Keeping up with the FITs, 3/18
Francis Fukuyama on Ukraine; Razib Khan and Samo Burja on Ukraine; Glenn Loury on Roland Fryer; Martin Gurri on the Woke;
Francis Fukuyama offers a very optimistic take on Ukraine. He predicts rapid collapse of Russia’s forces there, leading to Mr. Putin’s fall from power.
Students of World War II know that even when it was clear that Germany would lose, the Germans did not depose Hitler (there was a bungled assassination attempt). Instead, in April of 1945 Hitler concluded that the German people were not worthy of him, and he committed suicide. I imagine that Mr. Putin is feeling similarly disappointed by his people at the moment, but he has options other than shooting himself.
The Biden administration’s decisions not to declare a no-fly zone or help transfer Polish MiGs were both good ones; they've kept their heads during a very emotional time. It is much better to have the Ukrainians defeat the Russians on their own, depriving Moscow of the excuse that NATO attacked them, as well as avoiding all the obvious escalatory possibilities. The Polish MiGs in particular would not add much to Ukrainian capabilities. Much more important is a continuing supply of Javelins, Stingers, TB2s, medical supplies, comms equipment, and intel sharing. I assume that Ukrainian forces are already being vectored by NATO intelligence operating from outside Ukraine.
I asked someone with more knowledge than mine if Ukraine President Zelenskyy’s media operations are being run by the CIA. The reply I got was laughter, followed by “No way. We’re not that good.”
My own amateur hypothesis is that this is a war in which secret operations, espionage, and information warfare matter a great deal. You really need to know where the other side’s forces are located and what they are doing, while keeping the other side deceived and confused about where your forces are located and what they are doing. You want to try to control the media narrative. In this context, I would not expect the information that I can obtain sitting on the sidelines is reliable.
The miserable performance of the Russian air force would likely be replicated by the People’s Liberation Army Air Force, which similarly has no experience managing complex air operations. We may hope that the Chinese leadership will not delude itself as to its own capabilities the way the Russians did when contemplating a future move against Taiwan.
Hopefully Taiwan itself will wake up as to the need to prepare to fight as the Ukrainians have done, and restore conscription. Let’s not be prematurely defeatist.
My amateur military analysis would differ on the conscription issue. I don’t think that ground action would matter as much for Taiwan as it does for Ukraine.
Taiwan, like England in 1940, is protected by water from a potential invader who has much larger ground forces. Although Taiwan lacks naval superiority, I would guess that an amphibious operation by China would be a hazardous undertaking. China might arrive at the same conclusion as Germany in 1940: it must try to win the war using air power. For Taiwan, everything would depend on denying air supremacy. Conscripts will be useless. Only “the few” could blunt a Chinese air assault.
The opposite of Fukuyama is Samo Burja, interviewed by Razib Khan. For whatever reason, I have this instinct that we are being played by Twitter concerning how the war is going. I get the sense that Burja would agree. And he also shares my outlook on the impact of sanctions. If you listen, I would be interested in your views. Spare me ad hominem attacks on Fukuyama. But is Burja merely being contrarian, or are his opinions justified?
If Burja is correct, then I think that many in the West will be very disappointed in the outcome of the war. After 1949, there were bitter recriminations in America over “Who lost China?” as if it was ours to lose. I could see something similar taking place should the optimistic picture being painted by Twitter turn out to be wrong.
To do the kind of work Roland does, you have to be more than brilliant. You have to be fearless. And I cannot help suspect that now Roland is paying the price for pursuing the truth wherever it leads. Several years ago, he was accused of sexual harassment by a disgruntled ex-assistant. In my opinion and that of many others, those accusations are baseless. But Harvard has used them as a pretext to shut down Roland’s lab, to curtail his teaching, and to marginalize him within the institution.
If you think that it’s tough some times being a white conservative, be glad that you are not a black one. Loury recommends this video on Roland Fryer.
The dance between the generations has been awkward. Young activists are eternally on the hunt to identify and attack injustice, typically revealed by the utterance of certain taboo words. They dwell in a world of weakened religious and family ties, and their idea of community is a website. The cult of identity fills an existential void and raises up the young to be the vanguard of avenging virtue in a sinful world. This cohort is driven by the urge to purify—that is, by negation to the edge of nihilism.
Older institutional types, on the other hand, have seen their influence and authority plummet over the past decade. . .The digital age will not tolerate the steep hierarchies of the twentieth century: these will either be reconfigured or smashed. Stripped of the splendor of their titles, panicky elites have cast about for some principle that will allow them to maintain their distance from the public.
The puritanical slogans pouring out of anti-Trump protesters must have sounded, to this group, like an opportunity. They could reorganize society on woke values, with themselves in charge as high commissioners of purity.
The essay covers a lot of ground. Gurri draws parallels between Wokeism and Christianity, but he sees the former as “more like the sociopolitical equivalent of a personality disorder.”
Burja is right about some things but wrong on the key military facts. He actually hedges where he's wrong, but he doesn't connect the dots back to really re-examine his priors and see that he's wrong.
He says that Russia never planned for this to be a quick war. Then he hedges and says they hoped for it, but they never would have invaded with so much of their military strength (at this point they've effectively committed it all) if this was meant to be a "quick, surgical strike" to decapitate the Ukrainian regime.
The problem with this is that military requirements (what strength is needed to accomplish a goal) aren't absolute. They're relative. The best way to win is to commit overwhelming force. Traditionally, you want to have at least a 3:1 advantage in attacking. The Russians, even with committing effectively ALL of their forces, they didn't have this. Their invasion force actually had less than 1 attacker per defender.
We can speculate why the Russians thought it was OK to do this, but most answers seem to reduce to "we think our forces are awe-inspiringly good" and "we think the Ukrainians won't actually fight us".
Anyway, the point is that if the Russians were planning for this to be a long grind, especially with their military doctrine (which is heavy on tanks and even moreso on artillery), they'd have had to preemptively call up hundreds of thousands of reserves, mobilize and re-train them, and do a lot more stockpiling and production of equipment than they actually did.
Burja says, "they spend a lot of time building up forces", and in the abstract that's true. They spent months training and positioning their forces for what they believed would be a quick campaign. But relative to the military requirements you would want in place if you expected a longer war, no. They simply did not do this.
Further, Burja is correct about his criticisms of the Russian invasion. It is a "typical" armored invasion and they are underperforming and their logistics are bad. What he doesn't seem to connect, though, is that unlike in past situations, the long-term factors are working against the Russians. Principally, these are:
1. They have not fully mobilized, and contrary to, say, World War II, the pool of reserves, both in terms of manpower and equipment is much smaller and take much more time to bring to bear. Successfully armored advances require overwhelming resource advantages that they simply don't have.
2. Barja remarks on the problems with armored invasions, but he doesn't much note that technological advance has greatly improved defensive capabilities. Arnold, above you note that this war depends much more on knowledge than past wars. You're wrong about stuff like Twitter, but you're right in the sense that, if you compare this war to say, the German armored invasion of Poland in 1939, the Russians are linear successors to the German tactics and strategy. On the other hand, the Ukrainians are a non-linear jump ahead of the Poles. Their troops are literate, they have continuous lines of communication, and probably most importantly, accurate targeting and anti-tank weaponry that simply didn't exist at all in 1939. In 1939, tanks and armored warfare was an innovation that beat massed but immobile and inflexible infantry and artillery. In 2022, armored warfare is over 80 years old, and infantry and artillery has become more mobile, flexible, and capable.
To make a simple comparison, a squad of infantry in 1939 had no practical way of stopping a tank. In 2022, they can go hunt them down with ATGMs.
When you put this all together, Borja's doing pretty much what most people do. He's starting to acknowledge mistakes, but he's still resisting going back and seeing how badly they undercut his basic predictions. In this case, he's wrong because:
1. Russia did plan for this to be over quickly
2. Russia therefore doesn't have the staying power to keep going indefinitely.
3. Not previously stated, but even amongst a totalitarian state the kind of fully mobilization that Russia would need to do is something that's politically very difficult. This is why Russia can't (and clearly didn't) expect to be able to fully mobilize in the first place, and why, now that their front-line forces are largely exhausted, they're pathetically casting about for Syrians and Africans rather than mobilizing Russians.
I liked this sentence from Gurri:
Every conversation begins with the words “As a gay person” or “As a Latinx” because group experiences are taken to be incommensurable.
That connected with me concretely.
It also helps explain why what follows those words never seems to make an impact on me. When a speaker introduces an attempt to persuade with a disclaimer of my ability to understand, I simply turn off. If I can’t understand, why burn the brain-calories trying? The words alienate me from the communication that follows.
I realize that those words may mean that the persuasive attempt is not aimed at me, but is instead intended (for example) to rally members of the same group.