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Meddling for Meddling’s Sake

As usual, The Wall Street Journalwants the U.S. to meddle where it’s not needed:

The protests could also set Ukraine on a better course, and that should be the U.S. goal. At a minimum the Obama Administration can make clear to Mr. Putin that he will pay a price if he stokes violence or promotes a crackdown. It would also help if President Obama found his voice for a change on behalf of freedom and the West.

The editorial happens to be commenting on protests in Ukraine, but the conclusion could just as easily be about any other country in the world. It follows the standard script of hawkish whining: 1) describe recent events in a foreign land; 2) lament that the U.S. has not yet inserted itself into the middle of whatever is happening; 3) insist that the U.S. issue unspecified warnings and threats to whichever regime(s) may be involved; 4) make no attempt to assess whether the recommended actions make sense, advance any U.S. interests, or would make any constructive difference; 5) then attach a partisan complaint that the current president is insufficiently devoted to promoting “freedom.” The problem is not that the argument is always the same, but that it routinely fails to explain why the U.S. should interfere, it never considers what the potential downside for the U.S. and the country in question may be, and it needlessly turns almost every event overseas into an ideological struggle that requires U.S. “leadership.” Despite the fact that the burden of proof is supposed to be on the side of those demanding greater U.S. involvement in a foreign dispute, there is never the least effort to demonstrate that increased U.S. involvement is appropriate or that it would achieve anything desirable. It is simply something that “must” be done because it is what the U.S. is supposed to do.

So does it make sense for Ukrainian or American interests for the U.S. to engage in open and direct competition for influence with Russia? There doesn’t seem to be any good reason for the U.S. to do this, and doing so risks escalating tensions between the U.S. and Russia over a dispute where America has almost nothing at stake. States that have been the object of U.S.-Russian rivalry in recent years have fared poorly because of it, so it seems unwise to add Ukraine back to the list. The truth is that Ukraine’s orientation matters more to Moscow than it does to anyone in the West, and it seems extremely unlikely that the U.S. or any group of Western governments is prepared or willing to bear the costs that a feud with Russia over this issue might entail. Is Moscow likely to respond to American threats by backing down, or is it more likely that the Russian government will perceive American warnings as a challenge to be defied? If Washington says not to promote a crackdown, doesn’t that perversely give Moscow a reason to do that in order to show that it doesn’t take orders from our government? There doesn’t seem to any plausible scenario in which active U.S. involvement in this dispute helps anyone in Ukraine, and at no point would it advance a single American interest. It would seem to be nothing more than meddling for meddling’s sake.

about the author

Daniel Larison is a senior editor at TAC, where he also keeps a solo blog. He has been published in the New York Times Book Review, Dallas Morning News, World Politics Review, Politico Magazine, Orthodox Life, Front Porch Republic, The American Scene, and Culture11, and was a columnist for The Week. He holds a PhD in history from the University of Chicago, and resides in Lancaster, PA. Follow him on Twitter.

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