.S. equivalent of Andropov and Chernenko, a time-server who was elevated by his party as a caretaker. “Nothing will fundamentally change,” Biden said of his administration, a promise he has indeed kept. Those same words could have come from Andropov and Chernenko.

The problem for the Democrats is that there’s no clear younger heir-apparent to Biden. Harris? Mayor Pete? Gavin Newsom? (Newsom, like Mitt Romney, has presidential hair but little else.) Where is the Democratic equivalent to Mikhail Gorbachev?

The Republicans have their own issues, the main one being the cult of personality surrounding Donald J. Trump. But what really empowers Trump, besides his own craftiness at cons and culture wars, is the weakness and hypocrisy of the Democrats. When your most likely opponent is a “no hope, no change” figurehead in his early 80s, even Trump appears by comparison to be a change agent of sorts.

America truly needs fundamental change, someone like Mikhail Gorbachev, a leader willing to face facts and tell harsh truths. Someone with a fresh perspective and the energy to convey it. Both Biden and Trump are too old, if not in their bodies, then in their thinking, to be the reformer America so desperately needs.

Let Reagan Be Reagan

W.J. Astore

The first presidential election in which I voted was 1984 and Ronald Reagan got my nod. Back then, I was a Cold War officer-to-be and I wasn’t convinced that Walter Mondale and the Democrats had a handle on anything. Today, I’d be more likely to vote for Mondale, I think, but I still have some affection for Reagan, who dreamed big.

Reagan’s biggest dream was eliminating nuclear weapons, which he came close to doing with Mikhail Gorbachev. Apparently, the sticking point was Reagan’s enthusiasm for the Strategic Defense Initiative, or “Star Wars,” his misbegotten scheme to defend America against nuclear attack. It’s truly a shame that these two leaders didn’t fulfill a shared dream of making the world safer through nuclear disarmament.

Still, Reagan and Gorbachev did eliminate an entire class of nuclear weapons via the intermediate range nuclear forces (INF) treaty, as represented by the American Pershing II and Soviet SS-20 missiles as well as ground-launched nuclear cruise missiles. Sadly, I recall talking to a senior colleague in the early 1990s who relayed an anecdote that he (or someone he knew, I can’t quite recall) had talked to Reagan and praised the ex-president for that achievement, only to be met with a vague look because Reagan apparently couldn’t remember by that point. It appears Reagan did start to suffer from memory loss in his second term in office, and by the early 1990s it wouldn’t surprise me if he couldn’t recall details of nuclear treaties.

Reagan and Gorbachev sign the INF Treaty, which eliminated an entire class of nuclear weapons

Even so, Reagan, despite all his flaws, had a bold vision motivated by human decency. He was something more than a bumbler, and indeed his energy and eloquence were leagues ahead of what Joe Biden exhibits today.

Which put me to mind of this classic “Saturday Night Live” of Reagan in action. Of course, it’s a spoof, but it’s well done and funny while capturing something of Reagan’s own sense of humor:

Please, dear readers, don’t tell me all the crimes of Reagan in the comments section. Nor do I want anyone to whitewash the man. Today, I just wanted to capture Reagan’s abhorrence of nuclear war, which got him to dream of SDI (“Star Wars”) and which almost produced a major breakthrough in total nuclear disarmament.

How shameful is it that Reagan could dream big with Gorbachev but that Biden can’t speak at all to Vladimir Putin?