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For Neocons, It’s Always Munich

Now they're calling me and others skeptical of the Blob's belligerence on Ukraine neo-Neville Chamberlains
For Neocons, It’s Always Munich

Twenty years ago, neocons denounced as traitors to America those Americans, like Pat Buchanan, who opposed the Iraq War. Today, they’re denouncing us on the Right who oppose war with Russia as Neville Chamberlains. Here’s Matt K. Lewis in The Daily Beast, criticizing “MAGA tough guys”:

Donald Trump has conquered the GOP as a cult of personality, but the body politic is still trying to reject the foreign objects of Trumpism. As Russia masses troops on Ukraine’s border, an unresolved schism on the right has been exposed: the Russian bear.

In one corner are the Reagan Republicans who don’t trust Vladimir Putin, the ex-KGB agent, and who believe it’s dangerous to allow regimes to invade their neighbors. In the other corner are the America Firsters who would sit on their hands if Russia invaded and occupied Ukraine.

Ah, see what he’s doing here? When did it become America’s responsibility to decide which nations are “allowed” to do what? An notice the sleight of hand here: To believe that the US has no business getting involved in this particular dispute between Russia and Ukraine is, in Matt Lewis’s view, to be universally in favor of regimes invading their neighbors. There might be some of us on the Right who are universal anti-interventionists, but I can’t think of any of them. Speaking for myself and those I know among the right-wing critics of US aggression in the Ukraine case, we think that putting America between Russia and Ukraine is unwise. But if these neocon hawks can successfully brand us all as global appeasers, they don’t have to make the case for intervention in a dispute that most Americans don’t believe is our business, or at least not worth risking war over. 

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More recently, [Tucker] Carlson suggested NATO was to blame for Russia’s actions. “Imagine if Mexico fell under the direct military control of China, we would see that as a threat of course,” Carlson explained. “That’s how Russia views NATO control of Ukraine. Why wouldn’t they?”

It’s ironic that this isolationist strain is gaining traction (according to Gallup, the number of Republicans calling Russia an ally or friend rose from 22 percent to 40 percent between 2014 and 2018), even as the right increasingly fetishizes political machismo.

For years, foreign policy hawks invoked the icon of appeasement, Neville Chamberlain, to emasculate their more dovish liberal opponents. Today, the macho men on the right are arguing that an illegal incursion by an authoritarian regime into a European nation-state isn’t our business. It’s Chamberlain’s folly delivered with a confident Churchillian swagger.

But why is this happening now? There are multiple reasons, including either grudging or explicit admiration for Vladimir Putin, whose dictatorial strongman persona exhibits many of the stereotypical attributes of masculinity.

This is childish. The idea that the only reason American conservatives would oppose putting the US on a war footing with Russia over Ukraine is a desire to suck up to macho Vladimir Putin is as stupid as it is offensive. Did Matt Lewis not observe the catastrophic foreign policy and military failures of the US in the past 20 years? Does he not get that many of us do not trust the judgment of our foreign policy and Pentagon elites? Might it just be the case that we have the sense to look at the regional map, and our history books, and understand that Russia and Ukraine’s connections are ancient and intimate, and that Russia has vital interests there that we do not?

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Among the “America First” isolationist right, there’s also the argument that Putin is fighting for Christian values, while our “woke” U.S. military is the “armed wing of the Democratic Party,” part of a leftist cabal indoctrinating our young people into godless Marxism.

Consider a recent essay by Richard Hanania, president of the Center for the Study of Partisanship and Ideology (CSPI), arguing that Russia’s 2013 gay propaganda law caused American progressives to turn against Russia. “Russian opposition to LGBT triggers American elites more than anti-gay laws and practices elsewhere because Russia is a white nation that justifies its policies based on an appeal to Christian values,” he wrote.

According to this worldview, hostility towards Russia is a proxy war against Christian conservatives in America (and it would be disproportionately fought by Christian conservatives from America). As conservative writer (and avowed fan of Hungarian strongman Viktor Orban) Rod Dreher writes, “Hanania is right—this cold war with Russia is an extension of the culture war within American society, waged by elites against the American people. Once you understand that, and once you understand which class the American soldiers who would fight this war if it ever went hot come from, you are in a much better position to grasp the pro-war propaganda in our media.”

In other words, to support Putin is to support Christianity, and to support America is to support secularism and sin and leftism.

Again, this is not only offensive, it’s stupid. First of all, to call Orban a “Hungarian strongman” is telling. This is propaganda-speak. Orban is the elected leader of a democratic country. He is facing re-election prospects this spring, against a strong opposition. If he loses, he will go into opposition. Only in the minds of Western liberals and neocons is Orban a “strongman”. Do not listen to these people. They lie.

Second, Hanania’s point, which I support, is that Western elites have a particular hatred for Russia because it is a historically Christian, European (or semi-European, depending on your point of view) great power. As I wrote in the piece to which Lewis links, western European governments came down like a ton of bricks on Hungary last summer, after the Parliament there passed a law restricting LGBT media aimed at minors. French president Macron made a statement characterizing Hungary as defiling European values — even though same-sex marriage rights were unknown in Europe until the Dutch became the first country to grant them, in 2001. There really is something about the LGBT issue that drives Western elites to the extremes. Back in 2016, under the Obama administration, a friend who received a Fulbright scholarship sent me documents from the State Department orientation for Fulbright recipients, in which they were instructed that they were to be ambassadors for LGBT rights abroad. This, even though the Fulbright scholarships are meant for research. This, even though some of the Fulbright scholars were headed to countries that are far more conservative about such matters than the US, and that the US generally expects Fulbrighters to respect the values of their host countries. But not on LGBT. Why do you suppose that is? Some of those same countries do not have US-style protections for religious liberty and other core liberal values. The State Department doesn’t expect Fulbrighters to become ambassadors for religious liberty (nor, in my view, should it). But LGBT folks are a Very Special Privileged Minority in the eyes of Western elites.

Lewis is lying like a second-rate propagandist when he characterizes my view as “to support Putin is to support Christianity, and to support America is to support secularism and sin and leftism.” I am neither a supporter nor an opponent of Vladimir Putin as a general matter, nor would I call him a defender of Christianity per se. Sometimes he is, sometimes he isn’t — but that is beside the point. I have written that I hope Russia does not invade Ukraine, and that this dispute should be worked out diplomatically. I think Russia’s demand that Ukraine not enter NATO is a reasonable one, given the strategic realities of the region. NATO should give written guarantees to Russia on that point as a way of defusing this conflict. And Russia should stand down and stop threatening Ukraine. The Finlandization of Ukraine is not ideal, but as I see it, it is the best realistic outcome to avoid war.

My point in that earlier post, the one criticized by Lewis, is that our elites can’t see Russia (or Hungary) as a normal country with normal interests — interests that may diverge from our own, but that does not make them uniquely evil, or worthy of our contempt. In the European Union, Viktor Orban doesn’t expect the rest of the EU to follow Hungarian policies, which were decided by a democratic vote of democratically elected representatives of people whose views are somewhat more conservative than, say, the average Belgian’s. But the EU demands that Hungary change its laws to abandon a standard that was held throughout Europe until 2001. What sense does that make? For that, the Dutch prime minister has said he wants Hungary kicked out of the EU. I certainly do not believe that being a conservative Christian obliges one to support Vladimir Putin’s attitude toward Ukraine, or Vladimir Putin’s policies at all. However, you would be naive to fail to understand the contempt most American elites have towards socially conservative governments of Central and Eastern Europe, because of their stances on LGBT issues. It’s part of the overall demonization of those countries by government, policy, and media elites.

As it turns out, Lewis does nod slightly towards the effect that the quagmires the neocons led us into having an effect on the Russia doves among us (like me):

To be sure, in the wake of the wars in Iraq and Afghanistan it is understandable that many Americans are afraid of being drawn into another quagmire. But the opposite impulse—the desire to retreat from the world (or looking the other way while bullies dominate other countries)—is equally dangerous and provocative.

As Neville Chamberlain belatedly learned, Munich was an illusory, temporary fix. Bullies have to be confronted at some point.

Again, I’m not suggesting that Ukraine’s border is an existential threat to America. But the notion of favoring Vladimir Putin, who is cynically using the Russian Orthodox Church for political purposes, over your own country, is absurd. Looking the other way at an authoritarian aggression will only invite more aggression.

And the urge to do so is turning America First elites into today’s Neville Chamberlains.

When these people start bleating “Munich!” and “Neville Chamberlain,” you should know that your pocket is being picked. They said the same damn thing about Iraq — and they still are! As Andrew Bacevich wrote last year here at TAC on the 20th anniversary of 9/11:

The temptation to weigh in proved too much for former deputy defense secretary Paul Wolfowitz to resist. Writing in the Wall Street Journal, he seconded the call for persistence. Wolfowitz looked forward to the twentieth anniversary of 9/11 as “an occasion for defiance, and for pride in the Americans who fought, sacrificed and successfully protected our country for two decades from further mass-casualty attacks,” something that twenty years ago had “seemed impossible.” Viewed from this perspective, the Afghanistan War had contributed to a larger strategic success.

Even so, there is more armed conflict to come. The war on terrorism will continue, Wolfowitz believes, and it “is going to be very long.” As an incident in that long war, Biden’s decision to withdraw from Afghanistan compared with Neville Chamberlain’s betrayal of Czechoslovakia at Munich in 1938. To drive home the point, Wolfowitz quoted Winston Churchill, implicitly suggesting that with a dose of Churchillian leadership from the White House, all would be well.

What Kagan, McMaster, Petraeus, and Wolfowitz share in common is an aversion to data. The costs incurred by the United States in its Global War on Terrorism—upwards of $8 trillion expended, thousands of U.S. troops dead, tens of thousands more wounded—go simply unmentioned, as does the fact that those costs will continue to accumulate.According to one authoritative estimate, by 2050, the expense of caring for post-9/11 U.S. veterans will reach between $2.2 and $2.5 trillion.

Though the execution of Biden’s withdrawal from Afghanistan was a total botch, Biden’s decision to stop America’s bleeding there was a correct one, and a courageous one. But Wolfowitz, one of the Iraq War’s architects, is calling Biden a neo-Neville Chamberlain. These people, the neocons, are shameless.

What does it mean to “favor Vladimir Putin over your own country”? Is this how the neocons characterize opposition to US militancy over Ukraine? How disgraceful. This is like the woke accusing anyone who criticizes the madness of Ibram Kendi of being racist. This is attempting to close off debate about an issue of extreme importance to our war-exhausted country by tarring as cowards those hesitant to worsen the conflict, and skeptical about Washington’s aims. Natalie Dowzicky, writing in Reason, says:

With a little less hubris and a little more realism, the escalation of the Ukraine affair could’ve at least been mitigated. But the foreign policy establishment seems to have forgotten how to do a cost-benefit analysis. The risks of this conflict simply outweigh Ukraine’s importance to U.S. foreign policy.

Sen. Chris Coons (D–Del.) wants “the sorts of sanctions that we use to bring Iran to the table.” But Russia controls a significant portion of global energy markets—nearly 40 percent of Europe’s gas imports—so permitting Iran-like measures against it would have disastrous effects. Economic sanctions on Russia were futile in 2014 when it invaded Crimea, and there’s no reason to believe that they would provide a deterrent effect now. More often than not, U.S. sanctions hurt American economic interests without changing the target’s behavior in the slightest.

Meanwhile, American military aid worth more than $200 million has reached Ukraine. This weapons dump has been justified a few different ways, ranging from the idea that it will change Putin’s mind to the notion that it will give the Ukrainian military a real chance against potential invaders. In 2021, the U.S. sent $650 million worth of weapons and military equipment to Ukraine—the most since 2014—and it clearly didn’t deter Putin from surrounding Ukraine on three fronts. It’s hard to believe that sending even more equipment into Ukraine will do the trick.

Defending Ukraine has never been about Ukraine, Michael Brendan Dougherty argues in National Review, but about defending “liberal world order.” The chief argument of the Russia hawks, like former President of the World Peace Foundation Robert Rotberg, is that failing to protect Ukraine from Russia would mean the U.S. is dishonoring those who fought in World War II. That the U.S. would be putting its hard-earned “superpower” status at risk. This is an exaggeration of disastrous magnitude.

“The world is paying a high price for relying on a flawed theory of world politics,” writes Harvard University’s Stephen Walt in Foreign Affairs. Russia sees Ukraine as a strategic imperative. Ukraine will never be as high on America’s list of foreign policy priorities as it is on Russia’s. And the situation in that region will never become a fight to crown the next global superpower.

People who throw out slurs like “Munich” and “Neville Chamberlain” at realists over Ukraine are not interested in a cost-benefit analysis. We should have known that twenty years ago, before we went into Iraq. Today, there is no excuse for any of us not to know that these people cannot be trusted. Recognizing that does not make Putin a hero, or even a good man. But then, moralizing foreign policy (as with the infamous “Axis Of Evil” speech neocon David Frum wrote for President G.W. Bush) is often the enemy of clear thought and reasoned discourse.

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