One reason Lambert and I prefer the term “The Blob” to “Deep State” is the latter implies a fair bit internal cohesion while we envision the actions of powerful insiders as regularly fraught with conflict over who has their hands on the steering wheel. Arguably the best model comes from Janine Wedel’s The Shadow Elite, in which she describes how individuals, often with multiple current institutional roles, operate via networks of alliances. The current fraying of Western unanimity over Ukraine gives a sense the struggles over hotly contested issues. But it’s only a sense, since so much of this activity is shrouded even when things get ugly.
If any readers know the key bureaucracies operate and can add detail, that would be very much appreciated.
One thing we see is that the President gets what he wants in foreign policy only if he has enough support from inside factions. That disconcertingly means that the military can defy civilian oversight. Recall that Trump wanted to withdraw from Afghanistan at the end of his term. Colonel Douglas Macgregor has recounted how he participated by getting the proper documentation to effectuate Trump’s instructions. Nevertheless, Trump was ignored despite Trump also pressing personally for the troops to be pulled out. Macgregor added that the winter would have been a far better time since the insurgents are mainly hunkered down in caves then and would not have made much trouble.
Before you argue that Trump was a special case, consider also that Obama pledged that shutting Gitmo would be his first act in office. The public has never gotten a credible explanation as to why that hasn’t happened. The failure is noteworthy that the detainees are understood to be mainly if not entirely low/no value targets. One suspects that is has to do with abuses at the facility getting more publicity.
We also have the question of when Biden ordered the wandering Chinese “spy” balloon to be shot down. Biden has tried to save face by saying his instruction was to destroy the balloon as soon as possible, which gives wriggle room for the excuse that safety required that it be done over water…as if Montana were full of people. Wags here and abroad have pointed out that it’s not a good look to let a purported surveillance balloon go all the way across the US, as in presumably complete its mission, before taking it out.
Now to Ukraine. Realists of various stripes, who have long been cowed or shouted down by the ideologues, are getting a hearing as deteriorating battlefield conditions make it difficult to keep up the pretense that Ukraine will emerge victorious, or now even halt the advance of Russian forces.
Members of military, both in the US and abroad, are finally waking up to the fact that they can’t go toe to toe with Russia in its back yard. Obama was quite cognizant of that fact (his remark that Russia had “escalation dominance.” Yet it is still seems remarkable that it has apparently taken even the more sober minds a while to recognize the degree to which Russia outguns the Collective West, and for the most part has much better guns too.
Nevertheless, even with some doubts about Project Ukraine expressed as early as last May (by the New York Times and the Defense Intelligence Agency), it’s been remarkable to see the degree to which even dissenters have felt the need to repeat now clearly inaccurate tropes about various Russian infirmities. It may simply be a recognition that humankind cannot bear very much reality. But the danger is that people can come to believe what they have to say.1 And it also gives continued support for bad beliefs.
Readers may have signposts they prefer, but IMHO the official first break in the “Ukraine will fight till it wins it all” position was ijn mid November, when Chairman of the Joint Chiefs of Staff Mark Milley suggested that Ukraine cash in on its Kharkiv winnings and negotiate with Russia from a strong position. This statement was more significant than it might appear. Macgregor has repeatedly insisted that Milley is completely self-motivated.
So why did Milley break with the party line then? Because he and his officers could see the parlous state of Ukraine forces versus what the Russian mobilization would bring? Because they had worked out Russia’s overwhelming advantage in artillery, as soon after publicized in Alex Vershinin’s RUSI paper, The Return of Industrial Warfare? Because the implications of Russia targeting Urkaine’s electrical grid were obvious, that Russia could and probably would turn out the lights if they thought necessary? Because he wanted not to be blamed when things really started coming apart?
Whatever the reasons, it appears unlikely that someone with Milley’s apparent lack of moral courage would stick his neck out that way unless it was a widely held among officers with a good grasp of the situation.
Milley was quickly made to recant publicly. Nevertheless, one has to assume there was institutional support for his view, even if not among the key players.2 But the Ukraine maximalists looked to be firmly in charge as of the embarrassing Zelensky love-fest in a pre-Christmas joint session of Congress, even though, as Brian Berletic has relentlessly chronicled, the actual amount of missile, artillery, and other deliveries have fallen because the West is in the process of demilitarizing itself.
In Europe, cracks have been emerging over Ukraine’s demands for materiel. Olaf Scholz initially rejected the demand to send Leopard 2 tanks because it would deplete Germany’s already too meager force. Greece has flat out refused because it believes it needs all its tanks, given rising temperatures in its neighborhood. 3 It’s fast become an open secret that the total number of tanks is too small to make a difference even before getting to the problem of the suitability of individual models this war being mainly not so hot, and the deliveries collectively amounting to a hodge-podge that will make logistical problems even worse.
Yet with militaries starting to pull one way, top EU officials are keeping up and if anything amping up their shows of support for the Zelensky regime, via hosting the latest EU-Ukraine summit earlier this month in Kiev and lodging a tenth round of sanctions. 4
The US saw the striking release in close succession of a Rand Corporation report, Avoiding a Long War and the Center for Strategic and International Studies’ Empty Bins in a Wartime Environment, which contrasted with pointed messaging from the State Department via a interview Anthony Blinken bestowed on the Washington Post’s David Ignatius. The Rand piece had very tortured reasoning but nevertheless unambiguously argued that the US had more to lose than win if the conflict in Ukraine persisted. It is worrisome to see Rand play up the notion that Russia would escalate via an attack on a NATO member or a nuclear strike.
The CSIS report argued (consistent with the earlier Vershinin article, but in more detail) that US output of weaponry well behind what is needed given our desire to mix things up:
According to the results of a series of CSIS war games, for instance, the United States would likely run out of some munitions—such as long-range, precision-guided munitions—in less than one week in a Taiwan Strait conflict. These shortfalls would make it extremely difficult for the United States to sustain a protracted conflict—and, equally concerning, the deficiencies undermine deterrence.1 They also highlight that the U.S. defense industrial base lacks adequate surge capacity for a major war. These problems are particularly concerning since China is heavily investing in munitions and acquiring high-end weapons systems and equipment five to six times faster than the United States, according to some U.S. government estimates.
CSIS is explicit that the US “needs” to be able to fight at least one major war, “if not two”. And it touts the threat of a Chinese takeover of Taiwan:
With Xi Jinping in his third term, most likely confident and emboldened, it is unclear what the timelines are for a Chinese invasion of Taiwan—if it happens. For planning purposes, the United States needs to be ready now.
The report discusses the results of a war “in the Taiwan Strait” but the footnotes show the scenario is a Chinese invasion of Taiwan, and not China simply blockading Taiwan. Again, as with Rand, the picture presented as a probable risk is in fact extreme and not likely.
So the China hawks have cleared their throats and are effectively arguing for de-emphasizing Ukraine (although pointing out that the overlap in weapons deployed against Russia are largely different than those needed to fight China). But they are also pushing for a massive expansion in military expenditures, without solving the problem that we’ve already spent a huge amount and come up surprisingly short compared to the until recently supposedly not very prespossessing player Russia (save for its nukes).
So we are also seeing a struggle between the anti-China and anti-Putin factions. And as much as Anthony Blinken is very hostile to China, he shows no signs of wanting to drop the Russia conflict. As we wrote at the end of January:
The Blinken/State vision seems to be:
US and NATO support Ukraine > *Magic* > War ends > US and NATO support Ukraine
And State seems well stocked with professionals who wrote their PhDs in what Scott Ritter calls “Putin-hating studies.” 5 So they have personal priors and incentives to keep the Ukraine proxy war going.
Similarly, if the very detailed Seymour Hersh account alleging that the US conceived of and executed the Nord Stream pipeline attacks is accurate, it shows the fervor and unanimity of Russia hostility across the top foreign policy echelons in the US. Hersh reports that very few voiced substantive concerns; the reservations were procedural (how to hide what they were up to from Congress and Russia). The piece intimates that Olaf Scholz agreed to allow the attack. But Hersh’s formulation on this point is not crisp, so it may be that Scholz was not given a specific head’s up.
Finally, Biden has repeatedly made his hostility to Putin clear. And in a PBS interview yesterday, Biden doubled down his Stote of the Union affirmation, that the US would support Ukraine for “as long as it takes”. From The Hill:
President Biden on Wednesday said that Russian President Vladimir Putin has “already lost Ukraine,” adding that aid to Ukraine during the Russian invasion is open-ended.
Finally, if Hersh is correct, Biden was an enthusiastic supporter of the pipeline attacks and actively involved as the scheme progressed. As Alexander Mercouris pointed out, that stance would make him the biggest obstacle to ending the war in Ukraine.
1 For instance, studies have found that attorneys often convince themselves of their defense of a perp they know to be guilty.
2 In his book Secrets, Daniel Ellsberg, then regarded as the top US expert on Vietnam, gave Secretary of Defense Robert McNamara an update on a helicopter ride. I don’t recall the details but it was that things were going badly and prospects of victory were close to nil. McNamara said with some force, “That’s what I thought.” Immediately upon landing, the press accosted him and McNamara talked up how well the war was going.
3 Greece was also miffed over the fact that it had earlier sent 40 BMP-1 IFVs to Ukraine after Germany agreed to provide Greece at least the same number of the more modern 40 Marder IFVs. Greece was then shortchanged.
4 An exercise in optics, since the EU has apparently run out of things its members will agree to sanction. This set is apparently a technical clean-up of all the previous sanctions. However, you’d never know that from the EU-Ukraine summit statement:
We gathered today in the context of Russia’s ongoing unprovoked and unjustified war of aggression against Ukraine. We condemned it in the strongest possible terms and discussed how to further support Ukraine and how to increase collective pressure on Russia to end its war and withdraw its troops. The EU will support Ukraine and the Ukrainian people against Russia’s ongoing war of aggression for as long as it takes.
5 Ritter has said he was commissioned to write an article, which was never published, looking at the academic record of prominent official (as in government) Russia experts. Ritter claims that to a person they wrote anti-Putin PhD theses.