The Blind Path to War
Moralizing and hubris have brought us closer to nuclear war than we have been in a generation.
If updates on the war in Ukraine have struck you as sparse, repetitive, and somehow even a little boring of late, you are not alone. From the view appropriate to an average American watching from over here—which is to say from a very high, abstract, and political perspective—very little has changed or appears likely to change about the war.
Indeed, as regular readers of The American Conservative already know, very few significant realities have changed since the conflict’s opening campaigns. The war was eminently predictable and predicted. The invasion and sanctions in response have largely detached the European economy from Russia, and given NATO a new lease on life. Despite an unexpectedly strong performance from Ukrainian forces and poor performance by Russian troops, Ukraine cannot hold out, let alone initiate a counteroffensive, without massive amounts of American military aid and operations support.
So readers will perhaps not find much to surprise them in Benjamin Schwarz and Christopher Layne’s tremendous recent essay for Harper’s Magazine explaining why we—you, me, and America—are in Ukraine. But as the pair lay out the history of moralizing myopia and rank hubris that has brought us closer to nuclear war than we have been in a generation, perhaps you can still be shocked. The very serious people administering our empire have been mendacious scolds, and—more unforgivable—stupid. In America, “intelligence community” does not mean something like Mensa.
It is the lack of imagination that really depresses. Schwarz and Layne spoke to a civilian military analyst who, in lectures to Pentagon and intelligence officials, has asked what the U.S. reaction would be “if Mexico were to invite China to station warships in Acapulco and bombers in Guadalajara.” The responses were predictable and appropriate for such a clear violation of our sphere of influence and threat to our security. But when the analyst has connected that scenario to Moscow’s reaction to NATO’s expansion eastward and American policy in Ukraine, the officials “have been taken aback, in many cases admitting, as the analyst reports, ‘Damn, I never thought out what we’re doing to Russia in that light.’”
Never mind that for a Cold War–obsessed defense establishment the complex negotiations and tradeoffs around the Cuban missile crisis ought to provide a little food for thought, or that the Mexico analogy is an obvious one. Indeed, just last month two career diplomats, David H. Rundell, a former chief of mission at the U.S. Embassy in Saudi Arabia, and Michael Gfoeller, a former ambassador and a Council on Foreign Relations member, made the Mexico comparison in the pages of Newsweek.
“The classic requirements for a just war include a reasonable possibility of victory,” they wrote. “While a generation of Ukrainian men are dying, the sad reality is that Ukraine has about as much chance of winning a war against Russia as Mexico would of winning a war with the United States. Prolonging the conflict will not change that equation.” If one wants to minimize the bloodshed of the Russia–Ukraine conflict, then the right thing is to push for a negotiated settlement, and to stop enabling a grinding war of attrition by supplementing limited manpower with less, though not un-, limited arms and support.
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Of course, American willingness to send as many Russian men home in pinewood boxes as possible, irrespective of the cost in Ukrainian lives, has been enabled by a Russiagate narrative we know to be bogus. But at a political level this explanation gets the causality backwards. The establishment embodied in Hillary Clinton is the same one that has wanted to bring Ukraine into the NATO sphere and regime change to Russia for years. The Durham report makes clear that the allegations against then-candidate Donald Trump of collusion with Russia were part of an operation initiated by the Clinton campaign to prevent President Trump’s election that was facilitated and enabled by members of the official national security state, too. The Trump administration represented a four-year pause in a long plan to isolate Russia and Vladimir Putin, but, in terms of propagandizing the American people for such a conflict, those years were not wasted.
He who has ears, let him hear, but I won’t hold my breath. Just as the major dynamics of this war remain largely unchanged from the early weeks of the conflict, so too has the political situation been visible to those with eyes to see since the Steele Dossier was first dropped into the public lap. Indeed, that the foreign policy establishment wished to use Ukraine as a weapon against Putin’s regime and European independence has been obvious for longer than that. If people have not seen this yet, the ongoing war and the Durham report are hardly likely to remove the scales from their eyes.
But then again, as Matthew 20 suggests, perhaps we should gladly give a denarius even unto this last, and I for one will be happy to see any minds changed by the events of the last week and year. It is the great vice of the realist right to say “I told you so” and to fret about recognition from other conservatives, when he might instead say “welcome” and focus fire on liberal internationalists set on keeping us from the path to peace.