With each passing day, week, and month, the United States is being drawn closer to direct military conflict with Russia. We’re already engaged in a proxy war, and we are now tempting the dogs of war to slip off the leash well beyond our ability to control them. This is both extremely dangerous and foolish. And it’s being done without the full knowledge and support of the American people.
As a refresher, here are a few examples of just how far we’ve gone. According to the State Department, so far in 2022 the United States has provided nearly $20 billion in security assistance to Ukraine. Congress has approved (but not fully distributed) $68 billion in total aid. Much of what has been provisioned is highly advanced weapons systems, some of which may already have been deployed on Russian soil against military targets.
The U.S. government has sent military personnel—ostensibly as “advisors”—to Ukraine to monitor and track the contributed weapons, and of course to train the Ukrainians in their lethal use. We also sent advisors to Vietnam, and before long they were engaged in direct combat with the North Vietnamese and opening a Pandora’s box of unintended consequences. The U.S. Army’s 101st Airborne Division is now on European soil on a “combat deployment” for the first time since World War II.
And this just covers what we know.
It’s worth reminding ourselves of how we’ve drifted in such foreign engagements from the principles of our nation’s founding.
As I wrote in Why America Matters:
What came to be known as the Monroe Doctrine (1823) set the policy and the tone of US foreign policy in the nineteenth century. The punchline was that the U.S. would no longer tolerate any form of European colonization or interference within the Americas going forward. The U.S. would consider any attempts by a foreign power to reclaim territory in the Western Hemisphere as an act of aggression against the United States . . . The corollary and quid pro quo for keeping the European powers out of the Americas was that the United States was committing to keep out of Europe and the never-ending political conflicts and wars on the Continent.
John Quincy Adams warned of the consequences of an American empire. He argued that it was enough for America to be a model to the world through “the countenance of her voice, and the benignant sympathy of her example.” There’s no need to venture abroad “in search of monsters to destroy,” lest America “involve herself beyond the power of extrication, in all the wars of interest and intrigue, of individual avarice, envy, and ambition, which assume the colors and usurp the standard of freedom.” The danger Adams foresaw was that “the fundamental maxims of [American] policy would insensibly change from liberty to force . . . She might become the dictatress of the world. She would be no longer the ruler of her own spirit . . . [America’s] glory is not dominion, but liberty.”
The United States long ago abandoned the isolationism that characterized the 19nth century and the restraint on involvement in Europe out of a necessity born of World War II. “The United States became a de facto global empire . . . As part of the postwar world order, Europe, while nominally retaining its independence and national sovereignty, had become an unofficial protectorate of the United States.”
Since then the United States has veered so far to the extreme of interventionism and to normalizing its role as global policeman that we can no longer distinguish between conflicts that are in our strategic interest and those which are not. The Vietnam War and the War on Terror both serve as examples of the dangers of this thinking. The lessons have not been learned. We’re teetering on the brink of repeating the same mistake, this time with risks that could match or exceed the horrors of the Great War.
While we still have a chance to pull back from the abyss, it’s worth recalling another doctrine, this one articulated by Ronald Reagan’s secretary of defense, Caspar Weinberger. What came to be known as the Weinberger Doctrine had six core principles:
1) The United States should not commit forces to combat overseas unless the particular engagement or occasion is deemed vital to our national interest, or that of our allies.
2) If we decide it is necessary to put combat troops overseas, we should do so wholeheartedly and with the clear intention of winning.
3) If we do decide to commit forces to combat overseas, we should have clearly defined political and military objectives. And we should know precisely how our force can accomplish those clearly defined objectives. And we should have and send the forces to do just that.
4) The relationship between our objectives and the forces we have committed—their size, composition, and disposition—must be continually reassessed and adjusted if necessary.
5) Before the United States commits combat forces abroad, there must be some reasonable assurance we will have the support of the American people and their elected representatives in Congress.
6) The commitment of U.S. forces to combat should be a last resort.
Neoconservatives criticized Weinberger’s as too restrictive of our freedom of maneuver: limiting how, when, where, and why the United States may use its military to achieve its strategic and diplomatic objectives. The Weinberger Doctrine was seen as being an overreaction to the traumatic outcome of the Vietnam War and as symptomatic of America’s humbled state. Realpolitik conservatives argue that the greatest military nation on earth shouldn’t be constrained by such overscrupulous principles.
Nonetheless, it’s worth revisiting the Weinberger Doctrine in light of the headlong rush toward war with Russia. While Weinberger’s ideas speak for themselves, allow me to make a few amplifications relevant to the conflict in Ukraine.
Ukraine is and always has been core to Russia’s strategic interests and a critical part of its regional sphere of influence. Russia cannot tolerate Ukraine as a NATO state on its border. Russia believes that the United States has betrayed its commitment, made at the time of the dismantling of the Soviet Union, to not encroach upon Ukrainian neutrality and ongoing relationship with Moscow. To understand this simply, the comparison for us might be to consider how the United States would react to a Chinese military presence in Mexico or Canada, even if invited by those governments?
On the other hand, the United States has no strategic interest in Ukraine that isn’t grounded in a greater objective, which is the destabilization and weakening of the Russian government and economy.
The unstated but obvious U.S. objective is to supplant Russia as the provider of energy feedstock to Western Europe. This explains why the United States has resisted diplomatic off-ramps and why it appears to be the party most likely responsible for the sabotage of Nord Stream pipeline.
It also makes the outcome of the war existential to the Russian government and the Russian people, whether under Putin’s leadership or his successor. Russian leadership is convinced that the true U.S. objective is nothing less than the debilitation of their nation. Russia feels backed into a corner, and they will go to any length required in Ukraine as a matter of national survival.
Are Americans prepared, in line with Weinberger’s second and third points, to commit the resources necessary to see this through to accomplish this unstated objective? The American people certainly haven’t been asked the question, and it seems very few understand the U.S. grand strategy or what it could mean for them and their children. Nor do they likely appreciate the enormous costs and consequences of the ratcheting escalation pressing this conflict with Russia to its inevitable conclusion. We are not being told the truth.
We need to pull ourselves back from the brink here, and soon, before it is too late.