How To Reason Like A Loser

I just read a very sober and balanced assessment of the conceivable outcomes in Ukraine, written by one Andrew Latham, a very sober professor of International Relations and member of a very sober-sounding Washington think tank calling itself “Defense Priorities.” For “Defense” in that name, read “Surrender”; for “Priorities,” read “Rationalizations.” For Professor Latham’s short essay is a wonderful object lesson in that sort of very sensible reasoning that has made the most powerful country on Earth the most easily predictable ultimate loser in every single fight, foreign and domestic, which it has joined in the past sixty years.

Latham, in the typical manner of one wishing to inform the reader that he is a sober thinker, a gentleman strategist, a geopolitical seer rather than a mere naïve enthusiast, begins his essay with a literate reference — but a properly relatable and not-too-precious one — to Arthur Conan Doyle’s Sign of the Four, wherein Sherlock Holmes, answering “his plodding companion” (as Latham describes Dr. Watson, presumably to strike an implicit blow against anyone who would dare to dispute Latham’s own sober reasoning), explains his investigative methodology: “When you have eliminated the impossible, whatever remains, however improbable, must be the truth.”

Applying the above Holmesian principle to his analysis of the various scenarios regarding the war in Ukraine, Latham arrives at the very, very sober conclusion that what remains, after all impossibilities have been eliminated, is a partial, if Pyrrhic, Russian victory, consisting in the permanent division of Ukraine, with several territories under Russian control, and a newly-diminished Ukraine thwarted in any prospective efforts to join NATO or the European Union. 

Without going through all the details, his list of “impossible outcomes,” which must, he deduces, be eliminated from consideration, consists of: (a) the complete reduction of Ukraine to a Russian vassal state, (b) a complete Ukrainian victory defined as Russian retreat and the restoration of Ukraine’s pre-2014 borders, (c) a “limited Ukrainian victory” entailing a return to Ukrainian control of all land lost since February 24th, 2022, but conceding permanent Russian control of Crimea.

To begin with the obvious, Professor Latham’s sober investigation, in which he explicitly sets himself up as a modern Sherlock Holmes, rests on a completely ridiculous — that is, illogical — misapplication of the Holmesian principle on which it is based. For Holmes’ method — eliminate the impossible until you are left with “whatever remains,” i.e., the inescapable truth — only makes sense as a means of discovering the best explanation for an outcome that is already known. In other words, the strategy is used to reduce all the available explanations of an undeniable fact (such as a dead man in the living room) to the one explanation which cannot finally be ruled out as impossible. But what is the undeniable fact in the Ukrainian case, equivalent to the existence of a dead man in a Sherlock Holmes mystery? In short, there isn’t one. For the outcome of these events is not yet known. Therefore, any attempt to eliminate impossible explanations (of something that has not happened yet) is incoherent and irrational from the outset. 

In fact, Latham is turning Holmes’ methodology on its head, since Holmes is trying to explain the causes of an known and completed effect, whereas Latham is trying to “explain” — actually to predict — an effect (outcome) that has not yet come to pass, by presuming certain artificially circumscribed causes as the only plausible “suspects.” It is as though Sherlock Holmes were investigating the daily lives of various men in order to eliminate all the ones who could not possibly become murderers, in order to determine in advance which of the men will commit a murder that has not yet happened. You would not have to be Holmes’ “plodding companion” to be perplexed at how one could hope to arrive at the positive and certain identification of a criminal, when no crime has yet been committed. To say with certainty that Mr. A could not possibly be the murderer, when no one has yet been murdered, would be absurd, as it would entail knowing for certain that nothing could happen between now and the time of any actual murder to change Mr. A’s conditions or calculations. Not even Sherlock Holmes, I presume, would be so confident as to judge possibilities and impossibilities regarding the future actions of men still living and active among us.

To state the point more directly, without deference to Latham’s oh-so-clever but irrational use of Holmes’ principle of investigation: In order to eliminate certain scenarios in the ongoing Ukrainian war as “impossibilities,” Latham has artificially presumed that nothing will or could be done to change the trajectory of any of the scenarios he imagines. It takes no more than five seconds’ thought, having dispensed with Latham’s artificial thought-experiment boundaries, to see the foolishness of his whole conceit, and thus the true meaning of his clever “deductions.” 

As to impossibility (a), the complete Russian victory: The West made a collective decision in the early weeks to take a relatively hard stand against Putin’s aggression, but it could just as easily, in light of pragmatic concerns, return to its more typical position, namely appeasement, accommodation, and big diplomatic words accompanied by no stick whatsoever, in which case Ukraine would lose the ongoing war of attrition fairly definitely, effectively leading to Russia’s eventual occupation of Kyiv and the surrender, exile, or capture of the Ukrainian government. If, for example, the entire West had been led by the opinions of the French and German governments at the outset, or were to bow to those voices now, Russia’s complete victory would depend only on Putin’s will to carry on with it, which we have no reason to doubt would be strong.

Impossibilities (b) and (c) are the important ones, however, since these are the scenarios which represent the hopes of those people Latham knows he is truly arguing against. Both (b) a complete Ukrainian victory and (c) a return to the pre-February conditions of minimal occupation (Crimea) may be dismissed as impossible only on the presumed condition that the nations of the West will not do enough to assist Ukraine in its effort to push back the Russian military. It almost goes without saying — which means it obviously refutes Latham’s entire calculus of “impossibility” — that if the West in general, and the United States in particular, chose to prioritize Ukrainian victory (or rather Russian defeat) more vigorously than it has done thus far, Russia’s loss would be complete, certain, and relatively swift. For we have already seen that the Russian military is wildly overmatched by Ukraine’s in training, purposefulness, bravery, and strategic effectiveness. The only thing keeping Russia in the game at all at this point is the fact that Ukraine is under-equipped, and therefore always looking for ways to preserve its resources to fight another day. If they had what they needed, and were truly assured of not suddenly running short of supplies and weapons, it seems highly likely that the Russian military would be back on its heels again, becoming dispirited again, and facing constant micro-rebellions within its ranks again. And then of course there is the situation within the Kremlin, where there are rumors of Putin’s illness, as well as talk of mass firings within the hierarchy, signs that Putin’s grip on power may be slipping, or at least in danger of doing so. If there were some sort of major event in the power structure in Moscow, all bets on the trajectory of the war would be off, of course. 

In sum, it is plain to see that not a single one of the projected outcomes Professor Latham has rejected as impossible is really impossible at all, anymore than any man alive could be eliminated as a suspect in a murder that has not yet occurred. Any number of conditions could change, in any number of easily imaginable ways, to alter the predictive calculus completely. 

This is all so self-evident, in fact, that even to have spent this time analyzing Latham’s illogic might seem pointless, were it not worthwhile for the sake of arriving at the following question: Why is Latham working so hard to prove what cannot be proven, and to eliminate from possibility what cannot be eliminated?

And the answer is perhaps as obvious as it is revolting: Like seemingly all of the West’s big “strategists” of recent decades (see Henry Kissinger), Latham’s heart is set on keeping things exactly as they are: the authoritarian world ascending and expanding, the American defense of freedom weak and uncommitted, tyrants appeased and mollified, and millions of people abandoned — but only a few million at a time, of course — to enslavement, in the name of “tamping down hostilities,” “de-escalating,” or “getting back to other pressing priorities.” The think tank with which Latham is associated, Defense Priorities, represents that very sensible orientation in “constitutional defense policy” and “genuine national interests” that leads so many conservative and libertarian types to regard conflict avoidance as the highest aim in all matters, thereby effectively rebranding the systematic appeasement of expansionist tyranny as a manifestation of the proper national security interests of the United States.

In short, the reason Latham has declared Ukrainian victory impossible is simply that he personally does not wish the United States (or other Western nations, apparently) to offer Ukraine the sort of assistance that would make its victory possible. In other words, when he says the defeat and retreat of the Russian military is impossible, he really means that, all things being equal, he would prefer that such a defeat not happen, because he personally does not approve of the steps that would have to be taken to make it happen.

Call me a plodding companion if you will, but Professor Latham’s brilliant deduction here is pure poppycock, and in no way related to logic. It is, rather, yet another example of why freedom is in retreat throughout the world, and totalitarianism on the ascendancy. Comfort is king in the West, and comfort, as history proves, is the motive of cowards and appeasers. “No, no, we wouldn’t like this result at all; but what is one supposed to do?”

Why not just name Emmanuel Macron the first (and last) official President of the West and get on with the mass surrender? “But wait! That wouldn’t affect one’s academic tenure, would it?”

Who ever had the idea that academics could be trusted as policy experts? As if they had some special insight or a more accurate moral compass. As if they had no vested interests.

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