The Case Against Another Foolish War of Choice

A favorite expression of the faux down-home Republican senate leader from Kentucky is, "There is nothing to be learned from a second kick by a mule."

I am in the same age group as Senator McConnell and most other senior political leaders (George W. Bush, Dick Cheney, Nancy Pelosi, Hillary Clinton, and Joe Biden) who got our country into the Iraq and Afghanistan war fiascoes – with Syria, Libya, and Yemen on the short list of other ill-advised military interventions they initiated while in office. Prior to 9/11, the most transformative event in our lifetimes was the Vietnam War and the political turmoil it created that played out on the streets and college campuses as we came age in the ‘60s and early ‘70s. That lived experience was a kick in the gut by Senator McConnell’s preverbal mule. I served in the Air Force during the ‘70s and supported the Vietnam war effort from Guam but was not deployed in-country.

Later in life, I served eight years (2007-14) in the Iraq and Afghan wars as a field-level civilian advisor for USAID. I wrote a memoir (When Will We Ever Learn?) in 2019 which I updated after the Taliban takeover in Afghanistan in August 2021. This debacle was the inevitable outcome to this 20-year war I had foreseen years earlier. (Anyone who believes keeping Bagram Airbase was ever a realistic possibility needs to read my book.) In my book, I document how our Vietnam-scarred political leadership foolishly got our country into those similar wars of choice and how equally ineptly our military was in prosecuting the Iraq and Afghan wars. The public was similarly misled with lies and deceptions by our political and military leaders. I remain dumbfounded by the lack of any ‘learning experience’ from Vietnam. I was awakened by F-16s taking off from Kandahar Airfield to conduct nighttime bombing raids on Afghan villages in 2012 for no justifiable U.S. national security rationale just I was awakened by B-52s taking off from Guam to bomb Hanoi and Haiphong forty years earlier.

Exhibiting remarkable cognitive dissonance for a third time, the aforementioned political leadership is now feverishly and counterfactually endeavoring to get our country into another war of choice fiasco and potential quagmire in my lifetime – this one in eastern Europe over Ukraine’s disputed boundaries and its possible future NATO membership. Seriously, these trivialities – again unrelated to US national security – are grave concerns over which our political leaders almost unanimously agree that America should risk starting an unprovoked war with the world’s #2 nuclear power. Knowing the mindset in Washington, I predicted a future contrived war of choice in Eurasia both in my book and in an article for last year. This trifecta was not hard to foresee. Indeed, the one thing Senator McConnell and his neocon cohorts in Congress have demonstrated throughout their post-Cold War era political careers is that they have learned nothing from the repeated mule kicks our country has taken from their ill-advised wars of choice initiated under the ruse of advancing democracy or protecting bogus US national security interests in far off parts of the world. Admittedly, I thought Iran or China would be our next military adventure – so stay tuned!

Three aspects of a looming "déjà vu all over again" war with Russia over Ukraine make this prospective war of choice even more perilous that its predecessors in the post-World War II era. I will cover these points here since they have been ignored or only scantly mentioned in other commentary on the Washington War Machine’s pending military conflict with Russia to support the US installed government in Kiev. (Any correlation with the pseudo "democratic" governments the CIA and State Department had a hand in installing in Saigon, Baghdad, and Kabul is merely coincidental).

1. Unlike the ill-equipped anti-occupation nationalists who confronted (and defeated) our vaunted military in Vietnam, Iraq, and Afghanistan, Russia has a real army and air force and is a formidable regional military power. Despite outlandish claims made by the Pentagon and warhawks in Congress to super-size DoD’s budget, Russia (unlike the Soviet Union) is not a global military power. With a gross domestic product (GPD) of only $1.5 trillion, Russia does not have the industrial base to be a peer or near peer military or economic competitor to America with our $20.9 trillion GDP. Russia’s national security spending – $62 billion in 2020 – is on par with the U.K., Germany, and France. On a comparable basis, the US War Machine is a $1.3 trillion/year enterprise. (Note that this figure is 87% of Russia’s entire GDP!) That said, Russia does have operational nuclear weapons and sufficient ground forces and air power to take and hold the Russian-speaking provinces in eastern Ukraine (the Donbass) – should it choose to do so. Thus, should an incursion occur and the US and/or NATO provide lethal military aid to Ukrainian resistance forces or directly intervene to dislodge Russian military units from the Donbass with artillery or air power; there could be a replay of the civilian massacres seen in the ethnic battles in the Balkans in the ‘90s. Worst case, a US military intervention in Ukraine could devolve into a stalemate and inflict civilian atrocities like those still occurring in the Middle East after 20 years of fighting. Less we do not forget, the unprovoked US invasion of Iraq in 2003 was the event that triggered the creation of ISIS and its reprehensible tactics. The difference this time – should the US military become involved in an ethnic territorial war in Ukraine – is that the IEDs used against our troops in the Middle East could be replaced by tactical nuclear weapons. It is politically expedient for President Biden to proclaim that no US troops will be involved in combat operations in Ukraine. But presidents used this same line to deceive the public 60 years ago before the Pentagon contrived the Gulf of Tonkin incident and turned the Vietnam War into a daily bloodbath.

2. Ethnic, religious, and tribal conflicts and boundary disputes cannot be resolved by military interventions by outside parties. This truism was the overarching folly that made both the Iraq and Afghan wars unwinnable military endeavors from the get-go – regardless of how many soldiers were deployed, bombs dropped, or opposition leaders killed. Similar to the competing factions in Iraq and Afghanistan and their artificial national boundaries, Russia and Ukraine have been intertwined with a tumultuous history for over 1,000 years (5:10 mark in this video) that will never end. Fortunately, how this relationship is worked out and how it changes over time does not affect US national security or economic interests one way or the other. This dispute should be a non-issue for the other 29 NATO-members countries as well. Not counting the US and Canada, the other NATO members collectively spend over $300 billion/year on national security. (Explain again why US taxpayers are paying to defend them against Russia’s $62 billion military and puny GDP!) Ukraine spends about $5 billion. So, Ukraine’s prospective contribution to NATO’s collective security is trivial. (If Ukraine ever joins NATO – an issue we are ready to start a war over – the US will be treaty-bound to defend Ukraine at our costs.) Indeed, given the robust bilateral trading relationships that have formed between Russia and most NATO members (most notably, Germany and France) in the post-Cold War era, its questionable why NATO even still exists. For this reason alone, no US taxpayer funds should be used for supplying Ukraine weapons or for having US troops and/or military assets engage or support Ukrainian military forces in any manner. The Ukraine/Russia dispute is a European problem best left to the Europeans to resolve in a manner that balances their economic and genuine national security interests. (Germany and France are attempting to do this behind the scenes.) Having been pressured by the Washington neocons into participating (most nominally) in their ill-fated Afghan War and then left in the dark on the pullout, most NATO nations will likely take a pass on joining the US War Machine in another irresolvable ethnic, tribal, border-dispute war. Indeed, in this case the war would be their backyard and their citizens (but not Americans) would face prolonged economic hardships – including having their heat turned off – if Washington imposes crippling sanctions on Russia. (I’ve lived in German when I served in NATO – and its winters are really cold!)

3. Our country’s current financial predicament (projected $3 trillion federal budget deficit this fiscal year to add to our country’s $30 trillion in existing debt) makes starting what easily could become another quagmire war fiscally irresponsible and potentially cause (or makes more probable) a global financial crisis. An ominous fact is the last fiscal year in which Congress passed a balanced budget (i.e., current year federal income receipts exceed government expenditures) was FY 2000 – the year before the 9/11 attacks and the start of the Bush Administration’s still ongoing Global War on Terror (GWOT). Our national debt ballooned over this period from an easily manageable $5.8 trillion in 2000 to $22.9 trillion in 2019. The most significant factor in this $17.1 trillion increase in national debt was a $7.5 trillion increase in defense spending. Our national debt grew from 55% to an unsustainable 107% of GDP over this period– an unprecedented figure since World War II. But things got worse – not better – when the major GWOT wars ended. An additional $6.9 trillion in deficit spending was incurred in 2020-21 predominately to fund Covid response measures. (All figures from this chart.) This is a thumbnail explanation on how our country has gotten to $30 trillion in national debt (124% of GDP) with an unsustainable structural budget deficit problem approaching $1.5 trillion/year since the start of the GWOT. It is beyond the scope of this article to get into this matter further (Congressional Budget Office documents corroborate this gloomy fiscal outlook), but two conclusions are inescapable from this synopsis:

First, major cuts in discretionary national security spending (currently about $950 billion/year as 60% of all discretionary spending) must be made starting this year to begin to bring Congress’ structural budget deficit down to a manageable level. Nothing else can be cut to make to make a significant difference and raising taxes is not politically feasible. Unless this structural deficit problem is addressed in a meaningful way, our country will continue on a path to financial insolvency.

Secondly, with uncertainty over the need for additional Covid response spending, with interests payments on our $30 trillion in national debt expected to at least double in the years ahead as interest rates are raised to combat inflation, and with half the country and members of Congress demanding greater social program spending; the last thing that Congress and the Biden Administration should be doing is provoking a war of choice with Russia. This ill-advised course of action risks triggering a black swan event.

To avert another foolish war of choice to fuel the US War Machine, this question needs to be asked in the White House and Pentagon press briefing rooms:

"Is defending Ukraine’s position on its disputed eastern border region and Ukraine’s right to join NATO someday such grave national security issues for the US to justify possibly starting a war with Russia – especially when the expansion of NATO eastward following the collapse of the Soviet Union remains a contested diplomatic issue between Russia and the US?

Note: Whether US Secretary of State James Baker pledged to Soviet General Secretary Gorbachev in 1990 not to expand NATO eastward following the collapse of the Soviet Union (as contemporaneous documents validate) is a contested issue. Nonetheless, NATO – at America’s urging – has expanded eastward by adding nine new member countries in eastern Europe in proximity to Russia. In Putin’s mind, his recent security demands calling for NATO to reestablish a defensive "sphere of influence" was discussed and promised to Russia in 1990. He is merely calling on the US and NATO to honor their word in the case of Ukraine. Both Baker ("I may have been over my skis a bit") and Gorbachev (NATO’s expansion eastward is "unnecessarily provocative") acknowledge that NATO non-expansion was the spirit (if not a written agreement) of the assurance and statements made in 1990. Baker suggested in 1993 that NATO should consider admitting Russia as a member as a way to defuse this issue. Who is the untrustworthy party in this long festering imbroglio?

Mr. Enzweiler is a Harvard MBA , MIT graduate, and US Air Force veteran who has lived, worked, and traveled extensively in the Greater Middle East, including working as an USAID contractor and US Foreign Service (limited) Officer in Iraq and Afghanistan from 2007 through 2014. He is retired and lives in California and Mexico with his wife Elena. He’s written a book critiquing US foreign and military policy titled, When Will We Ever Learn?, and has written other articles for and the Libertarian Institute.

Author: Ronald Enzweiler

Mr. Enzweiler is a Harvard MBA , MIT graduate, and US Air Force veteran who has lived, worked, and traveled extensively in the Greater Middle East, including working as an USAID contractor and US Foreign Service (limited) Officer in Iraq and Afghanistan from 2007 through 2014. He is retired and lives in California and Mexico with his wife Elena. He’s written a book critiquing US foreign and military policy titled, When Will We Ever Learn?, and has written other articles for and the Libertarian Institute.