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We’ve Had Enough of Zero-Sum Democracy

Biden must understand the consistent failures of American global crusades in seeking to restore peace to Ukraine.

The whole idea of boycotting Russian vodka reminds too much of “freedom fries” from Gulf War 2.0. It seems stupid and silly until you realize we are stupid and silly and this is how we are led to war.

The tsunami of pro-Ukrainian propaganda is only matched by its transparency. The Ghost of Kiev was crafted out of an aircraft computer game. The Ukrainians on that island who would rather die than surrender surrendered. Zelensky is Where’s Waldo?, popping up in undated video with unidentifiable backgrounds, dressed in military cosplay reminiscent of George W. Bush in his flight suit. For Americans, war only happens on TV anyway.

The simplistic narrative is the same simplistic narrative: plucky freedom fighters against some evil dictator. It’s the same story of the resistance fighters in Syria against Assad, the Kurds against ISIS, the Taliban whom Ronald Reagan called the equivalent of our Founding Fathers for their fight against the Red Army.

Putin now is the most evil man on earth, unhinged, mentally unwell. Saddam once was, Assad used to be, and Gaddafi was to the point where America cheered as he was sodomized with a bayonet on TV. Familiar voices sound. The Brookings Institution demands “Regime change: Russia.” The Council on Foreign Relations roars “the conversation has shifted to include the possibility of desired regime change in Russia.” One headline wishfully notes “knocking Putin’s teams off the sports stage leaves him exposed to his own people.” No one seems to recall our last attempt at regime change in Russia is what put Putin into power in the first place.

Putin’s goals have gone in a matter of days from sorting out Cold War borders to “the restoration of a triumphalist, imperialistic Russian identity, or another bloodstained nationalistic surge to cover for the criminality of his regime, or whether he just has come egotistically unmoored.” One former Iraqi War cheerleader tells us Ukraine, the “front line between democracy and autocracy, is a core interest of the United States…Ukraine is where the battle for democracy’s survival is most urgent.”

Others are even more direct. Rep. Adam Kinzinger, Sen. Roger Wicker, and Zelensky himself demand a no-fly zone. As if preparing for war, the U.S. has already closed its embassies in Ukraine and Belarus, and placed Embassy Moscow on “Authorized Departure” status for non-emergency staff and family members. The CIA is training Ukrainians for insurgency. A congressional hearing discussed having American intelligence provide more direct assistance to Ukraine, including ground operatives.

You are either with us or against us. The homogeneity of our social media and television channels is terrifying. Censorship is in full fury; the fact checkers are hands off even on the most outrageous claims. Facebook and YouTube post Ukrainian propaganda made in violation of the Geneva Convention. Google News will not include anything from Russian state media. The New York Times is running anonymously-sourced tales claiming the Russians are deserting or sabotaging their own vehicles.

As in Moscow, no dissent is allowed. Rolling Stone is naming “the American right-wingers covering for Putin as Russia invades Ukraine,” currently Tucker Carlson, Alex Jones, J.D. Vance, and Tulsi Gabbard. The worst of all of course is Trump, whom Liz Cheney claims “aids our enemies” and whose “interests don’t seem to align with the interests of the United States.” When he proposed Congress vote on military escalations by the U.S. in Ukraine, Senator Mike Lee was quickly called “Moscow Mike.”

If all that isn’t laying the ground work for a fight, it has been an awful lot of work for nothing.

We’ve been here before, when everything was the same but not the same. Following Putin’s 2014 seizure of Crimea, and feints toward Ukraine, then-President Barack Obama said Ukraine is a core Russian interest but not an American one, so Russia will always be able to maintain escalatory dominance there. “The fact is that Ukraine, which is a non-NATO country, is going to be vulnerable to military domination by Russia no matter what we do.” Obama showed the same realism in 2013 when, in the face of war-mongering over Assad “gassing his own people” in Syria, he backed away from widening the war (if only Obama had been equally pragmatic in Libya).

But Biden is not Obama. Unlike Obama, he does not see himself awash in the stream of history, but more as a caretaker until the Democratic Party can regroup, the Gerald Ford of his era. Biden is a weak man who will come under increasing pressure to “do something” as it becomes apparent the newest sanctions against Russia accomplishes as little as the last sanctions. The previous sanctions did not stop Putin from invading Ukraine. But would Russia sanctioning Jeff Bezos have stopped the U.S. from invading Iraq?

More than anything else, Joe Biden is a Cold Warrior, burdened fully with that worldview. He believes it is the role of the United States to create a global system and enforce its rules. We can invade nations that did not attack us and demand regime change but you cannot.

We decide which nations have nuclear weapons. We can walk our NATO-alliance right to your border. We decide what systems control international commerce. It is right and just for us to talk about crippling another nation’s economy. It was all best expressed by Condoleezza Rice, who commented with a straight face on Putin’s invasion of Ukraine: “When you invade a sovereign nation, that is a war crime.”

This worldview is consequence free. America stands with its hands in its pockets as its actions in Libya trigger a massive refugee flow into Europe, its actions in Syria trigger a massive refugee flow into Europe, and its actions in Ukraine trigger a massive refugee flow into Europe. Nation building? We create and then abandon failed states.

This worldview says the United States can empower former Soviet satellites and grow American influence by expanding NATO (Lithuania, Latvia, Estonia, Poland, and Romania formally joined the alliance, East Germany by default) and do this while taking the nuclear weapons away from those states. It was American policy to have weak but not too weak states between Russia and the “good” part of Europe, dependent on America for defense.

As the Soviet Union collapsed, borders were redrawn to match the West’s needs. The same mistake was made earlier by the British post-WWI in the Middle East. The reality of 2022 is Putin is seeking to redraw borders. Ukraine as a possible NATO member is a threat. Americans live in a country that has no border threats and fail to understand the mindset time after time; imagine Mexico joining the Warsaw Pact in 1970. Understanding Putin beyond a Bond-villain caricature is not supporting him.

We were warned. After the Senate pushed NATO expansion in 1998 despite the collapse of the Soviet Union, Ambassador George Kennan stated “I think it is the beginning of a new cold war. I think the Russians will gradually react quite adversely. I think it is a tragic mistake. No one was threatening anybody else. We have signed up to protect a whole series of countries, even though we have neither the resources nor the intention to do so in any serious way.”

That’s the trap Joe Biden is being lured back into. Only months after the American retreat from Afghanistan, Biden seems to have learned nothing. Our defeat did not teach us humility and restraint. It did not school us that America can no longer dictate global rules, sitting as judge while an ally invades a neighbor and then turning to hurl lightning bolts when an enemy invades one. It did not budge us from the destructive moral certainty that fuels our foreign policy. All that’s missing now is for someone to claim Russia and China are a new Axis of Evil.

Negotiation is not appeasement. We aren’t in control anymore, and despite Afghanistan, Biden may seek another bloody confirmation of that. Or he can understand America’s core interests are not in Ukraine and keep the peace.

Putin invaded Ukraine because, unlike Biden, he understands the new new world order has different rules. Joe Biden, not always a quick study, has two choices. He can give in to the voices for war and try to prop up the myth of World’s Policemen for another round, or he can understand the consistent failures of American crusades and the global Pax Americana, especially in the Middle East, have changed the rules.

Peter Van Buren is the author of We Meant Well: How I Helped Lose the Battle for the Hearts and Minds of the Iraqi People, Hooper’s War: A Novel of WWII Japan, and Ghosts of Tom Joad: A Story of the 99 Percent.

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