Last August, with a chaotic evacuation by air of the last U.S. troops in Afghanistan, President Biden effectively ended one of the country's most embarrassing and pointless wars, leaving that battered land fully in the control of the Taliban — the same dogged AK-toting Islamic fighters it had ousted from power two decades earlier, but never successfully defeated.
While there were critics who blamed Biden for the rapid collapse of the corrupt puppet regime the U.S. had spent more than $2 trillion propping up — critics who wanted that longest U.S. war to continue — most Americans breathed a sigh of relief that for the first time in a generation, the U.S., while still sending Special Forces "kill teams" into countries like Syria, and with Biden promising to continue using remote drone strikes in "anti-terror" operations, was not engaged in an "actual war."
Yet now, a scant five months later, the Biden White House has ordered 8,500 U.S. elite airborne troops onto "heightened alert," telling them to be prepared for rapid deployment to "front-line" bases in countries bordering Russia, and by Feb. 5 had already begun dispatching nearly 5,000 of them. Biden and militarists in the national security establishment — the military-industrial-media-think tank complex sometimes known as "the blob" — and militarists in both parties in Congress are all warning darkly of Russia's "imminent" invasion of Ukraine. They are also warning of the need for the U.S. to "'stand firm' against Russian 'aggression.'" Most of their alarmist talking points could be lifted from speeches made by their forebears in the Cold War '50s.
Incredibly, even as the U.S. is risking war with Russia, it is also aggressively dispatching Navy vessels, including aircraft carriers and B-52 strategic nuclear bombers, to provocatively enter or traverse disputed waters and airspace in the South China Sea claimed by China. It's also, for good measure, making threats against Iran, promising "serious consequences" if Iran seeks to go after those U.S. leaders who ordered the 2020 drone assassination in Iraq of Gen. Qassem Soleimani, the head of Iran's military. As a number of war critics have pointed out, the U.S. has Tomahawk missile-equipped destroyers and at least one aircraft carrier based off Iran and troops in place in countries bordering Iran. like Kuwait, Qatar, Bahrain and the United Arab Emirates, as well as attack aircraft based in those countries and nearby in Turkey, Jordan, Iraq and Saudi Arabia.
And as if that weren't enough, the U.S. under Biden continues to view both Iran, which has no nuclear weapons, and North Korea, with a tiny nuclear arsenal and no intercontinental missiles, as "serious nuclear threats", even as Washington steadfastly refuses to rejoin the Iranian-U.S. negotiated agreement to abate Iran's nuclear enrichment program, and to end the state of war between the U.S. and North Korea that dates all the way back to 1950.
That's four potential wars and nuclear confrontations — all of them being deliberately stoked by the U.S.
What is going on here?
Even Ukraine's president is asking U.S. to "cool it"
One clear indication that it's the U.S. creating this sense of crisis is that Ukrainian President Volodymyr Zelensky, probably the least corrupt president to run that country since it gained its independence with the breakup of the Soviet Union in August 1991, is calling on Biden and the U.S. to dial back the rhetoric, warning that all the bluster about an "imminent invasion" by over 100,000 Russian troops could "make things worse," threatening an already struggling economy and potentially providing a pretext for a Russian invasion.
Want a daily wrap-up of all the news and commentary Salon has to offer? Subscribe to our morning newsletter, Crash Course.
This tail-wagging-dog situation — the U.S. claiming some existential threat inside a country whose own leaders don't particularly view things with the same urgency — is sadly not that unusual. The U.S. national security establishment, for example, has opposed efforts in recent years by South Korea's President Moon Jae-in to reach a treaty that would formally end the state of war that has existed between his country and the United States on one side, and North Korea on the other, for almost 75 years. The U.S. apparently would prefer a continued threat from North Korea to rapprochement and peace or even (heaven forfend!) reunification between North and South Korea. There are also grounds to believe that the CIA, the U.S. military and even perhaps President John F. Kennedy, in late 1963, ousted and murdered South Vietnamese President Ngo Dinh Diem because he was not adequately supportive of a U.S. desire to escalate and expand American military involvement in the conflict with local Viet Cong guerrilla forces and Communist North Vietnam.
There are plenty of militarist nuts in Washington, but I doubt any sane leaders or experts in the nation's capital — even in the Pentagon — actually want the U.S. to go to war head-to-head against either Russia or China. Even China, with "just" 300 ICBMs, has enough nuclear-tipped missiles to destroy most major U.S. cities.
My guess is that hubris-infected leaders in both the Republican and Democratic parties, and the think-tank "experts" who make their money by pumping out "white papers" supporting whatever those leaders want to hear, still fantasize that the U.S. is a military colossus able to dictate terms to rivals.
I shudder to find myself complimenting that serial war criminal Henry Kissinger, but he was at least savvy enough to realize the importance to U.S. global political ambitions for Richard Nixon to drive as big a wedge as possible between the two then-dominant Communist states, the Soviet Union and the People's Republic of China. Kissinger, with his understanding of realpolitik, understood it was a bad idea to be at loggerheads with both those nations simultaneously.
Now, at a time when the U.S. occupies a much less commanding position economically and militarily vis-à-vis both of those states than it did in the 1970s, such rational logic seems to be wholly missing. U.S. policies under Biden (and Barack Obama before him), are, if anything, driving China and Russia into an increasingly warm embrace — one which a Russian diplomat recently described as "more than just a treaty of mutual defense."
Nobody involved in making U.S. foreign policy seems to be asking the important question: What countries, and what issues, actually pose an existential threat to the U.S.?
As a journalist who has lived in China, Taiwan and Hong Kong, and as someone who has studied Russian history and lived in Europe, I would argue that the answer is: None.
Yet for some reason, even after Obama pulled most U.S. troops out of Iraq and Biden pulled them out of Afghanistan, the U.S. still has some 200,000 troops stationed abroad, most located in nine countries: Japan, Germany, South Korea, Kuwait, Italy, the U.K., Kyrgyzstan, Bahrain and Spain. There are lots more in places that are called U.S. territories, such as Guam and Puerto Rico, and the U.S. military is also based in places that don't want them (or at least the local people don't, and sometimes the governments too), like Cuba, Okinawa and the Philippines. Those overseas forces represent 11% of the 1.83 million men and women in uniform, the second largest army in the world.
Alexander the Great and Genghis Khan would both have been in awe of the global reach of the U.S. military.
In comparison, China has 3 million personnel in uniform, but that figure is somewhat misleading, since it includes 625,000 paramilitary "police" used for domestic control. Chinese troops available for war-fighting number closer to 2.275 million, and almost none of them are based abroad, with only one foreign naval base, in Djibouti on the Horn of Africa. Russia, America's other designated major "adversary," has only 1.35 million troops, 250,000 of whom are also domestic paramilitaries. Again, only some 30,000 Russian military personnel are stationed abroad on a regular basis, with overseas bases only in Syria and several former Soviet states (Armenia, Belarus, Georgia, Kazakhstan, Kyrgyzstan, Moldova and Tajikistan). None of those bases is anywhere near the U.S., or even Western Europe.
Is Russia really a threat?
Does Russia threaten the U.S. in any meaningful sense? It certainly could if the U.S. attempted to attack Russia with nuclear weapons, or, as is happening now, if the U.S. attempted to put nuclear weapons and delivery systems in frontline countries near Russia's border, as Russia tried to do to the U.S. during the Cuban missile crisis of 1962. (Which can now be understood as a successful bid to get the U.S. to remove nuclear-tipped Jupiter missiles targeting the Soviet Union from Turkey, and to promise not to invade Cuba.)
The U.S. currently has a $1.5 trillion nuclear weapons modernization and upgrade program and a $100 billion plan for a new ICBM as well as new hypersonic missiles. It has a military budget that, at close to $800 billion annually, is larger today, adjusted for inflation, than at any time since the end of World War II. Military and civilian officials must justify all this spending by claiming that the U.S. is threatened. The new missiles and bombs, we're told, are to deter a surprise attack by, and to stay ahead of, the Russians and the Chinese. The 800 overseas bases, hundreds of ships and millions of troops in uniform are all justified as necessary to deter alleged Russian and Chinese expansionist plans.
But it's difficult to imagine any of America's "enemies" attempting a suicidal first-strike nuclear attack on the U.S. Nor is there evidence that either Russia or China has a goal of territorial expansion — as opposed to wanting a "sphere of influence" near their borders (as the U.S. has had in the Americas for two centuries, courtesy of its self-proclaimed Monroe Doctrine).
While we're mentioning history, it should be noted — because most Americans are blissfully unaware of it — that the U.S. has a long, wretched record of attacking Russia, China and North Korea, and of both orchestrating a coup against the elected government of Iran and later encouraging Iraq's Saddam Hussein to attack Iran.
Here's another history lesson: Even as U.S. soldiers were battling Germany and Austria-Hungary in World War I, President Woodrow Wilson dispatched 13,000 troops as part of an expeditionary force along with Britain, France and other European nations on the side of the White Army in the Russian Civil War that followed the 1917 victory of the Bolshevik revolution and the new Soviet government's withdrawal from the war against Germany.
In China, on multiple occasions during the mid to late 19th century, U.S. Marines and Navy forces attacked Chinese forces "to protect American lives and interests." In 1901, Washington sent troops to help European colonial powers put down the anti-foreign Boxer Rebellion. Later, during the Korean War of 1950-53, North Korea and parts of South Korea were mercilessly carpet-bombed by U.S. bombers based in Japan. That campaign was so extensive that U.S. pilots eventually began dumping unused bomb payloads into the Sea of Japan for safety before returning to land, because they could find no more targets for them. Millions of Koreans were slaughtered in those bombings.
Memories of these U.S. aggressions are long in all those countries, though they aren't even mentioned in most U.S. high school history curricula.
Fever dreams at the National Security Council and Pentagon
Tossing cold water on the fevered dreams of Pentagon and National Security Council strategists who claim Russia, China, Iran and even North Korea pose existential or at least serious threats to the U.S., journalist Andrew Cockburn, a Washington columnist for Harper's magazine, says, "There isn't the slightest indication that either Russia or China have any notion whatsoever of launching a nuclear attack on the U.S. It's a completely ludicrous proposition and would not be worth even discussing were it not for the fact that the US has an ever-more elaborate (and expensive) nuclear weapons complex entirely dependent on the proposition that Russia or China, or North Korea or Iran, might launch such an attack."
Cockburn adds, "Recently we've seen scaremongering reports — obligingly reprinted by credulous journalists — that the Chinese have developed a hypersonic weapon so technically brilliant that it evades the laws of physics."
Andrew Bacevich, president of the Quincy Institute for Responsible Statecraft — also a retired U.S. Army colonel and an emeritus professor of American foreign policy and military history at Boston University — scoffs at assertions that Russia and China have aggressive or expansive global military aspirations. He observes that through the Cold War decades, the U.S. "looked at everything Russia and China did as bad, and everything that we did as good."
As a result, Bacevich says, "We're simply not willing to acknowledge that our adversaries have their own legitimate security concerns. There is a history of Russian security being periodically violated. [Russian President Vladimir] Putin may be a thug, but it is reasonable for Russia to have a sphere of influence. We don't allow anyone to mess around in our area." His conclusion: "I don't think Russia has a thought of attempting to take over Western Europe."
Perhaps because their threat claims don't resonate as they once did with the American people back in the scary days of the Cold War, national security officials have taken to describing China's "Belt and Road" program, building roads and high-speed rail links to Europe and the Middle East, and Russia's construction of a nearly-completed undersea natural gas pipeline called Nord Stream, linking Siberian gas to energy-hungry industries and homeowners in Germany, as "aggressive" acts. That's quite a loaded charge to levy against what are arguably shrewd commercial moves by those two nations to expand trade with the western part of the Eurasian continent.
The term "aggressive" in fact applies far better to the ongoing U.S. embargo of Cuba, now entering its 60th year, and more recently to U.S. embargoes applied to Venezuela, particularly as those embargoes make use of financial threats against companies — even some based in our European allies — that might consider violating them.
Dan Grazier offers another perspective on U.S. behavior. A former U.S. Marine who served in Iraq and Afghanistan and is now a military analyst at the Project on Government Oversight in Washington, he says he doesn't see either Russia or China, still less Iran and North Korea, as existential threats to the U.S.
In the case of China, Grazier says, "all the evidence points" to the likelihood that China's military is "preparing to challenge the U.S. not globally, but near China. I don't think they have any thoughts of dominating the globe, although the Pentagon saying they do is a perfect excuse for an $800 billion annual military budget."
Look at America from the outside
Grazier says the U.S. shift in focus back from Asia (i.e., China) to Russia is absurd and provocative. "If you go to the map and turn things around and view it from Russia's position," he says, "they have every reason to look at the U.S. as an aggressor. We've been pushing our military exercises in NATO countries right up to the Russian border. Imagine if the Russians were conducting military exercises south of Toronto or outside Tijuana. Americans would be going crazy. There's very little mention of that in the U.S. media.
"In my view, one of the biggest security threats to the U.S. is the amount of money that's being wasted on our military," Grazier adds. "I'm not a disarmament advocate: We need to defend ourselves, but we don't need to be fighting wars all over the globe." All that will accomplish, he suggests, "is that we bankrupt ourselves."
The truth is that one Ohio-class Trident submarine, typically armed with 20 Trident missiles (with a range of 7,000 miles), each of which carries four or five independently targetable thermonuclear bombs of 300 to 450 kilotons — large enough to obliterate a city of 15 million people — has sufficient deterrent power to threaten the destruction of even a country as large as Russia. The U.S. has eight such submarines, which are virtually undetectable, and five of them are always at sea, lurking silently around Russia and China.
Also unmentioned is that U.S. missiles like the Trident and the land-based Minuteman III are both solid fuel rockets, meaning they can be launched within minutes, and are designed to be insanely accurate — a costly capability whose only possible purpose is for a first strike. That's because any critical targets such as large troop concentrations, command centers like the Kremlin or China's Zhong Nan Hai, airfields full of parked bombers, or missile silos holding warhead-tipped rockets ready to launch would already be empty, and useless as targets for U.S. retaliation following a hypothetical surprise attack by China or Russia. What the U.S. has is a nuclear force which, while certainly a formidable retaliatory arsenal, is actually designed to function even better as a devastating first-strike force.
Most Americans probably don't know this, but the U.S. has never, since the dawn of the nuclear age in 1945 when it demonstrated the point in Japan, had a policy of no first use of nuclear weapons. In fact, the official U.S. nuclear posture, laid out by each postwar president beginning with Harry Truman, has consistently been that in a crisis, if nuclear war seems likely, the U.S. will be the first, not the second, to use its apocalyptic arsenal.
We are of course in "Dr. Strangelove" territory here, since any such nuclear attack by any major nuclear power would be a world-ending event, blanketing the whole globe in a deadly and long-lasting coating of fallout, and likely causing a nuclear winter that would resemble the extinction event that followed the Chikxulub asteroid strike near the Yucatán peninsula 65 million years ago. That's when the dinosaurs, after a 165-million-year run, were wiped out.
All this breathless war talk, which includes endless warnings out of Washington, amplified in U.S. media, that Russia is "about to invade" Ukraine with the 100,000 Russian troops (an estimate since bumped up to 145,000) reported to be "massed" along Ukraine's northern and eastern border with Russia and its ally Belarus, seems to be developing a life of its own. (Although the most recent reports this week suggest that some of those troops are being withdrawn.)
Madness in the Capitol
Russia may not have the capability to challenge the U.S. in distant parts of the globe with conventional forces, but operating in areas adjacent to its own borders, the Russian military would pose a huge challenge to any would-be U.S. threat. Moscow and Washington both know this, even if blowhard warmongers like Sen. Roger Wicker of Mississippi, the No. 2 Republican on the Senate Armed Services Committee, mindlessly suggest that the U.S. should "nuke" Russia if it attacks Ukraine.
Wicker's statement that Biden should "leave nothing off the table" seems seriously geographically challenged, especially for someone holding a prominent position in Washington. The senator even suggested that the response to any Russian military action in Ukraine "could mean that we stand off with our ships in the Black Sea and we rain destruction on Russian military capability. It could mean that. It could mean we participate. It could mean American troops on the ground."
Perhaps Wicker — whose combat experience in the Air Force was limited to the courtroom, where he was a military attorney and judge before going into politics — does not realize that the Black Sea is as much a "Russian lake" as the Great Lakes are American ones. Russia's largest naval base is located at Sevastopol on the Black Sea, which is bounded to the east by Russia and to the north by Belarus, a reliable ally. Much of those coastlines are likely bristling with land-based missile defenses, and with none of the Black Sea more than 250 miles from Russian territory, it's hard to imagine how U.S. ships could "stand off" to rain supposed destruction without great risk of rapid retaliation.
Such ignorant bluster would be like a Moscow Duma member proposing that Russia dispatch missile-firing ships to the Gulf of Mexico or Cape Cod Bay, and from there "rain destruction" on U.S. naval and air bases along the Eastern seaboard.
Why is all this Washington war-mongering happening? Ukraine achieved independence in 1991 as part of the breakup of the Soviet Union. It lost Crimea — where the Russian warm-water navy is based — following the U.S.-backed coup that ousted the elected pro-Russia Ukrainian President Viktor Yanukovych in 2014. Following that event, which the U.S. reportedly spent $5 billion fomenting, and the assembling of a hand-picked replacement pro-Western government, Kyiv began to threaten Crimea and launched a deadly civil war (supported with military aid and training by the U.S.) against the largely Russian-ethnic regions of Donetsk and Luhansk, where rebel forces have attempted to declare breakaway republics.
For decades, the U.S. has pushed to get former Warsaw Pact nations like Poland, Hungary, Bulgaria, the Czech Republic, Slovakia and, more recently, the three Baltic states, Georgia and even Ukraine to join NATO. This push brazenly violated a promise made under Ronald Reagan and repeated under George H.W. Bush not to push NATO membership "one inch past" the eastern border of the newly-reunified Germany.
Taiwan, meanwhile, now led by the avowedly pro-independence Democratic Party, is being encouraged by the U.S. to talk more assertively about its future, backed by more modern U.S. jets and by provocative visits to the contested Taiwan Strait by U.S. Navy vessels that have encroached in waters south of China claimed by Beijing.
Why is all this happening now? Grazier says, "I tend to think of this as being about money and budgets. The wars against Iraq and Afghanistan were a perfect excuse for big Pentagon budgets. We don't have anything like that going now, but talking about a war with China or Russia is another perfect excuse for such a budget."
Cockburn goes even further when it comes to the U.S. military budget, which at $771 billion in 2021 was already larger than the combined military budgets of China, India, Russia, the U.K., Saudi Arabia, Germany, France, Japan, South Korea, Italy and Australia. All the countries on that list, beyond the first three, are U.S. allies, meaning that their military budgets can reasonably be considered addenda to the U.S. total.
"If the U.S. military was serious about protecting American security," Cockburn says, "they would immediately cut the budget by at least half, and follow up with a further 50% cut soon after. That would help to eliminate the greed and corruption that currently drives our so-called defense effort. The enormously elaborate strategic nuclear apparatus we currently maintain, on the pretext that we must have a 'launch under attack' capability, could and should be dismantled as quickly as possible, since it is inherently dangerous. Such conventional weapons that we do develop and deploy should be rigorously tested before being put into production. Payments to politicians by defense contractors should be banned."
"I don't know how large a final figure would be" for a justifiable U.S. military budget, he says. "It would be far smaller than the amount we currently piss away."