On Ukraine

In a front page story titled “Weary Soldiers, Unreliable Munitions: Ukraine’s Many Challenges”,  the New York Times reports that the Ukraine war is essentially stalemated. That the war effort is turning into a quagmire should come as no surprise to anyone who has been paying attention. Neither side has shown itself to have the decisive advantage needed to end the conflict on its preferred terms. 

Despite, or maybe because of, occasional nuclear threats from the Kremlin, the state of affairs now resembles that of the trench warfare that was WWI. Which is to say that we now have a war of attrition on our hands. Why?

There are a number of plausible answers. Botched policy is one. After all, how is it that we are backing a significantly smaller Ukraine against Russia in a war of attrition? Ukraine’s population is only 37 million; Russia is almost 4 times as large at 144 million. Measured by purchasing power parity, Ukraine has a per capita  GDP of $12,500; Russia’s is $14,500.  Ukraine’s land mass is 600 thousand square kilometers; Russia at 17 million is 28 times the size of Ukraine. 

Ukraine, after all, is not officially a part of NATO, although arguendo,  Mr. Biden made it a de facto member. Moreover, Ukraine is famously corrupt. By itself, it does not hold strategic significance for the U.S. But the lion’s share of the aid is coming from the U.S. In fact, at $ 77 billion America has supplied 9 times as much aid as Great Britain, the next largest donor. So the question must be asked: What exactly is the U.S. getting for all the largess? Or more precisely, what does the U.S. intend to get from all this? 

Ideally, to the extent that U.S. is, or ought to be,  backing a combatant, the U.S. should have a clear sense of what its goals are.  And let’s keep in mind that Ukraine is not a member state of NATO so the U.S. has no obligation to defend her territorial integrity. So what exactly is the U.S. trying to accomplish, and why hasn’t it been articulated by the Commander-in-Chief, who after all committed us to a proxy war for “as long as it takes”. 

There are a couple of plausible explanations. The first is that President Biden is making policy on the fly as he goes along without any clear sense of goals or strategy for achieving them. This, unfortunately, seems like the most likely explanation. Recall that Mr Biden has spent a good deal of time explaining what he isn’t going to do (shortly before he ultimately does it) because he is afraid of escalation. Sounds a lot like Lyndon Johnson and Vietnam, one of the many wars we lost since WWII.  

A second possibility is that Mr Biden does have a strategy, but it is so cynical that he is hesitant to say it out loud. This second possibility is that he wants to weaken Russia by fighting a proxy war using Ukrainian troops financed by American dollars.  

However, aside from the dubious morality of this proposition, it presents a philosophical problem for  Mr Biden and his progressive friends. For one thing,  it requires envisioning the U.S. as a global hegemon, whose mission is the protection of a  Liberal world order. A world order backed by U.S. military, financial and political might.  A world order that embraces global free trade, the rule of law and recognizes the sovereign nation-state as the organizing unit of world politics. 

Those conditions are light-years away from what Mr Biden and progressives actually believe (or profess to believe). Take global free trade. Mr Biden, like his predecessor, thinks that trade is a zero-sum game in which the “winner” is a country that sells more stuff abroad than it buys. 

That, of course is just flat out wrong. As early as the first part of the 19th century David Ricardo had developed the theory of comparative advantage that posited that free trade was beneficial to all. Francis Edgeworth, the Anglo-Irish political economist and philosopher provided the mathematical proof in the late 1800s. 

Nevertheless, the untutored, like Messers Biden and Trump and a whole lot of progressives, insist on believing that they can “manage” trade with tariffs and barriers more efficiently than the market. They have no place for a free trade regime. Rather, they prefer industrial policy, which essentially means showering tax dollars on favored constituencies and hoping for the best. 

Similarly, as to the rule of law, it only applies to the laws they like. Mr Biden is routinely slapped down by the courts for his aggressive and unlawful use of executive power, at which point he resorts to  looking for another (unlawful) avenue to take. Like forgiving student loans for instance. And not to make too fine a point of it, Mr Trump has already been indicted twice, with at least a 3rd indictment probably right around the corner. 

(I know, I know that Trump has not been proven guilty, yet, in a court of law. So I’m supposed to say allegedly somewhere. But let’s get serious for just a minute. Trump is about as innocent of obstruction  of justice as OJ Simpson was of murder.) 

Returning to the substance: As a practical matter Mr Biden has resisted the substantial increase in military spending that is needed to counteract China and Russia. Moreover he keeps trying to find ways to throw money at Iran as part of resurrecting the Obama Administration’s nuclear arms deal with the mullahs.  But Mr Biden does not hesitate to toss trillions (yes trillions) of U.S. dollars around toward pet causes that substantially weaken U.S. public finances and thus U.S. political power abroad. 

And when it comes down to it, there is a philosophical problem. Progressives continually complain that the U.S. is systematically a white supremacist, racist and oppressive country. Why would they want the U.S. to be the global hegemon? 

Consider though one fact that puts the lie to the progressive line about systemic racism. The fact is that the vast majority of immigrants to the U.S. are both non-white and eager to become citizens in spite of the alleged white supremacy and racism; a detail that seems to have escaped the attention of the would be immigrants. 

So when all is said and done we are acting under the policy direction of a Commander-in-Chief who risks nuclear war but resolutely refuses to explain why or what the goal is. And terrible destruction continues in the heart of Europe on a daily basis and threatens to stalemate. 

The obvious solution, call it the JFK / Ronald Reagan solution, is for the U.S. to clearly articulate its policy goals and take the necessary steps to implement them. Kennedy said “wherever freedom is threatened we will defend it”. Reagan said “We win. They lose.” 

That sounds about right. 


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