Coop Scoop: "We gotta do something" is not a good basis for policy" (resend)
US military policy must be cool and rational and not driven by television
March 14, 2022
By Marc Cooper
Let’s begin with a semantic correction. The three week old conflict that stands at the center of world attention is not a war between Russian and Ukraine. It is, rather, a Russian war against Ukraine. As I write, the invaders might be slowed down or stalled yet they are continuing to pound away at Ukrainian urban centers, reducing homes, schools, hospitals and occasional military targets into dust as Ukrainian solders and citizens fight a mighty resistance.
While the mounting casualties have moved from the hundreds to the thousands and soon might reach into the tens of thousands, Vladimir Putin has created the largest flow of European refugees since World War II. Almost three million Ukrainians have fled the country, an equal number are expected to leave in days to come, and at least two million have been internally displaced.
The war continues to widen to the west, threatening to envelop all of Ukraine. On Sunday Russian forces struck a Ukrainian base just 6 miles from the Polish border, alarmingly close to a NATO red line border.
As we complete the third week of a war whose ultimate scale remains a frightening unknown, there seems to be only one series of piercing questions that rebound across and over the US media: Are we going to do anything? Are we going to have to just sit back and watch this massacre? Why can’t we just give Ukraine those Polish planes? A no fly-zone? We gotta do something, right?
I will write this backward and offer my conclusion before I lay down the predicate. The answer is a rotund NO. At least a conditional NO. We should not and mostly cannot more deeply engage the US any deeper than present. And, yes, we are going to witness, we are going to watch, we are going to see a lot of sickening carnage.
That’s not all. We are doing a lot. We are providing more military aid than the entire Ukraine defense budget. And we are frenetically transferring tons in sophisticated arms, including anti-tank weapons and surface to air missiles that are of immense strategic value to the Ukrainian forces. We are also waging a fierce war against the Russian economy and with great success.
Let’s calmly unpack the three reasons why a greater US intervention is not desirable, why it would not work and why it would make things much worse for everybody.
NUCLEAR DETERRENCE IS REAL
This is a tough bone to swallow. Nuclear weapons have allowed both the US and Russia to swagger around the world without much fear of any direct attacks because we live under nuclear umbrellas. We have established a bi-lateral policy of Mutually Assured Destruction, each side with 1550 nukes pointed at each other and standing, at least in the words of their owners, as guardians of world peace and stability [sic].
Perhaps for the first time in modern history, the U.S. – at least the Biden administration-- is conceding that it too is mortal and that we the United States are currently hamstrung by the MAD doctrine and it is who are being constrained to act because of Russian nukes. Republicans are saying this proves Biden is weak. I think it proves he is rational.
Most alarming are the rising chorus of mainstream national security talkers who are pushing us to push those limitations. I’m thinking of former US Ambassador to Russia Mike McFaul and former national security aide Lt. Col. Alexander Vindman –both who get tons of air time—who are arguing that the transfer of fighter planes from Poland via the US air base in Ramstein, Germany would not be enough to provoke a nuclear reaction from Russia. Or, as McFaul has put it on several occasions, such an act would have a “very low probability.”
Of course, McFaul and probably nobody else except Putin himself has any idea if that’s true. Personally, a very low probability of World War III does not cut it for me. I’m thankful that so far these two influential guys are still opposing a no-fly-zone which, they agree, would be a direct declaration of war against Russia.
In the meantime, the mostly useless appendages in the US Congress have lumbered into action with 58 members, led by Republican Rob Portman and supported by Democrat Amy Klobuchar, making a formal call on Biden to provide Polish planes to Ukraine along with air-defense systems. The White House, fortunately, is holding firm on its non-intervention decision. National Security Advisor Jake Sullivan said on Sunday that after consulting with NATO allies and advisors, the White House "ultimately determined that the risk/benefit analysis of flying planes from NATO bases into contested airspace over Ukraine did not make sense."
And just the day before, the Russian government warned that convoys carrying US or NATO weapons into Ukraine would be “legitimate targets” for attack. Russia was not referring to just the future transfer of planes, but rather the current ongoing and massive arms transfers the U.S. is directing primarily from Poland.
I hate to be so terse but, really, this should be the end of the debate about U.S. escalation. But it isn’t, amazingly so. The Ukrainians, very understandably, want to test that supposed nuclear restraint, arguing we are already in World War III so why are we waiting. As I said, perfectly understandable from those already under fiery assault. But throwing our hands in the air, saying fuck it, we are already in a world war, is clearly the shortest path to an ugly self-fulfilling prophecy.
NO SUCH THING AS A QUCK AND DIRTY INTERVENTION
Can you recall anytime the U.S. staged a short, quick and successful military strike? One that did not prolong a conflict and make it bloodier? Perhaps, Ronald Reagan’s fly-over and bombing of Muammar Kaddafy’s tent. That was successful if the goal was killing the dictator’s baby. Or maybe it was Bill Clinton’s cruise missile strike in Sudan that took out that lethal aspirin factory and killed one night watchman.
I am not about to rehearse for you the long list of wild, half-assed, ideologically-driven, US military adventures since WWII, you know them all too well. And exactly none of them stand out as glowing successes. On the contrary. Back in 2001, how many of us, I do include myself, thought that America’s reprisal strike against Al Qaeda and the Taliban would stretch out for 20 years and wind up with the Taliban back in power? I might add, 50 years after the Vietnam war, our “enemy” is still in power and is now our friends. In Nicaragua, where we spent a couple of billion supporting the contras against the Sandinistas, it’s the Sandinistas (a mutated variant of them) that is in power thirty years later.
Sometimes the Left and the Right portray the US as an almighty power that can will its way through any circumstance. All the best for democracy and freedom say the Right. And only to further economic, corporate and imperial interests argues the Left. What neither side wants to admit to are the very real limitations of US military power. It’s the one over-riding lesson the national security blob refuses to learn. Questions of morality and right and wrong to the side, the U.S. simply lacks the power to magically “fix” things with military troops and hardware.
Let’s be specific about Ukraine. A whole array of military actions by the US are possible. But what will they achieve? Let’s assume for this discussion that the U.S. and NATO do find some way to get some warplanes to the Ukrainians without generating some dramatic pushback from Russia. That alone will not win the war for the Ukrainians. The Russians have a long history of throwing division after division into the maw as Russia does not lack humans that can be conscripted.
So once the planes are in, and the Russians continue to grind down Ukrainian cities with field artillery and rockets, what is out next move?
I have no idea. Do you? But let’s be crystal clear: we would be engaging in an open-ended land war smack dab on the Russian border. Just how long do you think that conflict would last. A year? 10? 20? What, pray tell, is the end game there?
My point is a simple one: If the US could quickly and efficiently intervene to “save” Ukraine and do so without any possibility of provoking a terminal world war, of course I would support that. But this is not a word puzzle or a salon game. It is a very real war with extremely complicated underpinnings and consequences. And I am ready to unequivocally state that direct US intervention in the war would cause only more death and destruction and would no more “save” Ukraine than we have already saved Iraq, Afghanistan, Vietnam and Nicaragua.
This warning is still not enough for some. Yes, they say, there might be only a “low probability” of a global nuclear war but we can and should dive in because we can’t just sit back….
Which take us to a third final reason to avoid intervention.
THE WORLD WAR WILL BE TELEVISED
I was listening to the New York Times’ tech pundit Kara Swisher last night describing this conflict as the first war to be so forcefully fought over the internet. She and so many others – again include me—have recognized and admired with what deftness Ukraine has been winning the “information war.” Zelensky is much more than a comedian, he’s a successful media entrepreneur and he fully understands the broadcast medium. Putin’s person along with his clunky Stalinoid propaganda about “nazis” crashed on opening night and ceded the way to the Ukrainians. The Russians will speak primarily with their artillery and not prioritize memes. Ukranians are much more skilled in modern communications. Infinitely more so (one more indication of how Western-facing Ukraine has become).
Ukraine has countered with brilliant up-to-the-minute mastery of social media, heart-rending images, and a very clear narrative (made easier by the fact that Ukraine has a righteous cause). It’s television that still beats the web for an image driven story. And what images are more compelling, more stirring than ordinary citizens taking up arms to defend themselves, while hospitals burn, apartment houses collapse and Russian tanks are set afire? I am not being cute nor frivolous nor am I in anyway understating the gravity of this war when I say it makes a fricking great live TV show – one that has now run solidly 24/7 for the last 20 days. More power to Zelensky and to the Ukraine communications and media crusade.
I get it, I can also distinguish between a media strategy and international policy. They are rarely the same. And while we can appreciate the narrative the Ukrainians have fashioned to rightfully gain much of the world’s sympathy, we must also take extra efforts to make sure our policy responds to hard realities and not media-enhanced emotion. The last thing we should be doing is to let television, television news, cast us into a suicidal adventure.
The problem with television and specifically television news, was laid bare in 1987 by the late Neil Postman in his iconic book, “Amusing Ourselves to Death” when he wrote:
“I do not mean to imply that television news deliberately aims to deprive Americans of a coherent, contextual understanding of their world. I mean to say that when news is packaged as entertainment, that is the inevitable result. And in saying that the television news show entertains but does not inform, I am saying something far more serious than that we are being deprived of authentic information. I am saying we are losing our sense of what it means to be well informed.”
You might feel informed after watching an hour or two of CNN live from Ukraine, and you will be better informed about certain things that happened during the day: which city has been bombed, a reporter was killed, the convoy is still stalled. Or it isn’t. What you won’t walk away with is any better understanding whatsoever of the history, the context, the implications, the relevance, the realistic avenues of response and so on. You will be just as ignorant –or as knowledgeable—about Ukraine and Russia and a war that dropped out of the blue after watching 12 hours of coverage than you were before you sat down. As grim as the news might be from Ukraine, it is still a form of entertainment because it is not linked intrinsically to any real action. It’s a show, no matter how real it might be on the other side of the camera.
Postman has argued that when it comes to international crises, broadcast news both fires you up and then renders you impotent to do anything all at the same time. Daily news about things way beyond your control gives everybody something to talk about. Everybody’s business becomes everybody’s business but there is little and usually nothing you can do about it.
If you think that images of starving children in an African famine drive people into action, it’s true that such repeated imagery also creates an emotional numbness. When those images come on the screen you are torn between doing something –anything—and going to the fridge to get another beer. Eventually, it’s just the latter.
How prescient was Postman – a man I consider to be a mentor—when he wrote back in 1987:
“What steps do you plan to take to reduce the conflict in the Middle East? Or the rates of inflation, crime and unemployment? What are your plans for preserving the environment or reducing the risk of nuclear war? What do you plan to do about NATO, OPEC, the CIA, affirmative action, and the monstrous treatment of the Baha’is in Iran? I shall take the liberty of answering for you: You plan to do nothing about them.”
But isn’t it different now with this war? I mean, people really want to do something this time.
No, not really. We didn’t do much at all when we watched Russian planes level Syria a few years ago. We did nothing as a people to stop the Mexican drug war in the early 2000’s that took 60,000 lives (though our government provided the guns). I don’t hear but a few activists clamoring to intervene to stop Saudi Arabia’s war on Yemen that has taken a staggering 375,000 lives. Ditto with the wars in Ethiopia and South Sudan.
All these conflicts are not equal and there is no question that the scale so far of the war against Ukraine outstrips and dwarfs them all. But, I would posit, if you put cameras on the receiving end of the bombardments in Yemen and you somehow got that as the feature story every night for a month on TV news, indignant Americans would be demanding immediate action to take out our Saudi allies, the perpetrators of this bloodbath (the same regime that this past weekend carried out the largest number of simultaneous criminal executions in history, killing 81 prisoners). Perhaps if we ran an hour strip every night on the news featuring Saudi beheadings and whippings, we would want to do something –anything—to stop them. And, just as likely, they would be turned into a popular reality show. I would go as far as saying that if news organizations decided to cover the now-cyclical invasions on Palestinian areas by Israel by, say, embedding in Gaza and doing a couple of hours live from there – nightly—Americans would be feverishly pushing for action against Israel.
I am a fierce supporter of Ukraine. My family comes from Odessa. I have no problem condemning Russia and Putin and I wish him the worst. I want Ukranians to continue to be as fully as armed as possible. I also watch hours a day of the TV coverage even though I am basically watching a much louder and bloodier version of a boy trapped in a well, or of 33 Chilean miners struggling to get above ground, or the old BP oil leak, the movements of that guy who killed his girlfriend in the desert that ate up the news for a week or two. All of them deeply, deeply moving sagas (not so much for the killer guy) and all of them way out of our reach, and control and as cold as it sounds, totally detached from our real lives. And all of them interrupted with frivolous commercials, blatantly ignorant anchors, and accompanied by other “news” of the most trivial, senseless crap possible.
Just imagine: tonight you go home, flick on the tube to catch the latest in the war and, surprise! Instead of the live broadcasts from the battlefield, the refugee centers, and the offices of the Pentagon, CNN or MSNBC or your local commercial station, dedicated only three minutes of coverage of the war, and then 57 minutes –every night—of things you can actually DO in your own community, at your immediate reach, to contribute to the war effort of the Ukrainians. Endlessly watching the horror show and then crying out on the web that “we” have to do something, anything, to stop the killing, with no regard for consequences accomplishes absolutely nothing.
Going to back to the start of this essay: Yes, we are going to watch lots of innocent people get killed and we are going to do very little about it because we cannot. Killing a lot of people at a time is a recurring event throughout human history. The only difference today is that in some cases, we get to see it. +++
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