On February 22, 1909, President Teddy Roosevelt reviewed 16 battleships returning from his “Great White Fleet” two year world tour which began on December 16, 1907. The fleet’s return, 10 days before his term of office ended with the inauguration of William Howard Taft, expressed in real terms that the United States was a world power, capable of projecting that power anywhere on the planet.
Allow me a (very) brief (and simplified) trot down history lane, and I promise I’ll get to my point about today.
The “Great White Fleet” was fêted at each of its 20 ports of call, and even rendered assistance after an earthquake struck Sicily in December, 1908. It was an amazing achievement of American technological and military advances. It was also a show of American unity and resolve, given the time, when the American Civil War was a living memory for many military leaders.
The grand tour came fresh off the success of Roosevelt’s role in negotiating the end of the Russo-Japanese War with the Treaty of Portsmouth. That won him the Nobel Peace Prize in 1906. Russia and Japan, both regional powers in their own right, clashed for two years, with one battle—the battle for Mukden—costing the sides a combined 100,000 soldiers. Russia sent its Baltic fleet around the Cape of Good Hope and the Indian Ocean, only for it to suffer fifty percent casualties at the hands of the Japanese. Both Russia and Japan fell to their knees and looked to America to broker an exit to the bloody war.
Really, the Treaty of Portsmouth left nobody satisfied (which means, it was likely the fairest deal possible). In the U.S., popular opinion held that Japan was considered in the right, while Russia was considered the aggressor. But in the end, Russia and Japan got along as America, under Taft, focused on its own hemisphere.
Taft’s presidency in some ways framed Ronald Reagan’s over 70 years later. His “dollar diplomacy” threw money at Central America, the Caribbean, and China, continuing TR’s use of force with his own—Taft sent nearly three thousand Marines to Nicaragua to quash a rebellion. Taft’s efforts didn’t work, and he became known as “Peaceful Bill” after backing down to congressional opposition.
Woodrow Wilson wanted to undo TR’s “big stick” diplomacy by promising to return an isolationist, free trade, less militarized society. He then promptly flip-flopped, pushing America headlong into the “Great War.” After pushing the Western Alliance across the finish line, destroying the Ottomans’ Turkish empire, crushing the Austro-Hungarians, and imposing punishing reparations on Germany, Wilson headed the effort to create the League of Nations, winning his own Nobel Peace Prize in the process.
Then of course, the world was shaken by the Great Depression, which largely kept anyone from war, while Germany quietly rebuilt under the Nazis growing control, and Russia careened into Stalinist rule. The quest for a “lasting” peace was always rewarded with a hot war.
The Cold War with the Soviet Union and China had its own share of hot proxy wars: Korea and Vietnam for us, and Afghanistan and Nicaragua for Russia. These were the bloody exceptions, that took the pressure off the nuclear-armed NATO nations and their primary opponents. The alternative to cold war is hot war directly involving the protagonists. We find ourselves today with the same conundrums as Teddy Roosevelt handed to William Howard Taft in 1909.
America is clearly the only superpower in the world. Our Navy alone has the second largest air force in the world, surpassed only by our Air Force. Our military technology and doctrine—even a small touch of it—is enough to enable a once-corrupt, centralized and ossified command structure like Ukraine to block and even push back the much larger and better-armed Russia. With just a touch more “involvement” in the Ukraine theater of war, say, sending F-16s, as military experts David Deptula and Evelyn Farkas suggested in a Wall Street Journal op-ed, and Biden National Security Advisor Jake Sullivan dismissed as “a question for a later time,” America could enable Ukraine to “win” against Russia, sooner rather than later (or never).
Of course, the Biden White House fears “being drawn in” to war with Russia. I use the scare quotes here because it should be obvious that America can’t be drawn in without our own cooperation and agreement. Even if Russia committed a de jure casus belli against a NATO nation like Poland, to America that would be known as a casus foederis—an act against an ally. Even if Poland felt duty-bound to respond, it would be in America’s interest to restrain Poland to a balanced and proportional response, versus going straight to NATO Article 5. Certainly Article 5 requires all NATO nations to treat any attack on one as an attack against all; but that’s a deterrent measure. In practice, it doesn’t have to mean all out war, though Putin would love to threaten it.
Putin wants to create a binary situation where Ukraine is left on its own, or the world shoots toward nuclear armageddon. The world has been on the brink of nuclear armageddon for 70 years; I think that kind of Cold War is preferable to the hot war we might end up with if we let Ukraine fester.
The calculus is not actually that difficult. The longer Ukraine fights, the more damage the Ukrainian military—in manpower—takes, and the more damage Ukraine’s civilian infrastructure and economy takes. Meanwhile, despite punishing sanctions and horrendous personnel losses, Russia, by comparison, is less damaged. Moscow still trades with China, India, and to some extent, Europe. It is free to exchange technology and cash with Iran, and to continue engaging in war crimes against Ukraine, and destabilization in other nations.
Giving Ukraine “just enough,” as has been the policy of the Biden administration, gives the American people time to tire of this foreign war, and for political allies of Putin to paint our involvement as a costly foreign venture with a fair-weather ally. We can see the resolve begin to waver, even with the pageantry of repeated visits by Ukrainian President Volodymyr Zelenskyy and the return visit (a brilliant exercise) of President Joe Biden to Kyiv.
We can also see the deference shown to Biden’s visit—a perfect opportunity to do some real damage and show strength while Biden was in a “war zone” without U.S. troops—by Putin and Moscow. They were given some number of hours of advance warning for “de-confliction” purposes, and Russia did not dare to even twitch at what the terrible response of America might be to the slightest provocation.
The key to having a “Great White Fleet” is to use it; to send it around the world to show that our power is not merely for trying to tame the Taliban or to “spread democracy” to historically oppressed people in Iraq. Woodrow Wilson, as awful a man as he was (racist and elitist), got us into World War I with one purpose: to win it.
Biden’s path to peace is to win the war in Ukraine, unequivocally, 100 percent, giving Ukraine everything it needs to take the Donbas, Mariupol, the Dniepro, and yes, Crimea. If this means hurrying M1A2 Abrams tanks to the front, supplying ATACMS-capable HIMARS launchers and missiles which can strike deep into Russian territory, and putting American-made F-16s into the sky over Ukraine, that’s the fastest path to peace.
Russia’s response to this might be an attempt to widen the war, but we don’t have to accept that challenge. Poland, Germany, Turkey, and even Moldova, can hold off Russia just fine by themselves (the Russians know this). The Balkans would quickly become a quagmire for Russia, and NATO still maintains some authority in KFOR (which still exists); and the Baltic states—subject to Article 5—would run down Putin’s resources much faster than Ukraine ever could. Russia, right now, is very much penned in, and is playing for time. America doesn’t need to give it that time to rearm and procure new weapons from China, and to build factories to produce Iranian drones.
Both Teddy Roosevelt and Woodrow Wilson won Nobel Peace Prizes by negotiating through strength. TR merely paraded it, and Wilson threw it at a blazing Europe. Biden has done the opposite, withdrawing, threatening, but not using our advantage to press to victory. Biden’s path to a Nobel—or at least to being the president America needs versus just making ceremonial gestures and empty promises, is not merely to “stand by” Ukraine, but to win the war.
But that might result in a new Cold War, you argue. But even if it does, a new Cold War is preferable to the hot one awaiting us if we don’t act. I am not the only one who feels this way: Retired Lt. Gen. Ben Hodges, who once commanded U.S. Army Europe, and saw with his own eyes the transformation of the Ukrainian army through American doctrine, said Biden’s delay “in effect created sanctuary for the Russians.”
Equivocating, and playing too-clever-by-half games doesn’t prevent war when there’s already one burning. It only makes it more bloody in the end.
Follow Steve on Twitter @stevengberman.
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