COUNTERING THE AMERICAN WAY OF WAR – PROOF OF CONCEPT

First published Strategic Culture Foundation

The American Way of War is founded on three assumptions. Ever since 1945 the USA has assumed that it would have air superiority: it knew that it would have to fight for it against the Soviets but assumed that it would be able to gain it, at least in the areas where needed (local air superiority). In Korea there was some resistance but the USAF was able to bomb pretty freely. Wikipedia informs us that it dropped more bombs on Korea than it did in the entire Pacific Theatre and about half as many as it did in the European Theatre in 1941-1945. North Korea was obliterated: “We went over there and fought the war and eventually burned down every town in North Korea anyway, some way or another, and some in South Korea, too.” Which, of course, is the principal reason why North Korea has nuclear weapons today.

Bombing became the American Way of War par excellence with ever greater tonnages dropped: Cambodia received about the same amount as Korea, Laos about three times as much, Vietnam about six times as much. And the bombing continues today throughout Washington’s forever wars. Officially it is precise, surgical, carefully selected: “The targets I’m assigned to destroy have been vetted through the most professional members of our armed services, and (I know) that others are taking their jobs as seriously as I am“. But US Precision Bombing is a “Persistent Myth” and the reality is quite different:

Since World War II, the U.S. Air Force has loosened its definition of “accuracy” from 25 feet to 10 meters (39 feet), but that is still less than the blast radius of even its smallest 500 lb. bombs. [Here’s one.] So the impression that these weapons can be used to surgically “zap” a single house or small building in an urban area without inflicting casualties and deaths throughout the surrounding area is certainly contrived.

In the end, there is no difference from random carpet bombing: “precision strike” after “precision strike” after “precision strike” – even assuming the intelligence that guides the “precision” is accurate, which it isn’t – leaves nothing but rubble:

If you want a single word to summarize American war-making in this last decade and a half, I would suggest rubble. It’s been a painfully apt term since Sept. 11, 2001. In addition, to catch the essence of such war in this century, two new words might be useful — rubblize and rubblization.

Here are pictures from Raqqa in Iraq. Amnesty International calculates that 30,000 artillery rounds were fired and the New Yorker estimates 10,000 bombs dropped; given an assumed population of 300,000 that’s one for every seven or eight people; “precision” or not, what would your neighbourhood like like after that?

Doing war from the air is pretty cost-free especially if your targets have weak air defence. The 1998 NATO operation in Kosovo had two accidental NATO deaths and two aircraft shot down. The 2011 NATO operation in Libya cost one soldier and two aircraft from accidents and one helicopter captured. It’s engagingly technical and allows much talk of precision. To say nothing of the opportunity to smugly accuse others of just tossing bombs around: “Putin’s modern Air Force choosing devastating dumb bombs over precision strikes“. (In this puff piece the authors do not understand that the Russians actually have figured out a cheap way to make “dumb” bombs “precise”. The process is explained here. Also note the familiar American boast “We’re able to do very precise weaponeering in order to strike and then also minimize civilian casualty”.)

The second assumption of the American Way of War is a prerequisite of the first – assured communications. The American way of precision bombing requires that the bomb or missile “talk” continually to its guide, whether that be a laser designator, a signal to the target and back or GPS satellites. This “talking” must be free, unrestricted and continuous – if it is stopped, the “smart” missile or bomb immediately becomes “stupid”. (Another advantage of the Russian way, incidentally, is that the “talking” is unnecessary once the bomb is dropped.)

US warfighting doctrine depends on air power operating and communicating freely.

The countries on Washington’s target list are well aware of this and that is why they are continually improving their air defence and electronic warfare capabilities. Conversely, the reason why NATO members have feeble air defence and limited EW capability is that they’ve never thought they needed to have them. Years of beating up countries with trivial air defence and EW has left them complacent. (Even a wake-up call like the shooting down of the F-117 is soon sent down the Memory Hole.)

Great strategists have always known that victory is found in avoiding the enemy’s strength and attacking his weakness and that one should “fight the enemy with the weapons he lacks.” Russia, China and Iran cannot expect to win a naval battle in the South Pacific against the US Navy: there will be no second Battles of Leyte Gulf, Midway or Coral Sea. That would be to attack US strengths. Missiles to take out aircraft carriers are the answer: do not attack the enemy’s strength, fight him with the weapons he lacks. Neither would they attempt to invade and conquer the USA itself. Defence is what they want and these are the principles that guide them.

But there is a third assumption of the American Way of War and that is simply this:

the air raid sirens will sound somewhere else.

Everything that I have said above applies to Israel. Just like the USA, Israel has grown accustomed to using air power, “precision strikes” and all the rest of it. In 1973 it had a hard ground fight but since its 2006 repulse by Hezbollah in Lebanon it has relied ever more on air strikes. Like the US, it is confident that it has air superiority and secure communications. Being so much closer to its enemies, it is not as confident that the air raid sirens will always scream somewhere else, but confident that it can inflict, via its air power, unacceptable damage on its enemy, Israel proceeds. Hezbollah and Hamas would be fools to try – even if they could – to build an air force to fight Israel, neither can they expect to have air defence and electronic warfare assets to seriously challenge Israel’s air superiority. Because they cannot attack the two assumptions of air superiority and communications, they must therefore attack the third assumption of invulnerability. Not the enemy’s strength but his weakness.

The last big US ground operations, the Iraq wars of 1990 and 2003, were preceded by months of unimpeded transportation of immense quantities of supplies across the Atlantic. Baghdad never interfered and the complacent supposition that the air raid sirens would sound only in the enemy’s skies was further strengthened. But, should NATO be so suicidal as to provoke Russia to war, this will not be the case: the Iskanders will come calling and there will be no uninterrupted buildup. NATO bases will not be safe sanctuaries and the convoys will have to fight their way through.

We see, today, the proof of concept. In May Gaza fired hundreds of simple, cheap rockets at Israel. The Israeli air defence system, Iron Dome, was reasonably effective but it will run out of missiles long before Gaza, to say nothing of Hezbollah, will. Iron Dome suffers from the weakness that it is far more expensive than the simple rockets Hamas is using. Debris rained down on Israeli cities, the odd rocket got through (probably more than we were told). The air raid sirens were continuous and Israelis were in bomb shelters. It’s true that Israel’s air force obliterated buildings in Gaza but that’s not the point: everyone knew they could do that, it’s the continuous rockets that are new. This went on for eleven days with no diminution of fire from Gaza. A piece in the NYT, not a noticeably Israel-hostile outlet, quotes an estimate of 30,000 rockets in Gaza; only about ten percent were fired. Hezbollah has at least four times as many. The myth of Israel’s invincibility has been broken: gravely diminished in 2006 on land, its skies are no longer safe. Fight the enemy’s weakness (its home morale – how many dual citizens are already packing their suitcases?) and use weapons it does not have.

A ceasefire was announced after eleven days; we’ll see if it holds: Israeli police have again stormed the al-Aqsa Mosque which was the trigger in the first place. The Jerusalem Post attempts a summing up; and a very pro-Israeli one it is: so many commanders, headquarters, launching sites claimed destroyed. Most important though is its recognition that Hamas “increased its volume and range” of rocket launches. And “Hamas took credit for redrawing the equation of power in the region in its battle with Israel, asserting that Israel is now in a state of decline”. A claim to be sure. But one with some reality. Hamas struck with greater numbers and deeper into Israel than ever before and there were also disturbances in the Arab population in Israel proper. Hamas is claiming a victory and it is not wrong to do so.

Air superiority, assured immediate communications and security of the home front. Gaza and Hezbollah present the poor man’s solution to the problem – lots of cheap rockets to challenge the assumption of a secure home front: Israel’s “illusion of normality” is gone.

Richer and more industrially-based entities can counter the first two assumptions and challenge the third with more sophisticated answers. Perhaps the greatest challenge to the complacency that other countries will be the amphitheatres for American wars is the Russian Poseidon; this weapon, a sort of giant autonomous underwater cruise missile, is designed to create a tsunami to wipe out US ports and coastal areas. Iran, in its retaliatory attack on the US base in Iraq last year, showed that US forces were not safe in their bases. China and Russia are both creating weapons systems to attack the USA where it is weak using weapons it does not have. US aircraft carrier battle groups, rather than projections of mighty power, are mere targets to hypersonic missiles. Russian EW capability has been described by at least one US general as “eye-watering“, able to turn off US systems; and one may be sure that the Russians are saving their best for later. (Can they blind an entire warship? Not at all! Disinformation! Nonsense! Information Warfare! A little too much protesting?) Russia and China can do this because they are not lost to fantasies of “power projection” or “full spectrum superiority“; they defend themselves with weapons the aggressor does not have that are directed at his weakness. Enough and not too much is their guide.

Gaza vs Israel represents the proof of the concept.

PUTIN-BIDEN MEETING

(Answer to question from Sputnik)

I can’t see any reason for Putin bothering unless it be curiosity to see for himself Biden’s state of mind. I do not expect anything to change — the Biden/Harris Administration is packed full of the people who fully embrace the numerous Russia conspiracy theories, invented many of them and who made US-Russia relations impossible.

As to Nordstream, Washington was trying to placate Berlin; it’s still trying to stop the pipeline.

Biden wants to show himself statesmanlike, important and in charge; Putin doesn’t have to.

The only possible interest is to bet whether Putin walks out when Biden starts up with the customary accusations.

WHY MOSCOW DOESN’T JUST KNOCK HIM OVER

First published Strategic Culture Foundation

Every time – and we’ve just had an illustration – someone in Kiev makes trouble for Russia, the Internet is full of people crying on Putin to just go in and knock them over. A sub-variant of this is that Moscow should have invaded after the Maidan coup, arrested all the nazis and put Yanukovych back to serve out the rest of his term under the now-forgotten agreement hammered out by the EU.

But there’s actually a good reason why Moscow, in Ukraine or earlier in Georgia, did not invade and knock Zelensky or Saakashvili over and why it doesn’t forcefully deal with other irritations. And that reason is a very simple one: it’s not that it couldn’t have done it – there was nothing between Russian power and Tbilisi in 2008 or between it and Kiev in 2021 – but, simply, experience. Both Moscow’s experience and its observation of others’ experiences.

We will start with others’ experience. The Royal Navy began to switch to oil fuel just before the First World War and that made assured oil sources vitally important to it and, by extension, to Britain and other naval powers. Iran (Persia) was a major source and Britain made a rather one-sided agreement after the war giving a British company excessive rights to oil sources in Iran. Iran was heavily influenced by Britain from that point on, to the growing resentment of the Iranians who saw themselves getting little out of the arrangement. In 1951 Mohammed Mosaddegh became Prime Minister and nationalised the oil company. A pause should be made here – later experience has shown that such nationalisations are very far from catastrophic: the oil has to be sold to somebody, the price isn’t set by the selling country and, in the end, it’s actually a business matter that can be settled by business methods. The Suez Canal functions and so does the Panama Canal despite local control; state-owned companies sell their oil and life goes on. But such was not considered acceptable – fear of communism or the Soviet Union gaining control or just amour-propre – and, in the end, it was decided to solve the problem by getting rid of him. Mosaddegh was overthrown in a coup organised by London and Washington but mostly carried out by the CIA. And so the problem was solved. Officially denied by London and Washington for years, the CIA’s involvement was confirmed in 2000 and more documents were released in 2017. But the Iranians always knew who did it and the coup greatly contributed to their dislike of the USA and was a strong motivation in the overthrow of the Shah in 1979. Today Iran is perceived in Washington as a “daily threat” and its extensive armoury of missiles “a significant threat“. Several decades of neocon/PNAC/exceptionalist harebrained machinations against the “Iranian threat” has made it more powerful, more influential and more determined than before. It is now a very significant obstacle to American ambitions to control the MENA. So, in retrospect, the overthrow of Mosaddegh was not so successful after all and sixty years later the problem is very far from “solved”. Doing business with Mosaddegh, in the long run, would have been the better response and Iran might even be well-disposed towards the USA and its allies or at least indifferent today. Knocking Mosaddegh over worked at first, but the effect didn’t last.

This was then-new CIA’s first known venture into “knocking him over” although Washington was well-practised in the custom – perhaps the first was the coup that overthrew Queen Liliuokalani of Hawaii in 1893 – but there were to be many more. Diem in Vietnam; but that didn’t work either and the Vietnam War just got worse until the USA retired in defeat. For years Washington has proceeded under the delusion that it’s just one person that stands in its way and with him removed the road will be smooth. It never is, but Washington never stops trying. Washington has overthrown many governments in Latin America without, it appears, bringing stability or friendship any more genuine than the passing dependency of the current beneficiary. Even Newsweek ran a piece concluding: “As it stands, however, the only evidence we have of anyone interfering with any election or government implicates the U.S. — not Russia. But don’t let facts get in the way of a good story.” Seventy-two attempts during the Cold War calculated the Washington Post. Knocking him over is very much the American style of diplomacy.

The resentment of the outsider’s interference never goes away. And, as the case of the Shah illustrates, any excesses the puppet commits are attributed to the puppet-master. Americans are very offended with the “Great Satan” chants and flag-burnings but – typically – they cannot understand the why of it: Iranians blame Washington for everything bad between the overthrow of Mosaddegh and the departure of the Shah and continual hostility thereafter. And, from the arming of Saddam Hussein, the naval battle and the civilian plane in 1988 to the killing of Solomeini last year, they can enumerate examples. Far better from Washington’s perspective if Mosaddegh had been left in power.

Another disastrous CIA enterprise was the subversion of Soviet-supported governments in Afghanistan especially the post-Soviet one of Najibullah. In doing so, Washington built up the very elements that would, after an involvement that more than doubled the Soviet stay, send it and its allies home in defeat. There is no doubt that Washington would be happier with a Najibullah in Kabul than with what will be there in a year.

Speaking of Afghanistan, we now turn to Moscow’s direct experience of failure. In 1978 the local communist party pulled off a coup in Kabul no doubt with some involvement from Moscow. But the Afghan communist party was deeply split and the government was too hasty in communisation; dissatisfaction grew and the communist government trembled. This could not be tolerated under the so-called Brezhnev Doctrine and Moscow decided to end the problem by knocking him over; it invaded, the present leader was killed and replaced by Babrak Karmal from the rival faction. Karmal eased off on the communisation but it was too late; the revolt expanded, the Soviets got bogged down and finally left the, in Gorbachev’s words, “bleeding sore” in 1989.

In Hungary in 1956, Imre Nagy, a long-time communist, spoke in favour of a “new course” reform after Khrushchev’s condemnation of Stalin’s “cult of personality”. This led to revolution and a Soviet invasion which deposed Nagy and later tried and executed him. A similar attempt in Czechoslovakia under Alexander Dubček of “Socialism with a human face” in 1968 was similarly crushed by an invasion and deposition of Dubček. He at least was spared to live to see the end of the Soviet Union.

So Moscow can remember three cases in which, under previous management, it just “knocked the guy over”: Nagy, Dubček and Hafizullah Amin. In no case was there any profit except in the short run. Hungary and Czechoslovakia dropped the Warsaw Pact, the USSR and communism as soon as they possibly could and the resentment carried them into NATO. The Afghanistan War limped on until Moscow admitted defeat and handed it, as you might say, off to Washington so it could be defeated there in its turn. (Speaking of cunning schemes that have disastrous results for the schemer, the case can be made that it all began with Brzezinski.)

Had Washington and London left Mosaddegh alone they would both be happier today and, in all likelihood the price of oil would be the same and the supply just as assured. Admittedly it’s hindsight but hindsight is supposed to produce foresight. Washington’s endless interventions in Latin America have brought only short-term benefits and have left a legacy of hatred that will, one day, boil up. Washington would have been wiser to have left Afghanistan as it was just as Moscow would have been. Overthrowing Nagy and Dubček brought short-term gain and laid the ground for longer term problems – especially as Prague has become a Tabaqui thinking itself safe between Shere Khan’s paws.

In short, the lesson of history is that, in almost every case, “knocking him over” gives a geopolitical quick sugar hit that will be paid for later. Moscow knows this because it is smart enough to learn from its own and Washington’s failures. I can never stress too often that Moscow was once an exceptionalist power: for seven decades it was the capital of the leading and guiding light of history as the “world’s first socialist state”, the standard-bearer for the “bright future of mankind”, producer of a new type of human being and that exceptionalism brought it neither friends nor prosperity. Putin himself called it “a road to a blind alley“. But Washington is still in its exceptionalist phase and thinks that doing the same thing again this time will succeed.

And sometimes there isn’t even the quick sugar hit: for each in Afghanistan the hangover began within a few weeks. If Moscow had driven into Tbilisi and sent Saakashvili running – Shere Khan would not have come to Tabaqui’s defence then or in Ukraine – Moscow would then have to do something to create a Georgia more to its liking. Conceivably Russian intervention could have kept Yanukovych surviving under the EU-brokered agreement but it is highly probable that the next election would have brought the Maidan people to power and the situation would be much as it is today as far as Moscow is concerned. As for a swift drive on Kiev last month, there is no doubt Moscow had the military might to do it, but then what? As Bismarck observed, one can do anything with bayonets except sit on them.

And Moscow has enough experience in the USSR days of trying to sit on bayonets and can watch Washington’s failures.

In short, Moscow knows what Washington has not yet learnt: it’s not just one guy, it’s a whole country and sugar hits don’t last.

RUSSIA, RUSSIA, EVER FAILING

First published Strategic Culture Foundation

One of the favourite delusions of the people Scott Ritter calls the “Putin whisperers” is that Russia or Putin – to them the two are synonymous – are always on the point of collapse and one more push will bring them down. To the sane, observing the development of Russia from 1991 to 2021, this conviction is crazy: Russia has endured and prospered. But, as I have said elsewhere, these people fit Einstein’s definition of insanity and forever repeat their failures: Ritter calls them “intellectually lazy”. They’re not Russia experts, they’re wrongness experts and constant practice has made them quite good at being wrong.

A recent example is a BBC documentary which I haven’t bothered to watch. I haven’t bothered because, after forty years in the business, I don’t have to: I know full well that BBC+Russia=clichés: bears, snow, unchanging horribleness and the confirmation of everything the BBC told you earlier. Bryan MacDonald has watched it and is especially amused by this line: “(However), some things in Russia change, like the seasons.” Paul Robinson describes the methodology: “talk to a few people, and then draw some sweeping conclusions“. In other words, just another piece of propaganda reinforcement typical of the species. Russia is always Russia: bad, smelly, stunted and vicious. Whether it’s spring, summer, fall or winter. As a Putin whisperer said in 1997

It is not prudent to deny or forget a thousand years of Russian history. It is replete with wars of imperial aggrandizement, the Russification of ethnic minorities, and absolutist, authoritarian, and totalitarian rule.

(This is from yet another screed on how to deal with Russia; compare it with Nuland’s a quarter century later: same old stuff – we’ve been too soft but if we add a withered carrot to the big stick, we’ll get them to do what we want. But at least Nuland recognises Russia’s military strength. Which, I guess, should be welcomed as some recognition of reality.)

One of my favourites, from twenty years ago, is Russia is Finished. But never mind what mere reporters write in newspapers and magazines – venues that in the pre-Internet days would have been forgotten after their final appearance as garbage wrap; the Russia is Finished delusion has taken root in more consequential soils. A senior member of the American apparat believes: “Inside the country, low oil prices, the coronavirus pandemic, and Russians’ growing sense of malaise all bring new costs and risks for the Kremlin.” She, or somebody of like opinion, is behind this statement from White House Press Secretary Psaki: “Well, I think the President’s view is that Russia is on the outside of the global community in many respects… What the President is offering is a bridge back. And so, certainly, he believes it’s in their interests to take him up on that offer.” Well, as to “outside”, in the first two weeks of April, Putin spoke with the leaders of Libya, Lebanon, Belarus, Finland, USA, Philippines, Turkey, Azerbaijan, Germany, Armenia, Brazil, Argentina, Vietnam, Mongolia and Saudi Arabia. Official Washington is as condescending as it is ill-informed.

A compendium of doom from the “experts”: Russia will fail in 1992, finished in 2001, failed in 2006, failed in 2008, failing in 2010, “rapid deteriorating economy” in 2014, failed or declining in 2015, failing in 2017, negligible economy and “rusted out” military in 2017 (“Russia’s coming attack on Canada” is an exceptional fount of worthless analysis: hardly a correct statement anywhere, starting with the sub-head), falling behind in 2018; headed for trouble in 2019. Russia’s isolation, ancient weapons, instability. A gas station masquerading as a country. Doomed to fail in Syria and losing influence even in its neighbourhood in 2020. One “expert” repeats himself as if the intervening decade had not passed.

But they repeat themselves because that’s what they do. They have one thing to say and they say it over and over again. Michael McFaul is an exemplar; read what he predicts and bet against it. “If Russia’s economy continues to grow at anemic rates, we should expect these anxieties about Putin’s current foreign policy course to grow” (2018); Russia could have been “strong and great” if only it had “integrated” with the West (2015); “a confident Putin and a confident Russia is no more” (2014). Anders Åslund is an ever-fresh source of wrongness: “The only person who needs a war with Ukraine is Putin. He presumably hopes to boost his minimal popularity through another war.” (2021). “Russia faces a serious – and intensifying – financial crisis. But the country’s biggest problem remains President Vladimir Putin, who continues to deny reality while pursuing policies that will only make the situation worse.” (2015) and, twenty years young: “Russia’s Collapse” from 1999. Mark Chapman gives more “glittering examples of Aslund reasoning“. This past, present and future failing is, of course, fatal for Putin. He is a killer without a soul and losing the battle for Russia’s future in 2021, a “weak strongman” in 2020, a “thug, bully and a murderer” in 2016, weak and terrified of losing control in 2015, a “virtual Lt. Col. Kije” in 2001 and a moral idiot in 2000.

The Wrongness Experts tell us it’s a big failure but, in the real world, he and his team have achieved quite a lot. His approval rating has not fallen below 60% in twenty years; the BBC tells us that Russia is heading for catastrophe but Russians tell us it’s “heading in the right direction“. (That’s, incidentally, about three times Americans’ assessment of their own future). The simple fact – impossible to get into the heads of the Putin whisperers – is that the Putin Team has done a good job and enjoys steady support. You’d agree too, if you lived in a country that was actually improving: just compare any Western country in 2000 with today and then do the same for Russia; it’s not hard to see. If you permit yourself to see, that is.

Even these dullards understand that a direct military confrontation might not be a good idea (I hope I’m not being premature: after all, in today’s White House, in one room they’re trying to get out of Afghanistan and in another they’re trying to get into more adventures near Russia.) So they recommend sanctions. We’re supposed to believe that each round of sanctions is a response to something Moscow did but the truth is that it’s not what Moscow does, it’s what Moscow is that’s the cause: the very day – 14 December 2012 – the Jackson-Vanik sanctions were lifted, the Magnitskiy sanctions were imposed. That is: from 3 January 1975 to today, for completely different ostensible reasons, Washington has been sanctioning Moscow.

Then after Crimea, more sanctions: Åslund misses the target again: “My view is that the sanctions are so severe that it’s simply not necessary to reinforce them further.” George Soros joined the Wrongness Experts when he confidently predicted Sanctions would bring “bankruptcy” by 2017. Nope: more sanctions, no bankruptcy.

In fact, sanctions, overall, have strengthened Russia because its intelligent government maximised substitution. As a small example, Canada used to have a pretty reliable half billion dollar market for pork in Russia, now Russia exports pork and Canada’s market is gone forever. In the 1990s, it was commonly estimated that Russia imported about half its food; now it is self-sufficient and earns more from food exports than from arms exports. That might have happened eventually, but it happened now because Moscow’s clever reaction was to ban most food imports and support its own farmers. (Remember when cheese was going to bring Putin down?) Europe’s – and Canada’s – loss became Russia’s gain. Washington, it should be noted, is careful never to ban imports that it wants like oil and rocket engines; sauce for the European goose is not sauce for the American gander. But the Putin whisperers, ever willing to reinforce failure, keep piling on the sanctions.

All these “experts” getting it wrong year after year is good for a laugh. But they always pop back up on the TV talk shows spouting the same old tripe. No one ever asks: Mr Expert, you’ve been wrong for twenty years, why should anybody take you seriously now? (Well once – check it out.) On and on it goes – being an Official Russia Expert is the easiest hornswoggle there is. But the Wrongness Experts don’t just clutter up the talk shows, they infest Washington, the White House, the Pentagon, K Street, the universities and the think tanks. They shape policy. We can laugh as we watch them fail again, but their under-estimation of Russia is very dangerous. We have just had an example. Ukraine President Zelensky, egged on by them, confident that mighty NATO had his back and that Russia was feeble, started moving troops and in March pompously decreed the “de-occupation of Crimea“. Within a couple of weeks Moscow had concentrated more soldiers and weapons in less time than NATO ever could anywhere. It was tense for a while but Moscow appears to have made its point and Zelensky is now begging for talks. Not so fragile; wrong again.

But the danger is that they will go too far. Scott Ritter thinks that the Putin whisperers have reached their high water level with the recent sanctions, Belarus coup attempt and tensions in Ukraine. I hope he’s right but I suspect that there is still more to come: they’ve made an easy living at this grift and they can’t change now. And it’s depressingly unlikely that they will be replaced by people who can see reality.

SUNBEAMS FROM CUCUMBERS: THE VIEW FROM THE KHANATE OF KAGANSTAN

First published Strategic Culture Foundation

We now have the complete set, so to speak. The Kakhans of the Khanate of Kaganstan have both spoken. The husband in A Superpower, Like It or Not and the wife in Pinning Down Putin: How a Confident America Should Deal With Russia; he, so to speak, is the theorist and she the practitioner. She, Victoria Nuland, is back in power as Under Secretary of State for Political Affairs. She is, of course, infamous for the leaked phonecall during the Maidan putsch. He, Robert Kagan, is one of the founders of the – what now has to be seen as ill-named – Project for the New American Century.

I mentioned Kagan’s piece in an earlier essay and found it remarkable for two things – the flat learning curve it displays and its atmosphere of desperation. PNAC was started in a time of optimism about American power: it was the hyperpower and nothing was impossible for it. Its role in the world should be, Kagan confidently wrote in 1996, “Benevolent global hegemony”. Washington should be the world HQ:

superpower, love it!

A quarter century later his message is:

superpower, endure it.

Quite a difference. Today “there is no escape from global responsibility… the task of maintaining a world order is unending and fraught with costs but preferable to the alternative”.

Kagan is at a loss to explain his difference in tone, or, more likely, he’s unaware of it. The reason, however, is quite easy to understand – failure. Washington followed the neocons’ advice into disaster: it’s been at war in Iraq and Afghanistan for two decades and it’s losing. The forever wars have come home: its economy is fading, its politics are shattered, its debt load is stunning, its social harmony is eroding. It’s not at the top of the hill any more. Brzezinski warned that a Russia-China alliance would be the greatest threat to US predominance but thought it could be averted by skilful diplomacy. Well, as it turned out, US actions (the word “diplomacy” is hardly applicable) drove Moscow and Beijing together and the strong domestic base that they all took for granted is crumbling. And, to a large extent, it has been the neocons, the wars they encouraged, the exceptionalism they displayed, the arrogance they embodied, that has created this state of affairs. Kagan should look in the mirror if he wants to know why Americans’ perception of superpower status changed from exultant opportunity to dreary duty.

With this background, we turn our attention to Nuland’s views about what should be done about Russia (“Putin’s Russia” of course – these people personalise everything). Her piece entertainingly marries stunning ignorance about Russia to stunning naïvety about prescriptions. There is no point in boring the reader by trudging through her nonsense, so I will just pick a few things.

Those three are enough – Victoria Nuland, for all that she pretends to superior knowledge, is absurdly unaware of the real situation in Russia. And it’s not as if it’s all that hidden, either: all the sources I mention above are in English and easy to find. In her world, Russia is guilty of everything Rachel Maddow says it is, including using cyberweapons against electrical grids.

What are her prescriptions? And, again, for someone who poses as an expert on Russia, they’re laughable. Her general theme is that Washington and its allies have let Putin get away with too much for too long and it’s time to take back control:

Washington and its allies have forgotten the statecraft that won the Cold War and continued to yield results for many years after. That strategy required consistent U.S. leadership at the presidential level, unity with democratic allies and partners, and a shared resolve to deter and roll back dangerous behavior by the Kremlin. It also included incentives for Moscow to cooperate and, at times, direct appeals to the Russian people about the benefits of a better relationship. Yet that approach has fallen into disuse, even as Russia’s threat to the liberal world has grown.

Whoever wins the U.S. presidential election this coming fall will—and should—try again with Putin. The first order of business, however, must be to mount a more unified and robust defense of U.S. and allied security interests wherever Moscow challenges them. From that position of strength, Washington and its allies can offer Moscow cooperation when it is possible. They should also resist Putin’s attempts to cut off his population from the outside world and speak directly to the Russian people about the benefits of working together and the price they have paid for Putin’s hard turn away from liberalism.

In short: reassert “leadership”, “resolve”, “position of strength”; the now familiar PNAC “strategy” that has failed for twenty-five years.

A few gems stick out.

  • “No matter how hard Washington and its allies tried to persuade Moscow that NATO was a purely defensive alliance that posed no threat to Russia, it continued to serve Putin’s agenda to see Europe in zero-sum terms.” No comment necessary or possible: this is just as solipsistic as describing a Russian military exercise in Russia as “Russia’s Military Drills Near NATO Border Raise Fears of Aggression“.
  • The US and its allies should continue “maintaining robust defense budgets”. As if they weren’t already hugely outspending Moscow. She knows they aren’t keeping up because she goes on to say they must spend more to “protect against Russia’s new weapons systems”. Perhaps the West’s behaviour has something to do with this? Perhaps a lot of the Western spending is a waste? No, too much for her: she can sometimes glimpse reality but her exceptionalism prevents her from seeing it.
  • “The one lesson Putin appears to have learned from the Cold War is that U.S. President Ronald Reagan successfully bankrupted the Soviet Union by forcing a nuclear arms race”. No, the lesson that Putin learned is that enough is enough and too much is too much. Brezhnev & Co didn’t get that. It’s the US that will bankrupt itself chasing down “full-spectrum dominance”.

But the most ridiculous suggestion is surely this:

With appropriate security screening, the United States and others could permit visa-free travel for Russians between the ages of 16 and 22, allowing them to form their own opinions before their life paths are set. Western states should also consider doubling the number of government-supported educational programs at the college and graduate levels for Russians to study abroad and granting more flexible work visas to those who graduate.

She seems to think that its 1990-something. But, in the real world it’s 2021. Russians have been to the West; Russians know about it; they travel; all over the place. If Nuland ever left her bubble she would see that every European tourist spot has Russian-language guidebooks. I read through her screed with growing contempt but that really sealed it for me: Victoria Nuland hasn’t got a clue. The truth is, that the more Russians see of the West, the less impressed they are. Just ask Mariya Butina.

Again a bit of reality leaks through, from time to time, but she is incapable of reflection:

The first order of business is to restore the unity and confidence of U.S. alliances in Europe and Asia and end the fratricidal rhetoric, punitive trade policies, and unilateralism of recent years. The United States can set a global example for democratic renewal by investing in public health, innovation, infrastructure, green technologies, and job retraining while reducing barriers to trade.

Actually, doing all this is quite a big job; a very big job; too big a job in fact. And, even if Washington were to seriously start “investing in public health, innovation, infrastructure, green technologies, and job retraining while reducing barriers to trade”, remedying the numerous deficiencies would take many years.

Another thing that she dimly perceives is the gap between Russian and American weapons capabilities. Of course she can’t see any connection between that and US/NATO behaviour or Washington’s forever wars: it’s just another nasty thing done by that nasty man in the Kremlin. However, it is actually encouraging that she knows, however dimly; it creates the possibility that she understands that an actual war with Russia would be a bad idea. So that’s something, anyway.

***********************************

However, enough consideration of this ill-informed, complacent, unrealistic sunbeam. If this were a comparative treatise on the American extraction of sunbeams from cucumbers as contrasted with the failed attempts of the so-called savants of Laputa it would be amusing, but the author of this footling effort is a few arm’s lengths away from The Nuclear Button. It is not a joke.

The fading Imperium Americanum is influenced by dangerous ignoramuses like Nuland and her husband. Everything they have suggested has failed: they start in complacency, add to it ignorance and learn nothing; but they’re still there. It’s very frightening.

***********************************

Speaking of “Putin’s information stranglehold”, Nuland’s essay is available at INOSMI translated into Russian and so is her husband’s. Russians can read this stuff and form their own opinions. “Putin’s disinformation campaigns” are so clever that they use real information.

We won’t tell you that they’re dangerous idiots;

we’ll let them tell you that they’re dangerous idiots.

AFGHANS SEE OFF ANOTHER EMPIRE

My answer to a question from Sputnik on Biden’s departure date from Afghanistan.

(Published here. I’m constantly fascinated by this “former diplomat stuff”. Yes I was a diplomat at the Canadian Embassy in Moscow from 1993 to 1996. That amounts to about 10 percent of my career. I held the rank of Counsellor which is a medium-senior rank. I was not the only one at that rank among the 50 or so Canadians there. I was never Charge d’Affaires which is the term for someone standing in in the absence of the Ambassador. And it is highly unlikely, as someone seconded to the Embassy from another Department (National Defence in my case), that I ever would have been. At the rate Sputnik retroactively promotes me — and I have many times asked them not to — I will soon be the longest-serving and most senior Ambassador in Canadian, or Galactic history. I much prefer “Former Analyst” or something like that.)

Well, the first fact is that Taliban has won. The second is that Taliban is not al Qaeda. It’s an Afghan phenomenon that has been radicalised thanks to 40 years of war.

Moscow and Beijing would probably have been happier with the Americans soaking up any jihadist hostility but they knew this was coming and are prepared. There’s a market for reconstruction there and they, especially China, will be able to take advantage of it.

For me the question is what happens between the Trump departure date and the Biden date: that’s about six months in which Washington can decide that the time is not quite yet right to leave or try and persuade NATO allies to stay. I would expect Taliban to hasten their departure; as we see in Iraq, US/NATO forces have supply lines that can easily be attacked.

It’s clearly a defeat for the US, whatever pitiful attempts are made to spin it in Washington: everyone knows that, once again, the Afghans have seen off a mighty empire. Baghdad, Damascus and Tehran will be heartened. 

THE GREAT AMERICAN DELUSION – JUST THAT ONE GUY

First published Strategic Culture Foundation

In my career I used to participate in regular meetings with an American intelligence agency. I – we – were always fascinated by their obsession with individuals. One time they proudly presented each of our group with a chart showing the Boss’ associates distributed into three groups. I’m sure creating this had cost a lot of time and money, but what use was it? Did it allow us to predict better, understand better? Of course it didn’t. Quite apart from the absurdity of thinking that an individual was 100% in one group and 0% in the other two – least one fitted two groups equally well – the truth was that they were a team which made decisions and outsiders had no idea what went on inside the process. The three-group division just led to more ungrounded speculation – if some decision were imagined to be to the benefit of one group, then a flurry of speculation about who was up and who was down would erupt. Theorising in the absence of data: a labour of crackpots. Lots of money, time and promotions but very little understanding. On another occasion their predictions at a leadership change were entirely personal – if X, then this, if Y, then that. (And the person who actually did succeed wasn’t on their list.) My group’s approach was to try and describe what constraints the as-yet-unknown successor would have to deal with. We were trying to work out the context; they were talking personalities. But there is an objective reality: and the most powerful and strong-willed individual can only shape the future within the existing possibilities. The American assumption seemed to be that the boss had unconstrained choices. Now it’s true that they thought of the country as a “dictatorship” but never even in the greatest tyranny has the ruler been able to do anything he wanted to. No wonder they have, over the ensuing twenty years, been invariably wrong. The simple-minded and ignorant obsession with personalities leads nowhere.

Did it begin with the Calvinists of Plymouth Rock and their division of humanity into the saved and the damned? Was it reinforced a century and a half later by the conviction that King George single-handedly caused “repeated Injuries and Usurpations” and urged on “the merciless Indian Savages”? Or is it of more recent origin? Hollywood’s rugged individuals saving the day at the end of the movie? Who can say, but it seems to be hard-wired into the American view of the world – or at least their view of the rest of the world. And the news media play along every time: the problem is Leader X, if we replace him, all will be better.

I have just finished a book about the CIA which mentions the Kennedy Administration’s obsession about Fidel Castro. “‘We were hysterical about Castro,’ Defense Secretary Robert McNamara acknowledged”; there were innumerable assassination plots. The missile crisis seems to have brought Kennedy to his senses and, a couple of months before his assassination, the CIA principal had to tell the mobster he had picked to organise it that the plot to kill Castro had been terminated. None of it amounted to anything and, in the words of one player “so much of the goddamn stuff was really juvenile.” Sixty years later, Fidel Castro is gone but Cuba remains – still defiant.

Mohammad Mosaddegh of Iran was a problem; after he was overthrown Iran was not a problem for a while but today it’s an even bigger problem; and they still resent his overthrow. Ngô Đình Diệm in Vietnam was a problem; but his death just led to more war. Mohamed Farrah Aidid of Somalia was another who had to go, but after the Battle Of Mogadishu it was the Americans and NATO who went; Somalia, much now as it was then, has faded from the news. Slobodan Milošević was the Butcher of the Balkans until a court found that he wasn’t so guilty after all. Saddam Hussein was a pretty comprehensive problem, the NYT informed us; now he’s gone and Iraq is still a problem – can’t win it, can’t leave it. Kims in North Korea come and go; it remains the same. And so on and on – Assad, Maduro, Qaddafi, Arafat, Daniel Ortega and Yanukovych; all individuals who were imagined to be the single roadblock in the path of… The Better, Progress, Democracy and all other Good Things.

But the two biggest are Russian President Putin and Chinese President Xi Jinpeng. I have written enough about the crazy American obsession with Putin: five years ago I wrote A Brief Compendium of Nonsense About Putin. Since then he has grown in monstrosity: election rigger, computer hacker, serial poisoner, “Russia under Putin poses an existential threat to the United States and other countries of the West, Russia’s neighbors, and his own people” is a typical effusion. Note the personalism: the “existential threat” is “Russia under Putin”, not “Russia”. If only Putin could be got rid of…

The author of this piece goes on: “China will be at the top of the to-do list”. And the Atlantic Council has emitted The Longer Telegram: Toward A New American China Strategy written by Anonymous. Clearly it is supposed to echo Mr X’s (George Kennan’s) Long Telegram. But some differences: this is longer – much longer, grinding on for seven times the length of Kennan’s essay. Secondly, Kennan himself didn’t think that his recommendations had been well followed and was utterly opposed to NATO expansion and Western triumphantasies. I will certainly not waste my time reading this midden of prolixity (one wishes an ex-PFC Wintergreen had binned it), the summary is more than enough – and it’s longer than Kennan’s essay. The very first sentence puts us on familiar ground

The single most important challenge facing the United States in the twenty-first century is the rise of an increasingly authoritarian China under President and General Secretary Xi Jinping.

“China under President and General Secretary Xi Jinping”, “Russia under Putin”. Back to personalities.

…Xi has returned China… quasi-Maoist personality cult… systematic elimination of his political opponents…. Xi has used ethnonationalism… Xi’s China… Xi has demonstrated… China under… Xi is no longer just a problem for US primacy. He now presents a serious problem for the whole of the democratic world…

He is the problem and “All US political and policy responses to China therefore should be focused through the principal lens of Xi himself.” No Xi, no problem; no Putin, no problem; no Saddam, no problem; no Qaddafi, no problem. Away we go again.

Better informed people point out that Xi Jinpeng’s policies have a context: we start with Deng Xiaoping’s strategic guideline “hide capabilities and bide time”. Once capabilities could no longer be hidden, they moved to Hu Jintao’s “Actively Accomplish Something”. That something – or rather, those many somethings – are being actively accomplished by Xi Jinpeng. Far from a polity captured by a personality, China has a collective leadership focussed on a long-term strategy.

But that is only one voice in the background and the personality-obsessed (Very Much) Longer Telegram comes from the Atlantic Council which has a far greater influence on US and NATO activities. As it is engummed in personalism, so are they.

What do the personality-obsessed suggest be done to get rid of Xi? Well, this is a little more difficult than other cases: bombing got rid of Saddam and Qaddafi but China is too strong. Economic measures, as even someone as dim as Anonymous realises, might hurt the USA more than China. Stripped of nostalgianism (the US must “retain collective economic and technological superiority”), delusion (“Dividing Russia from China in the future is equally [critical]”) and degraded touchstones (“current rules-based liberal international order and, critically, its ideological underpinnings, including core democratic values”), the strategy offered is pitiful.

We are invited to be “laser focused” on the assumption that Xi’s so-called one man rule is resented by many in China; if a wedge can be driven into the leadership, Beijing will return to the happy pre-Xi state when

China, under all five of its post-Mao leaders prior to Xi, was able to work with the United States. Under them, China aimed to join the existing international order, not to remake it in China’s own image. Now, however, the mission for US China strategy should be to see China return to its pre-2013 path—i.e., the pre-Xi strategic status quo.

One is reminded of Napoleon’s delusion that Russia’s nobles could be wedged away from Alexander and the undying conviction that one more targetted sanction will make Putin’s henchmen kick him out. But, enough of Anonymous’ fancies – they have no base in reality: the USA out-sourced its manufacturing to China long ago and won’t be getting it back, wokeism is killing its education system, its politics are broken, its military is losing everywhere and doesn’t realise it, a tsunami of debt has built up. Most absurd of all, after years of needless hostility to Russia, Washington has no hope of separating Moscow from Beijing. And Xi Jinpeng is not some rogue who seized control – he is the top of a robust pyramid.

The only significance of this paltry effort is that it gives us another – and depressingly influential – example of the curious American obsession with personalities – everything in Chinese-US relations was going along swimmingly until Xi. But actually, as anyone capable of seeing reality knows, China is much, much more than one man.

China/Russia/Iran/Iraq/insert-name-of-country was happy to accept its place in the Rules-Based International Order until that nasty Xi/Putin/Ayatollah/Saddam/insert-name changed everything; get rid of him and it will all fix itself.

When are they going to understand that it’s a whole country, not just one guy?

LAB RATS TO THE FRONT!

First published Strategic Culture Foundation

We sleep soundly in our beds, because rough men stand ready in the night to do violence on those who would harm us.

George Orwell

NATO contemplates Kaliningrad: “We think through those plans all the time, and… if that would ever come to fruition, we’d be ready to execute.” It would be “a multi-domain, very timely and effective capability”. “The best Polish military units, numbering 30,000 soldiers, should take part in the quick offensive“. Multi-domain, best Polish; in the imaginations of the strategists of Laputa, the Russians passively await the blow. But now we must leave the empyrean realms of pure thought and float down to earth; there we find that “The largest headquarters military exercises Winter 2020 in Poland ended with the complete defeat of Polish troops: on the fifth day of the virtual conflict, the enemy reached the banks of the Vistula and surrounded Warsaw“.

Moscow has just told us (in the guise of a “suggestion” from two scientists) what it would do while NATO was polishing its multi-domains. Andrei Martyanov summarises it. Russia knows that US/NATO attacks start with a heavy air bombardment. And very effective it is too. Against Iraq or Libya which had poorly-coordinated, poorly-maintained, obsolete air defence systems. Or against Afghanistan which had none at all. Went well until the Serbs sent the F-117 into premature obsolescence. But Russia has excellent air defences. But more to the point, which is what our two professors are talking about, it has a host of highly effective missiles, many of them hypersonic and it knows where to aim them.

In order to disrupt the bombardment and frustrate ground-based operations, the analysts say, Russia should launch a colossal counter or pre-emptive strike to wipe out enemy hardware. This could be achieved, they argue, with the combined use of drones, missiles, cyber warfare and new weaponry, destroying Western equipment before it can even get airborne.

As soon as Moscow decided that a real war was inevitable, there would be a rain of hypersonic missiles which would swiftly overwhelm NATO’s mediocre air defences and destroy airfields, aircraft hangars, ammunition dumps, logistics and C3I facilities. And the Defence Minister has just ordered more of them. The “Sulwaki Corridor” would be the quietest place in Europe. Russians, through their brutal experience, know Orwell is correct: war is about destruction and killing.

In the West, however, other matters predominate. An American Rear Admiral heads a group to “have a deeper inclusion and diversity conversation in our Navy“; it will “acknowledge all lived experiences and intersectional identities of every Sailor in the Navy“. The German Army is far ahead as are many Western militaries. “America is stronger around the world when it is inclusive“. “Diversity, inclusion and respect are at the heart of the British Army’s values and ethos“. Diversity makes the Canadian Armed Forces stronger. NATO has “mainstreamed” “gender balance and diversity“.

Is transgenderism a “mental disorder” with very high suicide risk as at least one credentialed psychiatrist says, or is it a perfectly normal position on a flexible spectrum as many other credentialed psychiatrists say? Whatever, let’s try it out in the military and see what happens. Women have gradually moved to full combat roles in the US military. And, no matter how one might want to play with the meaning of the word “stronger”, men are physically stronger than women. And the infantry have to carry heavy loads: one of the more famous efforts was the Royal Marines’ “yomp” in the Falklands – 90 kilometres, three days, average load 36 kilograms. It is said that modern soldiers in the British Army are loaded down with even more. Perhaps weight itself should be made gender-neutral: “The Army Combat Fitness Test, ordered gender-neutral three years ago, is under evaluation by the Army’s Training and Doctrine Command“.

Western militaries are lab rats for the latest woke diktats. But there are consequences: “Overall, 11 percent of female service personnel scheduled to ship out were not able to in the previous year because of a pregnancy.” “Research suggests that veterans who identify as members of marginalized populations (e.g., women and racial/ethnic minority groups) carry far greater risk for developing PTSD.” “Sexual violence remains pervasive. In 2018, 20,500 service members were sexually assaulted or raped including 13,000 women and 7,500 men. The rate of sexual assault and rape jumped by almost 40% from 2016 to 2018, and for women veterans, the rate increased by over 50% to the highest level since 2006.” Meditate on the corrosive effect on morale and trust of this: “Of women who reported a penetrative sexual assault, 59% were assaulted by someone with a higher rank than them, and 24% were assaulted by someone in their chain of command.” At some point, the US military will no longer have the levels of trust, cohesion, morale and readiness that distinguish a real fighting force from a parade army.

Lots of money spent, little to show for it. Weapons seem to have been designed to produce cost over-runs, not victories. The US Navy’s latest aircraft carrier, long over due and over budget still has “problems getting jets off the deck and issues with the landing systems“; problems indeed for an aircraft carrier. “[T]he F-35 currently has 871 software and hardware ‘deficiencies’.” The years-long and stunningly expensive super destroyer program has fizzled out: three built without the weapon they were originally designed around. Brand-new military equipment unuseable in Germany. Engine troubles in the UK’s new warships. AEGIS ships that don’t know where they are: HNoMS Helge Ingstad, USS Lake Champlain, USS John McCain, USS Fitzgerald; or maybe it’s only bad seamanship. German aircraft not ready. USAF bombers ageing out. Cost over-runs in Germany. USAF training ranges inadequate. A third of the RAF’s fighters unfit to fly. F-35 not very ready. Crumbling skin on F-22. NATO air defence is inadequate (vide this). “Only five of the U.S. Army’s 15 armored brigade combat teams are maintained at full readiness levels“. Where is the money going? Into woke projects like tanks with solar power? (Bit of a heat signature, but more money can be squandered fixing that.)

The experience of fighting “forever wars” – two decades of bombing and shooting from safe distances, kicking in doors and hoping there are no IEDs on patrols – have sapped preparation for a real war against first-class enemies. The truth is that Western militaries have been fighting – unsuccessfully – against minor enemies. They strike from secure bases confident in air supremacy and assured communications. (Can the Russians spoof GPS signals? What will that do to all the systems relying on GPS?) NATO is not winning against determined poorly-armed enemies; what makes it think it’s ready for determined well-armed enemies? And who wants to join a losing army? No wonder only one British infantry battalion is fully staffed.

The “forever wars” have enormous morale effects. In 2019 the US Army asked “how has serving impacted you?” and got back a host of answers about suicide and PTSD. The US military now publishes an annual suicide report: about 700 members and family a year. But, it says, deployment doesn’t increase the risk; no, that comes afterwards: over 6000 US veterans commit suicide every year. There are similar results in allied forces: German and British. Not surprising really: wars that last for generations without visible success are bad for morale: “For Afghanistan, 58 percent of veterans said that fight was not worthwhile“. NATO has already spent twice as long in Afghanistan as the USSR did and there isn’t anything to suggest it will be leaving: despite the agreement to be out by 1 May 2021, “no decision”. Meanwhile, NATO wants more troops in Iraq. Can’t end them, can’t win them. But NATO keeps looking for more: add China to the list.

Given skilful diplomacy and policies that didn’t threaten neighbours these things wouldn’t matter very much. Your inclusive and intersectional army would give good parades and your air force noisy flypasts, your navy could glisten at the dock. But the USA and NATO are not such: they believe they should be everywhere, interfere everywhere and enforce everywhere.

NATO is committed to the peaceful resolution of disputes. If diplomatic efforts fail, it has the military power to undertake crisis-management operations… in cooperation with other countries and international organisations.

Has NATO ever solved any dispute, anywhere, any time with anything but bombs and threats? Certainly not since the USSR went down: bombs in the Balkans (22 years), Afghanistan (20 years), Iraq (19 years), Syria (9 years), Libya destroyed, run out of Somalia. Its principal member has 800 military bases in 70 countries. Here is the famous meme that Russia must want war because it puts its country close to our bases. (Not just a meme, actually, NATO complains about “provocative military activities near NATO’s borders“; or, as others might say, “inside Russia”.) Iran, a country that last attacked somebody in 1795, also. The British Navy joins the US Navy in “freedom of navigation” cruises in the South China Sea. Both navies would suffer from shortages in a real war. Maybe better to stay at home and let Beijing worry about freedom of navigation to and from China. Not content with the fact that the USA has no competent icebreakers, Washington is contemplating FON cruises in the Russian Arctic. The US regularly flies B-52s near countries it wants to overawe – “sending a message” they call it. Some message – 31 were lost in Vietnam. Or was it 34? At any event, given that it’s spent years thinking about what to do if the USAF comes, it’s unlikely that Tehran sees two B-52s as anything other than a derisory provocation.

Some US generals get it – World War II loss rates. Maybe even most generals get it, but they’re not making the decisions. People who call it “the greatest military in the history of the world” (Obama) “best trained, best equipped, and strongest military the world has ever known” (Hillary Clinton) with the “greatest weapons” (Trump) part of “the most powerful military alliance ever assembled“, “America’s forward operating base for democracy” do. And, just as if the last twenty years had not been a record of overextended failures, here’s a cheerleader calling for more of the same: A Superpower, Like It or Not.

NATO isn’t a paper tiger, it’s a paper pussycat. Lab rats in the latest woke experiment; bad morale and fading cohesion; low readiness levels; exhausted by forever wars; expensive weapons that don’t work; pawns in the fantasies of belligerent braggarts: that’s a recipe for catastrophe.

NATO would be severely defeated in a war with Russia or China and probably with Iran. If it can’t secure Afghanistan or Iraq after two decades, if it takes 226 days to overthrow Qaddafi, 79 days in Kosovo, what makes it think it can casually provoke countries that know they’re on the hit list and have been preparing for two decades? Do the Polish players in Winter 2020 still think it will be “timely and effective“?

THE WEST IS LOSING ITS SOFT POWER

First published Strategic Culture Foundation

“Soft power” is a useful concept whose invention is attributed to Joseph Nye in the 1980s. “Hard power” is easy enough to understand: it’s the USS Missouri in Tokyo Bay or Marshal Zhukov in Berlin. But soft power is more subtle and seductive: in Nye’s words: “many values like democracy, human rights, and individual opportunities are deeply seductive.” There are two commonly used ranking lists: Portland – Soft Power 30 – and Brand – Global Soft Power Index. Portland’s top ten in 2019 were France, UK, Germany, Sweden, USA, Switzerland, Canada, Japan, Australia and Netherlands. Brand’s in 2020 were USA, Germany, UK, Japan, China, France, Canada, Switzerland, Sweden and Russia. The first rating is very Eurocentric, the other includes Russia and China. Another difference is the position of the United States, but that doesn’t really make much difference to the point of my essay which is about soft power then, now and in the near future.

The Second World War brought the true flowering of the USA’s soft power; from the cargo cults of Melanesia to the cargo cults of Europe, GIs brought the dream to everyone. The USA won the war in a way that no other power did – it emerged immensely stronger and richer into a world in which its natural competitors had been impoverished. At Bretton Woods and San Francisco it shaped the new world to a degree that no other power could. And, understandably, it shaped it to its own benefit, quite convinced that it had every right to do so as the victor and exemplar of the better future. Only the USSR and its sphere grumpily disagreed.

These were the glory times of American soft power. I often think of the movie Roman Holiday in which the American reporter is civilised, polite, doesn’t take advantage of her but gives her confined life a moment of fun and freedom. The best kind of propaganda. (And, interestingly, one of the screenwriters had been blacklisted. Which gives another layer to this intensely pro-American movie, doesn’t it?)

To a friend who grew up in England before and during the Second World War, everything about the USA was exciting. That was soft power in action: bright new future. I would argue that American soft power stood on four pillars: the attractiveness and excitement of its popular culture, its reputation for efficiency, rule of law and the “American Dream”. Every American could expect that his children would be better off – better off in every respect: healthier, longer-lived, better educated, happier, richer – than he was. Some of this was image and propaganda but enough of it was true to make people believe. The wrappings of freedom, wealth and excitement made the package almost irresistible.

The USA owed a great deal of its pre-eminence to sheer luck. Sitting on immense natural resources far from enemies, almost all of its wars were wars of choice and usually wars against greatly inferior forces. But, as Stephen Walt argues, its long run of luck may be ending. “The result was a brief unipolar moment when the United States faced no serious rivals and both politicians and pundits convinced themselves that America had found the magic formula for success in an increasingly globalized world”. Walt is also dispirited about the American reputation for competence which he believes to have been severely damaged by COVID-19. One man’s opinion, to be sure, but he’s not alone. COVID-19 has greatly injured the USA’s and the West’s reputation for efficiency: no better illustration can be given than comparing the confident expectation of October 2019 that the USA and the UK could best handle a pandemic with what actually happened. A big blow to the soft power assumption that the USA and the West were the places where things functioned properly.

One of the biggest casualties has been the promise of the “American Dream”. One graph alone blows this pillar to bits. Until about 1972 wages and productivity were linked – everybody was getting richer together. Since then, the curves have diverged: productivity keeps rising, wages are flat. That’s not what was supposed to happen: the rising tide was supposed to float all boats, not just a few super yachts. The richest one percent owned six times as much as the bottom fifty percent in 1989, now it’s 15 times as much. More significantly, the 50%-90% have seen their share drop seven and a half percentage points. No, your children won’t be better off than you are; and probably not healthier or longer-lived either.

James DeLong discusses the erosion of another soft power pillar with his analysis of Amazon’s decision to deplatform Parler. His conclusion is:

a friend in the investment community likes to remind me that America has a big competitive advantage in the form of the rule of law, or “the insiders aren’t allowed to rob you blind!”. Amazon has decided to prove him wrong.

In the US, and the West in general, you are supposed to know where you are – you’re not subject to the ephemeral whims of a tyrant, as in less lawful regimes: transactions are grounded in law and transparent procedure. Perhaps DeLong is making too much out of something small here, but I don’t think he is. We’ve already seen the boasted principle of innocent until proven guilty disappear the moment Navalniy decides to accuse Putin of something; in the revenge of the present US Administration we will see more arbitrary tyranny justified by exaggerated exigencies. If 6 January was a new Pearl Harbor, extraordinary reactions will be said to be justified. But this is becoming the Western norm: where exactly is the rule of law with Meng in Canada, Sacoulis and Assange in the UK, or Butina in the USA? Will more lawfare against Trump strengthen the image of stability and rule of law?

Neither will the 2020 US election and its consequences advance the American reputation of democratic leadership. Some cheerleaders of “American leadership” like Richard N Haass are quite despondent:

No one in the world is likely to see, respect, fear, or depend on us in the same way again. If the post-American era has a start date, it is almost certainly today [6 January].

Consider the image that Biden’s inauguration sent. Rather than using the COVID excuse to plan a modest ceremony, the full panoply was undertaken. But with no supporters and with soldiers everywhere: note the motorcade pompously passing only people paid to or ordered to attend. It looked like the enthronement of a dictator after a coup. Especially now that the opposition is being censored (deplatformed, as they call it); re-labelled as “domestic terrorists“, possibly under the direction of the arch-enemy Putin; “extremists” must be removed from the US military; the Enemy in already inside Congress. Fence-in the Capitol. The soft power claim of the USA to be the citadel of freedom has taken a hit and will take more.

American movies were one of the vehicles of soft power. Consider, for example, 1939’s Mr Smith Goes to Washington in which a straightforward American, James Stewart, successfully overcomes a corrupt Washington with decency and determination. Many Americans, especially Senators, didn’t get it and railed against the movie – but Spain, Italy, Germany and the USSR understood that it was a powerfully pro-American movie and banned it. Its message was that, even corrupt, the USA is better. Frank Capra made a number of movies about ordinary Americans prevailing with their Everyman decency. A very important part of soft power broadcasting decency and freedom against a background of, to much of the rest of the world, an inconceivable prosperity enjoyed by the ordinary citizen. But in today’s Hollywood’s movies there are no more decent Americans showing the way, just comic book automatons blowing each other up. No message there and no soft power either. If, as this piece wonders, China is Hollywood’s future – it’s already the largest market – then why would you need Hollywood at all? There’s no American soft power in Godzilla vs Kong.

Popular culture, competence, justice and values and the dream of betterment may have been the pillars on which the USA’s soft power was based, but the ground upon which those stood was success. Success made the others attractive; success is the most powerful attraction. The West is losing its aura of success – endless wars, divisive politics, COVID failure, financial crises, debt. And ever more desperate attempts to hold power against ever bolder dissent. It’s just beginning. And not just the USA, the West doesn’t present well any more: protests in Amsterdam, London, Berlin; a year of gillets jaunes in France. The world is watching. Not efficient, not attractive, not law-based. Not successful.

As for success, I recommend this enumeration of China’s achievements. One after another of first or second in numerous categories. And it’s all happened in the last two or three decades. What will we see in the next two or three? That is success. That is what used to happen in the USA. But it doesn’t any more. According to numbers provided by the World Bank, the levels of extreme poverty declined significantly in the world (2000-2017), quite dramatically in China (2010-2016), significantly in Russia (2000-2010) but actually increased in the USA from 2000-2016. “Deaths of despair” are not success. Soft power will inevitable follow as other countries – probably not the West, it’s true – try to imitate China’s stunning success. To a large extent, the West is living on its capital while China is increasing its.

In retrospect, the recent Davos Forum may turn out to be an inflection moment: Putin’s speech was a blunt statement that what he foresaw at Munich in 2007 has come to pass – the patent failure of the “Washington Consensus” and unilateralism. Xi Jinpeng echoed it. Even Merkel promised neutrality between China and the USA.

Soft power is packing up and getting ready to move house: success attracts, failure repels.

OBAMA.3

(Answer to a question from Sputnik)

Given that we have a video of Obama saying that he’d like a third term if he had a front man with an earpiece and given what we know of his role in moving the Democratic primaries for Biden, it’s a safe assumption to say that we are now in Obama.3.

So some deductions – START – which he extended, has been extended. Washington will try to re-do JCPOA, negotiated on his time, but Tehran may not be willing, so that could be harder to do. There is every reason to expect more hostility to Russia, more Ukraine, more Syria. Same wars. Less anti-China rhetoric. And, as with Obamas 1 and 2, benefits to the “three B’s” – bankers, billionaires and bomb makers. So the extension of START is probably the last thing that will make Moscow happy.

But I expect that foreign affairs will take a back seat to the predominant efforts of the Biden/Harris Administration of tightening control over “misinformation”, trying to grind Trump and his followers into the dust and the embarrassments of the 25th Amendment. Then the midterm elections will roll the dice again.