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National Security & Defense

Dispatches from the Future Front

U.S. Army troops with Second Battalion, Fifth Cavalry Regiment, and Croatian soldiers stand in front of the vehicles they used in the exercise Immediate Response combined-arms live-fire demonstration at Eugen Kvaternik Military Training Area in Slunj, Croatia, May 26, 2021. (Sergeant Joshua Oh/US Army)
A retired lieutenant general reveals what he thinks about the near-term future of American military engagement.

Welcome to the Tuesday, a weekly newsletter about language, culture, and politics. This week includes a long q-and-a with retired Lieutenant General Ben Hodges, former commander of the U.S. Army in Europe, who has a new book out today. To subscribe to the Tuesday, which I hope you will, follow this link.

Today’s Politics, Tomorrow’s Warfare

Ben Hodges, the author (more precisely, one of three co-authors) of Future War and the Defence of Europe, has the right résumé for the book: United States Military Academy, Army Infantry School, National War College, etc. — and, outside the classroom, he commanded the 101st Airborne’s 1st Brigade in Operation Iraqi Freedom, served as director of operations for Regional Command South in Kandahar, and ran the Joint Staff’s Pakistan Afghanistan Coordination Cell. He began his military career in Germany and returned to Europe as commander of the U.S. Army Europe. He retired as a lieutenant general and set up shop in Frankfurt as a strategic-studies specialist with the Center for European Policy Analysis.

That’s the short version of his curriculum vitae. And so when he says the United States needs to strengthen its defense and security relations with the Europeans because of the likelihood that U.S. forces will be engaged with Russia and China simultaneously, he is someone you listen to.

Our conversation has been edited a bit for brevity and clarity and to address my unfortunate habit of saying Balkans when I mean Baltics and vice versa.

Q:  You focus on the Black Sea and the Baltics — why?

The Black Sea is the real cauldron of competition between Russia and the West. The Baltic Sea is traditionally important to them — St. Petersburg is there, and part of their access to the Atlantic comes out of the Baltic Sea, Kaliningrad is sovereign Russian territory, an oblast. But in terms of economic impact and their ability to really influence things, the Black Sea is more important to the Russians. It’s their launching pad for everything they do in the South Caucusus, in the Balkans, and, of course, in the Middle East and in Africa, in the Eastern Med[iterranean]. Their support for the Assad regime in Syria, for example — which has had no positive outcomes for anybody else except the Kremlin and the Assad family — was only possible because of their illegal annexation of Crimea. They are able to use force against Georgia — 20 percent is occupied by Russians — Transnistria still has Russian peacekeepers, and what they’re doing in Ukraine is quite well-known. This is real competition, and the West is just not paying attention to it.

Q: Our relationship with Russia seems confused. When it comes to online shenanigans, they’re Public Enemy No. 1, but when it comes to Russian troops on the ground in places they don’t belong, we shrug it off.

During the Obama administration, with the “reset” with Secretary Clinton, there was an attempt to work with the Kremlin in the mistaken belief that you could deal with the Kremlin like you could deal with another European country. We tried to imagine situations and think about how they might act through Western eyes vs. how Putin thinks. There has been a refusal, or at least a reluctance, on the part of Western political leaders, in Europe and in the U.S., to even consider that they have very bad intentions, believing that they are somehow interested in a win-win outcome — they’re only interested in a win outcome. You hear the Germans and the French saying we have to keep a dialogue going and all that, but, since 2008, the Russians have invaded Georgia and Ukraine, they have troops all these different places, and they never back down — they may stop, but then they keep going again. What we saw six weeks ago was a continuation of that.

I can remember the White House tapping the brakes on us on some exercises we were doing in Poland, for example, back in 2016, saying, “Take it easy; you’re going to provoke the Russians.” Which is ridiculous. Then the Trump administration came in, and, of course, that was a catastrophe when it came to dealing with Russia. And now the Biden administration comes in, and I have to say I’m disappointed there. When President Biden said in his first phone call with President Putin that Ukrainian sovereignty is a priority for the United States, I thought: “All right! That’s a hell of a policy statement!” Of course, we have no strategy that underpins it, and you can’t have a strategy for the Black Sea region if you haven’t figured out a strategy for how you’re going to deal with Russia. And now there’s a feeling that we’re going down the same path of thinking we can deal with these guys, negotiate with them — forget it, that’s not who they are and have been for hundreds of years. I don’t know why we allow ourselves to continue to be surprised.

Q: In the near term, what should change to make our policy more realistic?

No. 1, we have to get our European allies [engaged]. The ones in Eastern Europe already get it. The ones in Western Europe are more reluctant to address the Kremlin as a serious potential adversary. You have to acknowledge the threat before you can expect people to actually do something. If you are a political leader, then once you acknowledge a threat you are compelled to do something.

None of this means we isolate the Kremlin or shut the door — it’s a great country with limitless resources, and the changing polar ice cap means that they are going to be involved in a lot of really important stuff for all of us. But you have to deal with them from a position of strength. They’ll cry about it, but that’s all they respect.

No. 2, I would like to hear the president declare that we have a strategy for how we’re going to deal with the Kremlin, including in the Black Sea region, in the Arctic, and in the Baltics. He could even say, “It’s not ready yet, but I’ve got my best people working on it, because we’re going to have a strategy and we’re going to prioritize resources.” Because, right now, the feeling is: “Well, Russia’s bad, but we can contain this, and the real threat’s China.” We don’t get to choose the threats. They’re all threats.

Q: How much of our trouble with the Europeans is their failing to take the problem seriously enough, and how much of it is the fear that we are no longer a credible ally?

I would say the former more than the latter. Sweden, Finland, Baltics, Poland, Romania — they get it. But when you go west of there, less so. Even in the U.K., I’ve been surprised by how quiet they’ve been about what Russia is doing in Ukraine, for example. In Western Europe, it’s more about failure to acknowledge the threat. But none of them have been encouraged by what appears to be a wavering U.S. commitment. I used to say, at the beginning of the Trump administration: “Don’t pay attention to the tweets — look at what’s happening on the ground. Because, actually, U.S. boots on the ground in Europe increased during the time of President Trump. And this has continued in the early months of the Biden administration. But people are not comforted by that when they see the Biden administration waiving the sanctions on the head of Nord Stream 2. Of course, this is because we need Germany as our most important ally in Europe. But I can’t see any evidence that Germany has said, “Okay, we’ll deal with the Kremlin, we’ll bring them around and make them comply.” So, what was the quid here?

Q: And what does the U.S.–European relationship look like from your vantage point in Germany?

I would say that it is better now than it was just a few months ago, if just because the tone has changed. Nobody doubts that President Biden is a committed trans-Atlanticist and committed to NATO: Secretary Austin has made it clear, Secretary Blinken has made it clear. So, at least you don’t have that anxiety about the president of the United States at a summit blowing the thing up. The next summit is in two weeks here, and there’s nobody worried that Joe Biden is going to say, “All right, you guys suck, I’m outta here!” So, that’s helpful.

And, of course, the Defender 21 exercises are under way, with tens of thousands of troops, from the U.S. and other allies, with a huge investment to bring equipment over from the States, to move around Europe and practice — that’s significant, and that has not gone unnoticed.

But then there are the policy issues: Nord Stream 2, a very weak response to [Russian foreign minister Sergei] Lavrov’s claim at the Arctic Council meeting that the Arctic “is all our land,” even the response to [Alexander] Lukashenko’s seizing that Ryanair flight — there’s no way that could have happened without Kremlin knowledge, because the air-defense systems of the two countries are totally integrated. Then there were the two U.S. Navy ships that were headed to the Black Sea a few weeks ago that were stopped before going into the Black Sea. Our great Navy is not scared of anybody, but the decision to stop them would have been made, obviously, well above the admiral level. The way it was explained — or not explained — it looks like we were intimidated and scared away. That’s not how great-power competition is supposed to work.

Q: What do you think about the “strategic autonomy” that the European have spent so much time talking about in recent years?

The problem with strategic autonomy is that there is no official definition of it. It’s just kind of batted around without any common understanding of what it means. So we all try to guess what it means and what are the implications.

But the nations of Europe have always been able to make their own decisions. If this was created because France, for example, wanted a free hand to do things in Africa or the Mediterranean, they never had to ask American permission. So I don’t know what problem they’re trying to solve. I do think that there’s a defense-industry aspect to this, that they would like to see more of the defense industries of Europe combine together and for European nations not to buy American-made systems. So there’s an economic aspect.

Frankly, the United States would love to see Europeans take on more responsibility — they’re going to have to. If we’re in a conflict in the Indo-Pacific region, which I think is a real possibility in the next five or six years, then most of our Navy, Air Force, and intel is going to be focused on that region. To make sure the Kremlin does not take advantage of that, we’re going to need a very strong European pillar to continue to deter the Kremlin while most U.S. capability is focused in the Pacific.

We should keep working to remove all doubt about America’s commitment to Europe. And we’re not here just to protect Europeans — the EU is our biggest trading partner. It’s in our economic interest that Europe is prosperous, stable, and secure, even if they didn’t pay one euro, pound, or krona for their own defense. We have to talk more about how it’s in our interest to continue to contribute to NATO and to have a stable, secure, prosperous Europe. That would help.

And we don’t have the capacity to do anything by ourselves anymore, even with this massive defense budget. So we need to stay engaged here.

We also need a more sophisticated focus on what burden-sharing means. There has been so much focus on 2 percent [of GDP that NATO countries are expected to spend on defense] that we’ve lost perspective on what we really are after. Instead of 2 percent, what do we really need from Germany? What do we need from Italy? What do we need from Lithuania? That’s the collective “we” — NATO, not the U.S. And I think that would go a long way toward improving the willingness of nations to invest in collective security.

Q: As we work to remove doubts about our commitment, isn’t there some grounds for that doubt?

Yes.

President Obama said, “Pivot to the Pacific,” a bad choice of words. “Pivot” means “turn away from and turn to.” As soon as he said that, I was getting questions from Europeans. “Are you leaving?” And then the Trump administration significantly increased the doubt. Now, the Biden administration has some work to do.

Q: You said earlier it was likely that in the next few years we would be drawn into a conflict in the Indo-Pacific. What does that look like?

Missiles, planes, ships, submarines, long-range fires. . . . I don’t see land forces on the Asian continent.

Q: I meant: With whom? Are you talking about a war with China?

Absolutely. The Chinese have watched how we in the West have responded to Russia’s continued invasions — sanctions, but nothing too powerful. They see that we in the West didn’t do crap after they smashed the protesters in Hong Kong, not even the Brits. The Chinese Communist Party is emboldened by that. The well-known fake islands down in the South China Sea and the claims they make — the Chinese pretty much do with impunity what they want down there. Even when an international court rules in favor of the Philippines, the Chinese are like, “Try to stop me.” The Chinese fishing fleet is in effect an arm of the PLA [People’s Liberation Army], and this is one of those situations in which it is very likely that somebody shoots or does something.

And then you’ve got Taiwan. The language coming out of Beijing about Taiwan is increasingly aggressive and militaristic. That would be a hell of a mission for the PLA, to seize Taiwan, but it won’t be like Normandy: There will be all kinds of other things happening, like cyber-sabotage. And I think Xi is on the clock, that he wants his legacy to be that he was the guy who got Taiwan back.

And China’s on the clock. Their demographics are very bad, and they just announced today that families can have three kids instead of two. But it’s going to be 19 or 20 years before those new children are ready to be privates in the Chinese army.

I don’t have any special access to intel. But a couple of people who do have access to intel — Admiral [Phil] Davidson, who just gave up command of the Indo-Pacific, and the admiral who took his place — have both said [that they expect a conflict within] six years.

Q: And if the Chinese decide to take Taiwan tomorrow, what does the United States do?

That’s a great question. The language from various administrations consistently gives the implication that we would defend Taiwan, but there’s not an alliance compact. So, is it shaking your fist? Strong statements in the U.N.? Those are all completely and totally empty. I imagine the White House, the Pentagon, and the Indo-Pacific command have a series of options that they have thought through, but I don’t know.

What’s a strong response? Is it kinetic? Isolating China? That’s where the Chinese have some advantage — in the economic sphere. We have to work together: the United States, the EU, Canada, the U.K., Australia, India, Japan — that’s a lot of economic power. If you work in concert, you could probably exercise leverage over the Chinese.

But, right now, there’s a Chinese economic-advocacy office in the building next to me. They’re all over Germany. We have thousands of rail cars every month that show up in Duisberg coming from Shanghai. There is deep investment, and deep control, of infrastructure here in Europe.

Q: Your list of countries makes me wonder: Is India still on the team? Managing coalitions is hard, and getting harder, because of the populism and nationalism that we have seen in response to what we call, for lack of a better term, globalization. Does that seem right to you?

The [Narendra] Modi government is under serious pressure right now because of COVID and its implications for the economy. Part of our ability to resist what the Chinese are doing and what the Russians are doing is based on the resilience of societies. Do people trust their government? That doesn’t mean you love everything about it, but do you trust it? Do you trust elections? Your judiciary? Do you have confidence that the government is doing its best? Those vulnerabilities are what the Chinese and the Russians go after, to exploit distrust. They go after weak societies that don’t have great resilience. It comes down to leadership: Can elected officials regain the confidence of a majority of their populations?

I just saw this unbelievable video of retired Lieutenant General Mike Flynn at a Memorial Day event in Texas, and he was asked by a veteran in the audience: “Why can’t we do what they did in Myanmar?” A military coup. And Mike Flynn said, “It should happen here.”

My God. That’s the kind of thing enemies of our country will exploit.

Q: Why write Future War?

I was excited about the project because I wanted to address what the impact of technology in warfare might look like. But also this notion that you and I have been discussing: that the United States is going to need European allies to deter the Kremlin or, if deterrence fails, to defeat Russian forces, probably while simultaneously being engaged with Chinese forces as well. I’d never been part of a book project before. And the publicity gives me a chance to talk about the issues that the book is about. It’s not Tom Clancy. It’s aimed at influencers and policy-makers across Europe and in the United States.

Q: You say your year in Afghanistan was the hardest of your service. What do you make of what’s happening there now?

I agree with President Biden’s decision to pull out: No. 1, it’s not ever going to get better. Two more years, five more years, the Taliban is not going to surrender — it’s not going to happen. No. 2, we were not willing to do what was necessary with Pakistan to deny safe haven to al-Qaeda and the Taliban. I mean, Osama bin Laden was killed in Pakistan — and he wasn’t hiding in a cave. [We need to address] the ability of the Taliban and other extremist organizations to use Pakistan and then come in — if we aren’t willing to do that, then I don’t know how you justify continuing to send young women and men into Afghanistan, not to mention the money. Third, I’m not an advocate for high taxes, but if we weren’t willing to raise taxes to pay for this deployment, then there’s no pressure on the Congress, because the average American family, unless they have a family member there, they don’t feel it. It doesn’t impact their lives. So there was no pressure to get it done.

Of course, I worry what happens to women there now, and what else happens in the aftermath. We will retain the right and ability to go back in and smash something if we need to. And that’s what we should have done 18 years ago: walk away but retain the ability to smash.

Q: Final thoughts?

Today [as we conduct this interview] is Memorial Day back in the States. People are never sure how to wish you a happy Memorial Day, because it isn’t happy. The best way we can pay respect to the women and men who have been killed in our nation’s wars is to make sure that we never send someone else to a war where we haven’t thought it through to the end. Nobody should die in a conflict where we’re not even sure about it.

. . .

Future War and the Defence of Europe will be published in the United States today, and a German-language edition will appear in the spring.

Words About Words

Many years ago, when I was given a copy-editing test for a job at the Lubbock Avalanche-Journal, I made one mistake: Having recently returned from working in India, I dropped in a British defence when I meant a good ol’ American defense. Future War and the Defence of Europe is an Oxford University Press book first published in the United Kingdom, hence defence.

British and American: Vive la différense.

(No, that doesn’t work that way — French is a well-policed language.)

On the fun-but-not-fun front, Fox News reports: “Two people fatally killed after car struck on Georgia state highway.” It’s bad enough to be killed, but to be fatally killed — oh!

Rampant Prescriptivism

Snopes debunks an Internet image purporting to show Biden’s nominee to lead the ATF at the Branch Davidian siege near Waco, Texas. The story includes a reference to — sic, damn your eyes! — “Dr. Pepper.”

There’s no period in Dr Pepper.

This isn’t mere pedantry. (Mere!) This subject ends up being a subtle one. Generally speaking, you want to write brand names, the names of organizations, and such the way the parties named write the names themselves. But there are limits. The PGA Tour, for example, insists that it is PGA TOUR, all-caps. But that’s ridiculous, and you shouldn’t feel obliged to write it that way. Likewise, you are free to make fun of real-estate agents who insist that they are Realtors™. Panic at the Disco was, for a long time, Panic! at the Disco. And then there is Therapy? as the Nineties band styled itself.

The name as written by its owner gets the benefit of the doubt, but there are limits.

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Home and Away

Joe Biden talks a good multilateralist game, but it is time to deliver — especially when it comes to China and studying the origin of COVID-19. More from me in the New York Post.

You can buy my latest book, Big White Ghetto: Dead Broke, Stone-Cold Stupid, and High on Rage in the Dank Wooly Wilds of the ‘Real America,’ here. A Christian reader recently described these stories to me as “lots of cross, little resurrection.” I’m afraid that’s about it.

My National Review archive can be found here.

Listen to Mad Dogs & Englishmen here.

My New York Post archive can be found here.

My Amazon page is here.

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Recommended

If you are interested in artificial intelligence, facial recognition, privacy, and regulation, then check out this very interesting essay in Wired.

In Closing

China isn’t alone in facing demographic decline. After decades and decades of panicked essays about “overpopulation,” the shift toward panicked essays about population decline has begun in earnest. This, apparently, is what it takes to convince the world that human beings are assets, not liabilities.

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