From the Right



On Ukraine and on Welfare, Morale Trumps Materiel

Michael Barone on

Morale matters more than materiel.

Again and again, experts' predictions, based on readily quantifiable data and logical extrapolations, have proved disastrously wrong. The phenomenon is seen in apparently unrelated areas in foreign affairs and domestic policy. Examples: Ukraine and welfare.

The U.S. intelligence experts who accurately predicted the Russian invasion of Ukraine were wrong about the consequences. They thought that Russia, with more troops and more firepower, would sweep into Kyiv and occupy half the country. The United States closed down its embassy in Kyiv and offered to fly President Volodymyr Zelensky to safety.

He didn't accept the experts' advice. "I need ammunition, not a ride," he said, and his daily videos from Kyiv emboldened the Ukrainians' morale, and the Russians scooted out of Kyiv.

Now, half a year later, Ukrainian forces have recovered thousands of square miles from Russian occupiers, according to the Institute for the Study of War. They cleverly threatened an offensive in the south, which forced Russians to retreat from one key city, then sent troops advancing rapidly eastward as demoralized Russian troops scampered away.

It was "a massive moral collapse of Russian forces in Kharkiv oblast," near the Russian border, one observer noted, quoting Napoleon: "In war, three-quarters turns on personal character and relations; the balance of manpower and materials counts only for the remaining quarter."


Ukrainians' morale is high: They are trying to protect their country from brutal destruction and arbitrary rule. If Russian President Vladimir Putin hoped to convince Ukrainians they should be part of Russia, his invasion seems to have had precisely the opposite effect, strengthening national loyalties in what has been a separate country only since 1991.

Similarly, Putin has gotten the U.S. and many NATO allies to behave as if Ukraine were part of that alliance and to get Russia's neighbors Finland and Sweden to join NATO after staying outside it for 73 years.

The outcome of the Ukraine war is not clear, and, as the Wall Street Journal's Walter Russell Mead argues, there's a danger Putin could employ tactical nuclear weapons. But the expert calculations of Putin and, apparently, the American intelligence community have been proved wrong. Morale can matter more than materiel.

That's been true of welfare as well. Welfare reform in the 1990s, pioneered by Wisconsin Gov. Tommy Thompson, pushed nationally by Speaker Newt Gingrich and signed (after two vetoes) by Bill Clinton in 1996, imposed work requirements on single-mother recipients. Critics, including the often eerily prescient Sen. Daniel Patrick Moynihan, predicted that mothers and children would starve in the streets.


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