A former deputy assistant secretary of defense recently asked the million-dollar question of the moment: “Is Ukraine worth fighting a nuclear war over? If not, we should act accordingly.” If you answer that question by putting America’s interests first, the answer is obviously “no.”
If this is the case, that Ukraine is not worth fighting a nuclear war over, how then should the U.S. “act accordingly”? Reasonable responses could vary. But whatever a smart course of action might be, that’s not what we have witnessed over the last 10 days from the Biden administration and the pro-war crowd.
The most recent round of nuclear saber-rattling started around Sept. 21, when Russian President Vladimir Putin warned, “In the face of a threat to the territorial integrity of our country, to protect Russia and our people, we will certainly use all the means at our disposal.” He repeated a similar warning on Friday, Sept. 30, as Russia celebrated the annexation of four more regions of western Ukraine (Donetsk, Luhansk, Kherson, and Zaporizhzhia), talking about the “precedent” set by the U.S. using nuclear weapons in World War II.
When approaching this topic, some caveats and principled statements are necessary: 1) The Russian invasion of Ukraine should be condemned; 2) Putin should be taken seriously; and 3) The use of any kind of nuclear weapons, tactical or otherwise, in Ukraine, or in defense of the annexed regions, would be a massive escalation.
Risking Nuclear War
American interests demand we act accordingly to avoid a nuclear confrontation with Russia. But in response to the ratcheted-up rhetoric from the Russians, it appears we have lost our collective minds. Has it been decreed by the powers that be that it’s worth risking a nuclear holocaust over the Donbas? It seems so.
A week ago Sunday, National Security Adviser Jake Sullivan told “Face the Nation” that “We have communicated directly, privately and at very high levels to the Kremlin that any use of nuclear weapons will be met with catastrophic consequences for Russia, that the U.S. and our allies will respond decisively, and we have been clear and specific about what that will entail.”
Sullivan doubled down on this line just this past Friday during a White House press briefing. When asked, “Would the U.S. actively enter the war if Putin used nukes on Ukraine?,” he didn’t say “no.” He didn’t say, “That would be up to Congress since they have the constitutional authority to declare war.” No, he repeated that “we have had the opportunity to communicate directly to Russia a range of consequences for the use of nuclear weapons and the kinds of actions the United States would take.”
Given that such an attack wouldn’t be on the U.S. or NATO, just what consequences is the Biden administration at liberty to dispense without a formal declaration of war from Congress?
This constitutional question didn’t seem to trouble a former CIA director, Gen. David Petraeus, on ABC this week, either. In response to the “nuclear question,” he told “This Week” co-anchor Jonathan Karl, “Just to give you a hypothetical, we would respond by leading a NATO, a collective effort that would take out every Russian conventional force that we can see and identify on the battlefield in Ukraine and also in Crimea and every ship in the Black Sea.” Karl rightly noted that this “would bring America and NATO into the war.”
Yes, it would. Into the war. Just like that. Congress and Constitution be damned.
Who’s Putting Americans First?
In light of all of this brinkmanship, I have to ask (because it seems like no one else is): Who is putting our American interests first? Who in the cadre of the “adults” that are “back in charge” is leading in such a way as to avoid dragging the U.S. into a direct (and possibly nuclear) armed confrontation with Russia over foreign soil?
It’s been little more than one year since Biden’s disastrous Afghanistan withdrawal, a lingering reminder that we have precious little to show for our last 20-plus years of foreign adventurism and failed exercises in nation-building. “Sacred” democracy isn’t an export every country wants to take at the end of a gun. Far too many American lives were lost in the Middle East, and far too many freedoms at home, during the war on terrorism. So I think I speak on behalf of most of my fellow Americans when I say not a single drop of American blood should be spilled on Ukrainian soil.
And while the military-industrial complex might be thrilled at the prospects of a hot war in Ukraine, as they ride the irresponsible riverboat of billions of dollars in aid, American citizens are rightly wondering how any of this spending, any of this rhetoric, and any of this warmongering helps them put cheaper food on their tables and gas in their tanks.
Ukraine is not a NATO ally; for that, we should be eternally grateful. Yet even as Ukrainian President Volodymyr Zelensky stages his made-for-TV NATO application signing, we must be frank: Ukraine has no business being in NATO. This very conversation about the possible use of nuclear weapons and an “American response” underscores that reality.
Let’s ask: What if Russia were to use a tactical nuclear weapon on the battlefield in Ukraine? To be clear, that would be a disastrous and deadly escalation in an already ill-fated war. Yet even if Russia did, what possible benefit could there be for the U.S., and for American citizens, by responding in kind? None whatsoever. The same goes for an overwhelming or “catastrophic” conventional response. Why are our leaders so confident Putin would be willing to suffer a serious strike and then back down? The hubris beggars belief.
One of the things I admired most about former President Donald Trump while serving at the State Department and the Pentagon during his administration was his restraint. Whether it was in our pursuit of real diplomacy with the belligerent nuclear power of North Korea or refusing to escalate in response to Iran shooting down one of our surveillance drones, President Trump displayed strength through restraint. Power through prudence. And now is a time for restraint.
Now, I can already hear the neocon accusations of this posture being “pro-Putin” getting drafted over at The Dispatch. To which I say: Let The Dispatch and the D.C. Beltway boo. If the Beltway is booing, the heartland is cheering. I’m sure most New Yorkers would be cheering along with the heartland, too, if it means they won’t be witnessing a mushroom cloud rising over Manhattan anytime soon.
No Trusting This Administration
Some may argue that this kind of bluster is what’s necessary to ensure real nuclear deterrence. James Traub, at Foreign Policy, records that former Secretary of State John Foster Dulles once “boasted of his gifts at nuclear blackmail,” saying “some say that we were brought to the verge of war. Of course we were brought to the verge of war. The ability to get to the verge without getting into the war is the necessary art.”
Such diplomacy may be an art — one that requires real skill. But allow me to indulge one half of another hypothetical here: Even if it were worth it for America to counter a nuclear strike in Ukraine, does anyone seriously think this administration is the one we can trust to pull it off? Discretion is the better part of valor. Doubly so when incompetence defines your operations. There is no John Foster Dulles, or even a near equivalent, serving in our national security apparatus.
The truth that few seem willing to state clearly is this: Nuclear brinksmanship over Ukraine puts America last. Ukraine is Europe’s problem, not ours. And are we the only nation with nuclear weapons that might defend Ukraine? What about the United Kingdom? Or France?
When it comes to our domestic priorities, the only party who stands to gain from America either fully entering the war in Ukraine, or returning nuclear fire on Russia, is China. There is no doubt that the Chinese Communist Party is cheering on this development with as much eager anticipation as the forever-war uniparty here at home.
Still, there’s no need to let the beating of nuclear war drums march us into an unwinnable disaster that may yield radioactive consequences on our own soil. President Joe Biden says there’s not “one inch” of NATO territory we won’t defend. Fine. But Ukraine is not in NATO. Thus, there’s not an inch of Ukrainian soil that’s worth risking a nuclear strike on our home soil over. Not one.
Admitting this isn’t weakness; it’s reason and restraint. It’s putting America’s interests and American lives (possibly millions of them) first. The Biden administration and the blood hawks screeching from the defense contractor-funded think tanks might not care to do so, but I do. I learned at least that much from my time serving President Trump.
Wherever the cooler heads are in the Biden camp, let’s hope and pray they prevail. There’s no doubt that a midterm election October surprise is most likely coming. There’s no need — at all — for it to be a nuclear one.