On Ukraine, the neo-isolationists of the right are fighting the last war.
They warn of a return of the belligerent mood that led to the US invasion of Iraq in 2003 — never mind that they are warning the wrong country.
If the United States launched a large-scale military intervention 20 years ago without adequately calculating the risks or understanding the political and cultural contours of the country it would occupy, it is the Russians, not the Ukrainians, the Europeans or us, who are now replicating that mistake.
Giving the Ukrainians Javelin missiles to fire at armored columns encircling their cities is a far cry from taking over a large Middle Eastern country with no clear exit plan.
The idea that the national mood is disturbingly akin to that of 2003 leaves out something extremely important — 9/11.
We wouldn’t have invaded Afghanistan or Iraq if it hadn’t been for the shock of one of the most brazen and destructive attacks on the homeland in American history. It’s not possible for any overseas event playing out on our TV screens to equal the rawness and emotional power of the attacks on the World Trade Center and the Pentagon.
Still, the neo-isolationists, who call themselves realists or restrainers, want to believe that we are on the verge of a dangerous escalation in Ukraine. While there have been prominent voices who have called for a no-fly zone that would constitute such an escalation, President Joe Biden has been resolutely against it and the balance of opinion on left and right is opposed as well. Absent a truly game-changing event on the ground in Ukraine, it is simply not a viable option.
What we are talking about, realistically, is ramping up material support to the Ukrainians and further sanctions on the Russians. Both should be undertaken with care, but neither is tantamount to starting World War III.
As Jacob Heilbrunn noted in a dispatch for Politico from an “emergency” conference held by restrainers in Washington, DC, their preferred policy approach is basically to allow the Ukrainians to get conquered by the Russians as soon as possible for their own good — that way, the Russians will stop rocketing their cities to rubble.
The citizens of Bucha might find this a very odd form of solicitude. One can only imagine what the restrainer advice would have been to the Greek city states resisting the advances of the Persian empire in the 5th Century BC, to the Carthaginians during the Punic wars or to the Russians during Napoleon’s invasion.
Submit to your foreign overlords, who seek to occupy or dismember your country and destroy your democratically elected government is not counsel many nations are ever eager to take.
Indeed, for writers and analysts who style themselves as realists, the restrainers display a profound lack of awareness of how motivated people feel, even when badly outgunned, to defend their culture and their homeland when an invader comes seeking to impose foreign rule.
It is certainly true that Bush administration foreign policy became much too idealistic, bordering on otherworldly, over time. That doesn’t mean that, in reaction, we need to jettison all moral discernment in foreign affairs. Yes, Ukraine is a corrupt and ramshackle democracy, but there can be no doubt about its superiority to Vladimir Putin’s venal dictatorship, or about Russia’s culpability for launching a hideous war of aggression.
To say otherwise is to ignore all the relevant distinctions in this conflict — between who is the aggressor and who is the defender, who hates the West and who wants to join it, who gave up their nukes decades ago and who is making nuclear threats, and by the way, who has been winning against the odds and whose vaunted military machine has been repeatedly embarrassed.
In seeking to avoid the mistake of 2003, the restrainers are making their own mistake of 2022.