The Intelligence Community & the Russo-Ukrainian War

The conventional wisdom these days is that Vladimir Putin made a catastrophic miscalculation when he decided to invade Ukraine. There are plenty of reasons to buy this. Not only has Putin called the dissolution of the Soviet Empire the greatest geopolitical catastrophe of the 20th century; he has made no secret of the fact that he would like to re-create Russia as a world power, and wield influence, of not control, over the remnants of the Soviet Empire in Eastern Europe—what Russia refers to as the “near abroad.”

In addition, the story goes, Putin expected his military to make short work of the Ukrainian defense forces. But instead of folding quickly, Ukraine has put up a ferocious defense. Five weeks in, Russian forces in Western Ukraine are stalled, Russia has by all accounts suffered horrendous casualties on the battlefield, and its military has displayed a stunning incompetence and brutality.  

Furthermore, NATO, which Putin wanted to divide, put on an unexpected show of unity, confounding his plans. But…what if Putin did not miscalculate (see Bret Stephens on this). And what if the geopolitical assumptions of the West are based on a misreading of history? Where does that leave us?

Suppose Putin never really intended to conquer all of Ukraine, just Eastern Ukraine with all its energy resources. That would secure Russia’s energy dominance. How unified would NATO be while Germany remains dependent on Russia for energy for years, if not decades? How eager would western companies be to invest in energy exploration and production when western policy is dominated by fantasies of Green Energy and the industry is being starved for capital by regulators? 

Similarly, with respect to the assumptions undergirding policy, Ross Douthat suggests that the neoliberal consensus around globalization may be wide of the mark. It is possible, he says, that rather than a convergence to Western liberalism as theorized by Francis Fukuyama in his “End of History”, the arc of history is starting to look more like Samuel Huntington’s “Clash of Civilizations”.   If that is the case, instead of heading toward convergence, we are headed for Civilizational groupings in world politics. These would include China, Russia, the West, Iran and India. Seen that way, the strategic implications of the Russo-Ukrainian war likely has very different geo-strategic implications that are, at this point unknowable, but certainly discordant with progressivism. 

These alternative hypotheses bring at least two unsettling considerations to the fore. First, it should be clear by now that the U.S. has no strategy for dealing with a world remade by the  Russo-Ukrainian War. Does anyone believe, for instance, that a return to the status quo ante is viable? If not, then the West should  be building up its defenses and energy security. 

Rebuilding our alliances, defenses and energy security will take years. Yet, the Biden Administration continues to talk up Green Energy and fight the fossil fuel industry. It proposes only a meager increase in defense spending. And at the same time it seeks oil deals with Iran and Venezuela. 

Not only that, President Biden continues to personalize the war, thus making it even more difficult to see an end to it. He has called Putin a “war criminal and a butcher”, and has publicly stated that Putin “cannot remain in power.” After his well practiced clean-up squad walked back the remarks what remained was Biden’s claim that he was referencing “moral outrage” not policy. The charitable thing to do is to consider Biden’s remarks to be those of a bumbling old man with failing mental capacities. But foreign policy does not run on charity, something Vladimir Putin knows all too well, particularly as he considers the altogether unpleasant endings that came to the likes of Saddam Hussein, Maummar Ghadafi and Nicolae Ceausescu. 

Just as important as Mr. Biden’s thought processes, or lack thereof as the case may be, are the sources of his information. In that regard we keep on hearing about our crack intelligence “community”.  That would be the same intelligence community that has a well documented history of spectacularly bad calls, not to mention lying. 

Let’s just do a quick survey of some of those calls. There was the fiasco at the Bay of Pigs when the CIA launched a war against Fidel Castro’s Cuba that collapsed in two days. Then there was the CIA involvement in the Watergate break-in. The CIA was caught flat-footed when the Berlin Wall came down. Similarly they failed to detect and stop the 9/11 plot hatched by Osama-bin Laden. But they were convinced there were large caches of nuclear weapons stored by Iraq. A “slam dunk” as George Tenet put it. 

Let’s not leave out the lying—and not the small stuff—but things like lying under oath to Congressional Committees.  CIA Director John Brennan was caught hacking the computers of U.S. Senate staffers and then lying about it under oath. The former Director of National Intelligence, James Clapper, also admitted lying (under oath) before a Congressional Committee. When asked if the NSA was collecting data on millions of Americans he replied “No sir…Not wittingly”. That was a lie. He tried to whitewash it by saying it was the “least untruthful” answer he could give. Brennan and Clapper are now talking heads of CNN.

But let’s not stop there. CIA Director David Petraeus lied about giving classified information to his author / girlfriend and eventually pleaded guilty to mishandling classified information. There he is not alone. Former National Security Advisor Sandy Berger, pleaded guilty to Unauthorized Removal and Retention of Classified documents. These were documents sought by the 9/11 Commission.  It has still not been determined if he destroyed any of the documents, thus denying the Commission the full record of events. 

Wait. There’s more. Back in 1977 Former CIA Director Richard M. Helms was fined $2,000 and given a suspended sentence of 2 years in jail when he pleaded “no contest” to charges that he failed to testify fully and accurately to the Senate Foreign Relations Committee. He later describes his conviction as “a badge of honor.”

Now that the New York Times has come around to belatedly acknowledging the obvious—that the NY Post story about the Hunter Biden laptop was accurate—it is worth taking a look at the roster of Intelligence community experts who signed a publicly released letter insisting that the story was Russian “disinformation.” The roster includes Jim Clapper (surprise), Mike Hayden (former CIA Director), John Brennan (again surprise), Mike Morell (former acting CIA Director and Hillary Clinton cheerleader) and Leon Panetta (former CIA Director). 

It was probably Aeschylus who first said “The first casualty of war is the truth.” And now regarding the Russo-Ukrainian War we are being subjected to a constant onslaught of “information” in an ongoing and parallel propaganda war designed to shape the thinking of the polities of the combatants and their respective allies.  We have no way of knowing which bits of information are actually true. 

But we do know some crucial things. The first is that the purveyors of this information long ago lost their credibility. That includes both the sources (Intelligence, Military and Political officials) and their cheerleaders in the press. The second thing we know is that there are a lot of people responsible for making foreign policy decisions with proven track records of incompetence. The third thing we know is that the agencies and people responsible for decision making have not been, and probably will not be,  held accountable for those decisions. If the trend holds, they will simply fail upwards. The fourth thing we can infer by observing behavior,  is that foreign policy is being made almost exclusively on the basis of partisan domestic political considerations. 

The lesson here is that the U.S. desperately needs thinkers who can rise above the conventional wisdom. Not only that, they need to be able to frame the issues clearly in a way that the public will understand. And the way they formulate and annunciate policy will depend on how they answer the most important question in politics, which is: Then what?

Joe Bennning

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