Wars are fought by leaders who intend to win, one way or another, using any and all means available to them. The Cold War was a decades-long series of proxy battles between the two nuclear-armed superpowers, the Soviet Union and the United States, during which the communist and capitalist arch enemies engaged in conflict on the terrain of lesser states, to the detriment of millions of civilians living in those places. But the dissolution of the U.S.S.R. and the fall of the Berlin Wall ushered in neither a period of world peace nor a dramatically reduced U.S. military budget. Instead, U.S. foreign policy elites, emboldened by a newfound sense of impunity, suddenly realized that they could wage war and impose their will wherever and whenever they pleased. Who, after all, was going to stop them?
Despite the complete conversion of post-Soviet Russia to capitalism, the fear-driven antipathy used to promote and prolong the Cold War has been rehydrated among War Party duopolists, many of whom, perhaps addled by six years of mainstream media obsession with the Russiagate hoax, appear to have forgotten why the U.S.S.R. and the U.S.A. were enemies in the first place. Better dead than red! was the slogan which drove policymakers to attempt to stop the expansion of the Soviet empire by all means necessary. Better dead than red! concisely conveys the fervor which gave rise to both the massive development and stockpiling of nuclear warheads and the creation of NATO, the North Atlantic Treaty Organization.
The current curious quest on the part of hawks to support nonnuclear-armed Ukraine as it fends off nuclear-armed Russia reflects a failure to understand the logic of not only war but also nuclear deterrence. The most glaring problem is that if, against all indicators, Ukraine were somehow to prevail in the conventional war against Russia, it would remain an option for Putin to deploy nuclear weapons, against which Ukraine would have no defense. Given that this conflict has morphed into a quasi-proxy war, with massive U.S. funding and CIA operatives on the ground in Ukraine, any use by Russia of nuclear weapons would likely trigger the use of the same by the United States.
Thinkers as diverse as Noam Chomsky and Henry Kissinger have spoken out about the danger of allowing the Ukraine-Russia conflict to continue on, yet the propaganda-pommeled populace persists in waving its Ukrainian flags. Antiwar intellectuals such as Chomsky have often been depicted by Pentagon propagandists and their associated pundits as “unrealistic,” but Kissinger is notorious (or renowned, depending on your perspective) as the consummate Realpolitik war games player. So how are we to understand the sudden concordance of such ideologically opposed figures on the ongoing conflict between Ukraine and Russia?
Kissinger is needless to say very familiar with the strategic cogitations of competent political leaders. He knows, for example, that leaders doomed to defeat by their limited military capacities vis-à-vis their adversaries do not as a general rule wage war against them. Correlatively, when there is no effective outside restraint on a superpower military such as that of the United States, then the sort of free-for-all of mass killing constitutive of the many misadventures in the Middle East (and beyond) since 1991 may well ensue. Kissinger also recognizes that a nation in possession of nuclear arms may in fact deploy them in exceptional circumstances, just as the United States did in 1945.
It is true that in 1945 there was only one nuclear-armed nation, and decades of political theorists have made careers out of arguing that in a war between two nations armed to the hilt with nukes, there could be only a Pyrrhic victory. That was the logic of MAD, Mutually Assured Destruction, given the likely domino/ricochet effect of any first strike use of nuclear warheads. Foreign policy elites such as Kissinger found the MAD argument compelling, and throughout much of the twentieth century, the continual development of ever-more-destructive nuclear arms was construed by high-level strategists as a form of deterrence. Looking back, it seems safe to say that either the MAD approach really worked, or else the species just got lucky that no one certifiably insane ever found himself in the position to initiate what could quite easily have escalated to a catastrophic nuclear holocaust. There were, however, close calls, perhaps the most famous of which was the Cuban Missile crisis. Fortunately, cooler heads prevailed in that conflict.
Political leaders are human beings, first and foremost, who may be capricious and prickly, obstinate and vain, and these possibilities must be taken into consideration when attempting to predict their future actions. Two films which vividly underscore the human-all-too-human nature of political leaders and the consequent danger of resting the future of civilization on MAD deterrence are Stanley Kubrick’s Dr. Strangelove, or How I Learned to Stop Worrying and Love the Bomb and Sidney Lumet’s Fail Safe, both of which were released in 1964, at the height of the Cold War.
We all hope that Putin is not irrational, but as both Kissinger and Chomsky appreciate, the usual MAD premises may at some point cease serving as effective restraints in the present case. Paramount among those premises are, first, that the leader with his finger on the nuclear weapons launcher button is not suicidal (or terminally ill) and, second, that he does not believe that a purely Pyrrhic victory, culminating in the destruction of much of his own society, is acceptable—even if he himself has access to an impenetrable bunker located deep below the surface of the earth.
The ultimate MAD premise-busting problem in the current conflict, even assuming the Russian president’s rationality, is that he has been repeatedly “informed” (i.e., threatened) by representatives of the U.S. government that his ultimate fate will be removal from power. If Putin actually believed what some U.S. statesmen continue to proclaim, that Putin’s days are numbered, then what would ordinarily be his strong prudential grounds for not deploying nukes would evaporate away. For Putin knows what typically ensues shortly after U.S. political elites begin pronouncing that “X must go!” Grisly examples include Saddam Hussein and Moammar Gaddafi, but there have been many other leaders over the course of the past century who fell out of favor with political elites in the United States (for both ideological and economic reasons) and suffered similar fates.
Now, it is true that Iraq and Libya did not possess nuclear weapons, and so the glee with which policymakers spearheaded the myopic toppling of the regimes of Saddam Hussein and Moammar Gaddafi, leaving the countries they once ruled in shambles, evinced the usual “What are you going to do about it?” haughtiness attending U.S. military interventions more generally. Let us hope that Putin believes that he is just as safe as is Edward Snowden, who has managed to survive nearly a decade on Russian soil, despite being just as despised by the U.S. oligarchy as is Julian Assange. (How ironic that Snowden has been able to live a life in Russia, while Assange in Britain has been ruthlessly abused and persecuted over the same period of time.)
Disturbingly, some politicians in the United States, including Senator Mitt Romney, have opined that we should now prepare for a nuclear war. But perhaps all of the bluster of U.S. foreign policy elites and regime pundits threatening Putin’s demise is nothing more than idle chatter. Perhaps it is intended less to threaten Putin than to propagandize taxpayers into believing that their leaders should continue to drain the already empty U.S. coffers to pay for not only the arming of Ukraine, but also the renewal and expansion of nuclear arsenals, the speedy development of the U.S. Space Command, and the recently announced nearly ten-fold expansion of NATO’s rapid response force.
If, however, NATO continues to expand eastward to Russia’s border, masses more troops and weapons, makes Finland and Sweden member states, and provocatively persists in carrying out war games at Putin’s doorstep, then his confidence that he is safe may at some point wane. From Putin’s perspective, which is the only perspective which actually matters in considering the possible outcomes of the conflict initiated by him, if the choice is to be destroyed or to go out swinging before being destroyed, then why not opt for the latter? The more Putin is goaded and antagonized by the nuclear-armed United States, the less irrational the use of nuclear weapons will seem to him.
Idealists such as Chomsky may regard war as fundamentally immoral, but they are also aware, as are realists such as Kissinger, that the reason wars begin is that leaders disagree, and every war will eventually and can only end at the negotiation table. The question, then, is only how much cannon fodder to expend and how much destruction to tolerate before finally agreeing to sit down and talk. World War I offers a clear historical example of how political leaders caught up in a self-delusive quest for victory may sacrifice millions of their compatriots in resolving a relatively minor dispute. Generally speaking, the more stakeholders invest in a conflict, the more insistent they become that they prevail. The U.S. intervention in Vietnam and the war on terror illustrate the same principle.
Left to their own devices, it seems highly unlikely that rational citizens would support the provocation and prolongation of a war which could end in the destruction of Western civilization and the annihilation of much of the human species. To defeat what should be a widely held and entirely natural (in addition to rational) resistance to provoking World War III, and with it a disastrous nuclear conflict between the United States and Russia, has required a concerted media effort to gaslight citizens into believing that they are somehow selfish and cowardly, perhaps even evil, if they do not support the government’s latest “benevolent” provisions of military aid (a.k.a. homicidal weapons) to places which many of them cannot even locate on a map.
In reality, the military’s missions of mass homicide have been effectively fictionalized by the mainstream media to the point where the populace currently inhabits a kind of Orwellian cartoonscape. Thus the massive exportation of deadly weapons to Ukraine is praised by people who simultaneously decry the possession of firearms by U.S. citizens, even while knowing that similar initiatives in recent history—in Syria, Afghanistan, and Iraq—left tons of military equipment in enemy hands to do with as they pleased. It should be a matter of common knowledge by now that weapons sent to conflict zones are extremely difficult to control and have often been confiscated and sold to the highest bidders, transferred to radical factions, or simply abandoned and taken up later by whoever happens upon them to use however they wish. President Obama armed ISIS in Syria, and when President Biden finally withdrew the U.S. military from Afghanistan, the Taliban inherited all of the weapons and equipment left behind.
Looking at what remains of the Middle East after a twenty-year series of wrecking ball policies, paid for on credit by future generations, one might rationally conclude that it is high time for Americans to resist further military experiments abroad. It is not as though we have not already witnessed the manifest incompetence of the political and military elites who orchestrated the war on terror and the flagrant fiscal irresponsibility of those who continue to print money for their latest “humanitarian” vanity projects even as the economy careers into a recession. There is something vaguely insane about the idea that there is no credit limit on the government when it comes to warfare, yet this idea is fully embraced by much of the populace, even while they disagree about many other matters.
Rather than taking the warmakers to task for all of their abject failures throughout the twenty-first century, legislators instead reward them with even more money than they had before, and, in the most recent military budget, even more than the president asked for. Both the U.S. House of Representatives and the Senate approved a $40 billion aid package to be allocated by federal bureaucrats to Ukraine, despite the many economic problems currently plaguing the people of the United States. Remarkably, even self-styled progressive politicians were bamboozled into thinking that if they did not approve any and every aid package for Ukraine, then this would be taken to imply that they supported Putin’s invasion.
The foreign policy memory bank of the populace is molded and effectively erased by the mainstream media, which has served as a veritable wing of the U.S. State Department since the ratification of the Smith-Mundt Modernization Act in 2013. The State Department, in turn, operates as a wing of the Pentagon public relations department. The most obvious recent example is none other than the categorical refusal of Secretary of State Blinken and President Biden to engage in dialogue as a means to ending the Ukraine-Russia conflict. When negotiation is dismissed as impossible or unacceptable at the outset of a conflict, war is deceptively depicted as a “last resort.”
Those who wave their flags for intervention succumb to simplistic tropes such as “You’re either with us, or you’re with them” in an apparent state of oblivion regarding the bungled war on terror. It was only last year that Afghanistan was returned to its former leaders, the Taliban, after the U.S. government had spent trillions of dollars trying to kill them over the course of twenty years. But the warmongering media brush all of these niceties aside and focus on the latest call for intervention, supporting the injection of weapons into yet another conflict zone.
The hesitation to intervene militarily has been so effectively portrayed as despicably craven and immoral that many citizens wholeheartedly embrace interventionist policies which undermine their very own interests, despite the fact that governments are only created in order to serve the people. As every war whore knows, it suffices to whip out the tried-and-true “We are good, and they are evil!” trope to galvanize mass flag-waving even among people who can no longer afford to fill their gas tanks. Laughably, Biden has blamed crippling inflation on “Putin’s price hike.” Sadly, some people actually believe him.
Military industry profits as weapons are transferred, depleted, and replenished. It matters not to war profiteers how or why or where or by whom or in what way the weapons are expended. It matters only that they be used in some way so that the taxpayer spigot can be tapped to produce more of the same. By making every intervention seem as though it bears directly on the lives of citizens, the Pentagon’s propaganda department has for decades succeeded in an epic heist. If the United States continues to supply weapons to Ukraine only for Russia to blow them up, the only discernible effect will be to enrich military industry while simultaneously impoverishing Americans.
With both the deficit and inflation being made measurably worse by the printing of money to purchase weapons to be shipped abroad, perhaps more citizens will begin to recognize what is really going on. Directly harming the U.S. economy and thereby degrading the quality of life of the populace through doling out billions of dollars for a war which benefits only munitions manufacturers and military contractors, and whose prolongation guarantees the slaughter of many more civilians using the very weapons so “magnanimously” donated, should cause every thinking being to question the judgment of those forging U.S. foreign policy. When government officials themselves possess financial incentives for squandering public funds in the name of unwinnable wars, such large-scale transfers of wealth engineered by individuals with patent conflicts of interest should be called out for what they are: acts of theft.
It is possible that with the economic downturn, the critical mass of suffering people will lead to a turn in the tide of the nation’s consciousness. Eventually Americans may awaken from their MIC-forged dream to the sad truth: that they are being robbed by the very government which claims to protect their interests. On the international front, the silver lining on the Biden years may end up being that the president’s own manifestly debilitated mental state will be seen as symbolic of the crumbling U.S. empire. Longstanding allies may eventually realize that the best way to ensure their own survival is to distance themselves from the military hegemon now in decline. If Kissinger and Chomsky can agree that the current administration’s handling of the Ukraine-Russia conflict is irresponsible, counterproductive and extremely dangerous, then perhaps longstanding U.S. allies, too, will at some point withdraw their support and adopt a more neutral and pacific stance toward Russia.
The reasonable path forward, as both realists and idealists have observed, is to encourage the leaders of Ukraine and Russia to sit down and negotiate terms. Anyone who understands the logic of MAD should condemn the United States’ reckless approach of risking not only self-destruction but also the end of civilization as we know it.