Blessed Ambiguity

  • by Pete O'Brien
  • 03-13-2022

Most wars of conquest have several phases; often (and this is true in the past as much as it is today) wars start with a few brilliant victories in short order. Then they seem to separate out into several categories: the loser of the battles surrender (less common); long, slow grinds follow in which both sides settle down to a series of battle over time, separated by periods of raising and training new armies - these wars can last a long time (the “100 Years War” in fact lasted 116 years). 


Such wars often see truces, changes in government, changes in the reason the war is being fought, even countries changing sides. Long wars get very confusing the more they drag out. And of course, there are insurgencies, where, after a few battles the “winner” declares the war is over and the “loser" fades into the background and begins to pick at the “winner.” These wars usually last as long as the “winner” insists on being the winner. When the winner finally admits defeat and leaves, the war is over. Sometimes the winner will announce victory and leave, it amounts to the same thing, the winner left, and the “occupied” are again in control. 


         Consider Saddam Hussein’s conquest of Kuwait, summer of 1990. We countered, within days, then led a counter-attack in 1991, then patrolled and squeezed his country for another 11 years, then attacked and occupied his country in 2003, and then he was found (2003), tried and executed (2006). A few years later, we left.


         The US examples in Korea, Vietnam and Afghanistan each have their own lessons to tell. Said differently, warfare is amazingly complex, and as Winston Churchill noted:

         Never, never, never believe any war will be smooth and easy, or that anyone who embarks on the strange voyage can measure the tides and hurricanes he will encounter. The statesman who yields to war fever must realise that once the signal is given, he is no longer the master of policy but the slave of unforeseeable and uncontrollable events.


         About the only wars of conquest that produce clear victory are when the attacker gets very badly beaten and goes home, or the attacker wins, occupies and then, over time wipes out the folks who were first there; China’s seizing of Tibet, for example.


         Which gets us around to Russia and Ukraine. What will Russia do in Ukraine and where does that leave the US?


         I recall listening to some friends who were in the US Army in the 80s talk about the Russians. They had all served in Europe and the focus of their professional lives was how to stop a Russian (Soviet) assault across the plains of northern Europe. In light of the fair to poor performance of the Russian army over the past two weeks, that might sound odd, that we had ascribed to them a capability that was far beyond the fact.


         All of the discussions, presuming the beer and pizza lasted long enough, included the estimate that the Russians - the Soviets - were going to use nerve gas in the attack.


         The point was, the Soviet Army wasn’t going to win based on agility, tactical acumen, highly developed operational art, etc. Rather, victory would be based on the use of nerve agent and killing a very large number of folks in front of the army.


         And there was a general assumption that someplace in all that mess the Soviets would probably use tactical nuclear weapons. This was not going to be a sword fight with rapiers among two master swordsmen; this was going to be a very ugly bloodbath.


         So, the fact the Russians have performed in such a clumsy manner over the past two weeks is simply a testimony that little has changed in the last 50 years in way of time and money provided to the army for training and maintenance.


         Putin is certainly not pleased his war of conquest has taken the course it has, but there’s little reason to believe that he will simply quit two or three weeks into the war. If there was any decent planning (planning not to be confused with poor execution), there would have been some discussion of branch plans in the event of various contingencies. Certainly at one point or another Putin considered how long this might continue. 


         The war in Chechnya lasted 9 months, followed by an insurgency that lasted 9 years. The war in Georgia lasted just a week, but certainly Putin understood that Ukraine was not Georgia; after all, there had been regular fighting in the Donbas region of Ukraine for 8 years, 14,000 Ukrainians had died, and there was no sign that was going to end soon.


         So, the idea that Russia will “simply” choose to withdraw, while possible, is unlikely. And while there is also the possibility that Putin will be forced out of office, it too is unlikely. The likelihood is that this war will drag on.


         And so, the US must learn how to face down Russia, that is, face down a country with a huge nuclear arsenal - bigger than the US arsenal - without ever appeasing Putin.

         In dealing with the Soviet Union we really began with a recognition, as Churchill himself noted, that all out war between nuclear powers was no longer possible. Yet the Soviets were contained, and Russia - and China - can be contained.


         The men who put together that strategy, beginning with Eisenhower, shared a sober appreciation of the fact that everyone needed to tread carefully, even while refusing to appease the Soviets. We needed to confront the Soviets, as we now must confront the Russians and the Chinese, but we need to be careful to make sure we didn’t, and don’t, move too far up the escalation ladder. 


         The question then - and the question now - is how to do that?


         The fellow who mastered the problem first was Eisenhower. The gist of the solution is simple: you need to make it very clear to the other side that there is a hard line that they must not cross. But, at the same time, the precise nature of that line must be forever ambiguous. 


This is not an easy position to occupy. It requires a host of points be addressed:                            

o   The US needs a capable conventional force that is able to engage in a broad range of other military operations without being forced to escalate into use of nuclear weapons.

o   The US needs a survivable and flexible nuclear force that credibly address a broad range of scenarios. This force must be clearly and visibly well trained and maintained.

o   The extent of the US security must be well understood, long before any crisis arises. The ambiguity of whether Korea was to be protected by the US or not directly led to the War in Korea in 1950. That sort of thing must never be allowed to happen again.

o   And then the President must, as Dean Acheson told then President-elect Kennedy, determine exactly what his use threshold is, and then tell absolutely no one.


         Stated differently, there must be no ambiguity what the US will defend, nor any ambiguity as to our capability to defend those things. But there must be great ambiguity as to where the red line lies.


         Ike did it. We need to do it again.


         Both Europe and Asia depend on that ambiguity.