While most in the West and Ukraine have hailed the decisions in Washington and Berlin to give Ukraine M1 Abrams and Leopard 2 tanks, there are predictably few asking what should be the obvious question: what next?
Once these tanks arrive on station and Ukraine starts to employ them against Russia, what outcome does the White House expect or desire?
The truth is likely that no one in the Administration has bothered to think that far – continuing a bad trend in U.S. foreign policy over the past several decades that has uniformly resulted in bad outcomes for our country.
Giving Without a Plan
Failing to form a coherent, realistic strategy regarding our support for Ukraine in its war with Russia risks squandering valuable military assets and financial resources – or worse – stumbling so badly that the U.S. or western powers are inadvertently sucked into a war we should never have been fought, and which could only harm our interests. Unfortunately, we have a rather bad track record in recent decades for failing to think much of anything through.
Many studies and reports concluded one of the major reasons Operation Iraqi Freedom in 2003 failed so badly was because Washington failed to put any serious thought into the question of “what comes next” following the campaign to destroy Saddam Hussein’s army. Choosing to militarily take down Iraq involved very little risk for the United States and required little creativity in the formation of the plan: Iraq’s once-vaunted military had been eviscerated in 1991 and languished under a decade of crippling sanctions that prevented Saddam from rebuilding his army. It was a house of cards waiting to be blown over.
Sure enough, the U.S.-led coalition mowed down what little Iraqi organized resistance there was and the conventional phase of the war was effectively over within five weeks. Yet aside from some optimistic claims that “Iraqi democracy will succeed,” Washington had no idea what to do once the tanks went idle.
What happened next, quite predictably, is the Pentagon and State Department went hunting for something to justify their continued presence, making stuff up along the way. The result was complete chaos, mission-shifting, and tens of thousands of American service members wounded and killed. U.S. troops are expected to remain for years to come and the country’s government remains deeply unstable.
Similar fiascos resulted from other mission-shifting operations: a lack of vision throughout the 20 years of pointless combat in Afghanistan; unnecessary military support to Saudi Arabia against the hapless Yemenis; no thought given to what comes next in Obama’s Libya excursion of 2011 (two governments claim sovereignty to this day); a military presence within Syria, completely devoid of any valid national security purpose; and operations in numerous locations throughout Africa.
A History of No Plan
In each of those examples, we had no vision for “what comes next,” and with the ignominious exception of Afghanistan, our military continues to languish pointlessly in each location to this day. Evidence is starting to pile up that we are trending towards repeating this seemingly default affliction in our engagement with Ukraine. There are a number of basic questions the White House should have asked – and answered – before taking any action in that war.
Informing a Plan of Action
Before the White House agreed to significantly increase our military and financial support to Kyiv following Russia’s February 24, 2022 invasion, Biden should have asked a number of admittedly hard questions and demanded policy options from his senior staff. Failing to ask and answer the tough questions – as has been done in each of the previously mentioned foreign excursions – leads to mission creep, mission expansion, and almost uniformly results in ultimate policy failure.
Though he should have done so 11 months ago, it can be done now. Before one more piece of U.S. military gear is sent to Ukraine, Biden should provide answers to these critical questions:
What are America’s vital national interests as they relate to the Russia-Ukraine war?
What is the desired end state of U.S. support?
How does the provision of military gear support the desired end state?
What are the criteria for determining success or failure of the policy to support Ukraine? How will the president know if American actions are working or failing?
What is the culmination strategy? Under what conditions will the support mission conclude? If Russia starts to win on the battlefield, will the U.S. provide even more weapons and financial support – or if Russia starts to lose, will we moderate our support if Ukraine starts to push Russia so far that U.S. intelligence concludes a desperate Putin may resort to nuclear weapons?
These are crucial questions to have posed and at least formed working answers to before getting too deep in the operation. There is no evidence that any of these questions have been considered, much less answered, and that has troubling ramifications for our national security.
The Unanswered Questions
First and foremost, the president must delineate America’s most vital national interests. Is it to seek the military defeat of Russia? To “weaken” Russia (however defined)? To seek the end of the Putin regime? Merely to push Russian troops back to February 24 2022 lines? Or more modestly to prevent the war from spilling beyond the Ukrainian borders? To ensuring the preservation of NATO and American security? If we don’t know what outcome we even desire, how will we know if our policies are successful or a failure?
Similarly, if we don’t know what we want to achieve, how will we know what – and how many – of each type of armament and ammunition type we should supply to Kyiv? Give too little, and the objective won’t be reached; give too much and Ukraine may go beyond what is in American interests.
The Consequence of Aid Without Answers
If we give blanket support to Zekensky’s stated desire to drive the Russian military out of all Ukrainian territory, for example, how does Biden ensure American objectives if the Ukrainian military starts to be so successful that Putin uses his enormous nuclear arsenal to stave off defeat? If Biden doesn’t agree to support Ukraine in going that far (and thus limits the number and type of military support, preventing Zelensky from winning on the ground), the result may be an indefinite stalemate that literally bleeds Ukraine dry of its people and leaves its land resembling a moonscape.
It is vitally important that the president fashion answers to all these questions and then crafts a policy that has the best chance of producing outcomes that benefit our country and secures our allies. At a minimum, the White House should prioritize ensuring that we don’t provide so much military support to Ukraine that it puts our own security at risk by depleting our own stocks of vehicles and ammunition – Biden must quantify where those lines are.
Ultimately, the intent of any U.S. foreign policy related to the Ukraine-Russia war should be to end the conflict as soon as possible and do so in such a way that it does not set the stage for a renewed conflict in the future (as the bad ending of World War I set the stage for World War II). The long-term security of the United States and Europe is vitally important for our security. Ending the war on mutually acceptable terms – and avoiding any overt or tacit security guarantees – gives Washington the best chance of long term security.
Author Biography and Expertise
Also a 1945 Contributing Editor, Daniel L. Davis is a Senior Fellow for Defense Priorities and a former Lt. Col. in the U.S. Army who deployed into combat zones four times – including the M1 Abrams tank heading to Ukraine. He is the author of “The Eleventh Hour in 2020 America.” Follow him @DanielLDavis.