Biden at the Helm, U.S. Ship of State Navigates Shoals of Nuclear War

We haven’t been this close to nuclear war since the Cuban Missile Crisis in 1962. 

It was what historian Arthur Schlesinger correctly called “the most dangerous moment in human history.”  Off the coast of Cuba, but in international waters, the aircraft carrier U.S.S. Randolph depth charged a flotilla of four Soviet submarines armed with nuclear torpedoes each capable of vaporizing the ship.  That required the Soviet officers on board to decide whether to fire.  Their vessel was too deep for radio contact, so they didn’t know if war had been declared or not.   In order to fire a nuclear torpedo, Soviet Navy protocol required all three senior officers on board to agree to do so.  Two officers agreed, but one, second-in-command Vasily Arkhipov refused, exercising his veto, threatening his career and very possibly saving the human race.  The submarines surfaced and returned to their base.  A single man, overcame extreme pressure and averted the unimaginable. 

How close we are now to the use of the “nuclear option” in Ukraine is anyone’s guess, but the brinksmanship on both sides ramps up apace.  Since before the turn of the new year, the U.S. and others have been arming Ukraine.  Up to now, that’s meant about $14 billion in U.S. military and other aid.  But last week, President Biden upped the ante, asking Congress to appropriate an additional $33 billion.  The House upped it still more to $40 billion.  (With Senate approval, that would bring the total just for the last six months to $54 billion.  Russia’s entire annual defense budget is $66 billion.)

Whatever that accomplishes militarily, it’s certain to alarm Vladimir Putin who’s made no secret of his willingness to pull the nuclear trigger if he considers it necessary.  That would start with tactical battlefield weapons, but could escalate beyond that.  Meanwhile, U.S. politicians on both sides of the political divide strut their stuff, one-upping each other in their bellicose rhetoric edging us ever closer to the nuclear precipice. 

Among the Charles Schumers and Mitch McConnells of the world, how many Vasily Arkhipovs are there?  By contrast, how many armchair generals are there interested solely in impressing constituents with their willingness to, far from harm, “get tough” on Putin and using Ukrainian lives to do so?

I think I know the answers to both questions.

Meanwhile, our policy of prolonging the war to make Putin suffer and, with any luck, remove him from power, goes unquestioned by anyone holding public office.  The dubious wisdom of announcing to the world, and therefore Mr. Putin, that his removal is our policy begins to look like one that places him in a “nothing-left-to-lose” position.  Why would the Russian leader agree to any negotiated settlement if doing so would necessitate his fall from power?  For that matter, why would President Biden agree to any settlement that left him there?  After all, we’ve announced our policy to the world.  Does anyone holding elected office have the courage to climb down from that precarious perch, even if it saves lives and brings peace?

Not that a negotiated settlement is even a policy goal of ours.  That’s been clear for several weeks when responsible sources reported that the prolonged agony of the Ukrainian people was the lever with which we hoped to dislodge Putin.  At the time, President Zelensky attempted to negotiate at least a cease fire with the Russians, but discovered that doing so without the power to lift the West’s sanctions was impossible.  Of course it was.  Putin would never agree to stop fighting and yet leave the sanctions in place.  By refusing to give Zelensky that power, or send someone to the talks with it, the U.S. made it crystal clear that the war would go on and that the Ukrainian people would pay the price in blood and bone, not only for Russian, but for American policy.

Since then, Ukrainian cities have been reduced to rubble, countless military personnel and civilians have been slaughtered and maimed and countless more will be in a war that could last years.  And all because “Putin must go.”

And what if he does?  Will Russia be friendlier toward the West?  Less belligerent?  Freer?  Or will its fear and loathing of the U.S. be even more deeply entrenched?  Will China look more than ever like Russia’s most logical partner?  Will its new leader be more moderate than Putin or less? 

Putin didn’t inherit his power.  He got to the top because he has the drive, ruthlessness, connections, intelligence, etc., to fight his way upward through the maze of post-Soviet internal politics.  Why would Russia’s next leader be any different?  Wouldn’t the same political system in the same country tend to produce leaders with similar attributes and similar ideas about the U.S. and NATO? 

How does our policy toward Putin benefit the U.S. or Americans?  Even if our policy succeeds in forcing him from power, what will that success look like?  We got Saddam Hussein and Muammar Gaddafi out of power too.  How did that benefit the U.S. or Americans?  Does our ousting of Mohammad Mosaddegh in Iran in 1953 and replacing him with Shah Reza Pahlavi now look like success?  Iran is possibly our single bitterest enemy and has been for decades.

Don’t look for anyone in power in the West to ask those questions, much less answer them.  Doing so would mean having the strength to swim against the current of neocon opinion in Washington.  It would risk damaging one’s career, appearing weak, much like what Vasily Arkhipov risked aboard that submarine in 1962.  Then it took amazing courage and perhaps a bit of wisdom to say “no,” but every person who walks the earth is glad he did.

Today, in the corridors of U.S. power, it’s a word no one utters.

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