I have been a critic of disastrous foreign wars. This time is different.
This essay is really not worth publishing. First of all, asserting that you opposed the Vietnam War when you were a teenager sixty years ago does not establish your credentials as a non-hawk. You can acknowledge the Iraq War was a catastrophe now. Did you oppose it then? Somehow I doubt it.
Life is complicated. It is possible to hold Putin primarily responsible and still acknowledge the US role in escalating the conflict the last twenty years.
"Others in the movement, such as Jeffrey Sachs, a former advisor to Sen. Bernie Sanders, argue that the war started with a U.S. coup in Ukraine in 2014 (the reality is that they were popular protests that led then-president Viktor Yanukovych to flee to Russia.)"
This is so dishonest that it shreds your credibility by itself. Yes, there were popular protests. There was also very prudent reasons to believe, with evidence, that the US intelligence community had a considerable role in what happened. To say nothing of the fact that even if there hadn't been, a mob rabble overthrowing the elected government because they didn't like a perfectly legal policy change is the very definition of a coup. ("The reality is that they were popular protests on January 6, 2021 that led then-president-elect Biden to flee to Canada.")
And as far as "the right of Ukrainians to determine their own strategy," when they don't need any help then they can do whatever they want. $100 billion in aid and counting buys a seat at the strategy table.
The reality of the situation is complicated and one can root for Ukraine while acknowledging that the war will end in a way that will likely make everyone unhappy, and not like a Disney movie were the heroes are victorious and the villian utterly vanquished.
A nicely woven tapestry supporting the American corporatist uniparty. Wars generate sales to the military industrial complex. They help the media generate cheap copy. They provide political wedge issues to campaign on. American liberals are now the warmongers because all of these things benefit their bank accounts. Russia is nothing. It is not a threat. But China is a massive threat. However, American liberals know where their bread is buttered.
It is sad that critics of this war are assumed to be pro Russian. But the goal of "defeating Russia" is a fantasy. And Russia is not likely give up Crimea without resorting to nuclear weapons. Furthermore, there is no way Russia could occupy another European country; they are having a hard time trying to keep the less than 20% of Ukraine that they have invaded. His position will result in an endless war, but the support for this war by the non college Americans is declining. And the political risk is that the Republicans will use a "get out of this expensive war" strategy to win another election.
This piece and some of the responses to it bring to the fore a couple of reasons why contemporary leftist analysis falls short. I say that as someone who would have until recently identified myself as “of the left,” and still do on economic issues. I also say that as someone of the Vietnam generation who opposed that war and every US war since, from the cheap little invasion of Grenada to the full-blown debacles of Afghanistan and Iraq. An opponent of wars, but not of war, perhaps because my parents were of the WWII generation. The war that had to be fought formed the background of my childhood and shaped my thinking about war.
For many leftists the US is always, in any conflict, to blame. (Ask a true-blue leftist who’s responsible for Pearl Harbor or 9/11.) In fact, just about anything bad that happens in the world, at least if human agency enters in, and no matter who else is involved, is seen as the fault of the US. Or of a US failure to prevent it. The US has indeed done much that was ill-conceived, morally repugnant, and strategically blind. But the US is hardly alone. There are bad actors in the world, and not all of them carry American passports. To fail to acknowledge this, ironically, is to commit the fundamental error of American exceptionalism. Denunciation of “American imperialism” is frequent, cheap and easy. Amidst the recurring outrage, Soviet and now Russian imperialism tends to get a free pass.
Not, however, in those states carved out of the former Soviet Union or Warsaw Pact, which brings me to Ukraine. The war in Ukraine, which I strongly support, is not a US war. To see it as such is to fall again into the trap of exceptionalism. The US has provided important support to Ukraine, but the US is hardly alone. A significant portion of European opinion sees this war as a European war, and one likely to reshape the politics of the continent. Some of the strongest voices in support of Ukraine come from the European Union, especially from the Baltic states, Poland, and Czechia, but also Norway, the Netherlands, Finland, the UK. There is certainly opposition to the war; there are calls for peace, usually with a price to be paid by Ukraine; the nuclear specter emerges. But the consensus seems to be, as the Italians put it, “C'è un aggressore ed un aggredito.” In this war, Russia is the aggressor. Opposing Russia, or supporting Ukraine, is not about defeating Russia, much less dismantling it, it’s about drawing a line against aggression. Does the religion of the left which chanted “Ho, Ho, Ho Chi Minh!” not permit it to join in the cry of “Slava Ukraini?”
Whether Putin's government is tyrannical and/or corrupt is irrelevant. What's of far greater importance is that Russia has a strategic nuclear arsenal roughly as lethal as that at the disposal of the US government and more tactical nukes than all NATO countries combined. If Russia suffers a decisive military defeat in Ukraine Putin will lose any hope of having an honored place in Russian history and would be in jeopardy of losing his life or freedom in a coup d'etat. It's likely he'd use tactical nukes as a last resort to avoid such an ignominious fate, which could trigger rapid tit-for-tat escalation to a mutual disaster of horrendous proportion. The US has no vital strategic interest at stake in this conflict that could justify such an enormous risk. Hence, continuing to wage a proxy war in Eastern Ukraine would be a worse mistake than US military intervention in Vietnam, Iraq, Libya, or Afghanistan, where there was no comparable risk of triggering a nuclear holocaust. I'm with Kissinger on this one: Biden should twist Zelensky's arm to compel him to accept a compromise.
Any country needs to sell its war to its citizens. George W. did and was finally exposed for invading Iraq under false pretenses. The Biden Administration does that, too. Framing the war as an existential battle to defeat Russia's imperialist designs, an East-West battle good vs. evil is really dishonest hyperbole. It could also be seen as a border war coming out of a seismic geopolitical shift when the USSR collapsed, how most of the world sees it. Ukraine has elected both Russian and Western leaning presidents for the last 30 years, the East has a large Russian population in the East. Putin drawing brotherhood back to the 12th century is ridiculous. Most of all, as we've seen, Russia's military is severely atrophied and the war is pushing many citizens to leave. I believe John M. is right about the lead-up to the war. Regardless, Russia is brutal but weakened; most commentators foresee a negotiated end. Timing is the issue. I see no justification in continuing this destructive but useless war.
Helpful perspective! Thanks! The far left also opposed US entry into WWII until Pearl Harbor.
Thanks for the thoughtful essay. I fear waiting for the far Left to see reason is vain, but voices like yours and Mounk's may encourage some to step away from their narrow prejudices.