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.

U.S. Propaganda Gets Even Heavier

W.J. Astore

You’d think watching the U.S. Open finals in tennis would constitute a break from incessant propaganda about war, but you’d be wrong to do so.

I’m a tennis fan so I watched this weekend’s finals with interest. A Pole defeated a Tunisian in the women’s final and a Spaniard defeated a Norwegian in the men’s final, which is a fair representation of the international flavor of the field. At both trophy ceremonies, what did the U.S. Tennis Association choose to highlight? The USTA boasted of raising $2 million for Ukraine war relief while describing the Russian invasion of Ukraine as “unprovoked.”

First of all, why is Russia’s war with Ukraine being mentioned at both trophy ceremonies? What has this got to do with tennis?

Second, why is the USTA raising money for Ukraine war relief? Shouldn’t it be raising money for, well, tennis? Perhaps for scholarships for underprivileged kids around the world to play tennis? After all, the U.S. taxpayer is already on the hook for nearly $70 billion in aid to Ukraine, roughly half of it in the form of arms and armaments. Compared to this sum, $2 million is a drop in the bucket.

Third, why is Russia’s invasion always described as “unprovoked,” as if Putin and Russia simply woke up one day and decided to invade a former Soviet republic?

Let’s think back to America’s invasion of Iraq in 2003. Was that also “unprovoked”? (After all, Saddam Hussein had no WMD and nothing to do with the 9/11 attacks.) Did the USTA raise money to help Iraqi civilians recover from U.S. war damage and crimes? Not that I recall.

Earlier this year, at Wimbledon, players from Russia and Belarus were banned from the tournament. (I guess because they were waging war with their tennis rackets for Putin?) At the U.S. Open, they were allowed to play but not under the flags of their countries. Do you recall U.S. tennis players being banned because of the “unprovoked” Iraq War? Neither do I.

The U.S. mainstream managers — even tennis officials! — are so concerned to describe the Russian attack as “unprovoked” that you know that they know it was provoked — and they’re at pains to deny it, even during tennis tournaments.

The heavy hand of U.S. propaganda only gets heavier when it intrudes on what should have been an apolitical and celebratory trophy ceremony for international athletes.

Note: I am, of course, against Russia’s invasion of Ukraine. What I would like to see is the U.S. supporting diplomatic efforts to end the war as quickly as possible. Currently, we hear much of Ukrainian victories, but it’s possible the war will only grow longer and more deadly as a result of these “victories.”

A classic “Tom Tomorrow” cartoon from 2002. Now, of course, “real Americans” must believe Russia’s invasion of Ukraine was completely unprovoked, that Ukraine deserves a blank check in U.S. taxpayer funds, and that Russian athletes should be ashamed of their own flag

The Ukrainian Boondoggle as a Black Hole

W.J. Astore

Back on June 1st, I noted that Ukraine couldn’t possibly absorb more than $54 billion in U.S. aid, most of it related to weaponry and munitions, given the country’s lack of infrastructure as well as the chaos inherent to a shooting war.

As I wrote back then:

The entire defense budget of Ukraine before the war was just under $6 billion. How can Ukraine possibly absorb (mostly) military “aid” that represents NINE TIMES their annual defense budget? It simply can’t be done…

From a military perspective, the gusher of money and equipment being sent to Ukraine makes little sense because there’s no way Ukraine has the infrastructure to absorb it and use it effectively. The U.S. approach seems to be to flood the zone with weaponry and assorted equipment of all sorts, irrespective of how it might be used or where it might ultimately end up. I can’t see how all this lethal “aid” will stay in the hands of troops and out of the hands of various criminal networks and black markets.

And so it goes. Recent reports suggest that only 30-40% of U.S. military aid is actually reaching Ukrainian troops. The rest is being siphoned off, lost, stolen, what-have-you. The response in U.S. media is to suppress this truth, per dictates from Ukraine!

Caitlin Johnstone does an excellent job of summarizing the case, and since she generously encourages her readers to share her posts, I thought I’d avail myself of her generosity. Without further ado:

Caitlin Johnstone, CBS Tries Critical Journalism; Stops After Ukraine Objects

Following objections from the Ukrainian government, CBS News has removed a short documentary which had reported concerns from numerous sources that a large amount of the supplies being sent to Ukraine aren’t making it to the front lines.

The Ukrainian government has listed its objections to the report on a government website, naming Ukrainian officials who objected to it and explaining why each of the CBS news sources it dislikes should be discounted. After the report was taken down and the Twitter post about it removed, Ukrainian Foreign Minister Dmytro Kuleba said this was a good start but still not enough.

“Welcome first step, but it is not enough,” Kuleba tweeted. “You have misled a huge audience by sharing unsubstantiated claims and damaging trust in supplies of vital military aid to a nation resisting aggression and genocide. There should be an internal investigation into who enabled this and why.”

The CBS News article about the documentary was renamed, from “Why military aid to Ukraine doesn’t always get to the front lines: ‘Like 30% of it reaches its final destination’” to the far milder “Why military aid in Ukraine may not always get to the front lines.” An editor’s note on the new version of the article explicitly admits to taking advisement on its changes from the Ukrainian government, reading as follows:

This article has been updated to reflect changes since the CBS Reports documentary ‘Arming Ukraine’ was filmed, and the documentary is also being updated. Jonas Ohman says the delivery has significantly improved since filming with CBS in late April. The government of Ukraine notes that U.S. defense attaché Brigadier General Garrick M. Harmon arrived in Kyiv in August 2022 for arms control and monitoring.”

CBS News does not say why it has taken so long for this report to come out, why it didn’t check to see if anything had changed in the last few months during a rapidly unfolding war before releasing its report, or why it felt its claims were good enough to air before Kyiv raised its objections but not after.

Someone uploaded the old version of the documentary on YouTube here, or you can watch it on Bitchute here if that one gets taken down. It was supportive of Ukraine and very oppositional to Russia, and simply featured a number of sources saying they had reason to believe a lot of the military supplies being sent to Ukraine aren’t getting where they’re supposed to go.

The original article quotes the aforementioned Jonas Ohman as follows:

“All of this stuff goes across the border, and then something happens, kind of like 30% of it reaches its final destination,” said Jonas Ohman, founder and CEO of Blue-Yellow, a Lithuania-based organization that has been meeting with and supplying frontline units with military aid in Ukraine since the start of the conflict with Russia-backed separatists in 2014.

 

“30-40%, that’s my estimation,” he said in April of this year.

“The US has sent tens of thousands of anti-aircraft and anti-armor systems, artillery rounds, hundreds of artillery systems, Switchblade armored drones, and tens of millions of rounds of small arms ammunition,” CBS’s Adam Yamaguchi tells us at 14:15 of the documentary. “But in a conflict where frontlines are scattered and conditions change without warning, not all of those supplies reach their destination. Some also reported weapons are being hoarded, or worse fear that they are disappearing into the black market, an industry that has thrived under corruption in post-Soviet Ukraine.”

“I can tell you unarguably that on the frontline units these things are not getting there,” the Mozart Group‘s Andy Milburn tells Yamaguchi at 17:40. “Drones, Switchblades, IFAKs. They’re not, alright. Body armor, helmets, you name it.”

“Is it safe to characterize this as a little bit of a black hole?” Yamaguchi asked him, perhaps in reference to an April report from CNN whose source said the equipment that’s being sent “drops into a big black hole, and you have almost no sense of it at all after a short period of time.”

“I suppose if you don’t have visibility of where this stuff is going, and if you’re asking that question, then it would appear that it’s a black hole, yeah,” Milburn replied.

“We don’t know,” Amnesty International’s Donatella Rovera tells Yamaguchi at 18:45 when asked if it’s known where the weapons being sent to Ukraine are going.

“There is really no information as to where they’re going at all,” Rovera says. “What is more worrying is that at least some of the countries that are sending weapons do not seem to think that it is their responsibility to put in place a very robust oversight mechanism to ensure that they know how they’re being used today, but also how they might and will be used tomorrow.”

A news outlet pulling a report because their own government didn’t like it would be a scandalous breach of journalistic ethics. A news outlet pulling a report because a foreign government didn’t like it is even more so.

We’ve already seen that the western media will uncritically report literally any claim made by the government of Ukraine in bizarre instances like the recent report that Russia was firing rockets at a nuclear power plant it had already captured, or its regurgitation of claims that Russians are raping babies to death from a Ukrainian official who ended up getting fired for promoting unevidenced claims about rape. Now not only will western media outlets uncritically report any claim the Ukrainian government makes, they will also retract claims of their own when the Ukrainian government tells them to.

It’s not just commentators like me who see the western press as propagandists: that’s how they see themselves. If you think it’s your job to always report information that helps one side of a war and always omit any information which might hinder it, then you have given yourself the role of propagandist. You might not call yourself that, but that’s what you are by any reasonable definition of that word.

And a great many western Zelenskyites honestly see this as the media’s role as well. They’ll angrily condemn anyone who inserts skepticism of the US empire’s narratives about Ukraine into mainstream consciousness, but then they’ll also yell at you if you say we’re not being told the truth about Ukraine. They demand to be lied to, and call you a liar if you say that means we’re being lied to.

You can’t have it both ways. Either you want the mass media to serve as war propagandists or you want them to tell the truth. You cannot hold both of those positions simultaneously. They are mutually exclusive. And many actually want the former.

This can’t lead anywhere good.

Follow this link to read all of Caitlin’s article: https://caitlinjohnstone.com/2022/08/10/cbs-wanted-to-do-critical-reporting-on-ukraines-government-but-ukraines-government-said-no/

Why Did Nancy Pelosi Go to Taiwan?

W.J. Astore

House Speaker Nancy Pelosi’s trip to Taiwan was a disaster. It angered China, provoking a military response (missile firings and the like) that could escalate into something far worse. It interfered with cooperative efforts between China and the U.S. on vitally important fronts such as climate change. And it featured a startlingly incoherent speech by the Speaker in which she implied Benjamin Franklin was an early U.S. president as she proceeded to misquote and butcher his sentiment on liberty and security. Jimmy Dore does an excellent job here of allowing Pelosi to slay herself with her own words:

So, why did she go to Taiwan? Putting aside her own conceit and vainglory, she went for two reasons. The first was domestic politics. Just as the Democrats have (falsely) accused Trump and the Republicans of being soft on Russia, the Republicans have (falsely) accused Biden and the Democrats of being soft on China. Pelosi’s trip was meant to inoculate the Democrats against charges of “softness” vis-a-vis China. Meanwhile, as both major political parties accuse the other of being “soft” vis-a-vis regional powers (China, Russia), the military-industrial complex continues to cash in with record-setting “defense” budgets.

The second reason is connected to the first. Pelosi’s trip has generated the response the military-industrial complex was looking for from China. Thus on NBC News today, you see the following article that touts a resurgent Chinese military and how it constitutes a major threat to U.S. imperial dominance in the Pacific. The conclusion you’re supposed to draw from this is simple: China is a big-time threat to America, therefore we must spend even more money to “rebuild” America’s military to meet that threat.

There’s possibly a third reason, and that is the unreliability of Joe Biden and Kamala Harris as deliverers of a coherent message. Both Biden and Harris rely heavily on teleprompters; when they depart from the script, Biden is liable to blurt out inappropriate remarks that need to be “walked back” by aides, whereas Harris has a tendency to laugh inappropriately to cover her confusion. It’s doubly ironic that the Speaker of the House, sent to speak for America and the Democrats, spoke so poorly and confusingly.

This is no laughing matter, since diplomacy depends on clear communication. Certainly, the Chinese are speaking clearly with their military exercises and diplomatic warnings. That America’s leaders can’t speak clearly and exercise sound judgment is assuredly the clearest sign yet of U.S. decline, a decline that will not be arrested by throwing more money at the military.

Sound policy requires sound leaders. Whatever else one might say, the words of Biden, Harris, and Pelosi are unsound, marking them as not just ineffective leaders but dangerous ones.

I keep this globe in my office. It comes in handy to remind me of America’s “global reach” and “global power.” You can see how close Taiwan is to mainland China, and also how far Taiwan is from the U.S. But of course U.S. hegemony has no geographical limits, hence the presence of roughly 750 U.S. military bases globally. The world is not enough, since the U.S. must dominate space and cyberspace as well. Perhaps Nancy Pelosi should give her next muddled speech from low Earth orbit. Or the Moon?

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?

Democrats, Republicans, and the Need for Alternatives

W.J. Astore

The last real Democratic President was Jimmy Carter. The last U.S. election offering a real alternative vision was George McGovern versus Richard Nixon in 1972.

Since then, Democratic Presidents like Clinton, Obama, and Biden have been DINOs, or Democrats in name only. In a rare moment of honesty, Obama admitted his administration had echoed the policies of “moderate” Republicans. Friendly to Wall Street, banking interests, corporations, the military-industrial complex, and the usual assortment of oligarchs. Obama’s health care plan was a corporate-friendly sellout that echoed the plan put together by Republicans like Mitt Romney. The DINOs fully support forever war and huge military budgets; Obama was quite happy to admit America had “tortured some folks” and that he’d gotten very good at ordering people to be killed, mainly via assassination by drone. It’s a far cry from Jimmy Carter trying to put human rights at the center of his foreign policy in the late 1970s.

Democrats began to move rightwards after McGovern’s resounding defeat in 1972. They haven’t stopped this rightward drift; indeed, it’s accelerated. The Republicans responded by embracing men like Trump as they found plenty of room even further to the right of the DINOs. America, Gore Vidal once said, basically has one property party with two right wings, and that’s only become truer and more obvious over the last fifty years.

What is to be done? We need viable alternatives, but of course the game is rigged, as Matthew Hoh, principled candidate for the Senate in North Carolina, discovered as Democrats conspired to keep him off the ballot, even though his efforts with the Green Party were more than sufficient to earn him a place on that ballot. Both parties, Democrat and Republican, will do anything to keep their duopoly while also endlessly punching each other. Neither party serves the interests of the people.

Perhaps Caitlin Johnstone can offer some hope, or at least a diagnosis for the right path ahead. Here’s what she had to say in her latest post about how the political system in America is structured and manipulated for the benefits of the powerful:

1. Use narrative manipulation to divide the population into a roughly 50/50 ideological split.

2. Ensure you control both of those factions.

3. Convince everyone that the only reason nothing changes is because their half of the population doesn’t win enough elections.

Everyone’s pulling on a rope that doesn’t lead anywhere and doesn’t do anything, convinced by powerful manipulators that they’re engaged in a life-or-death tug o’ war match of existential importance. Meanwhile the powerful just do as they like, completely indifferent to that spectacle and its back-and-forth exchanges.

A group is artificially split into two sides and told to pull a rope in opposite directions while someone else stands back and shoots them all with a BB gun. When they complain about the welts, they’re told it’s happening because their side isn’t pulling hard enough. But really they’d be getting shot no matter what they did.

This doesn’t mean give up, it just means give up on the fake tug o’ war game. If you’re playing tug o’ war while someone rummages through your handbag looking for cash, the first step to stopping them is putting down the rope and going after them. It’s like if everyone was pushing on a fake fire escape in a burning building: the first step to getting them out of there is showing them that the door is just painted on the wall and doesn’t lead anywhere. That’s not telling them to give up hope, it’s just telling them to give up on an ineffective strategy.

Perhaps Johnstone didn’t go far enough here. Americans go in for assault rifles, not BB guns. But she’s surely right that you’re not going to reform this system from within, i.e. from pulling harder on the Democrat or Republican rope. You need to stop playing an unwinnable game.

Organize. Vote third party when a sane candidate is available. Stop donating to DINOs and their even more dubious Republican cousins. Protest. Tell others. You never know what will be the spark that ignites true and meaningful change.

The War in Yemen

Map of Yemen from 2017 that shows the site of the botched SEAL Team raid at Yakla

W.J. Astore

I haven’t followed the Saudi war in Yemen that closely. But I’d wager most Americans know far less about it than I do. I know the U.S. has been supporting Saudi Arabia in its bloody repression of Iranian-backed Yemeni forces (the Houthis), providing critical resources such as aerial refueling, intelligence sharing, and, most importantly, an endless supply of weaponry. I know this support has been couched as consistent with a “war on terror,” when it’s driven much more by the U.S. need to appease Saudi rulers for economic reasons (primarily the petrodollar and oil exports). I know the Yemeni people have suffered greatly due to famine and diseases exacerbated by constant warfare and economic blockades. I know Joe Biden campaigned against the war and criticized Saudi officials but as president has done nothing to stop it. And I know a bipartisan force in Congress is trying to take steps to end America’s involvement in what essentially constitutes a genocide against the Yemeni people.

Occasionally, Yemen has appeared in my articles here, as with the SEAL Team fiasco launched by President Trump in late January 2017. (One Navy SEAL died in the raid; his father later accused the Trump administration of hiding behind the death of his son instead of admitting the raid had been a murderous failure.) In passing, I’ve mentioned Yemen in a few articles like this one, but again it’s not something I’ve written about in detail. I’ve been focused on the Afghan war, the military-industrial complex, the new Cold War, plans to build a new generation of nuclear weapons, and on and on.

Fortunately, a freelance journalist based in Yemen, Naseh Shaker, contacted me with a few questions that got me thinking a bit more about Yemen and the U.S. government’s role there. His article addresses whether Congress has any chance of invoking the War Powers Act to limit or end America’s involvement in this brutal war, given the reality that President Biden is once again courting and kowtowing to the Saudis. You can read his article here, which includes a few comments by me, but it may be useful to include his original questions to me, and my responses to them. He asked me to keep my responses short, 2-3 sentences, which I did:

Questions by Naseh Shaker

1- Why the US is sanctioning Russia for invading Ukraine but when it comes to the Saudi invasion of Yemen, the US is providing the Saudis with all logistics and weapons as if it is the American war, not the Saudi war?

2- Why Biden doesn’t fulfill his promise to end the war in Yemen?

3- Is invoking the War Powers Resolution (WPR) an attempt from Democrats to cover Biden’s scandal of not ending the war in Yemen as he promised?

4- If WPR is passed, does it mean the US is responsible for Saudi war crimes in Yemen given that it is providing the coalition “intelligence sharing” and “logistical support for offensive Saudi-led coalition strikes”? 

Answers by William Astore

Question 1: The US sees Russia as a rival and an enemy.  The US sees Saudi Arabia as an ally and a friend.  Put differently, the US economy owes much to the petrodollar and the Saudi appetite for expensive American-made weaponry.

Question 2: Because he doesn’t really care about the Yemeni people.  He cares about maintaining good relations with the Saudis.

Question 3: Unclear.  But I don’t think Democrats consider it a “scandal” that Biden failed to keep his promise.  There are many other promises Biden failed to keep, such as a $15 federal minimum wage for Americans, and these failed promises are not treated as “scandals.”

Question 4: The US government refuses to take responsibility for its own war crimes, so it certainly isn’t going to admit to responsibility or culpability for Saudi crimes.

Ignorance is a major enemy in the USA. We owe it to ourselves as citizens (and to what’s left of our democracy) to inform ourselves about what our government is up to, especially when what it’s up to is killing, whether directly or indirectly, untold numbers of people around the world.

The war in Yemen has killed at least 377,000 people. To what end? For what purpose? How is aiding the Saudis in this war remotely related to the defense of our country?

End the killing. End the wars. Let’s do something right for a change.

How Are We to Understand the Russia-Ukraine War?

Biden, Putin, and Zelensky.

W.J. Astore and M. Davout

My esteemed colleague Davout and I have different ways of looking at the Russia-Ukraine War.  We thought it would be a worthwhile exercise to share our differing perspectives here, allowing our readers to think over the merits of our approaches and the validity of our conclusions.  Davout has framed the questions and made the initial response; I get the last word, so to speak, for each question.  Our mutual intent is not to “win” a pseudo-debate but to pose questions and provide answers that inform and stimulate.  To that end, here we go.

What caused the Russian invasion of Ukraine?

Davout: Putin’s desire to reestablish Russian hegemony over Eastern Europe and ensure the stability of his autocratic regime has been the main driver of the invasion. In 2005, Putin declared that the collapse of the Soviet Union was “the greatest geopolitical catastrophe of the century.” What was catastrophic about it for Putin? The eastern flank of the former Soviet Union, including Latvia, Lithuania, Estonia, Moldova, and Ukraine shifted from being an appendage of an authoritarian Soviet regime to being a collection of independent democracies or democracies-in-process. Membership in the European Union and in NATO has either been achieved (the Baltic states) or been pursued (Ukraine pursuing both, Moldova pursuing European Union membership only). None of these countries (not to mention the formerly occupied countries of Poland, Hungary, East Germany, Czechoslovakia) singly or together have the capacity or will to invade Russia or otherwise project military power across Russian borders. The real threat to which Putin is responding is the example set by the people of former Soviet territories opting for more democratic, less corrupt regimes and societies. That example endangers his own hold on power and pushes his own society toward historical irrelevance.

Astore: Putin was obviously the prime mover of the invasion.  He chose the military option, and he surely believed it would strengthen his authority over a former Soviet republic that was tracking toward joining NATO.

When we speak of causes, however, it’s often wise to take a broad view over a breadth of time.  When the Soviet Union collapsed in 1991, NATO’s reason for being ended with it.  Nevertheless, NATO persisted, expanding to the very borders of Russia despite assurances to Russian leaders that the alliance would not expand eastwards beyond a newly unified Germany.  Russian leaders, including Putin, had issued clear warnings that NATO expansion into Ukraine would constitute a “red line,” the crossing of which would likely lead to a military response.  Putin’s decision to invade, therefore, was eminently predictable, thus it was also potentially preventable. The United States, which leads NATO, could have sent a clear signal to Russia that Ukraine should and would remain a neutral buffer state.  The US chose not to do so.

One may question the premise of Ukraine as a “more democratic, less corrupt regime.”  In Ukraine, corruption is endemic, exacerbated by extensive U.S. meddling, as in the notorious coup of 2014 orchestrated in part by Victoria Nuland, citing the support of then-Vice President Joe Biden.  And while it’s important to recognize Russian regional hegemonic ambitions, one should never forget the global hegemonic ambitions of the U.S. empire.  In sum, the US has not been an innocent bystander here.  

US proxy war or Ukrainian war of independence?

Davout: A proxy war is a conflict instigated by a state in which it does not directly engage in hostilities. This war was a war of choice on the part of Putin. It has had the unintended result of inspiring patriotic resistance (even amongst Russian-speaking Ukrainians who were formerly pro-Russian like the mayor of Odessa). In the lead up to the invasion, the US and its NATO allies attempted to dissuade Putin from invading. In the invasion’s aftermath, they have provided critical arms and support to Ukraine and have sought economically to undermine Russia’s war-making capacities. While current official US policy may be the crippling of Russia’s capacity to engage in another such invasion in the near future, the US did not instigate this war in pursuit of this aim. While US and NATO armaments are a necessary factor in Ukraine’s continued defense against the Russian invasion, it is Ukrainian solidarity and resolve and Russian refusal to end its invasion that keep this war going.

Astore: Clearly, most Ukrainians believe they are fighting for their independence.  Ukraine has no desire to become a Putin puppet state.  Nor, however, do they wish to become a puppet state to the USA.

Lloyd Austin, the US Secretary of Defense, spoke clearly that weakening Russia was a key goal of this conflict.  To that end, the US government, in a rare show of bipartisan unity, provided $54 billion in largely military aid to a Ukrainian military with a yearly budget of $6 billion.  Such profligacy is not an example of generosity driven by disinterested ideals.  Clearly, the US sees this war as the latest front in a new cold war, a way to stress Russia to the breaking point.  As President Biden openly stated, that man (Putin) must go.

So, it’s worse than a proxy war: it’s yet another US regime-change war.  The stated goal is to topple Putin and turn Russia into a divided and dysfunctional state, much like it was in the 1990s when Western corporations and financial institutions invaded Russia and exploited it in the name of capitalism and reform.   

Are there any legitimate parallels to draw between Putin and Hitler?

Davout: Yes, though the parallels with Hitler are not the same parallels so often drawn to delegitimize non-interventionists as appeasers. Historian John Lukacs’s various histories of Hitler’s strategizing in that crucial period after the invasion of France to the start of the Battle of Britain paint a picture of Hitler less as the hubristic dictator irrationally striving for world conquest than as a canny but flawed geopolitical strategist, driven by geopolitical grievance and with a large capacity to hate those who opposed him. Lukacs argues that Hitler was prepared to cut a deal with Great Britain on terms that would allow Germany to exercise hegemonic powers on the continent. It was Churchill’s longstanding aversion to Hitler and Hitlerism and his ability to maintain British popular support for the war that blocked Hitler’s strategy to cut a deal. Once his overture was blocked by Churchill, Hitler underestimated British morale in the Battle of Britain. Then, in an effort to circumvent Britain’s resistance, Hitler gambled that he could cripple Stalin’s war making capacity and knock him out of the war and thereby present England with a fait accompli of German hegemony on the continent. The picture of Hitler Lukacs draws can plausibly be applied to Putin—a grievance-driven leader attempting to restore a lost geopolitical sphere of influence, who has miscalculated the resolve of democratic leaders and peoples and has doubled down on violence.

Astore:  In a word, no.  

Whenever American leaders want to justify military action and high spending on weaponry, they turn to Hitler and World War II.  The claim is made that we must stop the “new” Hitler.  We must not be appeasers.  Saddam Hussein was allegedly the new Hitler in 2003; his WMD was supposed to be a mushroom cloud on our horizon.  But there was no WMD and eliminating Saddam by invasion tipped Iraq into a disastrous civil war from which that country has yet to recover. 

Putin isn’t the new Hitler, and his invasion of Ukraine doesn’t represent the kind of existential threat the Third Reich presented to democracies in 1938-39.

Hitler had the finest military machine of his day backed by the economic powerhouse that was Germany in the late 1930s. Putin’s military machine is mediocre at best, and Russia’s economy is smaller than that of California.  Putin doesn’t appear to be seeking a huge empire or world domination, as Hitler was.  And while Hitler may have temporarily played nice with Britain, that didn’t prevent the Nazis from hatching plans to invade and loot Britain and to massacre its Jews as well.

Of course, Putin was wrong to have invaded Ukraine, but George W. Bush was wrong to have invaded Iraq in 2003.  Both these leaders have essentially nothing in common with Hitler, who was sui generis–a tyrannical dictator driven by genocidal fantasies of world dominance by a “master race.”

To what extent is US democracy hurt or helped by the Biden Administration’s policy of military support for Ukrainian resistance?    

Davout: Seeing his country in hostile competition with western democracies, Putin has deployed various forms of soft power and hard power to undermine confidence in, and injure the working of, democratic regimes. Hackers and internet influencers employed by the Russian state have intervened in the elections of established democracies either to foster social distrust or to promote candidates (e.g., Trump) and policies (e.g., Brexit) that weaken adversary countries. Military interventions are carried out on Russia’s border to maintain regimes favorable to Putin (as was the case when a popular uprising against fraudulent elections in Belarus was put down with the help of Russian soldiers). Meanwhile, as was documented by the Panama and Pandora Papers, the huge amounts of money pilfered from the Russian people by oligarchs moves through the banking, legal, and commercial institutions of democratic countries (including South Dakota!) with corrupting effect on people and officials alike. To be sure, the US has corruption problems of its own. And US military support of Ukraine will have the unfortunate result of strengthening the position of defense contractors and their lobbyists, Pentagon brass, and congressional hawks. However, it would be worst for US democracy if Russian ambitions to occupy or dismember Ukraine succeed. This would undermine European democracies whose continued survival and flourishing provide democratic reformers in the US with critically important role models and partners.

Astore: US democracy hasn’t been hurt or helped by this war because the US is a democracy in name only.

In reality, the US is an oligarchy in which the rich and powerful rule at the expense of the many.  The unofficial fourth branch of government is the US National Security State, a leviathan of enormous power. Its biggest component is what President Dwight D. Eisenhower in 1961 termed the military-industrial complex (to which he added Congress as well).  This MICC is profiting greatly from this war, not only in the $54 billion in aid provided to Ukraine, but also in the ever-rising Pentagon budget for FY 2023, which will exceed $813 billion, a gargantuan sum justified in part by the Russia-Ukraine War.

The new cold war with Russia, and increasingly with China as well, is strengthening the state of permanent war in America.  As James Madison warned, permanent warfare serves autocracy while insidiously destroying democracy. As militarism becomes more deeply entrenched in the US government, and as that same government continues to send more destructive weaponry to Ukraine such as artillery and missile systems, options for de-escalation narrow even as chances for a nightmarish escalation to nuclear war, whether by design or accident, increase.

What would truly strengthen democracy in America, assuming it could somehow be reanimated, is if the USA pressed ahead with all its strength to broker a peace treaty between Russia and Ukraine. Ukraine is getting wrecked by this war, and our aggressive actions, mainly in providing more and more lethal weaponry together with onerous sanctions, are guaranteed to shred more bodies and aggravate economic dislocation both here and in Europe.

Readers, what are your thoughts here?

Coda by M. Davout (6/6/22)

W. J. Astore has asked me to compose a “coda” of sorts, in which I might add some concluding reflections about the commentary provoked by our different views on the war in Ukraine. 

Yes, there is a relevant pre-2022 history to the current conflict—decades old promises from US officials to Russian officials about not expanding NATO east of the Oder, a popular pro-West Ukrainian uprising (supported by Western intelligence agencies, some have plausibly argued) against a Ukrainian administration’s decision to reject closer ties with the European Union (as was the will of the Ukrainian parliament) in favor of the Ukrainian president’s decision to push the country toward closer ties with Russia, a counter-uprising in the Donbas that drew Russian political and military support, etc. But there is also the fact of a full-scale military invasion against a country that posed little if any military threat to Russian borders, a military invasion that has led to the needless deaths of tens of thousands of civilians and combatants and the uprooting of millions of Ukrainians. 

It is undeniable that the invasion has promoted patriotic solidarity among different language speakers within Ukraine against the invasion, including Russian speaking Ukrainians whose rights Putin’s invasion was presumably intended to defend. It is also undeniable that voter support for Ukraine’s resistance to the invasion is very high in Eastern European countries. More noteworthy is the fact that in Western European countries, governments have been forced to respond to the pro-Ukrainian sentiments of their voters by sending arms to Ukraine and destroying longstanding economic relationships with Russia to the financial detriment of both European businesses and consumers.   

So the situation is nowhere near as neat or clear as either my contributions or Astore’s contributions or the contributions of the majority of the commentators would have it be. In this regard, the comments of Denise Donaldson strike me as the most interesting. You can tell that she can see the issue from both sides and is struggling with that ambiguity. 

That is the place to be on the Ukraine war, I think: struggling with ambiguity. There is no clearly right answer: the war is not solely a product of American empire, nor is it solely a product of Russian empire. And there are no good outcomes, only bad or worse outcomes. 

But, in politics, one has to make choices and, for now, I choose align myself with current US and NATO policy. Not because I am a dupe of the mainstream media or a supporter of the Establishment or the MIC (my earlier posts on this website should put those notions to rest) but because I believe the expulsion of the Russian military from the Ukrainian lands it currently occupies (maybe including Crimea, maybe not) is both possible and more likely to lead to a lasting peace in eastern Europe. And my taking that position does not mean that I do not also see some merit in the points my esteemed colleague WJ Astore (and his many followers) make.

Response by Astore (6/6/22)

I would like to thank M. Davout for his reasoned response and for continuing this important discussion. One thing I can say with certainty: you won’t hear such a nuanced and broad debate in the mainstream media, which basically just sells U.S. weaponry while waving Ukrainian flags in our faces.

Davout suggests that Ukraine posed no threat to Russia. Alone, that is true. But Ukraine was planning to join NATO, a powerful alliance led by the world’s most hegemonic country. Surely, that combination was something for Russia to be wary of, and even to fear.

When Americans think of Russia, many negative images come to mind. The evils of communism. A charging and rampaging Russian bear. But Russia has had its share of devastation. Davout certainly knows the rampage of Napoleon’s empire in 1812. Russia and the Soviet Union were almost destroyed by World Wars I and II. Russian leaders have been reassured by Western leaders before that “we come in peace,” but surely 1812, 1914, and 1941 taught Russia much about trusting Western assurances.

Look at a map. From a Russian perspective, NATO surrounds them. Look at military budgets. The U.S. and NATO combined spend more than 20 times what Russia spends. If the roles were reversed and we were the Russians, might we see this differently?

My point is not to excuse Russia’s invasion but to offer a partial explanation.

I agree with Davout that by this point “there are no good outcomes, only bad or worse outcomes.” Therefore, I choose not to align myself with current US and NATO policy, since I see this as recklessly escalatory and focused primarily on providing more and more weaponry to kill more and more Russians (and Ukrainians too). I propose an immediate cease fire, the end of arms shipments to Ukraine, and negotiation that would end with some territory being ceded to Russia, a promise from NATO and Ukraine that the latter will remain neutral, and a promise from Russia that Ukraine will not be attacked again, and that its territorial integrity will be respected. I would also insist on Russia paying reparations dedicated to rebuilding Ukraine. Finally, the U.S. should end all sanctions on Russia and redirect its aid entirely to rebuilding Ukraine rather than to more weaponry.

I think this approach would save lives and restore equilibrium to Europe while avoiding dangerous escalation that could conceivably end in nuclear war. It’s time for statesmanship and compromise, rather than militaristic grandstanding and mendacious obstinacy.

Sadly, I see no one in the US government with the sagacity and cojones to join Putin and Zelensky in working to stop this war reasonably and quickly.

Weapons as “Gamechangers”

W.J. Astore

Americans have a remarkable faith in weapons as “gamechangers,” as simple panaceas to complex problems.

Yesterday, Donald Trump addressed the NRA convention in Houston, offering guns as a panacea to mass shootings. Once again, Trump said that “highly trained” teachers should be allowed to carry concealed guns in the classroom. Apparently, teachers should now be the equivalent of Special Forces warriors, ready to confront shooters with assault weapons at a moment’s notice. When he was president, Trump suggested these warrior-teachers might even see a small bump in pay for their willingness to carry guns and to serve as quasi-SWAT team members at schools. What generosity!

Just as many Americans see more guns as the answer to domestic violence like mass shootings, yet bigger guns and missiles are seen as “game changers” for complex foreign issues like the Russia-Ukraine War. According to CNN, the U.S. government is considering sending the MLRS (multiple launch rocket system) to Ukraine, which has a range of up to 300 miles, to counter Russian troops. One Congressman in particular thinks it’s a dandy idea:

Democratic Rep. Jason Crow of Colorado, who was part of a congressional delegation trip to Kyiv earlier this month, told CNN he believes the systems could help Ukraine gain significant momentum against Russia. 

“I think it could be a gamechanger, to be honest with you,” Crow said, not only for offensive attacks but also for defense. He explained that Russian conventional artillery, which has a range of about 50km, “would not get close” to Ukrainian urban centers if MLRS systems were positioned there. “So it would take away their siege tactics,” he said of the Russians.

Where to begin? Are Ukrainian troops trained on such a system? How do you get the system into Ukraine to begin with? What if the system is used to strike targets inside of Russian territory? What about Russian warnings that such a system could lead to reprisals against European or American assets? What if less-than-well-trained Ukrainian troops fire a bunch of missiles that end up killing dozens, even hundreds, of innocent people?

No matter. The “answer” is always more guns, more howitzers, more missiles. They’re “gamechangers”!

Indeed, they just may be. Just not in the way that Trump imagines, or Congressman Crow.

Finally, that word: “gamechanger.” It’s a common practice in America to talk about war as if it’s a sport, a game. Call it the triumph of dumbass thinking. War is neither sport nor game, and you’re not going to “game-change” the Russia-Ukraine War, as in turning the tide so Ukraine wins, just by sending the MLRS, just as you’re not going to decrease mass shootings in schools by arming teachers with guns.