Commentary on Political Economy

Wednesday 15 November 2023


U.S. Needs to Be Ready for War


Another truth may soon have to be handled. The U.S. can be expected to serve its own interests, as filtered through the electoral interests of its president. The U.S. has moved a sizable force to the eastern Mediterranean. If sustained, it will allow Israel to complete the neutralization of Hamas and assure its timid Arab partners where the power still lies. That is, if U.S. politics can endure the gruesome necessities, blunders and inevitable allegations about war crimes that come in the wake of Israeli (or any) military action. The alternative, we will have to keep reminding ourselves, is unlikely to be prettier.

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The Ukraine policy of Joe Biden has included whiffs of impatience with Ukraine for continuing to fight. An implicit shot clock was all but placed on its current offensive, as if to say, “Hurry up and reclaim whatever land you can so we can get to a cease-fire.” Weapons have been held back, it sometimes seemed, because of White House fear of what might happen from too much Ukrainian success.

Last week came a confession from Ukraine’s Gen. Valerii Zaluzhnyi, using the word that Ukraine’s supporters in the West recently strived to make taboo: stalemate. Technology—surveillance drones—makes it difficult to concentrate forces for a decisive breakthrough, though this applies to both sides. Understandably, in Gen. Zaluzhnyi’s mind “defeat” is Ukraine not recovering all its territory. He doesn’t exactly blame the U.S. but . . . And yet the pessimism can be overdone.

If the U.S. isn’t committed to Ukraine regaining all its territory, it’s now fully committed to Ukraine’s independence and deterrence of Russia. President Volodymyr Zelensky should ask not just for F-16s but, by a date certain, F-35s. Mr. Biden should supply them. The Russians, for practical purposes, are at maximum effort. Unlike Stalin (with vast material help from the Roosevelt administration) Vladimir Putin isn’t building a massive army for the offensive. Further mobilization of his male population is low on his list of desirables—as the Biden administration undoubtedly calculates. Instability is growing on his southern periphery, along with the promise of Chinese mischief. Ukraine is a major new military power on his western border. With their formidable military capabilities, Sweden and Finland are becoming part of NATO. It likely means something that Mr. Putin’s subaltern Alexander Lukashenko in Belarus is also burbling about a “stalemate.”

Sixty years later, recommended reading in the Pentagon is again T.R. Fehrenbach’s 1963 history of the Korean War. The author explains the Truman tiptoe, the president’s willingness to settle for a tie rather than victory.

Like Mr. Biden, President Truman waited months to give a speech on the conflict. Then the U.S. wasn’t fighting a war, it was preventing one—World War III. Fresh in the mind of Truman and his advisers was America’s experience of total war in World War II. Also fresh was the recognition that the U.S. was losing its immunity to having its own cities burned to the ground.

A group of nuclear-capable states today assesses the U.S. to be a declining power. Russia and Iran have placed their bets. These bets would be stronger if China did the same. That’s why all eyes are on Taiwan. There are two sides to our truth-handling shortfall. Recall Truman’s distaste for Oppenheimer’s mooning over Hiroshima when Truman had many more deaths on his conscience. Recall Lincoln’s delight in Grant’s uncompromising approach to war. Americans have been blessed to find humane men who nevertheless recognize what must be done and are willing to do it. Too often, though, we find them in time to fight wars that might have been deterred.

Had the domestically possible included a bit more stomach for risk taking by our leaders and electorate, World War II likely would have been avoided. If the Truman administration had been clearer in its own mind about its willingness to defend South Korea and communicated as much to Stalin, the Korean War likely wouldn’t have happened. Accepting the inhumane logic of conflict and of power realities is an uphill fight against the lure of risk avoidance and the illusion that our desire for peace is shared by others. The American record has often been one of recognizing this slower than it might have.

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