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Reality Is a Tank
Vladimir Putin has been clear-eyed about the world. We're the ones who lost touch with reality.
1. Putin Is Winning
There’s a lot of “OMG Putin is a madman how could he do this!” today. Here is the single most daft expression I’ve seen from a serious person:
Carl Bildt was once the prime minister of Sweden, the head of a sovereign state. And he is a fool. Because Vladimir Putin is firmly in touch with “reality.” It is men and women like Bildt, who believe that the international order is secured by pen and ink, who have been living in a fantasy land. They have spent a generation inviting catastrophe into their sitting rooms.
They watched Putin jail and destroy Mikhail Khodorkovsky, the richest man in Russia.
They watched Putin assassinate dissidents on the ground in NATO countries.
They watched Putin’s army commit war crimes in Chechnya.
They watched his 2007 Munich speech in which he literally said, out loud, that he wanted to roll back the Westernization of Eastern Europe and restore Russia’s dominance.
They watched the invasions of Georgia and then Ukraine.
In response these same men and women decommissioned nuclear power plants in Europe and built gas pipelines to Russia so that they could have good feelings about “environmentalism” while also pocketing economic windfalls.
They crossed their fingers and closed their eyes.
You tell me who “lost contact with reality.”
And it’s not just the lotus-eating Europeans. George W. Bush and Barack Obama both got rolled by Putin. Donald Trump was practically Putin’s gofer.
Our presidents were not alone. Much of Conservatism Inc. has become functionally pro-Russia. And much of the American foreign policy establishment decided that it could live in whatever reality it preferred. Their signal accomplishment was killing America’s two-war doctrine.
Here is a typical news report from 2010:
Defense Secretary Robert Gates's efforts to focus the Defense Department on the wars at hand – not the ones being waged in the minds of futurists fixated on China or Russia – is the guiding principle behind a new strategic document that sets the Pentagon’s priorities for the next several years.
Those silly futurists. Fixated on the prospective threats of China or Russia.
Here is Paul Miller with a representative attack on two-war doctrine two years later:
Since World War II, U.S. military planners have argued that we need to fight two major theater wars at the same time. The two-war doctrine has become something like Holy Writ or an idée fixe. The idea was somewhat well-founded during the Cold War when we plausibly could have faced simultaneous crises in, for example, Germany and Korea, or Germany and Cuba.
However, holding onto this idea for the last twenty years has looked increasingly disconnected from reality. Obama’s new strategy goes through contortions to claim that we will, sort of, maybe, continue to be able to almost fight and nearly win two wars at the same time. But it fails, like every defense strategy has for two decades, to explain why this precise formulation is worth defending.
And so the two-war doctrine was tossed aside in favor of a “one-plus” doctrine.
The goal of the two-war doctrine was to prevent America from having to fight any major wars. Because when you have the ability to fight two conventional ground wars, you deter all of your enemies.
A one-war doctrine, on the other hand, invites conflict.
Think about it: America could, in theory, go to war against either Russia or China. But not both. Which means that both China and Russia are emboldened to pursue their interests: They know that we are unlikely to respond to aggression because in any given instance we will be paralyzed by the need to be able to deter a second aggressor.
The two-war doctrine was a victim of its own success. It was so effective at deterring large-scale aggression that Americans became convinced it wasn’t needed. That we could pocket the savings and get the same level of security through norms and agreements and economic interdependence.
Here is a thing everyone except Vladimir Putin and Xi Jinping seems to have forgotten: Reality is a tank.
Not a memorandum. Not a summit. Not a promise.
In 1994, Russia signed a very nice piece of paper pledging to defend Ukraine from aggression if they would just give back the old Soviet Union’s nuclear weapons.
One week ago, after a summit with Emmanuel Macron, Putin said he was withdrawing troops from the Ukrainian border.
Joe Biden has promised that the United States would defend Taiwan against a Chinese attack.
None of these were policies. They were sentiments.
Over the last 20 years, Americans experienced the very real costs of being the global hegemon and decided that, all things being equal, we’d rather not have the job.
We are about to experience the very real costs of not being the hyperpower.
I would like to think the American people will survey the situation and come to the hard conclusion that while it is expensive and arduous to be the enforcer of the international order, it’s ultimately cheaper and safer than the alternative. And that we will then select leaders who will carry out this brief.
But I’ve lived through the last three years, just like you. I’ve watched half of America whine like children over being asked to wear a KN-95 at the grocery store. I’ve seen a third of this country refuse to get a life-saving vaccine because they are so detached from reality.
In my darker moments I suspect that Vladimir Putin has taken our measure quite precisely.
If you’d been reading the Triad, then Putin’s invasion would not be surprising in the least. I’ve been banging on about this for weeks:
This, for instance, is from the January 25 newsletter:
I do not believe there is anything the Biden administration or NATO can do to forestall Putin’s aggression at this point. So the questions shifts from “How do we stop it” to “How do we thwart Russia’s strategic aims and impose the largest possible strategic cost on Putin’s regime?”
There’s a reason we have the t-shirts.
If you want a clear-eyed view of the world delivered to your inbox, every day, then you should be with us.
2. Strategic Ambiguity
I hate that we have to fight the Trump culture wars while talking about real war. But like I said: We are not a serious people. So you have Rich Lowry tweeting this:
There’s a kernel of truth here. Unpredictability is a strategic asset and it was a big advantage for Trump in his conquest of the Republican party. Especially in the early days of 2015 to 2018: Republican elites didn’t understand him and couldn’t predict his behavior.
But in the realm of foreign relations, Trump was entirely predictable. There was a simple playbook for foreign leaders: Flatter Trump, tell him what he wanted to hear, and he would roll over for you.
Look at his love affair with Kim Jong-Un.
Look at him giving Xi Jinping the go ahead for concentration camps just so long as he could have a trade “deal” to announce.
Look at the Helsinki Summit, where he took Vladimir Putin’s side against his own intelligence apparatus.
And in just about every case involving the use of force—the killing of Soleimani being the exception—Trump backed down militarily. Even going so far as to falsely dismiss injuries to U.S. troops in order to avoid having to retaliate against an aggressor
So why is Putin pushing into Ukraine now? Not everything in the world is about Donald Trump and Putin has been playing a very long game.
But if I had to guess what Trump’s influence on Putin was, I’d say:
Putin realized that he could get much of he wanted from Trump for free. Trump was even talking about pulling out of NATO—which is Putin’s endgame. Why do anything that might jeopardize the free gifts Trump was giving him?
On the other hand, once Biden came to power and it was clear that the relationship would be more adversarial, Putin figured that he might as well go on offense and take his lumps in pursuit of the strategic objectives that could only be achieved by force.
3. Hank the Tank
Thank you. For all the book recommendations last week. The book that got more votes than any other was A Gentleman in Moscow, so that’s what I loaded onto my Kindle.
And you guys did not steer me wrong. It’s tremendous.
You’re the best. Thanks.
Now, my gift to you: Hank the tank:
Since the summer, a black bear known as Hank the Tank has made a 500-pound nuisance of himself in South Lake Tahoe, Calif., breaking into more than two dozen homes to rummage for food and leaving a trail of damage behind.
So far, nobody has been able to deter Hank, said Peter Tira, a spokesman for the California Department of Fish and Wildlife. Department officials and the local police have tried to “haze” the bear with paintballs, bean bags, sirens and Tasers, but he is too drawn to humans and their food to stay away for long.
“It’s easier to find leftover pizza than to go in the forest,” Mr. Tira said on Sunday. . . .
At 500 pounds, Hank is “exceptionally large,” the state wildlife authorities said. The average black bear in the western United States weighs 100 to 300 pounds, according to the Washington Department of Fish and Wildlife. . . .
But Hank’s diet of human food and garbage has expanded his size, said Ann Bryant, the executive director of the Bear League, a wildlife rescue service in Homewood, Calif.
“He didn’t get fat like that eating berries and grubs,” she said, adding that it was not clear how Hank developed a taste for human food.
Read the whole thing. It’s amazing.