And then, what happens next?
On the absence of simple answers for a great power, and the historically enormous matter of whether we are ready, willing, and able to do good in the world
Wars are costly, nasty things that tend to deprive the world of productive resources and bring suffering to innocent people. That doesn't mean they aren't sometimes necessary -- but prudent people appreciate that they aren't merely a matter of guts and glory for the warfighters, but of real human suffering that ought to be avoided. The problem so often is that prudence is often asymmetrical: The first-mover advantage tends to favor those who start wars while their counterparties look for peace.
■ In the tense situation between Ukraine and Russia, all eyes are on Vladimir Putin -- and on Joe Biden. Russia has invaded Ukraine already under Putin's direction, so the emergent question is what and who might stand in the way of further aggression.
■ By the numbers, Ukraine appears outmatched, which means it would need some other dynamic to change the balance. The weaponry arriving from NATO countries appears to be one such weight on the scale. But there is no particular appetite for war among those NATO members, nor any binding commitment to fight if Ukraine really does suffer an invasion. Though it's hazardous to regress back to a Cold War mindset (rather than to see this as a novel dispute), there is clearly a moral dimension to the question of what constitutes the right thing for the United States to do.
■ The true measure of a country's greatness is its capacity and willingness to do good in the world. Power is relatively easy to wield: Kingdoms have fought each other for at least 3500 years. Using power for good and decent purposes is more complicated. It requires asking: Are we ready, willing, and able to leave the world better than we have found it?
■ Look at World War II: The United States wasn't ready to fight when the fight began. Dwight Eisenhower lamented the abysmal disposition of the armed forces going into the war: "On July 1, 1939, the Army's enlisted strength in the United States -- air, ground, and service -- was less than 130,000", and he referred to the state of military preparedness as "a situation of appalling danger".
■ Even if the United States had been ready to fight in 1939 or 1940, public opinion was not yet willing. Upon the German invasion of the Netherlands, Belgium, and France in mid-1940, 93% of Americans in a Gallup poll opposed declaring war on Germany.
■ Thus, the United States in that moment of emerging war wasn't ready, nor was it willing. But it was able, and once the great "arsenal of democracy" was fired up and public opinion was mobilized, America's place as the great superpower was secured.
■ What is the answer to the complex situation right now? It not only depends upon what we're able to do, but what we're ready and willing to do in the interest of good in the world. Those are measures applicable to our engagements everywhere -- and they aren't strictly reducible to counting Howitzers and Special Forces operators. Conflicts take place far more in gray zones today than at any time in living memory. Americans have a duty to grapple with the consequences of our involvement in the world -- and with the consequences of being unready, unwilling, or unable to act.