By Matt Taibbi / Substack
Joe Biden last week said the American response in Ukraine would be proportional to Vladimir Putin’s actions. “It depends,” the president posited, thoughts drifting like blobs in a lava lamp. “It’s one thing if it’s a minor incursion…”
Alarms sounded all over Washington. The rip in the national political illusion was so severe, Republicans and Democrats were forced to come out agreeing, leaping into each other’s arms in panic. Secretary of State Tony Blinken, who increasingly looks like a man about to miss a historically important free throw, said of a potential Russian invasion, “We can make crystal clear the stark consequences of that choice.” Republican Senator Ted Cruz said Biden “shocked the world by giving Putin a green light to invade Ukraine.” The National Security Council issued a statement through Jen Psaki that any Russian move into Ukraine would be “met with a swift, severe, and united response.”
In a later press conference, Biden explained he had to cut things short because, “You guys will ask me all about Russia.” He appears days from pulling his pants down to show reporters the electrodes White House chief of staff Ron Klain has probably attached to his testicles by now.
The fact is that Ukraine, which is a non-Nato country, is going to be vulnerable to military domination by Russia no matter what we do… This is an example of where we have to be very clear about what our core interests are and what we are willing to go to war for.
Then as now, both blue and red propaganda outlets howled. The “core interest” of the Washington consensus is war. It isn’t just big business, but our biggest business, one of the last things we still make and export on a grand scale. The bulk of the people elected to congress and a lion’s share of the lobbyists, lawyers, and journalists who snuggle in a giant fornicating mass in the capital are dedicated to the upkeep of the war bureaucracy.
Their main purpose is growing the defense budget and militarizing the missions of other government agencies (from State to the Department of Energy to the CIA). Washington think-tanks exist to factory-generate intellectual justifications for foreign interventions, while attacking with ferocity — as if they were emergencies like pandemics or deadly hurricanes — the appearance of ideas like the “peace dividend” that threaten to move any of their rice bowls to some other constituency.
Both Biden’s comments and the “Obama doctrine” were fundamental betrayals, presidents saying out loud that there existed such a thing as “our” interests separate from Washington’s war pig clique. The latter group somehow believes itself impervious to error, and takes extraordinary offense to challenges to its judgment, amazing given the spectacular failures in every arena from Iraq to Afghanistan to Syria.
These people consistently lose popularity contests to cannibals and fingernail-pullers, and their playbook — one play they run over and over, never deviating despite decades of disaster — is designed to reduce every foreign policy situation to contests of force. Their wag-the-dog thinking always argues the right move is the one that allows them to empty their boxes of expensive toys, from weapons systems to Langley-generated schemes for overthrows, which a compliant press happily calls regime change.
Obama looked at the big, muddy stretch of land atop the Black Sea called Ukraine and asked if its strategic importance was worth war. Meaning, real war, with an enemy that can fight back, not third-world pushovers in Iraq or Libya who offer as much resistance as the British colonial enemies Blackadder’s officers once described as being “two feet tall and armed with dried grass.” His answer was an obvious no. Ukraine has less strategic importance to the United States than Iraq, Afghanistan, even Kuwait for that matter.
No one will say it out loud, but the greatest argument against U.S. support for military action of any kind in Ukraine is the inerrant incompetence of our missions and the consistent record of destabilizing areas of strategic interest through our involvement, including in these two specific countries. At the moment the Berlin Wall fell the United States had almost limitless political capital with these soon-to-be ex-Soviet territories. We blew it all within a few years. Now that we’re really in trouble in Ukraine, why would we keep to the same playbook that got us here?
Our plan with every foreign country that falls into our orbit is the same. We ride in as saviors, throwing loans in all directions to settle debts (often to us), then let it be known the country’s affairs will henceforth be run through our embassy. Since we’re ignorant of history and have long viewed diplomats too in sync with local customs as liabilities, we tend to fill our embassies with people who have limited sense of the individual character of host countries, their languages, or the attitudes of people outside the capital.
Instead of devising individual policies, we go through identical processes of receiving groups of local politicians seeking our backing. We throw our weight behind the courtiers we like best. The winning supplicants are usually Western educated, speak great English, know how to flatter drunk diplomats, and are fluent in neoliberal wonk-speak.
We back Our Men in Havana to the hilt, no matter how corrupt they may become in their rule, a process we call “democracy promotion.” The cycle is always ends the same way, whether we’re talking about Hamid Karzai or Ayad Allawi or Boris Yeltsin. The white hat ally turns out to be either overmatched or a snake, usually the latter, and siphons off Western aid to himself and his cronies in huge quantities while smashing opposition by any means necessary. That brutality and corruption, combined with efforts to implement our structural adjustment policies (read: austerity, and the de-nationalization of natural resources) inevitably results in loss of popular support and/or the rise of opposition movements on the right, the left, or both.
Rising discontent in turn inspires further requests from the puppet for security aid, which we happily provide, since that ultimately is the whole point: selling weapons to foreigners to fill those Washington rice bowls. You will soon hear it in the form of increased calls for defense spending amid the Ukraine mess, but we’ve been at it forever.
We started selling drones to “allies” under Obama and escalated the practice under Trump with billions in sales to peaceful democratic havens like the UAE, who had already used them to massacre civilian populations, children included, in Yemen. We continued escalating such sales under Biden, adding countries like Qatar to our list of excellent customers in part with the idea of using the country as a base for “over-the-horizon” strikes in an Afghanistan bereft of “boots on the ground.” Even after our disastrous wars finish, we find ways to continue them.
This is relevant to Russia and Ukraine because we’ve cycled through at least half of the usual failure process with both countries. Just a couple of decades ago we essentially controlled the Kremlin, but so completely mismanaged that situation with aggressive backing of a notoriously corrupt Yeltsin regime that Vladimir Putin was able to consolidate power with widespread backing of a public initially much disposed to us. Ukraine we treated as a pawn nation from the start, backing a series of leaders who shamelessly looted the country before forcing them into a miserable Sophie’s Choice, about which the American public still knows little.
In 2013, Ukraine was proceeding down a path of integration into the E.U. Paul Manafort client Viktor Yanukovich, always described in America as an outright puppet of Moscow, was actually a proponent of Euro-integration at this point. “Yanukovich cajoled and bullied anyone who pushed for Ukraine to have closer ties to Russia” is how Reuters correspondent Liz Piper described his attitude, quoting him as saying to those wanting to go back to Russia’s arms, “Forget about it.. forever!” But Putin’s ferocious tactics, including intense economic and military threats, pushed Yanukovich to back out of the EU deal, and take instead an economic trade package with Russia that included $15 billion and the lowering by a third the price the country paid for natural gas from Russia.
This, in turn, spurred a Western response via the “Maidan revolution,” really a U.S.-backed coup, in which Yanukovich was replaced with someone more suitable to our foreign policy geniuses. “Yats is our guy” is how our current undersecretary for political affairs Victoria Nuland put it, insisting that Arseniy Yatsenuk be Ukraine’s next leader, even though Ukrainians might have preferred former boxer Vitaly Klitschko. When apprised some of the E.U. countries were uncomfortable with a coup, Nuland famously said, “Fuck the E.U.” Forget gunboats, here was F-bomb diplomacy!
Putin responded by annexing Crimea, which in turn led to the moment when Barack Obama made his decision to drop the bluff and stop the escalation. His reasoning was simple: Ukraine was always going to matter more to Russia than to the United States, and when push came to shove, he, Obama, wasn’t going to war over it. Moreover, because the hawks in Washington would never come out and say they would, either – “If there’s somebody in this town that would claim that we would consider going to war with Russia over Crimea and eastern Ukraine, they should speak up and be very clear about it,” he challenged – the issue instead would keep being presented as an improper defiance of consensus:
There’s a playbook in Washington that presidents are supposed to follow… And the playbook prescribes responses to different events, and these responses tend to be militarized responses… You are judged harshly if you don’t follow the playbook, even if there are good reasons.
Obama was nearing the end of his term. In saying all this he was probably motivated in part by a desire to spite the Hillary Clinton loyalists in the national security establishment he imagined would soon be taking over. They had crossed him on several important issues, including the question of whether or not to cooperate with Russia on Syria, and he was taking his soon-to-be-freed petty side out for an early test drive. But he wasn’t wrong to identify that Washington bureaucrats were more wedded to the militarization playbook than the public interest.
Six years later, even the NatSec dingbat brigade knows the public won’t buy the idea of risking nuclear war over Ukraine, which is why they’re pulling out stops to Twitterize the situation by introducing piles of other arguments and hypotheticals, like that the mad dictator won’t stop in Kyiv. “He wants to evict the United States from Europe,” said former intelligence officer, Brookings fellow, and ubiquitous Russiagate character Fiona Hill just wrote in the New York Times. This is absurd, but we will surely go through the process now of being told this is Hitler all over again, that Biden must be more Churchill than Chamberlain, etc. Headlines about $200 million in arms sales to Ukraine will turn to $500 million, a billion, etc., and other regional allies will be hit up with fresh sales calls.
Normally it’d be clear how this story ends, but Biden’s “gaffe” raised real concern that the war party will overcompensate with a catastrophic macho gesture (news that Biden is now “weighing” the deployment of more troops and warships to the region should fill all with confidence, for instance). There are people in Washington who think a pipeline of Javelin missile sales is worth having to watch for Russian subs popping up in New York harbor, and they are the same people in charge of this very heavy decision on the horizon.
There are people who will read this and cry, “Where’s your outrage against Vladimir Putin? Why don’t you denounce him?” To which I say, fine, I denounce him. Then what? When you’re done wailing, you’re still faced with deciding whether or not to go to war with Russia, which is not a real choice, unless you’re an idiot or General Jack Ripper-insane. Unfortunately, the Nulands and Blinkens who’ll be making this call just may fit those descriptions.
The ostentatious incompetence of the foreign policy establishment, which America got to examine in technicolor during the War on Terror, was one of the first triggers for the revolt against “experts” that led to the election of Donald Trump. Once, these were drawling Republican golfers who got hot reading Francis Fukuyama, thought they could turn Baghdad into Geneva, and instead squandered trillions and hundreds of thousands of lives pushing Iraq back to the eighth century.
The more recent crew is made up of Extremely Online, Ivy-educated fantasists who rarely leave their embassies abroad and view life as an endless production of Sloane or The Good Fight, soap operas about exclusive clubs of fashionably brainy pragmatists with the guts to color outside the lines and “get things done.” Lines like “Yats is our guy” make them tingly. This is perhaps the only subset of people on earth arrogant and dumb enough to think there’s a workable plan for pulling off a shooting war with Russia.
The truth is there’s nothing to be done at this point. We had our chance. Both Russia and Ukraine should have been economic and strategic allies. Instead, we repeatedly blew opportunities in both places by trying to flex more and more muscle in the region (including, ironically, via election meddling). Now there’s no winning move left. Conceding this means abandoning conventional wisdom, and the people we’re now relying on to see the light have shown little ability to do that.
In a situation with only two choices, bad and horrifyingly worse, God help us if the playbook wins again.