Pausing at the Precipice

Pausing at the Precipice. By Tanner Greer.

Multiple NATO states have brazenly declared their intent to arm Ukrainian forces with conventional ammunition, precision munitions, and even military aircraft. European airspace is closed to all Russian planes. Western capitals have not only announced sanctions on Kremlin oligarchs, but also restrictions on Russia’s central bank. Russian institutions are being removed from the SWIFT system. The Norwegians — in a maneuver sure to be copied — have dumped all Russian assets in their sovereign wealth fund. Olaf Scholz repudiated the last decade of German defense and energy policy with one speech. And now there is talk of bringing Sweden and Finland into NATO.

None of these actions are as audacious as the Russian invasion which precipitated them. They are a natural, proportional, and even predictable response to Putin’s decision to settle the question of Ukrainian nationhood through the force of arms.

Yet it is precisely the naturalness of our policy that we should be wary of. A righteous reaction may be a dangerous one. The imperatives of action disguise an ugly truth: in the field of power politics it is outcomes, not intentions, that matter most. …

Incredibly, the US invasion of Iraq was never deliberated and decided — it just happened, as everyone was swept along by the tide:

Mazarr’s book is a study of the decision-making process behind the 2003 invasion of Iraq. To discover how the United States leapt headlong into catastrophe, Mazarr read all of the administration memoirs, tracked down all available open-source material on the pre-war debates, and interviewed just about everybody involved save George W. Bush himself. …

The administration did not intentionally mislead the nation into battle; motivated reasoning, not deceit, warped their understanding of events.

Oil was never central to the campaign; when it appeared in war council discussions, it did so only under the rosy assumption that Iraq’s oil revenues would be sufficient to cover reconstruction costs.

Contrary to the received wisdom in many quarters today, the invasion of Iraq was not about about spreading liberal democracy in the Middle East. That justification for the war came mostly in 2004 and the years that followed, when the WMD threat had been exposed as delusion. Liberalism did not lead us into Iraq so much as keep us there.

Perhaps the most astonishing fact about America’s invasion of Iraq is that the National Security Council never formally debated the decision to wage war. … There was no moment, no meeting, where the pros and the cons of invasion were laid out in full. No one ever asked “should we invade?” Instead they debated questions like “if we decide to invade, what must we do to prepare?” and “When we invade, what must our objectives be?”

Mazarr explains this curious lack of first-order thought, the origin point of the motivated reasoning that produced both flawed intelligence assessments and unnecessarily hasty demands for action, as a byproduct of moral imperatives. ..

Catastrophic misjudgment rests on the convergence of two elements: an emergent sense that there is a moral imperative to act paired with a breakdown in the formal decision-making processes designed to force policy makers to carefully weigh the potential consequences of their decisions. Combined these elements make for a “pattern of misjudgement” that changes the way officials “weigh the costs and benefits” of their decisions, as they shift from an attitude of “analytical nuance” to “morally charged commitment to acting almost regardless of consequence.”

Ukraine 2022:

The invasion of Ukraine was a violation of the moral norms upon which the European order stands.  The cognitive shock and moral outrage we feel is deepened by the relative uselessness of our position. Without risk of nuclear escalation NATO’s ability to prevent Ukrainian defeat is limited. This is a humiliating position for the most powerful statesmen in the Western world. Any man forced into such circumstance will feel compelled to find some way to reassert his agency. Our emotions will demand that we do something if only to prove to ourselves that we still have the capacity to act. …

Do we crush the Russian economy because we earnestly think that doing so will unseat Putin, reverse his army’s march in Ukraine, or deter him from similar resort to arms in the future? Or do we do it because we must do something and economic coercion is the only tool in our box? …

How would America have responded if the Russians had been openly, brazenly arming insurgents in Iraq and Afghanistan? … What do we think the Russian response might be?

The war to end all wars — the Great War, aka WWI — started from a political assassination in Serbia, followed by an Austrian invasion of Serbia. Could Ukraine 2022 lead to WW3? Possibly, if the fools following their moral imperatives and emotions hold sway.