Alexander Vindman makes similar complaints in a recent article for The Atlantic:And actions that might have — maybe — changed Putin’s calculus, such as deploying U.S. troops to Ukraine itself, were not ones Biden would consider.
Ruling out sending U.S. forces into a non-allied country is not a failure of any kind. It is one thing that Biden got absolutely right in this crisis. Biden would have had no right to commit the U.S. to fight for Ukraine, and putting American troops in Ukraine would have been more likely to inflame the situation since one of Moscow’s main objections was to the presence of Western military forces in Ukraine. Putting an American tripwire in Ukraine is unlikely to have deterred Putin from launching the attack, but it could easily have meant war between the U.S. and Russia.For instance, early in December, President Biden openly acknowledged that he would not send American troops to fight in Ukraine, thus removing any possibility of strategic ambiguity. The U.S. could have refused to elucidate its security commitments to Ukraine, much as it has done vis-à-vis Taiwan for decades. The implicit threat of U.S. and NATO intervention would have forced Putin to contend with the risks of further escalation. Instead, Biden granted Putin a free hand.
Relearning the Limits of American Power All Over Again
For these people, the problem is simply a lack of American will, as if the U.S. were omnipotent and the president wielded reality-altering powers.
The Russian invasion of Ukraine has prompted a lot of handwringing about how the Biden administration “failed” to prevent it. One example of this is a report by Nahal Toosi in Politico, which frames the issue this way:
Alexander Vindman makes similar complaints in a recent article for The Atlantic:
Ruling out sending U.S. forces into a non-allied country is not a failure of any kind. It is one thing that Biden got absolutely right in this crisis. Biden would have had no right to commit the U.S. to fight for Ukraine, and putting American troops in Ukraine would have been more likely to inflame the situation since one of Moscow’s main objections was to the presence of Western military forces in Ukraine. Putting an American tripwire in Ukraine is unlikely to have deterred Putin from launching the attack, but it could easily have meant war between the U.S. and Russia.
Vindman dismisses the fear of conflict with Russia as “misplaced” and asserts that “Russian leaders have zero desire for nuclear war, and they understand that they would inevitably lose in a conventional war.” That is quite an assumption when it comes to a war in Ukraine, since Russia has a large conventional military advantage on its doorstep. Even if Russian leaders have no desire for nuclear war, putting the U.S. and Russia on a collision course unnecessarily by putting U.S. troops in Ukraine could quickly lead to escalation that ends in just such a war. The question Vindman doesn’t answer is why that is an acceptable risk for the president of the United States to take for the sake of a country that the U.S. is not obliged to defend. He also doesn’t address why Russia would take seriously a U.S./NATO threat to fight for Ukraine when the alliance clearly lacks both the means and the will to do so.
When confronted by the clear limits of what the U.S. and the American presidency can do in this crisis, the response from many observers, including more than a few journalists and analysts who should know better, is that the U.S. could have done something militarily that would have resolved the crisis. Some have even invoked the example of the U.S.-led coalition to reverse the Iraqi invasion of Kuwait as a model for what should be happening now, as if that situation is remotely comparable to today. For these people, the problem is simply a lack of American will, as if the U.S. were omnipotent and the president wielded reality-altering powers. No responsible president could ignore that U.S./NATO military intervention in Ukraine would likely lead to a much larger conflict, and ruling out that option from the start has made it less likely that the war will widen. Whatever else one wants to say about Biden’s handling of the crisis, his decision to rule out U.S. military involvement from the start was clearly the right one.
This is why hawks love to talk about credibility: they wish to get that engine of conflict running and never let it stop.The problem is that this can help lead the empires into local commitments that are totally unjustifiable in their own terms. “Credibility” then becomes a self-generating engine of conflict, because the initial commitment increases the amount of “credibility” that will be lost if the United States subsequently withdraws or suffers defeat.
A proper analysis piece would point out that there are many people that have debunked this claim in the last few months. The idea that withdrawing from a conflict after 20 years, thousands of casualties suffered, and trillions of dollars spent signals “waning” resolve is absurd, but here it it treated as a serious interpretation that may be informing the thinking of the Russian government. Other states typically do not look at U.S. withdrawals from pointless peripheral wars as proof that the U.S. lacks resolve. It is much more common for them to marvel at American stubbornness and stupidity for staying in unwinnable wars for as long as the U.S. often does.Compounding the challenge for Mr. Biden is the possibility that Mr. Putin may perceive American weakness after Mr. Biden’s withdrawal from Afghanistan, which critics say signaled waning U.S. resolve overseas.
Withdrawing from Vietnam did not signal waning U.S. resolve. It finally signaled that the U.S. was wising up to the futility of the war. The same goes for Afghanistan, and for Iraq before that. Fighting wars for credibility is stupid, and continuing to fight them in the name of credibility when their costs far exceed any possible benefits is even stupider.Yet they are practically always wrong. Credibility is perhaps the most overinflated concept in international affairs. Contrary to the conventional wisdom, global leaders hardly obsess over America’s retreat from lost wars.
The U.S. has threatened additional severe economic sanctions in the event of Russian military action. No one doubts that the U.S. is willing and able to impose severe sanctions on Russia. This has already happened. The U.S. has heavily sanctioned Russia for most of the last decade, and Biden has added to them in his first year in office. So the issue here is not that the U.S. threat isn’t credible, but that the cost imposed by the sanctions may not be great enough to discourage Russia from military action. Whether the U.S. can “achieve outcomes” concerns the limits of U.S. power. It really has nothing to do with credibility at all.Richard Fontaine, the chief executive of the nonpartisan Center for a New American Security, said the standoff amounted to a test of American credibility.
“If the United States says, ‘Don’t do this, you will regret it, there will be very serious costs,’ and the Russians do it anyway, it does raise questions about America’s ability to achieve outcomes, at least in the Russian immediate periphery,” he said.
Stavridis can’t or won’t acknowledge that the circumstances surrounding the start of those conflicts. It complicates things significantly that the Georgian government bore significant responsibility for escalating the conflict that led to the Russian intervention in 2008. That conflict was preventable and it was mostly driven by the behavior of a reckless would-be client, and that client had been encouraged to think that the U.S. and its allies would come to their aid in a conflict. The dangerous promise of future NATO membership was part of that. While there was a fear at the time that Russian forces would not halt and might try to topple the Georgian government, the Russian advance halted and their forces then withdrew to the separatist territories. Invoking the 1930s and implying that the U.S. and its allies face something like Nazi-like aggression today ignore that previous Russian interventions have been relatively limited. No one has to approve of these actions to understand that we are not reliving 1938.“Vladimir Putin has invaded two democratic neighbors in just over a decade. Letting him do it a third time would set the global system back decades,” said James R. Stavridis, a retired four-star Navy admiral who served as the supreme allied commander at NATO. “Appeasement does not work any better now than it worked for Neville Chamberlain in the late 1930s.”
If you believed credibility hawks’ past claims, U.S. credibility ought to be completely gone by now, but somehow it is never seriously damaged later on. It is supposed to be constantly eroding, but also intact enough for it to be threatened by the next “failure” to go to war. Choosing not to bomb Syria in 2013 supposedly did great damage, as did withdrawing from Iraq in 2011. “Failing” to attack Iran after the Abqaiq strike was supposed to have done even more. The withdrawal from Afghanistan is the latest to be added to the litany.“Particularly in the aftermath of the disastrous withdrawal from Afghanistan and the Nord Stream 2 capitulation, U.S. credibility from Kyiv to Taipei cannot withstand another blow of this nature.”
This is the sort of simplistic and silly thinking that credibility hawks use all the time. They treat very different countries in different situations almost as if they were interchangeable widgets. If the U.S. doesn’t do X for Ukraine, that somehow implies that it won’t do X for Taiwan, but this is nonsense. The U.S. has a commitment to help Taiwan defend itself. The same is not true for Ukraine. U.S. interests in the two places are not identical. I would argue that the U.S. has vital interests in neither place, but Taiwan still arguably matters more to the U.S. than Ukraine does. The credibility of U.S. threats and promises depends on interests and capabilities. It does not depend on some sort of magical linkage between different cases.“China will be watching U.S. support to Ukraine, and it will inform their calculus regarding Taiwan,” Mr. Stavridis said.
Glaser’s quote is the only time that anything other than relentless hawkish spin is included in the “analysis.” Needless to say, the article does not include any quotes from critics of the hawkish credibility argument, and it does not acknowledge credibility hawks have led the U.S. into senseless and unnecessary wars in the past. All in all, the “news analysis” piece reads like fairly crude hawkish propaganda, and the Times does its readers and the American public a real disservice by publishing something this one-sided and inaccurate.“I think the Chinese would be ill-advised to assume that if the United States did not intervene militarily in a Ukraine crisis, that means the United States would not intervene militarily in a Taiwan crisis,” said Bonnie Glaser, the director of the Asia program at the German Marshall Fund of the United States. “They really are different.”