The West At The Precipice
Good morning from Budapest. Woke up here to see news that the Russians are moving in the big guns to wage total war on the Ukrainians, who have the gall to resist Moscow. You want to scream. You want heaven to open and rain down fire on Vladimir Putin for doing this.
I also saw a quote from the French Finance Minister, saying, “The sanctions inflicted on Russia are extremely effective. We are waging total economic and financial war on Russia. We are going to provoke the collapse of the Russian economy.” If you have French, watch:
Les sanctions infligées à la Russie sont d’une efficacité redoutable. Nous livrons une guerre économique et financière totale à la Russie.
Nous allons provoquer l’effondrement de l’économie russe. pic.twitter.com/NqB36CbWX4
— Bruno Le Maire (@BrunoLeMaire) March 1, 2022
Two thoughts come at the same time: 1) Good, Putin deserves it over what he’s doing, and 2) my God, this really could mean World War III.
Seriously: a senior government minister in a major Western power openly boasts that the West is waging “total economic and financial war” against Russia, a nuclear-armed superpower. It’s obvious that the West is doing exactly that, but the fact that this man is also on TV bragging about it is terrifying. Unhinged, even. It is clear that madness has overwhelmed Putin, but a reactive madness is also overwhelming us. If the goal is to punish Russia maximally for what it is doing to Ukraine, no matter the risk, then it makes sense. But if the higher goal is to avoid World War III, well, this ain’t the way to do it.
Neither is this: Ukrainian pilots are on their way to Poland to pick up fighter jets.
1 This is becoming a NATO-EU war on Russia.
2 Maybe this scares Putin into stopping his war on Ukraine.
3 Maybe this scares others into getting rid of him.
4 Maybe fear of 1 or 3 makes Putin do horrifying things to Ukraine, Europe, or the world.
5 We are led by psychopath elites! https://t.co/ILyLMeE4ZY
— Titus Techera (@titusfilm) March 1, 2022
This all feels so familiar to me. I will spare you yet another tour down memory lane, to the time between 9/12/2001 and the day in 2003 that we launched the war of choice on Iraq. But I’m telling you, if you were there, you remember the same moral fervor, the same certitude that we were right to do this, that it was all going to work out because, as Karl Rove boasted at the time, “We create our own reality.” You remember, or you should remember, how anybody who said, “Hang on, wait a minute” was derided as weak, unpatriotic, and all those things. People poured French wine down the drain (because France wouldn’t support the war) in the same way they’re pouring out Russian vodka today. The Dixie Chicks lost their audience and their fame for opposing the war. On and on it went … and look what happened.
A few years later, a Democratic administration was in the White House. Turmoil broke out in Libya, which was then ruled by the brutal Muammar Qaddafi. NATO — a purely defensive alliance, we are supposed to believe — led airstrikes against Qaddafi, bringing down his government. Video of Qaddafi’s capture by his enemies went viral, as did images of his dead body. A triumphant Secretary of State Hillary Clinton comically boasted before a 60 Minutes interview, “We came, we saw, he died.”
Libya went from being a dictatorship governed by a brute to a failed state governed by many brutes, where Islamic extremism thrived, human slaves were bought and sold, and through which hordes of migrants headed to Europe were funneled. Years later, after he left office, President Obama said failing to anticipate and plan for the post-Qaddafi order was the worst mistake of his presidency.
We do create our own realities when we wage war … but they are not necessarily the realities we want to create. Putin is finding that out right now in Ukraine, which he thought would fall quickly. Now, though, the Russians are bringing in the big guns, and are going to unleash hell on those poor people. It is despicable, and yes, the Russians should be made to pay a price for what they are doing. But keep in mind that the most important thing in front of Western leaders now has to be preventing the war from becoming a world war.
Nobody wants to talk about this now, because Russia is behaving evilly in Ukraine, and to reflect on how the world got to this point feels like breaking faith with the suffering Ukrainians. Resist that urge: it’s the same emotivist mistake that people like me made post-9/11, when any questioning of the proposed war on Iraq felt like breaking faith with the 9/11 dead. Read this useful thread:
Most fascinating thing about the Ukraine war is the sheer number of top strategic thinkers who warned for years that it was coming if we continued down the same path.
No-one listened to them and here we are.
Small compilation 🧵 of these warnings, from Kissinger to Mearsheimer.
— Arnaud Bertrand (@RnaudBertrand) March 1, 2022
All these men who issued those warnings were foreign policy realists. Their aim was to avoid war. Nobody listened. And here we are. None of that is to excuse Putin’s choice to make war on Ukraine — the ultimate fault is his — but that does not excuse our leaders for making policy choices that helped to get us here.
And now these same leaders are waging total economic and financial war on Russia, and arming the Ukrainians. They are making it awful damn tempting for Russia, as its economy collapses virtually overnight, to lash out militarily against a NATO country … in which case, welcome to World War III. This is not a joke. This is not a “what if”. This is happening in real time.
Look, though, at what NBC’s chief foreign policy correspondent, on the ground in Ukraine, is doing: trying to goad NATO into war:
Perhaps the biggest risk-calculation/moral dilemma of the war so far. A massive Russian convoy is abt 30 miles from Kyiv. The US/NATO could likely destroy it. But that would be direct involvement against Russia and risk, everything. Does the West watch in silence as it rolls?
— Richard Engel (@RichardEngel) February 28, 2022
This is not journalism — this is pro-war advocacy, from one of the biggest US television networks! This is propaganda! Russia Today, the state-funded broadcaster, is being forced off the air in the West and online because we have to protect ourselves from pro-war Russian propaganda. But pro-war American propagandists are allowed, you see, because reasons.
Watch this 20-minute monologue from Monday evening’s Tucker Carlson Tonight. It is one of the most important things you will see and hear this week:
Seriously, please watch it — especially if you are a liberal. Tucker points out the utter madness of senior figures in this country, political and retired military, who are advocating for shooting war with Russia, and using the Ukraine conflict to stifle domestic dissent. Note especially Democratic Sen. Mark Warner telling the Washington Post that he’s had positive feedback from US tech giants responding to his request that they kick “Russian propaganda” off their platforms. As Tucker points out, what defines “Russian propaganda”? Tucker’s same presentation features Democratic Reps. Nancy Pelosi and Barbara Lee likening Russia’s war on Ukraine to Republican opposition to Democratic voting rights proposals. Don’t you see where this is going? Any questioning of US policy towards Russia in this war is going to be denounced as “Russian propaganda.” We do have a First Amendment, but if compliant tech firms start bowing to the requests of American lawmakers to take “propaganda” off their platforms, dissent damn sure will be silenced. This is exactly what I warn about in Live Not By Lies: you don’t need to have a state with totalitarian powers to achieve a totalitarian result, if the tech oligarchs and other senior figures of the ruling class are of one mind.
Thank God Tucker Carlson can still broadcast. I don’t know how much longer he will be allowed to do so. What he’s pointing out, standing up to the lies the herd lives by, is that the American people are being stampeded into a shooting war with nuclear-armed Russia by a ruling class that has blundered from one war to another in the past twenty years, and has never once been accountable for its catastrophic failures. How many Pentagon generals have been made to account for their lies and failures in Afghanistan? None. And so forth.
Tucker is also saying that what we see rolling out now, in real time, is a presentiment of how the regime is going to suppress the deplorables and anyone else who dissents from their order. Here’s something from a Los Angeles-based writer:
At this moment, in my own country, in America, I am not free to express my opinions in public, put certain politician signs on my lawn, bumper stickers on my car, or otherwise break from regime consensus without suffering severe physical or economic consequences.
— Peachy Keenan (@KeenanPeachy) February 28, 2022
But I should drop everything, risk nuclear annihilation, to cry for a far off place I will never see or visit. (A place some ancestors came from, but who cares). Those people over there deserve to be free and independent, and enjoy fair elections!
But I don’t. “Equity,” amirite?
— Peachy Keenan (@KeenanPeachy) February 28, 2022
You see everything that’s being done to Russians now by the liberal democratic leadership of the West, heedless of its wisdom or justice, simply because the Russians Are Evil and whatever we do to them is justified? If you don’t think this is going to be turned on political and religious conservatives who dissent from the ruling class’s priorities, you are deluding yourself. This is not a defense of the Russians; this is a reminder that whenever the neoliberal ruling class achieves consensus to attack its perceived enemy, the consequences can be devastating.
Events are very fluid as I write, but what I fear will emerge in the US out of this catastrophe is total resolve by the governing elites to strike at any critics of the neoliberal order and its priorities by smearing them as allies of Putin. All these conservative Christians who are eager to sign up for the regime-change-in-Moscow cause out of laudable sympathy for suffering Ukrainians and reflexive anti-Russian spite from the Cold War will find the same sword of total financial and economic war, and other things, turned on them at home. Mark my words.
Finally, here’s an essay by Tanner Greer praised by Tucker Carlson at the top of his monologue. It’s called “Pausing At The Precipice,” and it should be read by every one of you. Excerpts:
None of these [US, EU, and NATO] actions are as audacious as the Russian invasion which precipitated them. They are a natural, proportional, and even predictable response to Putin’s decision to settle the question of Ukrainian nationhood through the force of arms. Yet it is precisely the naturalness of our policy that we should be wary of. A righteous reaction may be a dangerous one. The imperatives of action disguise an ugly truth: in the field of power politics it is outcomes, not intentions, that matter most. Failure to slow down and examine the assumptions and motivations behind our choices may lead to decisions that feel right in the moment, but fail to safeguard our interests, secure our values, or reduce the human toll of war in the long run.
Greer goes on to discuss a 2019 book by Michael Mazarr about the decision-making process that led to the Iraq War. “To discover how the United States leapt headlong into catastrophe,” Greer writes, “Mazarr read all of the administration memoirs, tracked down all available open-source material on the pre-war debates, and interviewed just about everybody involved save George W. Bush himself.”
What Mazarr found was not that the Bush Administration intentionally lied to get us into Iraq. What he discovered was something even more unsettling: that nobody at the senior levels of the Bush Administration ever really discussed whether or not this was something we should do.
No one ever asked “should we invade?” Instead they debated questions like “if we decide to invade, what must we do to prepare?” and “When we invade, what must our objectives be?” Mazarr explains this curious lack of first-order thought, the origin point of the motivated reasoning that produced both flawed intelligence assessments and unnecessarily hasty demands for action, as a byproduct of moral imperatives.
In sum, the discussion about war is not carried out rationally, in terms of debating pros and cons, but is rather about assembling rationales to support policies that have already been decided for moral reasons. With the Iraq War, the idea was that the US had to do something in the wake of 9/11 — that “something” turned out to be this catastrophic war on Iraq. The decision makers felt that invading Iraq was the right thing to do, and they talked themselves into it. Here is Mazarr, quoted by Greer; the emphases are Greer’s:
Such an approach to arriving at judgments allows us to see the Iraq decision for what it was: a creeping (or sudden and powerful) feeling that a given course of action was the right one, based on simple rules or convictions that were more moralistic or normative than analytical. And the fact that the decision had this character allows us to better understand many seemingly confusing aspects of it: the moralistic language that surrounded the policy process, the resistance to dissent, and the refusal to take risks seriously. Judgments undertaken in such a frame of mind have more of the cast of faith than of consequentialist decision-making, more in common with revelation than calculation. When people are applying sacred values, they come to have an almost thoughtless conviction in what they are doing. It is right—it feels right, from the depths of their well-honed intuitive judgment—and practical arguments have little place in such a thought process.
That is how we careened into the disaster of Iraq. And it is how we are careening into whatever far greater disaster awaits us around the bend. We can all look at what Putin is doing to Ukraine and be outraged by it, rightly so. But that does not mean that everything we might do to punish Russia for its unjust war is wise. Few people in positions of power seem to be thinking about that now — even though Russia is not a Third World power like Iraq. Instead, the consent-manufacturing machine is kicking up into overdrive, as Tucker Carlson and Tanner Greer say. Here is Greer, talking about the things the West is now doing to punish Russia:
One can make a convincing defense for any one of these measures. It is quite possible that all of them, combined with the other options now being discussed in Western capitals, will successfully blunt Russian aggression, strengthen NATO’s long term defense, or deter countries like China from repeating the Russian playbook in places like Taiwan. It is possible. Yet events are passing swift. The rapidly spiraling deployment of these policies does not suggest a carefully calculated campaign of pressure so much as a rushed attempt to meet the demands of our own moral imperatives.
The logic of the imperative has led the West into disaster before. We must be vigilant lest we blindly leap into catastrophe once again.
Read it all.Think about it. Though most Americans at this point don’t want the US to engage in direct military action with Russia over this, many of the people who lead us do not have our best interests at heart. And no matter what The New York Times, the Council on Foreign Relations, and Twitter allege, saying so does not make Vladimir Putin a good man.
“We came, we saw, he died, ha ha ha!” Hillary Clinton is no longer in government, but don’t doubt for one second that people with her mentality are the ones calling the shots. And the top media are in the same class. Glenn Greenwald is all over them:
Second NBC/MSNBC personality today, after @RichardEngel, to casually suggest that the US and NATO should brush off the risk of global nuclear annihilation to go militarily confront Russia directly over . . . Ukraine. https://t.co/EvEYH71f78
— Glenn Greenwald (@ggreenwald) February 28, 2022
Remember, by March 2003, most Americans supported war on Iraq.
Remember, by August 1914, most Europeans thought World War I was a good idea.
And if that kind of face-saving concession is unacceptable, would any lesser concession be satisfactory? Or is Putin’s outright humiliation the goal? Or would even that be insufficient? Must Putin (and his country) suffer punishment? And what would satisfy that demand? The country pushed into economic depression? Staggered by hyperinflation? Putin himself deposed in a coup and hauled before a tribunal in the Hague or left hanging from a lamp post?
It’s hard to say for sure because the West is still in reaction mode. Putin acts and we react. That’s gotten us as surprisingly far — much further than I thought likely. But now that we’ve proclaimed the principle (“this cannot stand”) and acted upon it in the form of crippling sanctions, we desperately need to begin thinking more than one move ahead.
Where’s Putin’s off-ramp? How can we point him in that direction and get him moving toward it? What would make us willing to grant sanctions relief? How can we keep an incredibly tense situation from entering an escalatory spiral that brings the whole world to brink of disaster?
If this pace of events continues, we may well know in the next few days.