The Wrong Questions About Ukraine’s War

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Written By Pinang Driod

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American legislators demand scenarios for war termination that neither Ukraine nor the Biden administration can provide, because critics of Ukraine aid are asking the wrong questions.

First, here are three new stories from The Atlantic:

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Survival Is the Only Strategy

In my previous career, when I was teaching strategy and national-security affairs to U.S. military officers, we used historical case studies to analyze the decisions—some good, some disastrous—made by leaders in the United States and other nations. The specter of Vietnam and the still-painful wounds of Afghanistan and Iraq played a large role in the curriculum.

These open-ended conflicts in Asia and the Middle East convinced generations of American strategists that planning in every war, no matter how the conflict began, should include an “exit strategy.” I was required to teach this concept, but I have always vehemently disagreed with it, and I wish I could ban the term itself from the strategic lexicon. Exit strategies are the kind of thing that appeal to American hubris: Only very powerful countries, captured by the delusion that planning and firepower grant near-complete control of events, can afford to think about how to “exit” a war before it’s even been won.

For data-driven Americans who have internalized the middle-management tropes of business schools, the concept is pure catnip. Tell us what you need, how long this will last, and explain our return on investment—as if war were just another spreadsheet exercise. (“Return on investment” is another sensible business concept that too many in the defense community have clumsily tried to apply to national-security strategies.)

None of this is to say that nations should merely plunge ahead with military action on a whim. Especially for relatively small operations, “How will we know when we’re done?” is a crucial question. Sometimes the answer is clear, such as in the 1983 U.S. invasion of Grenada, when the goals were to rescue American citizens, depose a Marxist-Leninist regime, flush Cuban forces from the country, and hand the government over to new leaders. All of these objectives were achieved after combat operations that lasted approximately four days, with 19 Americans killed in action.

Only days earlier in 1983, however, the inability to answer the question of “Why are we here and when should we leave?” led to disaster in Lebanon. American military personnel, sent with unclear goals into a chaotic situation, ended up sitting around in a camp at the Beirut airport. A suicide bomber drove into the base and killed 220 Marines, 18 sailors, and three soldiers. The operation was such a mess that it has been taught as a case study at the Naval War College for years.

In an all-out war, when the stakes are much higher, questions about exit strategies become nonsensical, even inane. Imagine an American telling Winston Churchill during the Battle of Britain: “Prime Minister, if we’re going to send aid, we really need to know your exit strategy here.” Imagine calling Golda Meir in 1973, as Israel was reeling under a surprise attack by Egypt and Syria, and waffling about how we’d have to get back to her unless she could be just a smidge clearer on how the conflict might end.

That’s essentially what many critics of aid to Ukraine—especially in the Republican Party—are asking of President Joe Biden and Ukrainian President Volodymyr Zelensky.

I will leave aside the obvious bad faith involved in many of the GOP complaints about Ukraine. Some Republican legislators oppose aid purely to give Biden a public black eye. Others, as I wrote recently, are sucking up to the extreme wing of their own party, including more than a few who actually admire Russian President Vladimir Putin as some sort of white-Christian champion.

Other objections appear to be more grounded, but in the end make little sense. What does it mean, for example, to say that aid to Ukraine needs more “oversight”? The United States—in a policy I think wise—has placed limits on how American weapons can be used, but the Ukrainians are not going to be able to account for every shell and missile. Even the hyper-bureaucratized U.S. military doesn’t do that in the heat of battle, because war never works that way. In a note widely attributed to Britain’s Duke of Wellington (the man who would eventually defeat Napoleon), the famed general bristled at penny-pinching from his superiors back home while he was fighting on the Iberian Peninsula. “We are at war with France, a fact which may come as a bit of a surprise to you gentlemen in Whitehall,” he wrote in 1812.

This brings me to my present purpose, which is to request elucidation of my instructions from His Majesty’s Government so that I may better understand why I am dragging an army over these barren plains. I construe that perforce it must be one of two alternative duties, as given below. I shall pursue either one with the best of my ability, but I cannot do both: 1.To train an army of uniformed British clerks in Spain for the benefit of the accountants and copy-boys in London or perchance. 2. To see to it that the forces of Napoleon are driven out of Spain.

More than two centuries later, Republicans such as Senator J. D. Vance of Ohio seem to think it’s clever to haul off zingers about Ukrainian officials buying bigger yachts while America sends aid. (Senator Thom Tillis, Vance’s Republican colleague from North Carolina, described Vance’s accusation directly and fragrantly: “Total and unmitigated bullshit.”) But if we’re really going to obsess about return on investment, aid to Ukraine might count as one of the most devastatingly efficient and effective defense expenditures of American treasure in the history of the republic.

The U.S. intelligence community, in a newly declassified report to Congress, estimates that Russia has lost 87 percent of the total number of active-duty ground troops that it had prior to launching its invasion of Ukraine—and note that this does not mean “men sent into battle” but nearly nine-tenths of its entire army—and two-thirds of its preinvasion inventory of tanks.

The United States has so far provided military aid to Ukraine that amounts to roughly a tenth of its total annual defense budget. In return, one of America’s most dangerous enemies has sacrificed almost all of its existing soldiers and the bulk of its armor. The courage of the Ukrainian people and the valor of their armed forces have accomplished all of this without a single American soldier being ordered into battle. And yet Republicans want to depict this astonishing achievement as a budgetary strain that makes America less safe.

Despite the clear impact of American aid, critics continue to ask: How does it all end? For Ukraine, the only exit strategy is survival, just as it was for Britain in 1940 or Israel in 1973. The Ukrainians will keep fighting, because the alternative is the enslavement and butchery of the Ukrainian people, and the end of Ukraine as a nation. The Russians are the people who need an exit strategy. But as long as some in the GOP keep giving Putin the hope that he can outlast the West—and as long as Russian parents keep handing Putin their sons to burn on the pyre of his ego and delusions—this war will go on.

The Kremlin will stay the course. So should we, for as long as it takes to ensure the survival of Ukraine and the security of Europe, the United States, and the world.

Related:

  • Will America abandon Ukraine?
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Today’s News

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Dispatches

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Evening Read

Illustration by Paul Spella. Sources: Hulton Archive / Getty; Gamma-Keystone / Getty.

The Rise and Fall of the ‘IBM Way’

By Deborah Cohen

IBM is one of the oldest technology companies in the world, with a raft of innovations to its credit, including mainframe computing, computer-programming languages, and AI-powered tools. But ask an ordinary person under the age of 40 what exactly IBM does (or did), and the responses will be vague at best. “Something to do with computers, right?” was the best the Gen Zers I queried could come up with. If a Millennial knows anything about IBM, it’s Watson, the company’s prototype AI system that prevailed on Jeopardy in 2011 …

Today, as we hurtle toward a future in which AI threatens to obliterate the individual both as employee and creator, much of the IBM story reads like a tale from a faraway world. The company’s technological accomplishments are still recognizable as the forerunners of the digital era, yet its culture of social responsibility—a focus on employees rather than shareholders, restraint in executive compensation, and investment in anti-poverty programs—proved a dead end. A mashup of progressivism and paternalism, communalism and cutthroat competition, the once ballyhooed “IBM Way” was, for better and worse, inextricably intertwined with the family at the top.

Read the full article.

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Katherine Hu contributed to this newsletter.

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