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Washington Prepares to Fight for Donetsk (and Ignore Baltimore)

Neoconservatives big on "toughness" would rather pick fights with Putin than address the hard law-and-order issues that founded their movement.
Donetsk fighter

The Times joined the debate over whether or not there has been spike in crime in the wake of nine months of anti-cop protests with this heartbreaking video: a mother talks to the camera about the deterioration in Baltimore’s streets following the Freddie Gray riots, which have transformed her once “crazy” neighborhood into a very dangerous one. She fears, understandably, for the safety of her children. Cops speak off-camera about their reluctance to be “proactive” in fighting crime. As yet, no one has accused The Times of “fiction” and “sophistry” for making the connection that Heather Mac Donald made after analyzing recent statistics: the propaganda and riot war waged against the cops by liberals and radicals has been devastating for the law-abiding people who live in inner-city neighborhoods.

You don’t have to have lived through 1968 to feel the resonances and dramatic political possibilities, but it might help.

Jacob Heilbrunn has an extremely suggestive article in the latest National Interest which reminds readers that neoconservatives essentially began as critics of Great Society liberalism and elite reluctance to defend bourgeois standards and law and order in the 1960s. Heilbrunn has written one of the finest books about neoconservatism, and is generally a nuanced critic of the group. But one need not go full bore with Norman Podhoretz-type linkages between homosexuality, cultural decay, and Munich to recognize that the neocons were right about many things, and law and order in American cities was one of them. In any case, Heilbrunn reminds us that Bill Kristol (son of Irving, founder of The Public Interest, a magazine devoted to domestic policy) tweeted out in the aftermath of the Ferguson riots (the second set, not the first) that it felt like 1968 all over again and some politician would do well to speak, a la Richard Nixon, for the silent American majority which was not anti-cop. In this case, Kristol was probably right.

It is also is apparent that no major politician right, center, or left has yet risen to take the bait. Of course they all want to be “tough”—but always somewhere else in the world. Neoconservatism has prevailed, but only in foreign policy. Today the target is Vladimir Putin and Russia, and everyone in Washington agrees he needs to be taught a lesson. Congress voted last week voted to compel the administration to provide lethal weapons to Ukraine, including offensive weapons—against the administration’s judgement. The Times story noted that the arms shipments would open a rift between the Washington and France and Germany, which are hesitant about any measure which would escalate the fighting. It would seem that Congress has bought whole hog into the Wolfowitz doctrine, widely derided as extremist when it was leaked in 1992, according to which the United States should maintain dominance in every region of the world, and that no other nation should aspire to a greater role, even in its own geographic area.

Major European governments are now doing their best to circumvent anti-Russian sanctions which they themselves instituted. European publics make it clear that they are not willing to fight Russia over the disposition of the territories of the former Soviet Union. The cease-fire between Ukraine and its rebellious Russian-backed eastern provinces that was negotiated last February has been violated repeatedly, and Putin has called openly for the West to persuade Ukraine’s central government to follow its provisions. It’s not clear how many American congressmen voting for giving Ukraine offensive weapons understand the implications of their weapons policy, which were spelled out by the Kennan Institute’s Matthew Rojansky:

There are valid arguments on both sides but you don’t get to walk this back. Once we have done this we become a belligerent party in a proxy war with Russia, the only country on earth that can destroy the United States. That’s why this is a big deal.

A proxy war with Russia, over Russian borderlands not one American in a hundred could locate on a map—it’s really the full triumph of Wolfowitz. Not to be outdone by Congress, the Obama administration is now floating plans to deliver tanks and other heavy weapons, along with token numbers of American troops, to several of our new NATO “allies,” the former Soviet republics of Estonia, Latvia, and Lithuania. Those governments will inevitably conclude that Washington has their back in any conflict with Russia and act accordingly. See Georgia, 2008, for an example of how this might play out.

There is something about Ukraine and the other Russian border regions which Europeans seem to understand and Americans don’t. Much of the “Maidan Revolution” was driven by ethnic Ukrainian nationalists with deep hatred for Russia; while it’s not a universal sentiment, many Ukrainians despise all things Russian, including their own compatriots who identify with Russia. They want nothing more than to draw the West into a war against their ancestral enemy. The newly minted anti-Russian regime in Kiev is the fruit of American “pro-democracy” meddling involving billions of dollars of payouts to private groups and individuals, the kind of thing the CIA used to do during the Cold War. Of course because of its proximity to an unsettled region, the new Ukrainian government can find endless ways to keep the pot boiling–shelling their own civilians in Donetsk, or instituting a blockade against Transnistria , a pro-Russian breakaway province of Moldova. The average American may not know much about Transnistria—or indeed likely has never heard of it at all—but you can be assured that Putin does care about keeping  the small Russian garrison stationed there supplied.

This is neoconservatism’s triumph: the creation of an entire Beltway industry, honeycombed through Congress and largely bipartisan, which finds political life not worth living without the prospect of confrontation with a distant enemy. The notion of treating Russia as a great power, acknowledging that Russia has serious security interests on its borders and treating those interests respectfully, does not occur to its members. Detente for them is a dirty word, akin to appeasement.

In the meantime, we are on the verge of losing Baltimore, a major American eastern seaboard city, to lawlessness. From the get tough conservatives, and the liberal interventionists allied to them, not a peep about that. From neither group does one hear either defense of the police or meaningful proposals to salvage a city on the brink.

It’s as if they recognize that restoring the rule of law to Baltimore would be difficult, requiring a thoughtful balance between economic investment, community organizing, and law enforcement—and would engage many layers of complicated politics. Foreign policy by contrast is easy: just send weapons to the good guys. If that doesn’t work, escalate. What could conceivably go wrong?

Scott McConnell is a founding editor of The American Conservative.