This time last year, Russia-Ukraine was the hot war du jour, and officials were hectoring the Israelis for the crime of not shipping weapons to Kyiv.
Congressman Michael Turner, of the House Intelligence and House Armed Services committees, lectured: “This is the time for all democracies and all individual countries that have a moral compass to stand together against this type of brutality.”
And Ukraine’s embassy in Israel blasted Jerusalem in a statement this summer: “We urge Israel government to change its position and to support Ukraine with defensive means, to support freedom and democratic world order. We expect Israel to be on the right side of history!”
Now that Hamas has brutally attacked Israel, murdering, raping, and taking hostage thousands of innocent civilians—and as Hezbollah launches missiles into Northern Israel from Lebanon and Syria fires rockets into the Golan Heights—it is abundantly clear that the Jewish state is in for a long and difficult war. What’s even clearer: Israel’s decision to save its arms has proven prescient.
This strategic foresight stands in stark contrast to the United States, which severely depleted its munitions stores that were stationed in Israel earlier this year. These weapons could have been used to advance American interests in the Middle East, but were instead diverted to Ukraine.
These two approaches—one of pragmatic restraint and the other of reflexive power projection—bring into stark relief a long-standing battle of ideas about the right way to design a national security strategy. Today, as the U.S. promises to support both Israel and Ukraine in hot wars, that debate is not theoretical, but practical and urgent.
The conventional wisdom in Washington—embraced by policymakers across the political spectrum—was well-summarized by Joe Biden late last week in an address to the nation pleading for $100 billion in additional military aid to go to both Ukraine and Israel.
“We know that our allies, and maybe most importantly our adversaries and competitors, are watching,” he said. “If we walk away and let Putin erase Ukraine’s independence, would-be aggressors around the world would be emboldened to try the same. The risk of conflict and chaos could spread in other parts of the world, in the Indo-Pacific and especially the Middle East.”
This view of deterrence—that any sign of weakness in one region signals a broader weakness to our adversaries around the world—is shared by many prominent Republicans. Days before Hamas launched its barbaric attack, onstage at the second GOP primary debate Nikki Haley chastised her primary opponent Vivek Ramaswamy for advocating for a diplomatic resolution to the war in Ukraine. “A win for Russia is a win for China,” she said. Mike Pence chimed in too: “Vivek, if you let Putin have Ukraine, that’s a green light to China to take Taiwan! Peace comes through strength!”
In the days after the attack, they doubled down. Haley wrote in the New York Post: “Biden’s weakness on Moscow and Tehran has strengthened Beijing—which is hosting Putin as I write—and endangered America. America is strong enough to hold China, Russia, and Iran accountable at the same time.”
This view—that the United States is strong and capable enough to do everything, everywhere, all at once—has been the consensus in Washington since 9/11. With rare exception, that view goes like this: the United States must be the world’s policeman. We can—and must—fight on multiple fronts in order to keep the global balance of power from tilting to our adversaries. And, most significantly, there are seemingly no limitations on our ability to do so. (Israel, which is surrounded by adversaries and under constant threat, has a profound awareness of limitations when it comes to defense.)
But the dam in Washington is beginning to break.
A growing number of policymakers and analysts believe that, despite the muscular rhetoric from the White House, the reality is far graver. With a gutted industrial base, a weak president, and a rival in China unlike any we have seen since World War II, America’s power is scarce. Conserving our physical, material capabilities, they argue, is what matters for deterrence. Not some abstract idea of credibility.
For evidence of this shift, look no further than a bill introduced to the Senate on Thursday by Senator Roger Marshall, co-sponsored by Senators J.D. Vance, Mike Lee, and Ted Cruz. The bill comes after a memo circulated in the Senate earlier this week by Vance, called “Differentiating Ukraine and Israel.” In it, he objects to the Biden administration’s effort to connect funding for both countries, arguing that their respective war efforts are fundamentally different. Helping to secure the Gaza Strip, Vance writes, is more achievable and more important for American interests than helping to recover Ukrainian territory, which would require decades of sustained conflict at the current pace.
The bill, whose arguments have been echoed by Senators Josh Hawley, Rick Scott, and others in recent days, reflects the fundamental divide between the old, abundance-driven mindset and the emerging call for strategic prioritization.
“I think that a lot of them grew up in an era when America was the dominant power. They’re thinking about the world in 1990s or 2000s terms, where it’s America, nobody else, and we’re the global hegemon. And I think for a lot of them, it is psychologically hard to wake up in a world that actually exists in 2023, where our constraints are very real,” Vance told me.
Partly those constraints are the result of decisions that they made over the past decades, Vance argued. “It requires them to look in the mirror and acknowledge that they allowed the world superpower to become an economy that can’t even manufacture enough artillery shells. That’s very hard to recognize. It’s very hard to look in the mirror and say America is constrained in part because I made mistakes. It’s much easier to pretend that those constraints don’t exist and hope that reality never hits you in the face.”
So what are those constraints?
The main one is the deterioration of our defense industrial base, which Deputy Defense Secretary William Perry first warned about in 1993 when he informed the defense establishment at a Pentagon dinner that they were facing an era of massive consolidation. Since then, reduced manufacturing capabilities and supply chain issues have diminished our ability to build key weapons systems. The number of suppliers of solid rocket motors, for example, has plummeted in the last few decades.
According to Raytheon, it will take several years to resupply the Stingers, Javelins, and other precision missiles that have been sent to Ukraine in the last year. Right now, Taiwan has about $19 billion in equipment orders that will likely remain backlogged for years. Already, the United States is rapidly diverting 155-millimeter artillery shells that were originally intended for Ukraine to Israel due to the drawdown on U.S stockpiles.
Vance emphasized to me that it’s not billions of dollars that Ukraine, Israel, and Taiwan need—it’s weapons. And you can throw money at the problem, but unless you actually rebuild the capacity to supply multiple countries, you’re not going to be able to do much with that money.
“Even if you pressed a button tomorrow, making Congress functional, making Joe Biden effective, and increasing our defense industrial capacity, it would still take years to get to a point where we can effectively supply both Taiwan and Ukraine,” he said.
Why can’t we rapidly ramp up production? “We are literally talking about rocket science,” a national security expert on Capitol Hill told me. “These are exquisite, precision-engineered systems produced by highly skilled technicians. You can’t just repurpose a pencil factory.”
The decrease in our stock of munitions is alarming because it compromises America’s ability to protect our core interests. For years, protecting Taiwan from a Chinese invasion has been of paramount concern. The island nation is of devastating importance to the United States as a critical supplier of the microchips we depend on and as a bulwark against our main economic rival’s hegemony in Asia. Imagine a scenario in which China invades Taiwan and we have completely used up Patriot missiles, HIMARS, and artillery shells, leaving us unable to help defend the island. Say goodbye to American economic growth—to everything from modern home appliances to smartphones—to say nothing of national security.
Figures like Biden, Haley, and Pence insist that supporting Ukraine is critical to deter the Chinese from invading Taiwan. But the U.S. has provided $113 billion in military aid to Ukraine since the war broke out in February 2022, and there is no indication that Xi Jinping’s plans for Taiwan have shifted—that “peace through strength” has worked.
Instead, the People’s Liberation Army is continuing its aggressive activities in the Taiwan Strait. Ely Ratner, Assistant Secretary of Defense for Indo-Pacific Security Affairs, acknowledged this recently. One Republican senator’s national security adviser told me: “The PRC is developing a network of bases, which they had never done before, overseas in the Middle East and the Atlantic coast of Africa. They’re practicing amphibious invasions. They’re practicing airborne assaults. They are rapidly developing a nuclear arsenal to rival our own. These are very clear indications of China’s intentions.”
Some point out that all of these fights are interconnected, noting that China and Iran, for example, have been critical sources of support to Russia throughout its campaign in Ukraine. And in Israel, Hamas fighters were trained by Iran and reportedly used North Korean weaponry.
All true. Of course our enemies forge alliances with one another—they all want to displace America as the world superpower. In order not to let them do so, it is crucial that we allocate resources, public support, and focus where they matter most. Getting embroiled in too many conflicts that do not directly impact our interests only helps this alliance of enemies. Not all regions hold the same strategic importance for the United States.
While the slogan “our adversaries are watching” is certainly accurate, some in Washington contend that our enemies are not watching to gauge some abstract idea of American resolve. Elbridge Colby, a deputy assistant secretary of defense under Trump, told me that in reality, when planning an invasion of Taiwan, China is looking at the military balance in the region. And when it comes to actual ships and forces around Taiwan, the PRC greatly outnumbers the USA. This is a dangerous state of affairs.
In the wake of Hamas’s attack, the hawks are finding their voices once again. They believe America can show no weakness. But exhibiting restraint does not necessarily signal weakness. It can also signal strategy.
In this precarious moment, let us learn from Israel, take stock of our limitations, remember that decisions about our defense capabilities are zero-sum, and remain clear-eyed about our core interests.
Isaac Grafstein is a writer and chief of staff at The Free Press.
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