Because of increasing specialization, most of today’s top government officials have spent their entire lives in government service. They lack the gentleman-amateur chops of a Dean Acheson or the business background of someone like Donald Trump. The results are not encouraging.
One thing you learn in business is that bluffing is dangerous. It’s easier to make promises than to keep them, and that often it’s better to be ambiguous, to say nothing, or, if necessary, to communicate only in private.
A good counterexample would be Barack Obama with his infamous “red line” in Syria. He said the Syrian government’s use of chemical weapons against civilians would cross a red line resulting in serious consequences and retaliation. Yet when Bashar al Assad allegedly approved the use of chemical weapons against a rebel civilian enclave, Obama did nothing.
Setting aside the merits and demerits of our Syria policy, this is just bad business. It is the type of thing a coddled academic with no real life experience would think is a great idea, but something an ordinary real estate agent, bar manager, or car salesman knows is a bad idea. Threats box in the speaker and are only as effective as his perceived ability and willingness to back them up.
Biden’s life experience has done little more than Obama’s to prepare him for the moment. While he has been bloviating in the U.S. Senate since the 1970s, he has not covered himself with glory. His contributions to foreign policy typically have revealed him to be thoughtless and unsophisticated, opposing the mission to kill Osama bin Laden, among other things, while supporting the Iraq War.
In the ongoing war of words with Russia, Blinken and Biden are carrying on as if it’s 1995 and the U.S. military commands automatic respect as the technologically superior adversary with the undisputed ability to dominate. Biden has threatened Russia with a “disaster,” and Blinken said there would be “a swift, united response to further Russian aggression.” But what exactly backs up all this tough talk?
Today the United States has about 65,000 troops deployed to Europe, down from a Cold War peak of over 300,000. The rest of NATO, minus some of the newer members, have shrunk their militaries considerably since the Cold War. Germany has only 180,000 men in its military, down from a Cold War level of 500,000. The UK went from 300,000 during the Cold War to only 150,000. Russia, by contrast, is adjacent to NATO territory and has military personnel numbering nearly 1 million.
NATO is at odds with itself over this spectacle, with the Germans in particular wanting to cool things down and continue to do business with the Russians. Even the Ukrainians, whom we are ostensibly trying to assist, have warned that America’s bellicose rhetoric is hurting them and making things worse.
If things come to blows and remain conventional, it is not so obvious we would win. As noted, we do not have a very large military, and comparatively little of it is in Europe. We recently lost two long wars in the Middle East, as well. The course of those conflicts wore out equipment and cultivated skills and instilled habits directed against a completely different kind of enemy, fighting a different kind of war.
Finally, we have an electoral system, and there is no strong consensus or will to fight among the American people. Even at the height of the Cold War, the consensus for containment did not sustain the American commitment in Vietnam. It would doubtless unravel in a high casualty conflict over Ukraine.
Far from being easier than the recent counterinsurgencies in Iraq and Afghanistan, a war with Russia would be more difficult. Unlike the Taliban, Russia has electronic countermeasures, sophisticated drone and air defense capabilities, lots of artillery, and a serviceable air force. It has improved and upgraded its conventional forces considerably, while the United States remains bogged down by its flawed, overly bureaucratic, and slow-as-molasses procurement regime and the self-imposed weaknesses from political correctness.
In other words, the talk of sanctions and crushing defeats from Blinken and Biden has an air of unreality, like Baghdad Bob’s claims of the Iraqi Army’s victories during the American assault on Iraq in 2003. There seems little likelihood that NATO could militarily defeat Russian forces if they invade Ukraine, and the Russians surely know this.
The biggest problem with the Biden Administration is that it is full of theories and ideas and a sense of America’s important role in the world, but very few of those ideas have been tested against reality. Like the harebrained schemes to shut down the economy to “flatten the curve” or “cash for clunkers,” the authors of these ideas have little real world experience where they are accountable for results. That is, they lack a record of success (and equally instructive, failure) to inform their decision-making. They write books and articles, give speeches, have exquisite and superficially persuasive models, but they lack the diverse life experience of a George H. W. Bush or James Baker or, for that matter, Vladimir Putin.
This kind of “rule by experts” has become pervasive. A similarly “book smart” crew persuaded George W. Bush to go for broke in Iraq, on the theory that it would create a “reverse domino effect” and ignite a passion for liberal democracy in the Middle East. That, needless to say, did not happen.
Tony Blinken is prominent in the current Ukraine crisis. He has a golden résumé and served in previous administrations, but he is the author of no successes or warnings of note. He supported the Iraq War and later took credit for the Syria policy, which succeeded only in creating a refugee crisis and the conditions in which ISIS thrived.
More recently, it has been revealed that he had much to do with the disastrous and disorderly retreat of American diplomatic assets from Afghanistan, only asking for registration of Afghans working for the Americans the day before Kabul fell.
In other words, none of the actual decisions Blinken and Biden were responsible for suggest great judgment. Yet, here we are.
The one thing that cannot be easily spun, ignored, or wished away is reality. And reality is the yawning gap between what the United States is trying to do in Ukraine and its ability to control events. This gap will be revealed in spades if the Russians call Biden’s bluff. Then, instead of a regional war between third parties, the Russians will succeed also in destroying U.S. credibility, even though that credibility is quite relevant for our national security more generally. All of this could have been avoided by a prudent silence and a more diplomatic diplomacy that actually conformed to our abilities.