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[belatedly acknowledged by Lynn C. Rees]

Here’s strategy at its most concrete.

Of all human imposed constants in American strategy, this is the most constant: Russia is the only threat on earth that can destroy the United States of America in hours. Though this constant seems less constant now than when Russia was subject to the Union of Soviet Socialist Republics, it has remained a constant menace despite Russia’s successful revolt against Soviet rule in 1991.

Yet the leaders of the United States follow a feckless strategy. Feckless strategy is like reckless strategy only with this critical distinction: while reckless strategy is at least energetic stupidity, feckless strategy is merely lazy stupidity. It is the art of failing without leaving your hammock. Swinging away, not a seeming care in the world, the United States has rudely intervened into Russia’s front yard, kicked out its Russia-friendly leadership, and is now taking leisurely victory lap around an uncaged nuclear tipped bear with a thousand year old inferiority complex and twenty years of wounded feelings to work through. This is not a win-win sporting event.

I’m all for stomping on your own client states. The efficient law of the jungle hypothesis argues that eventually the strong do what they can while the weak do what they must and the concert of nations will efficiently ultimately reflect this. But the United States has its own stable of poodles to oppress. Despite Mackinder’s trifecta:

Who rules East Europe commands the Heartland;

who rules the Heartland commands the World-Island;

who rules the World-Island controls the world

Sleepwalking past the Straights of Gibraltar or the Suez Canal through the Hellespont and the Bosporus so we can pee on Russia up the Dnieper from the Black Sea strikes me as a waste of time. Like the ridiculous proposal that the Americans take up the burden of a League of Nations mandate for Armenia after World War I (a proposal Thomas Woodrow Wilson (may his bones be crushed) fecklessly sent to the United States Senate where it was thankfully euthanized 52 to 23), the idea of American puppetry in the Black Sea, be it in the Ukraine, in Georgia, or some other quarrel in a far away country between people of whom we know nothing, is insane for many reasons. The most pressing of these reasons is that it is simply on the wrong side.

While Russia is from Mackinder, the United States is from Spykman:

Who controls the rimland rules Eurasia;

Who rules Eurasia controls the destinies of the world.

The United States stands tallest when it stands astride blue water. What touches blue water is on the right side and that blue water touches the Eurasian rimlands. It does not flow up the Dnieper.

To the rimlands we can go. If a key maxim of statecraft is “never stick your head into a hole you can’t pull it out of”, the rimlands, if they become a hole, at least have the virtue of being a hole a blue water power can pull its head out of. Sticking our head up the Dnieper, in contrast, is sticking our head into a hole wrapped in a tunnel wrapped in a bottomless abyss. The hole Ukraine gauntlet is three consecutive holes: the Mediterranean, the Black Sea, and only then the Dnieper.

At the end of that gauntlet is resentful Russia sucking its nuclear-tipped thumb. The Russians believe they were ill-treated by the United States after the USSR went to its ash heap. If I were Russian, I’d probably share the same hurt feelings. However, Russia can not be subject to Communism for seven decades and expect life to be rainbows and unicorns. A key question at the heart of statecraft: if you can’t kick a man when he’s down, when else exactly are you supposed to kick him? The United States emerged from its great contest with the USSR in a stronger position than the refugees fleeing that infernal contraption. Russia suffered through a decade of postwar gloom without the sort of postwar emotional reinforcement I thought only Germans required to work through chronic revisionist issues: American troops marching through the Brandenburg gate or Red Square. The United States was going to do thing to Russia that it couldn’t do to the USSR. It could afford to indulge in useless luxuries like online, on demand chewing gum pack delivery or pushing your “attack on one is an attack on all” club to the line of the Nieman.

Poor Russia, whining in the cold, wanted dotcom era baubles too. If it couldn’t get that, at least it wanted the shadow of American intervention removed from its near reaches. We succumbed to the full Mackinder, absentmindedly reaching our tentacles into Central Asia, Eastern Europe, and other remote parts. 

I have no objection in principle to reaching our tentacles into remote parts. I do object to doing so fitfully and under resourced. If you are going to go Heartland on Eurasia, go Tamerlane or go home. If we are not going to go Tamerlane, a highly likely course since Joe S. American is likely to ask “What’s a Ukraine and what can I do with it?”, than we should stay home. Home is even more comfortable when you realize its walls provide some protection and distance from angry nuclear tipped teddy bears.

The United States, if it is to be overseas, should keep to its knitting by keeping to its Eurasian littorals. Heartland thugs and Heartland minions are not a luxury we need to acquire. Especially if your mischief is slouching over the line separating self-indulgence from self-destruction. Then we’re buying low quality assets at a price that can easily go nuclear. Or, to quote a particularly feckless past incarnation of our nation’s current top diplomat:

“How do you ask a man to be the last man to die for a mistake?”


25 Responses to “Feckless”

  1. Dave Schuler Says:

    I’ve repeatedly argued that our and Russia’s interests are sufficiently distinct that we should be enlisting Russia as a co-conspirator rather than poking a thumb in their collective eye as has been the policy lately.  Think CoDominium rather thanCold War.  Few seem to agree with me on this so it’s heartening to read this post.
    The one interest of ours that Russia can’t tolerate is our being the only effective power.  I’m skeptical that we’re capable of that but keeping our neighbors weak has been a part of the emergent U. S. grand strategy for more than a century and a half.  Nowadays even the most distant country is part of our near abroad.

  2. J.ScottShipman Says:

    The Russians were ill-treated (if their perspective is to be believed; I was in country from 92-96 with regular consistency—dealing with their arms control folks and navy). We should have been more gracious and humble. The rank and file Russian is not unlike anyone in an American neighborhood, just more accustomed to “lots of government” (ironically what we’ve been specializing in for the last 10 or 15 years minimum).
    We were a bit presumptuous, and didn’t quite know how to deal with a “tame” bear without all the commie accoutrements. While we dilly-dallied, the former commies became mafia/ruling class—they had access to all the wealth and connections in the West. So while the USSR is dead, in Russia the ruling elite are essentially the most clever of the commies to adopt just enough “market” to dominate what is left. 
    We don’t have the stones nor the resources to be much more than a cheerleader to Ukraine—especially given our downward trend in defense…. 

  3. Duncan Kinder Says:

    Also consider that the Ukraine appears likely to become Eastern Europe’s answer to Libya.

    I have studied the Balkans.  They are already a mess.  Spillover from the Ukraine will make them worse.  Much as spillover from Libya has caused unrest in Mali and other parts of Africa.

    I have not studied Central Asia.  But I cannot imagine that it could avoid similar spillover or is well prepare to experience it.

    And if the Ukrainian protesters get their wish and join the EU, I cannot imagine that they could prosper where Greece and Spain have failed. 

  4. Grurray Says:

    We tried gun boat diplomacy from the littorals in ’98 and it turned out to be the epitome of fecklessness-cum-catastrophe. I’m usually as indifferent as the next guy when it comes to entanglements in the other hemisphere,  but Central Asia is where I make an exception. It’s the lynchpin to ameliorating our current troubles with both Russia and China.
    Now with Russia’s western flank blowing up and Sino-Japan relations at an post-war low, we will never have a better opening than right now.

  5. Greg R. Lawson Says:

    But why not do a “Reverse Nixon to China” and embrace Russia as opposed to poking it.  With Sino-Japanese tensions near boiling, the nationalist Modi likely to come to power in India, getting Russia to keep China honest on its western border makes sense.  Instead, U.S. diplomacy seems monomaniacally obsessed with embarrassing Putin.  I fail to see the strategy in this.  It is simply post-Cold War foreign policy on auto pilot.

  6. T. Greer Says:

    The United States has an overwhelmingly powerful interest in driving a stake between Beijing and Moscow. America’s active presence in Central Asia has prevented the two powers from what would otherwise be a very natural source of competition.
    Beijing will not pick a fight over its Western reaches as long as men like Shinzo Abe hold power. Russia does not have time to pick a fight when it has to spend its resources rescuing Middle Easten client states or arm wrestling with the West for influence over its own border regimes.
    One of these problems is easier to fix than the other.

  7. seydlitz89 Says:

    Agree with Scott.  We blew it back in the 1990s.  There was so much good will from the side of the Russians at the beginning, but we wanted to rub their noses in it and let them know that “we had won”, when we should have been pleased with our luck.  
    As Scott McConnell’s mentioned, Putin is the best Russian leader in our lifetime (I’m 57) which if we had any sense of history or strategic acumen would be enough, but instead we piss away opportunity after opportunity . . . perhaps the defining characteristic of US policy formulation today.
    Then there’s the career types like potty-mouthed Nuland who used to work in the Cheney bunker (which has obviously left a mark on her) plotting with the local US know-nothing in Kiev about the future of the country . . . You couldn’t make this stuff up . . .
    Putin knows what he’s about and knows where he wants to take Russia.  His letter to the American people in September laid that out rather clearly.  He’s predictable in a strategically coherent sort of way.  Quite a difference from the inherent bungling/cluelessness/corruption leaking out of Cheneyville/Washington . . . 

  8. Dave Schuler Says:

    We blew it back in the 1990s.

    I fumed when Russia didn’t get an invitation to the D-Day anniversary.   It was an unforced error on our part—the invite would have cost nothing and built bridges. After all the Soviet Union was an Ally and the Russians think that they won WWII—we were just holding their coats and they’ve got a point.

  9. zen Says:

    Nixon fumed about this too and tried very hard to persuade the Bush sr. and then Clinton administrations to do more with and for Russia. He was rebuffed first by the hardliners who saw Russia as Soviet lite and then by the liberal internationalist camarilla led by Strobe Talbott and Al Gore who pushed Yeltsin toward internal alliance with the Oligarchs whose looting spree was sending 70-100 billion to western banks. Yeltsin had wanted to crush the CP as a security threat and outlaw it, quite sensibly, the way Germany banned the Nazi Party after WWII. Instead, the Oligarchs bludgeoned the Communists with campaign spending to re-elect Yeltsin who let them steal everything not nailed down. The answer to that was the siloviki regime of Putin reasserting the state.
    Future historians are going to be unkind to US leaders 1991-2016, if not beyond

  10. zen Says:

    And what T. Greer said

  11. Grurray Says:

    By setting up permanent bases in Central Asia, we take care of three birds with one stone while each bird – Russia, China, Iran – is looking in the other direction.
    America’s presence there is preventing cooperation between a Heartland Axis at a time when Russia is desperately looking for other natural gas markets to bypass the weak links in its pipelines to Europe and China is desperately trying to find overland routes to ME oil supplies to bypass choke maritime choke points. 
    Just because Putin is a good strategist doesn’t make him a good partner. In fact, he has been so great of a leader that he his undermining us all over the world.
    Bush Jr embraced his friend Vlad and what we got in return was kicked out of Uzbekistan and Russian nuclear plants in Iran.
    South Ossetia, nuclear accord and bombers to Venezuela, Snowden, Russian spyships in Havana – the list goes on and on.
    Good for him. Russia is eating our lunch everywhere, but there’s no basis for any friendship as long as Putin is in power.


  12. carl Says:

    I think it should be kept in mind that Russia is in the midst of a demographic disaster as far as I know. Their military is big but clumsy and they have a heck of a time getting modern weapons that work on line. They are plagued by continual internal unrest in their south that they can’t get a handle on no matter how brutal they are. They still are basically an extractive economy much of the proceeds of which are stolen by the oligarchs. If it was not for their past we would look at them as a ramshackle contraption of a country that is getting ramshackler by the day. It is still an important country but mainly for the mischief they can cause with what remains of the things they still have from the past. Unless they can change, good luck Vlad, they will fade in importance as the decades go by. We should keep that in mind.

    It always amazes me how some Americans can find something to admire in the most thoroughly rotten people like Vlad the magnificent.

  13. Lynn C. Rees Says:



    To be a central Eurasian presence, let alone central Eurasian power, the U.S. needs a secure seaport to anchor its efforts.


    When you say “permanent” bases in central Eurasia, what you’re saying if you’re using the last decade as an indicator is that we need bases that Moscow, Peiping, Islamabad, or New Delhi will tolerate. You have to have secure land lines (e.g. “the Northern Route”), which are either controlled or can be menaced by Russia or the regime at Peiping. Or you have to have a tolerable sea route, which in practice means Karachi and a Pakistan sufficiently stuffed full of dollars to let freight through the Hindu Kush.


    One achievement of the early 2000s Dubya/Pooty-Poot axis of mutual soul-gazing was that, at least initially, Pooty-Poot was fairly relaxed about the U.S. using former Soviet airbases despite protests from his in-house Cheneys. However, a base that we occupy merely on sufferance is not a “permanent” base, it’s a “tolerated” base.


    A permanent presence in Central Asia requires absolute sea control of the Indian Ocean, a kind of semi-hole in my Spykman-lite calculus. Here, as always, Afonso de Albuquerque is the trendsetter. We lack ready control over Aden, Malacca, Cape Town, Hormuz, Timor, or the other key bottleneck.


    In my opinion, the minimum for the U.S. to become an actual Central Eurasian power would be a rock solid U.S. colony (let’s not be euphemistic if we’re going Tamerlane, for this is part of so going) encompassing Baluchistan anchored at the port of Gwadar (carved from Pakistan) and Chabahar (carved from Iran) with those two connected by rail plus a rail crossing the more leisurely (in comparison with the Hindu Kush) Baluchi desert into Afghanistan and points north. Afghanistan is the Graveyard of Empires™ if approached from the east. It’s historic East Persia if approached from the west.


    Would we actually want such a contested aggregation of transport lines? For most contingencies I’d print more dollars for, no.

  14. seydlitz89 Says:


    To me talking about Cheney is the same as talking about Boyd, talking about Boyd the same as talking about Cheney . . . 

  15. Grurray Says:


    I agree that Gedrosia would need to be secured in order to ensure the smoothest supply lines. I would suggest we nominate T. Greer as Special Satrap because I doubt no one knows more about Asia especially the nomadic regions.

    The other alternative is an East-West route:
    Short of conquest, a less ambitious Heartland alliance probably requires peace with Iran which wouldn’t be that far fetched in light of recent events.
    The reality though is the littoral strategy is definitely the route we’ll take after withdrawal from Afghanistan, which is fine with the powers that be because it fits right into their war-by-remote control plans

  16. T. Greer Says:

    I am afraid I must decline the offer. Nomads or no, I do not travel past the 74th Meridian.

  17. Lynn C. Rees Says:



    I endorse your recommendation that Special Satrap Greer take up his cross promptly. He understands nomads well enough to know Baloochistan should be liberated from their tyranny.


    I’ll forward your recommendation on to the nearest Achaemenid as soon as I find one. We may have to wait until the passenger pigeon resuscitation project is completed.


    I’m not sure what a Heartland alliance is or what we’d do with such a Rube Goldberg contraption if we came into one. Unless your planning to take up extended residence on the Eurasian land mass, most such thingamajig’s are extremely fragile.


    Poster child: the Baku-Tblisi-Ceyhan pipeline. This is an American-backed initiative that crumbles when you realize it’s based on the proposition that the political alignments that caused Turkish-Azeri-Georgian-US interests to coincide as they did in the late 1990s-early 2000s will continue into the useful future. While Caucasians are haters and haters gotta be haters, their hatreds are also well known for their volatility. Will Georgians favor Azeris over Armenians forever? Will <UNPRONOUNCEABLE> always be in Armenian hands? Will Turkey continue to lean on the U.S. vs leaning on something else? 


    Then there’s the bear in the woods. In 2008, Russia advanced to within miles of the pipeline, close enough to brush it with their sleeves. Surprise: the pipeline is vulnerable to Russian pressure. Possession of the Roki Tunnel would provide more insulation. This, plus his feeling that the BTC pipeline gave the West buy-in into Georgian adventurism, probably let Saakashvili think he could repeat his Adjara coup d’main successfully. Nope.


    If we were having this exchange in 1977, I’m sure our pipeline plans would presume that Pahlavi is forever and a route through Iran would be just super spiffy.


    That’s another problem with client kings vassals allies that can pop up. They remain insufficiently committed to your agenda as opposed to their own. The solution has generally been direct rule in order to impress on the locals which agenda’s glory they should keep their eye single to. Hence my admonition to go Tamerlane or go home. If it’s worth banging our heads repeatedly against Eurasia’s hard underbelly, it’s worth annexing Baloochistan or Whateverstan as directly governed Territories of these United States. I don’t see a need for a Gedrosia Territory at this time. It or any feebler foreign entanglement in Central Eurasia would be worse than a mistake. They’d be a distraction.


    There is a need to be cautious about what kinder gentler or meaner harder American diplomatic initiatives can do. Even if the U.S. had been all lollipops and sunshine to Russia after 1991 or even all brussels sprouts and gloom as other men of long habit advocated, there is no guarantee Russia would reciprocate. Russia has its own internal political dynamics and external interests and those are not guaranteed to align with ours even if we become the United States of Joy towards Muscovy. The same goes for Iran. Most importantly, the same goes for us.


    Let’s understand what diplomacy is. As Angelo Codevilla usefully reminds us:

    In 1968, Fred Ikle published How Nations Negotiate, which is used by diplomatic academies around the world. Too many graduates, however, forget its central teaching, which is that the diplomat’s first task is to figure out whether agreement is possible on the basis of “the available terms”—in short, whether both sides’ objectives, though different, are compatible. Only if they are can negotiations proceed according to what Ikle calls “rules of accommodation”—making sincere proposals, honoring partial agreements, etc. If the objectives are incompatible, the diplomats may choose to walk away, or to “negotiate for side effects”—to use the negotiations to undermine the other side’s government, sow dissension among its allies, deceive it, pocket partial agreements and renege on commitments, buy time, gather intelligence, etc. Disaster looms when one side follows the rules of accommodation while the other negotiates for side effects. The essence of Ikle’s teaching is that the negotiator’s primordial job is to judge correctly whether the other side is negotiating for “available terms” or is waging war through diplomatic means, and hence to choose whether to negotiate for agreement, walk away, or treat the diplomatic table as a battlefield. That choice is “perpetual,” he writes, because human motives are variable.


    …diplomacy is not about tricks, lies, bluffs or misrepresentations. It is about representing reality in precise words on which all may rely, and of course on the compelling qualities of the things the words represent. Reputations for reliability are hard won and easily lost—by countries as well as by individuals. Hence it is incumbent on a diplomat to brandish only consequences that follow naturally from events, and the fulfillment of which is in his country’s interest as well as capacity, which it intends and may not even be able to avoid—in short, to warn but not to threaten.

    If there is a reality that leads us to need a alliance with the Heartland, to play in Peoriastan, then such a thing should be sought if there is hard reality to keep it from collapsing under the usual American talent and curse for delusion. The only certain initiative we need to launch on Eurasian soil is to erect a statue of John Boyd flexing his left hook in front of Joe’s house that is large and shiny enough that when Joe looks out the windows of the House of War, he can see Darth Cheney’s reflection smirking back at him.

    Meu nome é João Boyd, o coronel de coronéis.
    Olhe para as minhas obras, ó poderosos, e desespero.

  18. J.ScottShipman Says:

    Not sure on the Boyd-Cheney comparison. I don’t want to hi-jack this discussion, but while Cheney has spirit, he willfully manipulated his position within W’s administration. If the Showtime special is true (and it is called Dick Cheney In His Own Words—and he appears on camera), then he was a VP who thought he was president serving a president too lazy to fire him.
    That said, Boyd and Cheney admired each other; but in the context of Gulf War I. Cheney represented Big Defense, Boyd loathed Big Defense. The connection between the two was Cheney was smart enough to recognize a retired Air Force Colonel had more insight into how to execute GWI than an array of blustering general officers. 

  19. zen Says:

    My understanding of Boyd and Cheney is that they met during the military reform/fighter mafia period and that Cheney took in Boyd’s briefs as a Congressman which made him inclined later as SECDEF to listen to Boyd’s harsh critique of a fairly unimaginative early iteration of the theater plan for Desert Storm and that the Marine Corps leadership also had some problems with doing what Boyd caustically termed “hey diddle diddle, straight up the middle” into Iraq’s Republican Guard divisions. If this is accurate, and a number of VIPs say it is, it was pertinent criticism.
    Politically, I a don’t think Boyd and Cheney were particularly close, given the politics of many of Boyd’s associates nor do I think the Dick Cheney of 1985 or 1991 was as rigid or extreme in his views as the Cheney of 2004 or 2014. Cheney was originally, if you recall a protege of Don Rumsfeld and Gerald Ford back when Rummy was considered a moderate Republican 

  20. Grurray Says:

    If I had ten divisions of Lynn C. Rees’ & T.Greers, our troubles here would be over very quickly.
    Lynn’s brilliant comments have got me seriously rethinking Eurasia entanglements.
    Although, the fragility of the Caucasus has now got me thinking a southern route through Greater Kurdistan could play some role…

  21. seydlitz89 Says:

    Still, you have to consider that from a Clausewitzian perspective we have no equivalent to Cheney.  Clausewitz enjoyed no political mentors.  Cheney and his legacy including whatever connection to John Boyd has yet to be addressed, as far as I know.  I would consider this connection to be extensive given my particular interest in Clausewitzian strategic theory.  What particularly interests me is where military aim/political purpose meet.  
    Of course if you think Boyd’s strategic thought inferior to Clausewitz’s, as I suspect, then what exactly would we be discussing?   

  22. Lynn C. Rees Says:


  23. Rich Ganske Says:

    More than any of them, whom the Berlin society referred to fondly as the ‘national professor,’ Johann Kiesewetter.

  24. seydlitz89 Says:

    Please, none of them were political mentors.  The military reform movement had little political support in Prussia after 1815 and Scharnhorst was already dead.  Kiesewetter the philosopher the equivalent of Cheney the man of power?  We are obviously dealing with quite different definitions of politics and power . . .

  25. larrydunbar Says:

    “Clausewitz enjoyed no political mentors.”

    Abraham Lincoln and his use of the telegraph? 

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