How the U.S. Lost the Ukraine War

Russian forces meeting 'strong and wide' Ukraine resistance | Russia-Ukraine  war News | Al Jazeera

The effect of Western sanctions may cause historians of the future to look upon the conflict in Ukraine as a net defeat for Russia. In terms of the military struggle itself, however, Russia is winning.

Watching American and European news coverage, you might ask yourself how can that be? It comes down to war aims. Russia has them. They are achievable.

The United States doesn’t have any.

“As the war in Ukraine grinds through its third month,” the Washington Post reports, “the Biden administration has tried to maintain a set of public objectives that adapt to changes on the battlefield and stress NATO unity, while making it clear that Russia will lose, even as Ukraine decides what constitutes winning. But the contours of a Russian loss remain as murky as a Ukrainian victory.”

War aims are a list of what one side in a military conflict hopes to achieve at its conclusion.

There are two kinds.

The first type of war aim is propaganda for public consumption. An overt war aim can be vague, as when President Woodrow Wilson urged Americans to enter World War I in order to “make the world safe for democracy” (whatever that meant) or specific, like FDR’s demand for the “unconditional surrender” of the Axis powers. A specific, easily measured, metric is better.

            Covert war aims are goals that political and military leaders are really after. A covert war aim must be realistic. For example, contrary to the long-standing belief that he viewed the outbreak of the Korean war as an irritating distraction, Stalin approved of and supported North Korea’s invasion of the South in 1950. He didn’t care if North Korea captured territory. He wanted to drag the United States into a conflict that would diminish its standing in Asia and distract it from the Cold War in Europe. The Soviet ruler died knowing that, whatever the final outcome, he had won.

            A publicly-stated war aim tries to galvanize domestic support, which is especially necessary when fighting a proxy war (Ukraine) or war of choice (Iraq). But you can’t win a war when your military and political leaders are unable to define, even to themselves behind closed doors, what winning looks like.

America’s biggest military debacles occurred after primary objectives metastasized. In Vietnam both the publicly-stated and actual primary war aim was initially to prevent the attempted overthrow of the government of South Vietnam and to prevent the spread of socialism, the so-called Domino Theory. Then the U.S. wanted to make sure that soldiers who had died at the beginning of the war hadn’t died in vain. By the end, the war was about leveraging the safe return of POWs. A recurring theme of accounts by soldiers in the jungle as well as top strategists at the Pentagon is that, before long, no one knew why we were over there.

Again, in Afghanistan after 2002, war aims kept changing. Mission creep expanded from the goal of defeating Al Qaeda to apprehending Osama bin Laden to building infrastructure to establishing democracy to improving security to using the country as a base for airstrikes against neighboring Pakistan. By 2009 the Pentagon couldn’t articulate what it was trying to accomplish. In the end, the U.S. did nothing but stave off the inevitable defeat and collapse of its unpopular Afghan puppet regime.

Clear war aims are essential to winning. Reacting to his experience in Vietnam, the late General Colin Powell led U.S. forces to victory in the first Gulf War with his doctrine that a successful military action enjoys strong domestic political support, is fought by a sufficient number of troops and begins with a clear military and political objective that leads to a quick exit. After Saddam Hussein’s forces were routed from Kuwait, George H.W. Bush ignored advisers who wanted to expand the conflict into Iraq. America’s mission accomplished, there was a tickertape parade down Broadway, the end.

The U.S. too often involves itself in foreign conflicts without declaring clear war aims—or even knowing themselves what they are. In Korea, Vietnam, Afghanistan and Iraq, unclear or shifting war aims led to endless escalation followed by fatigue on the home front, declining popular will and defeat. Our involvement in the proxy conflicts in Yemen and Syria also have the character of forever wars, though American voters won’t pay much attention as long as the cost is limited to taxpayer dollars rather than their sons and daughters.

I wrote a piece in 2001 titled “How We Lost Afghanistan.” Given that the U.S. had just overthrown the Taliban, it was cheekily counterintuitive. But I was looking at the Afghan war from the Afghan perspective, which is why I was right and the mainstream media was wrong. I see a similar situation unfolding in Ukraine. We are so misled by our cultural biases that we fail to understand the Russian point of view. The U.S. failure to articulate war aims stems from arrogance. We think we’re so rich and powerful that we can beat anyone, even if our strategy is half-assed and we don’t understand politics on the other side of the planet, where the war is.

President Joe Biden’s approach to Ukraine appears to boil down to: let’s throw more money and weapons into this conflict and hope it helps.

That’s not a strategy. It’s a prayer.

Biden says he wants to preserve Ukraine as a sovereign state and defend its territory. But how much territory? How much sovereignty? Would Biden accept continued autonomy for the breakaway republics in the Dombas? The White House appears unwilling to escalate by supporting an attempt to expel Russian forces from eastern Ukraine, much less Crimea—where they are welcomed by a population dominated by ethnic Russians. Short of a willingness to risk nuclear war, the likely ultimate outcome of the U.S. position will be a Korea-like partition into western and eastern zones. A divided Ukraine would create a disputed border—which would disqualify a rump Ukrainian application to join NATO.

Russia’s primary demand is that Ukraine not join NATO. If America’s goal winds up resolving the main reason President Vladimir Putin invaded Ukraine, why is the U.S. involved? A war aim that neatly aligns with one’s adversary’s is grounds for peace talks, not fighting.

Defense Secretary Lloyd Austin recently added a second Ukraine war aim: “We want to see Russia weakened to the degree that it can’t do the kinds of things that it has done in invading Ukraine.” Weakened to what extent? Reduced to a failed state? Mildly inconvenienced? Not only is the policy dangerous, it fails to define a clear objective.

Russia, on the other hand, has secured its allies in the autonomous republics and created a buffer zone to protect them. Crimea will remain annexed to Russia. NATO membership for Ukraine, a chimera to begin with, is now a mere fever dream. Unlike the U.S., the Russians declared their objectives and achieved the important ones.

(Ted Rall (Twitter: @tedrall), the political cartoonist, columnist and graphic novelist, is the author of a new graphic novel about a journalist gone bad, “The Stringer.” Order one today. You can support Ted’s hard-hitting political cartoons and columns and see his work first by sponsoring his work on Patreon.)

Holding Invaders Accountable

The United States doesn’t have much moral high ground to criticize Russia’s incursion into Ukraine considering the fact that it constantly violates the sovereignty of other independent nations with drone attacks, airstrikes, CIA coups and outright invasions and occupations.

Takes a Killer to Know One

In an interview President Biden called Russian president Vladimir Putin a “killer.” Obviously it takes one to know one, but what if you’re not mentally aware enough to know yourself?

If Anyone Else Had Done This, Bombs Would Be Raining down

A long awaited report about the murder of Jamal Khashoggi, the Washington Post journalist who was butchered in a Saudi consulate in Istanbul, places the blame for the murder squarely on the ruling crown prince. If it were any other country, this would be an act of war.

When You Find out You’ve Been Doing Terrorism Wrong

It was astonishing to watch hapless Capitol Police not only be easily overwhelmed by a mostly unarmed rabble as they invaded the Capitol building, but some police so clearly ideologically aligned with the protesters who wanted to reverse the election in favor of Trump that they moved gates aside to let them pass and took selfies with them.

Delay the Election? Presidents Often Do Things They Can’t Do

Trump Won't Steal the Election, but Your Governor Might | The NationThe stock response to President Donald Trump’s suggestion that the general election might be delayed because voting during a pandemic would involve a record number of mail-in ballots, a format he argues is unreliable and susceptible to fraud, is that he doesn’t have that power.

NBC News is typical: “The president has no power to delay an election.” [Emphasis is mine.]

What the president understands, and most mainstream commentators fail to accept, is that it is easier to ask for forgiveness than to get permission. That goes double when the powers in question are limited by a document that lies in tatters, repeatedly ignored.

            Liberal politicians and news outlets point out that the Constitution assigns the scheduling of elections exclusively to Congress. Republicans tepidly (and troublingly) stopped short of denying Trump’s power to push back the big day, while insisting that the election ought to take place on time. “Never in the history of this country, through wars, depressions and the Civil War, have we ever not had a federally scheduled election on time. We will find a way to do that again this November 3rd,” Senate Majority Leader Mitch McConnell said.

In an era of rampant cynicism it is sweetly naïve and the amusingly charming to see Americans put so much faith into the constitutional checks and balances they learn about in high school civics class. “‘Trump can’t delay the election,’ experts say,” reads a headline in The Washington Post.

            Since when has a 221-year-old piece of paper stopped presidents from doing anything?

I think first of war powers. Article 1, Section 8 of the U.S. Constitution clearly states that the right “to declare war” resides exclusively with Congress. Such key founders as George Washington, James Madison, Thomas Jefferson and Alexander Hamilton—men whose right to define original intent can hardly be questioned—believed that presidents could not dispatch troops without legislative approval except in cases of immediate self-defense. Congress signed off on sending soldiers and sailors to the Quasi-War with France in 1798, naval conflicts with the Barbary States of Tripoli and Algiers, and clashes with Native American tribes in the West.

Congress has since abdicated its war-making powers to the executive branch. Congress hasn’t issued a formal declaration since World War II. Yet we have fought countless wars. Presidents have launched military attacks against Korea, Vietnam, Libya, Grenada, Lebanon, Panama, Serbia, Syria, Iraq and Afghanistan. Some of these wars of aggression were legalistically constructed as “police actions” or “peacekeeping missions” under the aegis of the UN. The fact remains, this is not what the drafters of the Constitution intended. And it has never been amended. Presidents do what they want; lawyers twist logic to justify their illegal slaughters.

President Abraham Lincoln earns democracy points for holding the 1864 election during the Civil War. Yet he suspended habeas corpus and ignored a ruling by the chief justice of the U.S. Supreme Court saying that he didn’t have the power to do so. George W. Bush’s Military Commissions Act of 2006 also suspended habeas, for anyone the U.S. government arbitrarily defined as an “enemy combatant.” Until the Supreme Court ruled against him two years later, Congress was complicit with the MCA. Even after the court ruling, the internment facility at Guantánamo Bay remains open; 40 men remain there, not one of whom has ever been charged or tried under basic constitutional standards.

FDR almost certainly didn’t have the constitutional right to send 127,000 Japanese-Americans to internment camps during World War II. Yet he did.

From domestic surveillance by the NSA that violates the agency’s founding charter to asset forfeiture programs that allow the police to seize money and property from people who have never been charged, much less convicted of a crime, Americans live in a society oppressed by a political class that takes no notice of constitutional limits it deems inconvenient.

Does the president have the legal right to delay an election? No.

Does he have the power? Yes, unless We The People refuse to accept it.

(Ted Rall (Twitter: @tedrall), the political cartoonist, columnist and graphic novelist, is the author of the biography “Political Suicide: The Fight for the Soul of the Democratic Party.” You can support Ted’s hard-hitting political cartoons and columns and see his work first by sponsoring his work on Patreon.)

Where’s Your Football, Lucy?

President Trump’s order to withdraw American troops who created a buffer zone between Turkey and Kurdish-controlled areas of Iraq was a controversial movie seen as a betrayal of a long-time American ally. But there’s a long history of US forces making extravagant promises to local forces, then withdrawing and leaving them to the wolves.

Trump’s Foreign Policy: Hated by Pundits But Popular with Voters

Image result for doha peace talks afghanistan

President Trump keeps coming under attack for his foreign policy, predictably by Democrats but also by legacy Republican leaders.

“I’m very concerned,” Senator James Inhofe (R-OK), chairman of the Senate Armed Services Committee, said about Trump’s plans to bring troops home from the Middle East.

“It makes it abundantly clear that we are headed towards a series of grave policy errors which will endanger our nation, damage our alliances and empower our adversaries,” said Marco Rubio.

Trump’s late-2018 announcement that he planned to withdraw 2000 US troops from the meatgrinder of Syria’s brutal civil war prompted bipartisan dismay. Next the new Doha peace framework to end US involvement in Afghanistan had   establishment politicos and pundits reviving their hoary, false canard that America’s “abandonment” of Afghanistan after the Soviets withdrew in 1989 led to 9/11. Now he’s getting attacked for trying to reach a nuclear disarmament deal with North Korea (possible bonus: a formal end to the Korean War).

Deescalation? Why, that could cause peace! What could be a more dangerous threat to American interests?

Meanwhile, Trump is still in Syria. He’s expanded Obama’s drone assassinations. He wants to spend even more on defense. The pro-war wise men of the media have zero problem with hawkishness, no matter how stupid or immoral.

Conventional wisdom holds that this criticism will cost Trump. I disagree. While the president’s America First foreign policy has no constituency within the leadership caste of either party, it has one he cares about more: the voters.

Interestingly, a high percentage of Americans (65%) disapprove of Trump’s handling of international affairs generically. No doubt they’ve been influenced by “Trump is a child on foreign stuff” coverage.

Yet when it comes to specifics, Americans mostly approve of his moves to deescalate tensions overseas and reduce foreign entanglements.

77% of Americans approved of the first summit between Trump and Kim. 54% thought it went well. That’s significantly more than the portion of Americans who approved of his presidency in general, indicating that on this issue he enjoyed support from many Democrats.

Support for withdrawing troops from Syria is close to 50-50, not stellar yet significantly better than his overall mid-40s approval rating.

Afghanistan is a no-brainer for the president. Most Americans want immediate withdrawal and a whopping 70% say that we never should have invaded in the first place.

Trump’s disentanglement policies are popular. The reason that his overall numbers on international matters run low has more to do with the tone and image he projects than the policies he has promulgated. People like what he’s doing but not how he looks and sounds as he does it.

Trump got elected in large part by ignoring GOP dogma and selling his ideas directly to the American people. Voters were tired of an immigration crisis created and prolonged by both parties and they were angry about deindustrialization and vicious “free trade.” Trump’s proposed solutions—the Wall and a trade war—might not be intelligent or effective. But he addressed both issues when others, especially Hillary Clinton, would not. Voters prefer a president who does something stupid to fix a problem to one who pretends it doesn’t exist.

With foreign policy, Trump is trying to pull off a similar trick as he did with domestic issues in 2016: addressing the “endless war” problem that spun out of control under Bush. If not for Trump neither major party would have touched a Pentagon with so many bases abroad it can’t give you an exact number. The question for 2020 is whether voters — who traditionally decide how to vote based on the state of the economy — will give Trump credit for nibbling at the edges of America’s militaristic bloat.

(Ted Rall (Twitter: @tedrall), the political cartoonist, columnist and graphic novelist, is the author of “Francis: The People’s Pope.” You can support Ted’s hard-hitting political cartoons and columns and see his work first by sponsoring his work on Patreon.)