Putin’s madness in Ukraine

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The United States Department of Defense could more aptly be named the United States Department of War, as it was called until 1949. As a subdivision of the executive branch, it’s designed to impose diplomacy upon intransigent countries that would believe the sword is mightier than the pen.

The appellation, Department of Defense (DOD), connotes a sane, yet innate, reluctance to execute armed struggle for a nation that will only act militarily when attacked and for one that never aggresses.

This is patently incorrect.

0 (1)The United States’ strategic interests are not only defined by who, what and where we are attacked, but by a variety of tangible or intangible intersecting needs that are of concern. The Department of Defense could best be defined as the crazy wing of diplomacy, whereby if anyone messes with the United States’ interests, the military will counter craziness with madness and reek all Hell on the enemy.

The problem lies when your enemy is crazier than you are. The Japanese Kamikaze pilots were so effective, not because they successfully blew up ships, but because they psychologically wore down their adversaries.

Even using freedom as an excuse for a fight isn’t convincing enough. The United States didn’t defend Hungary from the Soviets, nor did we defend Poland from the Germans. Those fights weren’t compelling enough for the West to become engaged. The West strikes most effectively when the fight is clear and simple, not a mushy diplomatic miasma of abstract notions of freedom mixed with democracy. A military conflict should only occur for a clear national interest when all diplomatic avenues have been exhausted, and the goals should be firm, simple and winnable.

Such was the case with the First Gulf War in 1991. After Saddam Hussein invaded the neighboring nation of Kuwait, with its vital oil and Arab political interests, then Secretary of State James Baker developed a 34-nation alliance to liberate Kuwait from Iraq in 1991. George H. W. Bush declared that the task was not to defend freedom or overthrow a dictator, but to accomplish the simple goals stated. Nothing personal.

War is merely a means of diplomacy, not visa-versa. But as the military designations, defense and war are inverted, so are the hierarchical budgets of necessity between the military and diplomacy, or between DoD and DoS. Whereas the Department of Defense (DoD), gets a budget of more than $600 billion a year, the DoS, receives $48 billion annually. DoS should get a priority in funding, not less than 1/10th of the DoD budget.

Inverted budgets twist our priorities in strange ways. The DoD has become a primary diplomatic tool, such as when the United States invaded Iraq again in 2003. State diplomacy was reduced to a personal boxing match between George W. Bush and Saddam Hussein.

Terrorism was declared the ostensible bogeyman, but Iraq had nothing to do with al Qaeda and never did. Whereas Iraq was a secular dictatorship hostile to religion, al Qaeda was a terrorist organization fixated on a peculiar and strange vision of Islam. However George W. Bush was obsessed with the supposed failure of his father who didn’t complete the so-called task of defeating Iraq in 1991 and the struggle with Saddam Hussein became deeply personal.

The father was a career diplomat who saw his Iraq invasion as merely a military extension of diplomacy. The son, strangely ignorant of world affairs, believed that an invasion and overthrow of the Saddam Hussein regime would demonstrate his credentials as a “military President.”

Mission Accomplished? (Wikipedia)
Mission Accomplished? (Wikipedia)

Out of the rubble, he believed, democracy would miraculously spring like colorful wildflowers appearing out of freshly tilled soil. Call it Fruit Loop Diplomacy, or just plain stupid. Wishful thinking and magical realism is best left to novelists, not diplomats or diplomacy, heads of state or worse, a Commander-in-Chief. Crazy isn’t stupid.

Between success and failure, the two Iraq invasions provide a tragic study in contrasts. The First Iraq War was rapid and decisive and had less than 300 coalition troops killed. The Second Iraq War was a dilemma wrapped in a delusion of “mission accomplished”, or an illusion of success that killed more than 4,000 American troops and more than 500,000 Iraqis.

George W. Bush was keen to propose the Federal Marriage Amendment to the United States Constitution, which would have banned gays from wedlock, and it inspired me to consider an alternative amendment to the Constitution, which would mitigate the chances of another Trillion Dollar Debacle (TDD) ever again: the Federal Service Officer Test Amendment. It should not be enough that a United States President be a natural born citizen, nor that he is at least 35 years of age, but he should take and pass the Foreign Service Officer Test (FSOT) to qualify as a candidate for the Presidency of the United States.

If the lowest level diplomat must take the FSOT in order to work for the Department of State, why not the highest level diplomats? Not only is the President of the United States (POTUS) immune from such scrutiny, so are politically appointed ambassadors. It is shameful that President Obama’s recent ambassadorial appointments to Hungary, New Zealand and Argentina are as unqualified as they are for prime diplomatic appointments. The Ambassador to Argentina, Noah Bryson Mamet, has never even been to the country he is assigned to work with.

Senator John McCain cut off George Tsunis, the new US Ambassador to Norway, after beginning to spew Norway nonsense: “You get some fringe elements that have a microphone and spew their hatred. … And I will tell you Norway has been very quick to denounce them.”

Yea right whatever. When such political donors and bundlers are given preference over career diplomats with lifetimes of dedication and knowledge, our national attitude toward the DoS must change.

Not so with the DoD. Whereas its budget is so bloated that it is larger than the next ten largest military budgets combined, the officer corps is generally immune from the type of nepotism the DoS suffers from.

This wasn’t always the case with the Department of War.

Ukraine crisis biggest standoff since the Cold War. (Wikipedia)
Biggest standoff since the Cold War. (Wikipedia)

During the Civil War, President Abraham Lincoln suffered the incompetence of political generals, such as Butler, Banks, Frémont, McClernand and Sigel, and their incompetence prolonged the fight much longer than it had to be. Frustrated by a string of ineffective generals, Abraham Lincoln found an otherwise unknown General in Ulysses S. Grant, who’s chief sin seemed to be that he drank too much. Lincoln quipped, “If it [drink] makes fighting men like Grant, then find out what he drinks, and send my other commanders a case!”

After the war, the military reformed itself in the wake of disaster. And while our military officers are by necessity politically savvy, they are not necessarily savvy politically. Witness General Eric Shinseki, who had the temerity to publically clash with Secretary of Defense Donald Rumsfeld about the troop level needed to secure post-war Iraq with “something in the order of several hundred thousand soldiers.”

Shinseki was dismissed for his honesty and history proved him correct.

While the budget of the DoS is pitifully tiny and whereas as some of President Obama’s ambassadorial appointments are questionable at best, his Secretary of State, John Forbes Kerry is presently demonstrating with our face-off with Russian President Vladimir Putin how invaluable an innovative, knowledgeable and truly capable Secretary of State truly is.

The conflict in Ukraine is a military dead-end for the United States, and Putin knows it. The more we rattle our swords, the more Putin is emboldened toward saber-rattling. In the simple game of threats and warnings, it is a no-win situation for the US. Militarily, Putin is crazy, and the United States isn’t. The Crimea is not the Latin American sphere of influence covered by the Monroe Doctrine. For Russia, the Ukraine is in their realm, even if it is a sovereign nation. In the Ukraine, Putin threatens and Obama warns, Putin acts and Putin wins.

Secretary of State John Kerry is providing a vital and viable diplomatic dimension to a difficult and likely intractable situation. He is turning the equation from a win-win for Putin attacking, to a perhaps costly conflict for his naked armed aggression. Not only is Kerry threatening a boycott of the G-8 Summit, but he said Putin risks being tossed from the G-8 altogether, and on top of that, he ominously threatened a “tumble of the Ruble.”

These are no idle threats, isolating Russia diplomatically and financially, but they may not be enough to sway Putin from his Crimean quest.

USSR-price_of_oitPutin invested many tens of billions of dollars to put on a spectacular Winter Olympics extravaganza and he didn’t do so for isolation. The collapse of the Soviet Union had less to do with the military might of the United States over the USSR and more to do with the precipitous collapse of the price of oil from more than $70 per barrel in 1980 to $20 by 1990.

Putin complained, “The collapse of the Soviet Union was the biggest geopolitical catastrophe of the century.”

Russia’s economy, almost solely dependent on oil revenues, cannot sustain an economic embargo and collapse of the ruble. Putin knows it and John Kerry called his bluff.

Kerry’s diplomacy is the best chance the West has to reverse Putin’s invasion, if it is reversible. Twice, John Kerry has rescued President Obama from a potential military quagmire and catastrophe.

As an unidentified former US intelligence officer in the Daily Beast said, “Putin throws banana peels on the ground, and Obama manages to slip on every one of them. I’ve never seen anything like it.” (It’s not important that the United States would win any military conflict with Putin, but the price of battle would be steep.)

Several months earlier in Syria, President Obama foolishly proclaimed a “red line” if Syria’s President, Bashar al-Assad (a Russian ally), used chemical weapons against it’s populous. Syria promptly used chemical weapons and it looked like we found ourselves in a potential war with Syria.

When asked of Syria’s use of chemical weapons, Kerry promptly replied, “Sure. He [Bashar al-Assad ] could turn over every single bit of his chemical weapons to the international community in the next week. Turn it over, all of it, without delay, and allow a full and total accounting for that. But he isn’t about to do it, and it can’t be done, obviously.”

The Washington, DC press corps laughed it off as a “gaffe”, yet John Kerry saved the United States from another disastrous war.

In any age, there are bad actors on the international stage, whether it is the Emperor Hirohito or Joseph Stalin. Vladimir Putin hasn’t purged tens of thousands of people, such as Stalin did, not because he wouldn’t have if he felt he needed to, but would have to gain something.

Putin should have Georgia on his  mind. (Wikipedia)
Putin should have Georgia on his mind. (Wikipedia)

He murdered selected dissidents, critics and journalists when it has suited him, but mass slaughter and war are not necessarily practical. He invaded Georgia with impunity, but Ukraine is becoming costly. The G-8 looks like it may become the G-7 once again, and Putin will then have to retreat to his alliances with China, Syria, and Iran. That isn’t as glamorous for a head of a state hosting a spectacular $40 billion winter Olympics. Nor is it good for his senior aides, who could end up on a no-fly visa list to the West.

President Putin has gambled he can capture the Crimean Peninsula with intimidation and threats. He believes he can listen to President Obama’s Oval Office extortions one day and use his forces to surround a Crimean naval base the next. He is a bad-ass statesman, who might get away with almost anything. The world’s most powerful military is rendered almost useless in his machinations. Putin has met military pressures from elsewhere and replies with action near his home. His pugilistic mind is set in 1858, when the British Light Brigade charged the Russians in the Crimean Peninsula and lost a third of their men. It inspired French Marshal Pierre Bosquet to state, “C’est de la folie” (it is madness).

Sometimes madness is best met with madness. Putin’s brinkmanship conjures up a Nash equilibrium, or a non-cooperative game better known as the game of chicken. As John Forbes Nash, Jr. proved with game theory, when two cars are careening toward each other, each dedicated to the other swerving, sometimes the best tactic is to be crazier than one’s opponent and toss the steering wheel out the window.

Putin figures he can outwit the West, demonstrating his brand of craziness and madness in one charming and intimidating package. As John Forbes Nash, Jr. demonstrated, craziness is the most rational form of fighting, but Secretary of State John Forbes Kerry also proved that diplomacy can sometimes be more effective than guns. While Putin may be willing and able to push this highly dangerous situation to the limit rather than concede, Putin didn’t count on a multi-dimensional match where steel and guns are met with diplomacy and the prospect of financial ruin.