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This is the latest report in my months-long coverage of the war in Ukraine. For more reporting like this, and to read my screeds about the reprehensible Republican Party, please consider becoming a paid subscriber.
The Associated Press headlined the big meeting of the Ukraine Defense Contact Group in Ramstein, Germany, last Friday this way: “Ukraine will have to wait longer to find out if it will get advanced German-made battle tanks.” The problem was Germany, which manufactures and exports the tanks. They had not yet agreed to allow European countries to send the Leopard II tanks to Ukraine.
Yesterday the AP led with this: “The German government will not object if Poland decides to send Leopard II battle tanks to Ukraine, Germany’s top diplomat said Sunday.” That’s newspeak for Germany caving to international pressure that was poured on in buckets last week after Germany initially stuck to its policy of not allowing shipment of its tanks to Ukraine to fight Russians on the front lines. German Foreign Minister Annalena Baerbock, on a French television show, said Sunday that Poland had not formally asked for permission to ship the Leopard tanks, but confirmed, “if we were asked, we would not stand in the way.”
Poland announced today that the government would ask permission to send the tanks but added that they had already planned to supply the advanced battlefield weapons even if not given permission.
In a BBC TV interview today, Ukraine's Foreign Minister Dmytro Kuleba put out an appeal to all European countries with Leopard tanks in their arsenals “to immediately, officially request the German government to allow delivery of these tanks to Ukraine."
The way Poland has been talking, it wouldn’t surprise me if Poland was not already secretly training Ukrainian tankers who are qualified to drive and shoot Russian T-72 tanks in their arsenal, which they have captured a good number of from Russians on the battlefield.
The Leopard II is a modern tank with multi-layered armor and a 120 mm smooth-bore main gun. The tank is powered by a 1500 HP 12-cylinder diesel engine, can reach speeds of 40 MPH, and has a 300-mile range, which is fairly extraordinary for a main battle tank. The Leopard has a gyroscopically balanced main gun, which means it can fire on the move. The tank has night-vision aiming sights, laser range-finders, and two co-axial machine guns. The design of the Leopard’s main gun allows it to fire several different kinds of tank ammunition produced by multiple allied countries.
Germany has said that it designed the Leopard II tank so it can be driven and fired by citizen-soldiers, their version of our National Guard. This means that the training to use the Leopard is not as lengthy or complicated as what is necessary for the U.S.-made Abrams tanks.
One fixed truth about the development of tanks is that as they have gotten more complicated and additional requirements have been put on them, they have become more likely to break down, the distance they can travel before needing to be refueled is reduced, the training necessary to be able to deploy them in battle becomes longer, and there are stiffer requirements for soldiers to become tankers.
Older tanks like the American M-60 used in the Vietnam era were nearly self-explanatory. You could get into the gunner seat and with less than an hour of instruction, learn to shoot the thing. Accuracy at first wouldn’t be the best but driving and firing tanks is like anything else: you get better with practice. When I was a cadet at West Point, I was assigned as a so-called “3rd Lieutenant” to spend the better part of one summer as an executive officer of an armor advanced individual training company at Fort Knox, Kentucky. Out of 160 guys in the company, 140 of them had been drafted during Project 100,000, MacNamara’s cannon-fodder experiment which lowered the IQ level necessary for service, removed the requirement for a high school diploma, and gave county and state prisoners with less than two years to serve on their sentences the option to get out early if they “volunteered” for the draft.
Those were the guys I was in charge of teaching to drive and shoot tanks. I can tell you two things about that training company: One, no one was killed in training, and two, every soldier in that company graduated and was qualified at least minimally to drive and shoot the M-60 tank.
But the M-60 was a primitive weapons system compared to today’s tanks. The range-finder was optical, meaning as a tank commander, you looked through a scope and dialed knobs to match two lines to establish the range, and then you transmitted the range to the gunner over the radio, who dialed in the range on his sight, found the target in his sights and fired. Sometimes, those soldiers even hit what they were shooting at. Driving was done with two sticks that ran the left and right tracks, and gas and brake pedals. There was a transmission shifter that put the transmission in “go” and “idle,” and that was pretty much it. If you can drive a zero-turn lawn mower, you could drive an M-60.
The Leopard is much more complicated when it comes to firing its main gun, but driving it is very similar to the old M-60. Given what I can find out about the Leopard II, if Ukraine has soldiers who can handle the Russian T-72 tank, less than a week will be necessary to bring them up to speed on the Leopard II.
Which is great news for Ukraine. If other European nations, as expected, follow Poland’s lead and ship some of their Leopard II tanks, depending on how long it takes to get them there, Ukraine could have new Leopard tank units ready to go by March.
Germany has been reluctant to send its tanks or approve their shipment by other European nations because of “German culture,” according to multiple stories over the last few days. That’s shorthand for Germany being reluctant to get involved militarily in any conflict on the European continent unless their country is threatened, a hangover from German aggression in World War II. But that war ended almost 80 years ago. Everybody gets it that Germany has managed to cobble together what passes for collective shame over Nazism and the deaths they caused on and off the battlefield during that war. It looks like Germany, or more specifically, its politicians, are taking a deep breath and entering the real world. They’ve got these modern and deadly weapons systems. It’s time they used them for something other than decorative purposes in motor pools waiting for someone to attack them.
The Russians, chiefly in the person of State Duma Chairman Vyacheslav Volodin, have been making their usual threatening noises, warning the rest of the world to leave them alone so they can continue murdering Ukrainian civilians at will. “Supplies of offensive weapons to the Kyiv regime would lead to a global catastrophe,” Volodin said. Dimitri Medvedev, a former Russian president, chimed in by threatening to form a military alliance with "the nations that are fed up with the Americans and a pack of their castrated dogs."
Good luck with that, Dimitri. My advice would be to train your unlucky conscripts to duck.
Lucian K. Truscott IV, a graduate of West Point, has had a 50-year career as a journalist, novelist, and screenwriter. He has covered Watergate, the Stonewall riots, and wars in Lebanon, Iraq, and Afghanistan. He is also the author of five bestselling novels. You can subscribe to his daily columns at luciantruscott.substack.com and follow him on Twitter @LucianKTruscott and on Facebook at Lucian K. Truscott IV.
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With Republicans once again setting the stage for gridlock in Congress over raising the U.S. Treasury's statutory debt limit, and using interviews to push disingenuous analogies comparing the federal government’s budgeting practices to that of an average American household. The real danger is that mainstream media could fall for this misleading comparison and pressure Democrats into enacting painful cuts to popular social programs, while also letting Republicans off the hook for their role in manufacturing this crisis in the first place.
These comparisons between federal and household budgets go back many years, and they ignore some glaring differences: Unlike a household or business, the U.S. government issues its own currency and can roll over its own debt. The political utility of this comparison, however, is that it has enabled conservatives to target social programs, while they avoid answering for their own role in running up the public debt through unfunded tax cuts under Republican administrations.
Deceptive “credit card” analogy distracts from GOP’s role in running up deficits
Speaker of the House Kevin McCarthy (R-CA) appeared on the January 15 edition of Fox News’ Sunday Morning Futures in an interview designed to excuse his party’s role in manufacturing a crisis, by accusing President Joe Biden and Democrats of wasteful spending akin to running up credit card debt.
“So, what I really think we would do is treat this like we would treat our own household,” McCarthy said. “If you had a child, you gave them a credit card, and they kept hitting the limit, you wouldn't just keep increasing it. You would first see, what are you spending your money on? How can we cut items out?”
House Majority Leader Steve Scalise (R-LA) appeared on the January 22 edition of Sunday Morning Futures and also blamed Biden singularly for the levels of U.S. debt, using the credit card comparison. In outlining this flawed analogy, Scalise also gave away the political game by describing what he thinks should happen next.
“And so what happened is the credit cards are maxed out. That's basically how you hit the debt ceiling. It's the ability to print more money. And that expires when you hit the debt ceiling,” Scalise said. “And so the only way to address it is to control spending or to increase the debt ceiling, or a combination of the two.” (Scalise left out the obvious third possibility — of undoing the Trump tax cuts for the wealthy — while instead pushing an agenda to go after important government programs.)
Other elected Republicans have continued pushing this deceitful analogy via Fox News, including Rep. Brian Fitzpatrick (R-PA) on the January 22 edition of Fox News Sunday.
As others have pointed out, McCarthy did not have a similar zeal for obstructing routine debt limit increases during the Trump administration, when he voted to extend the debt limit during unified Republican control of government, and later supported a deal between a Democratic-led House and a Republican president to suspend the limit. This all occurred against the backdrop of congressional Republicans helping Trump balloon the national debt and budget deficit through unpopular tax cuts benefiting America's wealthiest families and corporations.
But going beyond the point of hypocrisy, this false comparison enables other bad messaging and both-sides comparisons, which falsely equate congressional Republicans taking the economy hostage through debt ceiling brinkmanship with Democrats opposing the act of hostage-taking.
McCarthy's own “credit card” analogy doesn’t make any sense
Earlier this month on Peacock’s The Mehdi Hasan Show, Stony Brook University economics professor Stephanie Kelton explained why the federal debt ceiling is not remotely the same as a personal credit card limit — and just how nonsensical and potentially catastrophic the whole arrangement really is.
STEPHANIE KELTON (ECONOMICS PROFESSOR, STONY BROOK UNIVERSITY): We know that the limit on our credit card is imposed by the lender, right? It’s the lender who says, “I’m going to limit the amount of charges that I’m willing to allow you to put on the card, because I’m worried about your ability to repay the loan.” Now, the debt ceiling limit, who imposes that limit? It is not a lender; it is the borrower itself. It is the federal government, in the form of Congress, that is saying “we are self-imposing this absurd constraint.” Which, as you just said, does nothing to actually constrain spending. All it does is potentially impede the ability of the government to make the payments that Congress has already authorized.
So, the debt ceiling is a form of self-delusion and obviously the kind of thing that periodically takes us to the brink where, you know, we start to wonder whether we’re going to do something unprecedented that could create incredible chaos in the global financial system, which is to actually default on those payments.
MEHDI HASAN (HOST): And the credit card analogy is not just dumb, it doesn't even make sense. Because, what Steve Scalise is saying is, “Don't pay back your credit card bill.” That's essentially what they're saying, if they want to risk a debt default.
Last Thursday on CNN, University of Michigan economics professor Justin Wolfers also explained this distinction. He further added that to the extent that levels of public spending and debt are an issue, McCarthy and other members of Congress are the ones who should be fixing that via normal legislative processes, instead of threatening to “to punch the American people in the face” by defaulting on the government’s bills and inevitably triggering both higher interest rates and higher taxes while undermining the integrity of the entire economy.
ERICA HILL (ANCHOR): And this something I think that Speaker McCarthy was really looking to do, so he compared the debt limit to a family’s finances saying, “look, Congress at this point can’t just keep raising the government’s credit card limit.” That’s an analogy I think most Americans can understand. And it’s one you called “cute,” but you also said it’s wrong. Why doesn’t that example work here?
JUSTIN WOLFERS (ECONOMICS PROFESSOR, UNIVERSITY OF MICHIGAN): So, it’s wrong because the person who raises your credit card limit is the credit card company, it’s the lender. Speaker McCarthy is part of the government. The government’s the borrower. The only choice the borrower makes — and we all face it every month — is the credit card bill comes due, are you going to pay it or not?
So if Speaker McCarthy wants the U.S. government to spend less money, he needs to pass bills so that we spend less money. But right now, he’s got a credit card bill in the mail and he’s just stomping his feet and saying, “I’m not going to pay it.” This is the part, actually, where it’s a pretty good analogy. Most of your viewers know that’s a pretty bad idea, it’s a pretty good way of getting your credit cut off, raising interest rates. And what that means is if the U.S. government pays higher interest, you and I pay higher taxes.
Former Federal Reserve economist Louise Sheiner, currently a senior fellow at the Brookings Institution, has also explained that the debt ceiling does not accomplish any fiscal restraint in the first place and should be abolished. “The only way to change the level of the debt is to change your tax revenues that are coming in or your spending that's going out, and that requires direct legislation on those elements,” Sheiner told KPCC radio in an interview published January 21. “And I think the evidence suggests that, really, the debt ceiling has not had a disciplinary effect on the budget. It really is used more, I think, as a political football than as a really intentional way of addressing our long-term challenges.”
Mainstream reporters mustn’t fall for the “credit card” analogy
CNN Inside Politics anchor John King ominously said Thursday, “The government’s credit card comes due, and there is no plan to pay it down.” And during a panel discussion, Tia Mitchell of The Atlanta Journal-Constitution claimed that the Biden administration was at risk of losing political support in the country because of it.
“And I think the people at home are looking at Congress — they’re not just looking at the White House, but they’re looking at Congress — and they’re saying, ‘We have to control our spending, because we only have so much we can put on our credit card. You need to do the same,’” Mitchell said. “Republicans understand that, and that’s why they want to have that conversation.”
About an hour later, CNN hosted Wolfers to explain exactly why the credit card analogy is wrong.
NBC News data reporter Brian Chung also used the credit card analogy Thursday on MSNBC: “Imagine that you have racked up $1,000 on your credit card, but you only have $800 to pay off that bill. That's the limit that we're talking about here. It's a cap on how much the government can borrow to pay its bills for spending that’s already been done, by the way, so it has nothing to do with whether money goes to defense or infrastructure, for example. … If they can’t pay its bills, then maybe they have to cut spending and funding and things like Social Security or Medicare.
NBC News senior Capitol Hill correspondent Garrett Haake also pointed out that congressional Republicans obstruct this purported credit card limit only when there is a Democratic president, not under a Republican. But the discourse is still trapped by this flawed analogy.
Update (1/23/23): This piece has been updated to include additional transcripts.
Reprinted with permission from Media Matters.
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