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Intelligence Failure

Osita Nwanevu
7 min read
Intelligence Failure
John Ganz (

Hey all. This was longer than I thought it would be, so it’s going to be this week’s post. I’ll take your questions for Mail Time next week: Let's hop to it.


A rule of thumb: no one who argued a Russian invasion of Ukraine was impossible or highly unlikely can be trusted as a reliable commentator on politics, foreign or domestic.

I don’t think this is an especially harsh admonition. No one gets everything right; I’ve missed my share of calls. But the hows and whys of being wrong are important— there’s a difference between an independent failure of judgment and a failure of judgment that’s the product of a broader, faulty worldview. What we have in this case is the second kind of failure ⁠— there is a faction on the American left that is incapable of thinking clearly about geopolitics and maybe politics altogether.

We have ample reason to be skeptical of claims made by the American intelligence community and the mainstream press. That said, there were no solid reasons to think an invasion was implausible. Over the last 15 years, we’ve seen Russia occupy Georgia and Crimea and actively back the separatist movements within the territories now at issue in Eastern Ukraine. Russian deployments around Ukraine were visible, independently reported, and not even denied, really, by Russian authorities. The excuses they gave for them were not credible and their rhetoric had been escalating for some time. It’s difficult to understand, actually, what the hardline doubters thought all the fuss and negotiation was about if the military threat wasn’t real ⁠— a conspiracy, perhaps, by the Russian state, the governments of Europe, and the CIA to give the New York Times something to write about?

My stance on American military intervention is, I think, a simple one. A lot of horrible things happen in the world. But war is always horrifically destructive and often strategically counterproductive. So we shouldn’t delude ourselves into believing that intervention generally helps ⁠— especially given that the United States historically hasn’t actually been a guardian of human rights, democracy, and all the other things we often tell ourselves might morally justify conflict. Routinely, those ideas are utilized as a smokescreen for imperial objectives. And just about always, the best thing we can do in genuine defense of them is participate in multilateral diplomacy.

Again, there’s nothing terribly complex about this position. Bad things happen. We can’t expect the United States to fix them militarily. Simple as. But there are people on the American left who have a remarkable amount of trouble with it. As best as I can tell, the implicit idea underlying skepticism about a Russian invasion – and criticisms of those calling the invasion an invasion now – has been that acknowledging the possibility of an invasion amounts to backing or laying the groundwork for war with Russia.

Conversations about China on the left take on similar dynamics ⁠— giving credence to the idea that ethnic and religious minorities are being repressed, it’s suggested, potentially commits the United States to a civilization-rending conflict that could end in nuclear armageddon.

This is stupid. We shouldn't go to war with China. We shouldn't go to war with Russia. And we should nevertheless do our best to understand what they’re doing and why they’re doing it. We should try to be correct about things that are happening in the world. And we should be able to argue, clearly and straightforwardly, that war is to be avoided even if we see bad things happening ⁠— rather than hoping we can stick our fingers in our ears and pretend our way out of speaking to a given geopolitical situation.

Here’s Carl Beijer last Friday getting Ukraine exactly right:

[W]hile I think it’s important to voice our skepticism, there are two reasons that I don’t think this should be our primary argument against war.
The first is that even if Russia did invade Ukraine the United States should still stay out of this conflict. It’s difficult to think of a tolerable outcome in that situation even if we did commit to war, but the more likely outcome is that Ukraine’s allies would make partial gestures of support that would only succeed in prolonging war before our eventual defeat. Our involvement would also inflame our relationship with Russia for the foreseeable future, of course, and while this might succeed in making Hillary Clinton feel good, it would only have terrible consequences for everyone else, particularly ordinary Russian civilians. Finally, our involvement could very well escalate this from a limited conflict in Ukraine to a broader conflict with NATO.
The second is that even if Russia doesn’t invade Ukraine, the Biden administration may very well decide that it has — and if it does, this will instantly become conventional wisdom in the media and among most Americans. It will also, of course, become conventional wisdom that the left got it wrong, that it simply does not understand this situation, and that no one should take its case for peace seriously.

One of the things Beijer’s post brought into relief for me was the extent to which much of the anti-war left’s rhetorical and analytical focus over the last 20 years hasn’t been war in and of itself. I think that most on the anti-war left are fairly thorough pacifists. That said, the most prominent and common critiques of the Iraq War, for instance, are that it was fueled by lies and American hypocrisy on human rights and democracy. Both of these things are incontestably true. Yet, it seems clear to me that war in Iraq would have been a moral catastrophe even if they hadn’t been ⁠— just as many people would have died with just as devastating consequences for the region and the world even if Saddam Hussein really had weapons of mass destruction and even if the Bush administration really had cared deeply about spreading liberal democracy across the globe.

Relatedly, one of the reasons why the war in Afghanistan lasted as long as it did was that it was separated from Iraq in the public mind as the “good war.” Yes, we’d been misled on Iraq and drawn needlessly into a quagmire there, but occupying Afghanistan had obviously been sensible ⁠— Bin Laden and Al-Qaeda really had been there, after all, and they were getting their just deserts. Again, a pacifist has to reject this way of thinking and I think just about everyone on the left did. But after a while, a peculiar and pernicious phrase started cropping up everywhere: “forever war.” The war in Afghanistan and the War on Terror more broadly were carried out well beyond any plausible mandate, it was argued, at great cost to civilians, American troops, and Americans at home paying for intractable conflict in the waste of public resources and the degradation of our civil liberties. Here again, all of these charges are true. But it’s not duration and public expense that make war terrible ⁠— most wars waged in the world aren’t actually open-ended commitments that last forever, and the United States is doing what it can to perfect military technology that projects its power abroad more cheaply and more quickly. We shouldn’t aspire to conflicts that might affordably destroy and replace societies in short order either.  

The central indictment the anti-war left ought to have made against Iraq and Afghanistan wasn’t that they were misguided, or poorly defined, or too costly but that they were wars and that war is awful. Period. The further you get from that indictment, the more difficult it is to speak coherently about geopolitics in other cases ⁠— you deny the bad things you see in the world because the arguments that might otherwise be available against intervention have been underdeveloped and underpromoted to the public. This is a problem that’s been evident for some time, frankly, and it’s been a boon for grifters. Tulsi Gabbard appeared repeatedly on Fox News over the course of the Obama administration to urge a broader and more destructive campaign against ISIS and "radical Islam." Not too long afterwards, a faction on the left pushed her candidacy for the presidency on the grounds that she had “anti-war” and “anti-imperialist” credentials. Something wasn’t right there; here again, I think the same people made a different mistake for the same fundamental reasons.

What our foreign policy discourse needs, between bloodthirsty demagogues, confused people who mean well, the grifters who don’t mean well that confuse them, and the Serious People in the media spouting banalities about the post-Cold War international order they took for granted collapsing, are left-wing voices who can speak lucidly about foreign affairs without leaning too heavily on mental shortcuts ⁠— the CIA and the media lie a lot, etc⁠— of real, but limited utility.  

And one of the things the left needs to build power in the United States is a bridge over the credibility gap —millions of Americans who might be open to or might already agree with left policies nevertheless have a hard time believing the left might someday govern. Fixing that is partially going to be a matter of convincing the American people the left has responses to and explanations for the realities they see in their lives and the world around them – that we understand how the world works better than anyone else. As such, it matters a great deal, really, when things prominent people on the left say won’t happen actually happen. So let’s avoid war and being wrong. It’s entirely possible to do both.  

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