History, analogy, logic and morality are all useful in weighing policy decisions — including those involving national security and war. But while useful, these have their limitations. Regarding national security, the bottom line is, as Henry Kissinger once said, “America has no permanent friends or enemies — only interests.”
Defining those interests and then balancing them with risks, considering tradeoffs, building public support to sustain policies: This is the hard part. Given America’s nature, morality often informs our foreign policies, and sometimes drives them, yet our national interests should always have primacy.
In his essay on March 23, Federalist Senior Editor John Daniel Davidson said “a protracted war of attrition is not in the American national interest, and that a U.S. strategy that enables and encourages such a war, in addition to the indifference it shows for the suffering of the Ukrainian people, is misbegotten in the extreme.”
How Davidson arrives at this conclusion is important. First, he acknowledges that the war “seems to be entering a new phase” — by which he means the Ukrainians are effectively resisting the Russian invasion of their nation. This comes as a surprise to much of the U.S. foreign policy establishment, including the CIA, which expected that Russia’s military campaign to topple the Ukrainian government and install a puppet would be over in three days. To be fair, Russian President Vladimir Putin expected this as well.
Now, with the war apparently transformed from a war of decisive maneuver into a war of attrition, Davidson suggests this doesn’t mean an eventual end to the war via the collapse of Putin’s rule, one way or the other. Rather, Davidson posits, “A bloody war of attrition could drag on for months” with the destruction of “vast swathes of Ukraine,” with Russia unlikely to “run out of soldiers and war materiel anytime soon.”
Davidson signals that America needs to reassess what role it is to play in this conflict, so long as it’s not based on the “neoconservative consensus in Washington.” He then says that role appears to be to force the conflict into a “prolonged war of attrition, or a western-backed insurgency inside Ukraine,” which the Biden administration seems to see as preferable to a peace agreement. But it is important here to understand that many conservatives who are not foreign policy neoconservatives also believe it is in America’s interest to help Ukraine stay in the fight.
Lastly, Davidson asserts that “Moscow has gambled everything on this war,” with Russia likely to draw “military forces from elsewhere “to make up for casualties and equipment losses in Ukraine.” He also cites the Russian use of “advanced weapons” such as hypersonic missiles while suggesting that the “specter of nuclear weapons” remains on the table.
A Crucial Debate on the Right
There’s a lot to unpack here and doing so is important for our national debate, especially for the vitally needed reassessment of conservative foreign policy in the post-Afghanistan, post-Iraq, post-Arab Spring interventionist era. If conservatives can generally agree now that, regardless of the initial rationale for going into Afghanistan, Iraq, Libya, and Syria, staying there, and in some cases, attempting to introduce democracy and rule-of-law in ancient, tribal lands, was a bloody, costly fool’s errand.
For the record, I have consistently warned against American interventions and nation-building for more than 30 years. I agree with John Quincy Adams that America “goes not abroad, in search of monsters to destroy. She is the well-wisher to the freedom and independence of all. She is the champion and vindicator only of her own.”
Many conservatives have maintained since the end of the Cold War that it is in the U.S. national interest to stay focused on existential threats and that only nations with the military-industrial means to support conventional armies and deploy nuclear weapons can truly threaten America’s national existence. Thus, China and Russia are major threats — Libya and Afghanistan aren’t.
Returning to Ukraine, many, myself included, have advocated for sending the Ukrainian defenders military equipment they can use to better defend themselves, such as the MiG-29 fighters and S-300 long-range antiaircraft missile systems they already know how to use.
Davidson, however, opposes such weapons transfers, arguing that Ukraine is a core Russian interest with Davidson repeatedly referencing the possibility of Putin using nuclear weapons or starting a war with NATO if we “escalate” the war.
There are two problems with this approach, which parallels the Biden administration’s conduct in vetoing the transfer of Polish MiG-29s to Ukraine. First, it allows Putin to determine what is escalatory. Second, it risks fulfilling Davidson’s fear of “a bloody war of attrition” by denying Ukraine the equipment needed to preserve its national sovereignty while minimizing its own casualties.
Core interest or not, it makes close to zero sense strategically that Putin would seek to add enemies when he can’t easily vanquish the one he invaded a month ago. Putin will not knowingly provoke NATO into intervening directly in its war in Ukraine with combat forces.
In 10 years of combat in Afghanistan, the Soviet Union lost 15,000 soldiers, while killing up to 2 million Afghan civilians and fighters and displacing more than half the population of 13 million, generating 7 million refugees, 5 million of whom fled outside of their homeland.
In one month of fighting, Ukraine has reportedly killed 15,000 Russian troops. Russia may be pulling in forces from other parts of the nation, even the Far East, but some 55 percent of Russia’s ground combat power was committed in the initial invasion of Ukraine — they simply don’t have much more.
What’s more, the purported Russian use of hypersonic missiles betrays weakness, not strength. Such systems are no magic bullet and were likely used because a corrupt Russian regime has unexpectedly exhausted its stocks of precision-guided munitions (the money for weapons procurement having been long ago skimmed for the superyacht fund). Relatedly, we hear that up to 60 percent of Russian missiles are malfunctioning.
Ukraine has already shown the world that it has the will to fight and that it can fight effectively against Russia. As the great strategist Edward Luttwak recently tweeted, “Nations are forged in war — if they prevail against the odds as the Americans did against the Brits…” and “Ukraine is now doing, they are empowered to achieve great things.”
Self-defense is the first of the natural rights. Helping Ukraine defend itself, so long as it has the will and the capacity to do so, is moral. But warfare is brutal. It’s the nature of war. At its core, the object of war is to, as Carl von Clausewitz (someone the Russians take care to read) wrote, “…impose our will on the enemy… To secure that object we must render the enemy powerless.” Russia seeks to render Ukraine powerless to defend itself. The object of our policy ought to be to deny Russia that object — so long as the Ukrainians have the capacity and the will to resist.
Anticipating What Russia Will Become
Ukraine has successfully resisted Russia’s attempt to impose its will on Ukraine in a stand-up conventional fight. But Ukraine may eventually lose a conventional war. Even if Russia manages to occupy Ukraine, Ukraine may still prevail as did the Algerians against the French, or the Afghans against both the Soviets and the United States. This is why small nations often defeat the large, for what is a small war to a big nation is often a war of national survival to a smaller nation.
Returning to Clausewitz, “War is a trial of moral and physical forces by means of the latter… In the last analysis it is at moral, not physical strength that all military action is directed… Moral factors, then, are the ultimate determinants in war.” In Russia’s invasion of Ukraine, we have witnessed the clear moral superiority of Ukraine vs. Russia. We see it in the low morale of the Russian invaders and in the high morale of Ukrainians defending their homeland. We also see it in the reaction of the international community to Russia’s aggression.
It is in America’s national interests to block an ascendant alliance of dictatorial nations, with China and Russia at the forefront. This is also the moral policy — moral for America and for the world because a victorious and confident bloc of China and Russia would, necessarily, threaten all democracies.
Whatever Russia may become as the result of launching its invasion, we can be sure of one thing: it won’t become a nation willing to so cavalierly invade and kill its neighbors. Further, there may be a sympathetic realization in Beijing that invading Taiwan would levy an unbearable cost.
As for Ukraine, if it survives this crucible of conflict, as I expect it to, look for a dynamic, self-confident nation to emerge from the ashes — one confident enough to reform its corrupt institutions and attract investment. In so doing, it will become what Russia might have become before Putin decided to tame Russia’s oligarchs to enrich himself rather than his people.