This is Part 2 of a 3-part conversation between Michael Vlahos, who has taught war and strategy at the Naval War College since 1980, and Col. Douglas McGregor, retired from the US Army and author of Margin of
This discussion is about why NATO is failing so badly at a strategic level and the extent to which the Ukraine war has galloped out of control because it's a proxy war run on deceit and denial. The US and UK have engaged in a propaganda war both to aid Ukrainian propaganda and to obscure what's going on on the ground.
Given its portrayal of the war in a way that's sheer fantasy, what does this say about the ability of the government and military to engage in actual reality, to deal with things as they are and not as we want them to be?
Background context for the discussion
Globalism is about the centralization of power and control and attempts to achieve that goal are not new. Modern day globalism aims to destroy both the concept of the sovereignty of nations rooted in the 1648 Treaty of Westphalia and the international law framework that grew out of and was in response to World War 2. These concepts were foundational to the UN Charter as originally constructed.
Understanding how these core principles were hijacked and corrupted over time is key to understanding what we see today; not just the war in Ukraine but the willingness of the European political class in particular to abandon the sovereignty of their own countries in service to the centralization of power at the core of NATO and EU Commission diktats to their respective member states.
NATO: from defensive to offensive alliance, US dominance, European nations as vassal states
The NATO of the 1950s and 60s had a pre-determined, unambiguous enemy to point to. That began to fall apart by the 80s and vanished at the end of 89.
So then a decision was needed, what do we do with this thing called NATO? Alliances are difficult to hold together in a war, much harder in peace time so what you do is create an enemy for it. So we end up with this strange situation where NATO is no longer a defensive alliance but becomes an offensive instrument in the hands of Washington. The Europeans volunteered for this situation, they were only too willing to be made vassals of the US.
This helps to explain why the US did not make a concerted effort to bring all the former SSRs, including Russia, into NATO and found a way to reposition Russia as the new enemy. The wars in the former Yugoslavia and especially the Middle East, where NATO found itself strangely engaged in the middle of Central Asia, didn't keep the bonds of dependency strong, in fact it began to weaken them.
The 1991 Gulf War reaffirmed US dominance and control,. People concluded there was no one in the world with access to the technology and capabilities to equal that of the US. I remember a TIME or Newsweek cover showing American soldiers in the desert that said "Where will they go next?"
At that point we were transformed into a kind SWAT team military force. Wherever political leadership sent us, we were supposed to go and somehow muddle through and make things right. That hasn't worked out very well.
Americans need to understand that there is no command structure with all the assets (Command, Control, Communications, Computers, Intelligence, Surveillance, Reconnaissance or C4ISR), that is European, it's all American. Anything that happens militarily in Europe is of necessity American, because if you take that backbone away, no one can replace it. US dominance was so great that European militaries began to slough off the things that made them credible as militaries.
And we now have lots of little states in Europe that have joined this thing called NATO that are very interested in leveraging American military, political and economic power for their narrow interests. On the other hand, the dependency of these countries can become an excuse for elevating the threat. The re-creation of the Russian threat was essential to preserving the absolute primacy and dominance of the US.
It's paradoxical why we would be so intensely focused not just on using Russia and the Russian threat as a way to keep NATO under our thumb but to go so far to embrace the idea of Russia as evil that we are overextending ourselves.
"Covenants without swords", lessons not learned, degradation of the American military
There's a chapter in Correlli Barnett's The Collapse of British Power, called "Covenants without swords." In the 20s and 30s the British started making all these commitments around the world for which they had no forces to sustain. So they ended up going to war in 1939 completely unprepared for the global implications and
commitments. So what they had to do was impoverish themselves by relying exclusively on the US to bankroll and equip them. It was the first step on the road to vassal state status. And that began early in the war, by the end of 41 or beginning of 42, the British were effectively bankrupt.
We've overextended ourselves, we have a very fragile grip on the things we think we control. We see that in the finance markets, economically; we don't produce in this country like we once did, we're not even defending our borders and yet we're courting outright war in a part of the world where most Americans have never been and don't even understand.
One factor has to be a mixture of arrogance, complacency, vanity, entitlement, a belief that the American military is supreme. So it's not only the sharpest arrow in your quiver it's also the element
that never fails. And what strikes me as ironic and mysterious is that it's failed again and again since the 60s. We're entranced by our own symbols of power, we continue to use them because we have such faith in their talismanic power to keep us strong. How did that happen?
That has to be re-examined There are various ways you win or lose and this goes back to the attrition model we discussed before. You can expend all your resources and be defeated, not by the enemy but by your own stupidity. That's what I think is happening in Ukraine.
We're not even considering these things. We're not looking at any of our potentional vulnerabilities. We only look at what we believe to be our strengths but those strengths haven't recently been tested. And if you fight someone like Russia, those things will be tested.
And this is something I was hoping we'd talk about - some of the work you (Vlahos) have done on identity. If I see anything, I see a stronger Russia, a more cohesive societal structure in Russia, greater confidence and faith in the Russian state and Russian nationalism. And I don't see that happening in Europe. In fact, this is the problem with this NATO alliance, there are diverging interests. People in Berlin are looking at what's going on in Poland and have concluded the Poles have lost their minds. They're not interested in being part of a war with Russia. I don't know of anyone in Italy or Greece or France or Spain that's interested in being dragged into a war with Russia.
We have a shrinking military establishment that for a whole range of reasons a lot of people don't want to serve in. Then we have 30 years of officer selection that have led to a group of senior leaders who, frankly, most of us would not follow. They
don't have any gut-wrenching experiences in their background, they don't exhibit professional depth. We seem to have preferred people who were anxious to go along if it meant a chance for
When the fantasy of the elites collapses there will be those who want to dramatically escalate. I think that will be the moment of greatest danger in the entire war when the military leadership is going to have to step up and say "no". The problem is the whole point in the War College course I taught all those years was
to accommodate and appease civilian leadership. That's not a healthy relationship when you're on the cusp of WW3.
McGregor served in the war plans division of the Army staff and one of the things he could never find was a clear statement of US vital strategic interests which you'd look for as the justification for force structure, contingency planning and so forth.
I think this has been a problem for us for a long time, If you go back to General Marshall in WW2 and his meetings with the British, there would be 10 or 12 officers with Marshall and the British officers would come in, all of them carrying map cases and books and papers. The British would roll out these maps and show where every oil field, port and rail line was located. We had nothing.
While the Americans had vague aims of "defeating Germany" the British were asking, "what are we doing? what do we want the world to look like when the war's over?" Of course the British were
imperialists, they'd been at it for hundreds of years, but we learned almost nothing from this and we're still lost.
During WW2 there was a letter from Marshall to Eisenhower saying "you've got all the divisions you're going to get, you have to fight this thing and win it. You're not going to get anything else, we
can't do it. We have all these other commitments."
I don't want to talk about whether Eisenhower was a good or bad president but he came to the office with an acute sense of just how limited our manpower resources really were. And he saw the war through a different lens than Kennedy or Nixon, who were in the fleet in the Pacific and were starry-eyed over the masses of ships and everything else but didn't understand that it all came at a cost.
So when they talk about the possibility we might send this coalition of the willing some distance into Ukraine as described by General Petraeus, there is an acute failure to understand what that really means. How many replacements do you have to replace the wounded because you have to assume the Russians are not going to ignore this force in front of them. How many repair parts, how much fuel, how much ammunition? I don't think we've sat down and done the calculus.
The pivot to a globalist mindset and the cost to America
How did our worldview became so distorted? I think part of it is structural, in the sense of what happens to an imperial ruling class and ruling system. And part of it is the loss of insight that goes with that process of becoming a navel-gazing courtier class.
In the US ever since the Clinton administration, including all those that followed with the possible exception of Trump, we've seen the rise of a global elite, championing words like globalization, gathering by the hundreds in their private jets at Davos every January and increasingly cut off and separate from the pulse of the actual nation.
This was exactly Correlli Barnett's argument, that the British ruling classes had this vision of England that didn't exist anymore, that had vanished as a result of the first world war.
And we have a similar situation now in the US. If you ask the ruling elites about America, they wax eloquently about America. Well, have you visited it lately? I talked to someone the other day who insisted the inflation wasn't all that bad, that we could master this and get by. And I said, "Drive 100 miles west, 100 miles north or 100 miles south of Washington DC, and look at the lines of people at the food banks. Things are not good." The same
kind of disconnect is there. But unlike Great Britain, we don't have a United States that's going to march in and supplant what we don't have with their capabilities
Since Clinton there's been this almost conscious de-industrialization of the US. During those administrations, the US allowed 50% of our manufacturing base to move to China and some of it to Mexico. It changed the balance in the global economy. They don't care about borders, in fact they want more cheap labor in the US.
They have a ruling ethos that's not connected to the American ethos that preceded it, which was a more unitary concept of the nation. They don't have a concept of a nation, they have a concept of a world elite class. And what that does is put them and their worldview in a context where they use the word "identity" as a political cudgel. Identity to them is just another tactic in their attempt to seize and control power. Actual identity as in the whole nation is something that exists in Russia, and it's
extremely powerful. But they have lost the capacity to understand the existence of that identity, they can only see it as something to be expunged somehow.
The sad part is our European contemporaries, our colleagues in all those governments gleefully participated in the de-industrialization of their societies and destruction of national identity.
Except for Hungary and maybe the Poles. And dare I say it, Donald Trump; he's considered to be the anti-Christ inside the Beltway, but he made the argument that the Europeans had to become their own first responders. It's a simple statement, being your own first responder translates into some degree of sovereignty, independence, judgment, thought and strategy. All of these have been swept away through 50-60 years of NATO.
The political ploys of re-ensnaring NATO and re-stitching their vassal status by using Russia at some point got out of hand. You could say 2014 and after but I think what we saw in 2016 with the
emergence of this mythology of the Russian bacterium infecting our body politic. It created an emotional imbalance, you could compare it to a psychosis in which our strategic judgment has
We're enmired in our own emotions, you listen to all these people in Congress and mainstream media and they really believe what they're saying. This might explain why the elite has created this fantasy about the war and stuck to it so doggedly, attacking anyone who raised a criticism or presented a different analysis.
There's no doubt this war on an ideological level is inextricably intertwined with all the other misconstrued ideas and confused mindsets. I don't know of an easy solution but something is going to happen in the near future, this narrative is going to fail.
And when it does will we be able to step back? Now there's one thing working in our favor and that's that more and more Americans are saying, "You want to march into Ukraine with 40,000 troops and 30,000 Polish troops and 20,000 Romanian troops? Why don't we protect our own borders? What are we doing for our own national security?" It's a legitimate question that's coming up more and more, people aren't happy with the situation.
Just before we went into Iraq in 2003 McGregor was asked to design an approach that would get us in and facilitate a rapid withdrawal - of course that all changed but that's another story [covered in Fiasco by Thomas E. Ricks]. A woman was interviewed who lived in a not very nice neighborhood in Washington DC and she said something that has stuck with me ever since: "I wish the US Army would occupy my neighborhood and get rid of all these drug dealers and criminals." She made an excellent point. And I think more and more Americans are coming to that conclusion.
there doesn't seem to be anything here