Mar 7, 2022

What should America do?

What should America do?

The debate over a no-fly zone and energy independence is here.

I’m Isaac Saul, and this is Tangle: an independent, ad-free, subscriber-supported politics newsletter that summarizes the best arguments from across the political spectrum on the news of the day — then “my take.”  

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Today's read: 12 minutes.

We're discussing what the U.S. should do in Ukraine. Plus, an update on something you did in today's "Have a nice day" section.

Source: The Presidential Press and Information Office
Source: The Presidential Press and Information Office

Quick hits.

  1. The U.S. Supreme Court reinstated the death penalty for Dzhokhar Tsarnaev, the convicted Boston Marathon bomber who killed three people and injured hundreds of others in 2013. (The decision)
  2. The unemployment rate fell from 4% to 3.8% in February, the lowest since the pandemic began. Employers added 678,000 jobs with the largest growth in restaurants, bars, hotels, transportation and construction. (The numbers)
  3. In the U.S., the average gas price broke $4 per gallon for the first time since 2008. (The prices)
  4. Government funding is set to expire Friday night as Congress debates a $1.5 trillion omnibus spending bill, including aid for Ukraine, oil imports from Russia and more Covid-19 relief. (The story — WSJ, paywall)
  5. New York City ended its mask mandates today and the city's mayor Eric Adams encouraged New Yorkers to "go out." (The end)

Today's topic.

Ukraine. There are several angles to the war in Ukraine, and we have covered quite a few of them throughout our coverage: The history, the rising tension, Putin's initial advance, the beginning of the war, and an update on the war. On Friday, I wrote a plea to my readers not to lose the plot. Today, we are going to narrow our focus to one specific issue: What should the United States do now?

On Sunday, Russian forces once again intensified their air strikes and barrages of major Ukrainian cities. 1.45 million Ukrainians have now fled the country. Plans for humanitarian corridors to help civilians evacuate collapsed, amid reports of civilians being killed as they attempted a safe evacuation. In Kherson, a city of nearly 300,000 that became the first major city to fall to Russian forces, citizens hit the streets for the third day in a row to protest the occupation. In Nova Kakhovka and Kalanchak, similar protests broke out, and Russian forces responded by firing their guns in the air and throwing flash-bang grenades into the crowd. In Mariupol, forces have fought off attacks from Russia on three sides, but the city is now without water, cell phone service and electricity.

Meanwhile, Russian forces are continuing to push toward the nation's capital in Kyiv and the country's second-largest city, Kharkiv, which has been under heavy shelling for days. Officials in Kharkiv have reported that Russia bombed a line outside a grocery store, killing civilians, and images online corroborated the reports. Three civilians fleeing Irpin were killed by Russian shelling. Russian forces also seized the Zaporizhzhia power plant in southern Ukraine over the weekend.

Ukrainian President Volodymyr Zelensky has pleaded for the North Atlantic Treaty Organization (NATO) or the U.S. to either institute a no-fly zone or supply Ukraine with fighter jets. On Sunday, U.S. Secretary of State Antony Blinken said he had seen credible reports of war crimes like the deliberate attack of civilians. But he also reasserted the United States’ position that it would not institute a no-fly zone over Ukraine.

“[The] president's been very clear about one thing all along as well, which is we're not going to put the United States in direct conflict with Russia, not have, you know, American planes flying against Russian planes or our soldiers on the ground in Ukraine,” Blinken said. “The president also has a responsibility to not get us into a direct conflict, a direct war with Russia, a nuclear power, and risk a war that expands even beyond Ukraine to Europe. That's clearly not our interest. What we're trying to do is end this war in Ukraine, not start a larger one."

At the same time, Sens. Joe Manchin (D-WV) and Lisa Murkowski (R-AK) have presented bipartisan legislation to block oil and gas imports from Russia. However, the White House has reportedly lobbied Democrats against the legislation, while simultaneously insisting it is open to the possibility of stopping Russian imports. Oil from Russia accounts for 3% of U.S. crude imports, but banning it could cause gas prices to rise even higher than they already have in the U.S. — and potentially set off a recession in Europe, where prices would skyrocket as well.

This is a useful map from the United Kingdom's Ministry of Defence on what Ukraine looks like:

Below, we're going to take a look at some arguments from the right and left about these two topics: The no-fly zone and energy independence.


There is actually a good deal of agreement on the right and left about some of the next steps. On both sides, the majority opinion continues to be that a no-fly zone should be off the table, because it would risk a direct confrontation with Russia. However, there are also dissenting voices on each side that support a no-fly zone — or at least want it to stay on the table as an option. The left and right do disagree about how to navigate the supply of Russian oil.

What the right is saying.

  • The right mostly opposes a no-fly zone, arguing that it could lead to nuclear war or World War III.
  • There is some dissent, though, including criticism that it shouldn't be totally off the table.
  • Many point to Biden's actions on fossil fuels as weakening the U.S. position against Russia.

Kaylee McGhee White said Biden is right to reject a no-fly zone.

"The reckless disregard with which some U.S. lawmakers are treating the idea of an all-out war with a nuclear power is troubling," White wrote. "At least two congressmen this week called on the United States to back a 'no-fly' zone over Ukraine, which would likely require U.S. pilots to engage directly with Russian fighter jets if Russia violated the zone. Both Sen. Roger Wicker and Rep. Adam Kinzinger argued this step is the only way to make sure Ukraine has a fighting chance. Neither seemed to care that a no-fly zone would involve the U.S. military directly and escalate the regional conflict to a global catastrophe.

"Thankfully, Kinzinger isn’t the one in charge. Congress has the power to approve implementation of a no-fly zone, but the president must first request one — something President Joe Biden is rightly refusing to do. When asked this week whether Biden would consider backing a no-fly zone over Ukraine, White House press secretary Jen Psaki said Biden has no intention of putting us 'in a place in a military conflict with Russia.' This is the right call," White said. "Our default position should always be to avoid putting American lives at risk — in Ukraine, at home, and everywhere else. That some U.S. lawmakers don’t share this position in regards to Ukraine is revealing in more ways than one."

The New York Post editorial board said the United States may have to do more.

"Putin plainly means to reduce Ukraine’s cities to dust if they don’t surrender, as his forces did in the bloody 2000 siege of Grozny and more recently in the leveling of Aleppo, then Syria’s most populous city," the board said. "It’s time for greater, more forceful US and Western action. It could take many forms: As Bryan Clark pointed out in these pages, deniable microwave attacks can disable Russian hardware and jam tactical communications. Our naval power can curtail Russian options in the Black Sea. Nor should setting up a no-fly zone, as Ukraine’s government has requested over its airspace, be off the table.

"It would require shooting down the planes of a nuclear power — but if Putin can dictate the rules of engagement simply by invading another nation, this won’t be his last war. No, the United States isn’t formally obligated to fight on Ukraine’s behalf (since we never ratified the treaty promising that, in exchange for Ukraine giving up its nuclear weapons). But Russia’s serial, utterly unprovoked invasions of a sovereign country require an answer stronger than mere sanctions and belated efforts to get the Ukrainians all the arms they can use," the board added. "Germany, long the brake against European efforts to stymie Russian ambition, has announced a dramatic strategic shift. It’s time the United States did the same."

Marc Thiessen said Biden's war on fossil fuels has strengthened Putin and weakened America.

"Putin gambled that Biden was not willing to risk sanctioning his lucrative energy exports, and thus driving up energy prices for U.S. consumers just months before the midterm elections. The bet paid off," Thiessen said. "This failure of deterrence shows the folly of Biden’s war on fossil fuels. He inherited a nation that was an energy superpower. During his four years in office, President Donald Trump opened 100 million acres of public land and water, including the Arctic National Wildlife Refuge, to exploration. He withdrew from the Paris climate accord, approved the Keystone XL pipeline between the United States and Canada, and rolled back Obama-era regulations such as the Clean Power Plan that held back domestic exploration and production. Trump’s policy was “drill, baby drill.” The result? On his watch, the United States supplanted Russia and Saudi Arabia as the world’s largest oil producer.

"This newfound energy independence transformed the national security landscape, strengthening the United States vis-a-vis Russia and other revanchist powers," he added. "But on taking office, Biden squandered the position of strength he inherited from Trump. He prioritized climate change over energy independence and launched a policy of energy disarmament. Biden rejoined the Paris agreement and canceled the Keystone XL pipeline, which by itself would have transported 830,000 barrels of oil per day from Alberta to refineries on the Gulf Coast of Texas — far more than the 538,000 barrels we import every day from Russia)... The highest U.S. price for a gallon of regular gas has been $4.11. If Biden were to impose the kinds of crippling energy sanctions required to truly punish Russia, prices could rise far higher. Putin knew Biden couldn’t take that risk. He saw that Biden’s approval rating was in free fall, and that the U.S. president had no political capital to spend at home in confronting Russia’s aggression against Ukraine."

What the left is saying.

  • The left is also mostly opposed to a no-fly zone, saying it would risk dragging us into a much larger war.
  • There is some dissent on the left too, including arguments that it should still be an option.
  • Rather than increase our dependence on fossil fuels by drilling more at home, the left calls for a more rapid expansion of renewable energy.

The Washington Post editorial board said we need a calibrated NATO response.

"The Biden administration has been wise to reject a NATO no-fly zone over Ukraine, even though one of the people who has called for it is Ukraine’s redoubtable president, Volodymyr Zelensky," the board wrote. "There would be no way to enforce such a measure without large-scale deployment of U.S. and other NATO aircraft, and their engagement in direct combat with Russian forces. This would dramatically escalate the war in pursuit of relatively marginal benefits: most of the damage being done to Ukraine right now is from ground-launched artillery and missiles, not from high-explosive weapons delivered by Russian aircraft. Indeed, Ukraine has already had some success shooting down helicopters and planes with its own arms, including mobile antiaircraft missiles supplied by NATO.

"A better plan would be to continue that vital flow of weaponry while enabling Poland to send its available Soviet-vintage fighter aircraft to Ukraine for use by the latter country’s own pilots," it added. "The United States would have to offset Poland’s transfers to Ukraine by supplying new U.S.-made planes. Secretary of State Antony Blinken confirmed Sunday that the Biden administration would support this three-way exchange. To be sure, there are potential downsides to this option, not the least being the fact that Russia has already destroyed key Ukrainian airfields. Also, Mr. Putin, who has already likened economic sanctions to a ‘declaration of war,’ could treat aircraft transfers as a provocation. Recent history, however, shows that he will invent provocations even when the West shows restraint, and that Ukraine cannot be left at the mercy of Russian artillery."

In The Guardian, Sophy Antrobus said a no-fly zone would escalate the war, but shouldn't be off the table.

"Critics would say that setting this red line so early in the conflict might be perceived as weakness by Vladimir Putin. By taking options off the table, the nations rallying for Ukraine put themselves in an inherently disadvantageous position, creating an 'escalation paradox' – if any action from the west that isn’t solely reactive to Russia’s activities is ruled out, then we are destined to remain reactive in perpetuity," Antrobus said. "The UK government has been careful to point out that at each juncture it has been Putin who has escalated the situation. By implication, a coalition no-fly zone would represent an escalation on the part of the west, and the government sees this as unacceptable.

"Is a no-fly zone the panacea that will change the course of events in Ukraine? Probably not," Antrobus wrote. "And it risks taking the conflict into a much broader and darker arena given Putin’s threats and irrationality. The sad fact is that a no-fly zone that ushers in a third world war still fails to protect Ukrainians from the barrage of fire they face from heavy artillery that is being illegally targeted at them from Putin’s ground troops, while potentially diverting attention and operational focus from Ukraine itself. But should escalation, on the part of the massive majority of the globe that supports Ukraine and rejects Putin’s horrific actions, be permanently removed from the table of options? I believe not."

In The Hill, Admiral Dennis McGinn said we must pivot away from the fossil fuel resources controlled by dictators across the world.

"For the United States, energy independence must mean clean, renewable, independent energy," McGinn wrote. "The fate of our national security — and position in the world — is linked to how seriously we commit to building a clean energy economy. Passing a bold and far-reaching domestic clean energy policy may be the greatest step we can take right now to ensure both our national and energy security in this time of uncertainty.

"Rather than a myopic short-term focus on oil and gas, Congress should be thinking about and acting to ramp up renewable energy production as soon as possible and reduce demand by increasing energy efficiency across all sectors of our economy," McGinn said. "The only way to reduce the power of oligarchs and dictators fueled by gas and oil is to stop our reliance upon these sources of energy. When we stop needing to buy their products, we stop allowing them to use their fuel as bullying instruments of power and diplomatic leverage. Rapidly expanding our American and allied renewable energy portfolios protects us from dictators, price swings and a continuing fossil fuel driven threat of geopolitical chaos. That is the 21st century definition of true energy and national security."

My take.

I'll start by reinforcing two obvious points: 1) A no-fly zone in Ukraine would be incredibly risky, and 2) if the United States didn't rely so much on oil flowing from authoritarian leaders across the world, we'd have much better leverage. The responses to both of those things may seem obvious, too: Don't institute a no-fly zone and, as President Trump and other Republicans have called for, "drill, baby, drill."

I think the counterpoints here are worth exploring, though. I'll start with the no-fly zone.

I've been adamant since before the war began that U.S. involvement is a non-starter. This position is largely born out of a desire to see less war, not more. But I think given how things have gone, it's worth reconsidering whether that strategy is working. Everyone seems to be swallowing wholesale the idea that a NATO-instituted no-fly zone would constitute a major escalation and lead to World War III, with nuclear armed powers shooting each other out of the sky. I hear a lot less about how doing something different than what we have been doing might stop the escalations that Putin is leading every single day.

He is now openly bombing civilian centers across Ukraine. He is leveling apartment buildings. His soldiers are shooting journalists and citizens attempting to escape. He is agreeing to humanitarian evacuation routes, then bombing those routes when citizens try to take them. Zoom out and consider the moves of the last few months: Putin escalated with military exercises. He escalated with troop build-ups along Ukraine's border. He escalated by declaring independent states in eastern Ukraine. He escalated by sending troops into those states. He escalated by invading Ukraine. He escalated by striking first against military outposts. He escalated by then bombing civilian centers. He escalated by trying to assassinate Ukraine's president. He escalated by then bombing civilian escape routes.

Why do we think this pattern of escalation will stop if we continue to do what we’re doing? Why do we think he will stop at anything short of destroying the entire country, and then advancing to other former Soviet states that he views with equal animosity as Ukraine? Perhaps when dictators tell us what they're going to do, we should take them literally and seriously.

Now, Putin has also threatened nuclear war and has declared any intervention would be an act of war, a threat we should take literally, too. So, too, has he called supplying Ukraine with weapons or cutting Russia off from the banking world — which we're already doing — an act of war. The truth is, anything anyone does to try to stop his power grab will be considered an act of war by Putin. The idea that we — the NATO alliance — are not already involved, is a bit of a fantasy. The question continues to be what Putin will do in response to our actions.

Again: I'm not suggesting we institute a no-fly zone. The risk is cataclysmic should Putin feel cornered and respond with some kind of suicidal nuclear attack (knowing full well it'd be returned in kind). It's ludicrous we are even at the point of discussing this as a possibility. But I'm also not entirely sold on the logic that refusing any kind of military engagement, one where we'd be at a massive advantage with our allies behind us against an inferior power that’s already stretched thin and going bankrupt, is the best path forward either. At the very least, I share the perspective from above that taking it off the table and refusing to even consider it as an option is also a bad strategy.

As for our energy independence, the only option to me seems to be the obvious one: Do it all. Oil drilling and fracking are environmentally destructive, accelerating climate change and much of it controlled by our adversaries on the world stage. On top of that, they are finite resources that increasingly require new, innovative ways of destroying our planet to retrieve and refine them. We should, in the long-term, be working to abandon them. We should have started 50 years ago. But in the short-term, we need to be able to divorce ourselves from the powers abroad and avoid the delusion of energy independence we’ve been under the last few years. Right now, our only options appear to be turning to Iran or Saudi Arabia.

At the same time, that fix only gets us out of the present day quagmire. A few years from now we'll be back where we started, or worse. That's why a massive investment in renewables — and probably nuclear energy, too — needed to happen yesterday. It's why China, who is currently eating our lunch on renewables, is building 156 of the 211 major battery factories around the world. We are building just 12.

Pivoting from fossil fuels to renewable energy isn't just necessary to preserve our environment, it's increasingly obvious that it is necessary as a military strategy, too. But if we don't do it on our own terms we'll end up going from reliance on Russia, Saudi Arabia and Iraq to reliance on China, an equally dangerous proposition.

Have thoughts about "my take?" You can reply to this email and write in or leave a comment if you're a subscriber.

Your questions, answered.

We're skipping today's reader question as our main topic alone took us over our 10 minute read time.

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A story that matters.

According to a new poll, the healthcare worker shortage appears to be hitting Americans hard. CVS Health-Harris Poll National Health surveyed 2,000 Americans and asked them about their interactions with the health care system, according to Axios. 45% said they'd had trouble scheduling appointments. one in three said their doctors were on reduced hours. A quarter said they'd had treatments or surgeries delayed and one in five said their doctor had stopped practicing outright. This is compounded by the fact that one in five Americans skipped checkups during the pandemic. Axios has the story.


  • 74%. The percentage of Americans who said the United States and its NATO allies should institute a no-fly zone in Ukraine, according to a Reuters poll.
  • 80%. The percentage of Americans who said the United States should stop buying Russian oil.
  • 62%. The percentage of Americans who said paying for more oil and gas was worthwhile to defend another democratic country.
  • 72%. The percentage of Americans who said the United States should supply Ukraine with weapons.
  • 74%. The percentage of Americans who said the U.S. should take in Ukrainian refugees.
  • 42%. The percentage of Americans who said they would support military intervention if sanctions fail to deter Russia, according to a separate CNN poll.

Have a nice day (about you).

Last week, I announced I'd be donating half of all new subscription revenue and tips to a consortium of Ukrainian news outlets on the ground in the war zone. These reporters are being rocked by war and risking their lives to continue to bring us reliable firsthand information. I expected that we could raise a few hundred or maybe a thousand dollars to show our support. Instead, I am thrilled to announce that we were able to donate $3,742 (which is £2,839 GBP). Screenshot of proof below:

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