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It’s Always Harder to Oppose the Current War

The rush to war in Ukraine is luring even some former doves.

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(Sheila Fitzgerald/Shutterstock)

The New York Times on Sunday published a piece seeking to divine the motives of Republican opponents of escalation in Ukraine, such as Senators J.D. Vance and Josh Hawley, and Representatives Matt Gaetz and Anna Paulina Luna. The upshot was that these figures are beholden to a blinkered America First-ism that calls for “retreating from the rest of the world,” as Sen. Chris Van Hollen, a pro-war Democrat, told the paper.

So far, so humdrum. But one notable bit was the comparison between this “loud GOP minority,” as the headline framed Vance et al., and Rep. Barbara Lee, the California Democrat who in 2001 cast the lone vote against authorizing President George W. Bush to take military action after 9/11. That vote, Gaetz has suggested, makes Lee a “folk hero.” But the Times and Lee herself were quick to dash any parallels between today’s antiwar Republicans and the progressive dissidents of yesteryear.

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Lee—who indeed showed tremendous courage and prescience in opposing the disastrous post-9/11 wars—told the paper that in the Ukraine war, “we see a dictatorship invading a democracy. And we need to be on the side of democracy. Whenever you see innocent people being killed by a war criminal, you want to do what you can to support them.” Lee has voted with her party and most Republicans in favor of some military aid for Kiev, though in other cases she has declined to go along.

Lee did not speculate about what motivates the Republicans’ dissent. But other pro-escalation lawmakers didn’t hold back. “I just think these guys are with Trump,” averred Rep. Zoe Lofgren of California. Trump, she said, “has made clear that he supports Putin and other authoritarian leaders,” something “you saw [in] how he refused to say he wants Ukraine to win the war.” Mainstream, pro-escalation Republicans are barely more restrained when discussing the antiwar populists, especially now that they don’t have to worry about Tucker Carlson castigating them nightly on Fox News.

All this is a reminder of an obvious point: Criticizing the failed wars of the past is a much easier business than standing in the way of the current rush to war and escalation. As Lee, the recipient of many death threats after her dissenting vote, knows all too well, questioning the current war gets one branded a traitor and a stooge of global baddies and authoritarians.

That’s what happened to progressive critics of the post-9/11 wars in those heady days. Andrew Sullivan called them “a fifth column.” Pro-war loudmouth Ralph Peters compared them to Petain and “apologists for Hitler.” Christopher Hitchens barraged them with clever abuse. In a nation that sees a new Hitler in every rival and adversary, every war critic and every escalation skeptic is a new Chamberlain. The end of democracy is forever just around the corner—unless we take action now, and “action” can only mean escalate, escalate, escalate. If you don’t favor escalation, you’re no friend of democracy.

It is terribly easy to pen editorials and columns framing skeptics and dissidents as “apologists for evil,” as men and women lacking “moral seriousness” (remember that buzzword of highbrow hawkism circa 2003?). I know, because I used to write editorials like that in my younger hawkish days. Try it yourself: See how many different sentence iterations you can generate using the terms “democracy,” “Iraq,” “apologists,” “Saddam,” “threat,” “moral seriousness,” “American responsibility,” and/or “American leadership.” Now try the same game, only substitute “Russia” and “Putin” for “Iraq” and “Saddam.”

Easy enough, as I say. Now recall that Russia is an actual nuclear power, while Saddam only played that role in the Bush-era hawks’ fantasies. That simple fact is a measure of the actual courage and moral seriousness of today’s antiwar Republicans, whatever their motives might be.

Let’s hope the current war doesn’t take a truly disastrous turn. For in that case, being remembered as a “folk hero” may indeed not be worth the candle.

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