What Does Ukraine Mean to America as an Important, not Vital Interest?  - The American Spectator | USA News and Politics
What Does Ukraine Mean to America as an Important, not Vital Interest? 
President Joe Biden welcomes Ukrainian President Volodymyr Zelensky to the White House, Dec. 21, 2022 (ABC News/YouTube)

Two decades after George W. Bush’s disastrous misadventure into Iraq, the Republican Party is beginning to have a serious debate over foreign policy. Although the congressional GOP remains strongly interventionist most anywhere around the globe, the party base is increasingly questioning this reflexive enthusiasm for war.

Why is Washington helping the Saudi royals kill civilians in Yemenrisking nuclear war in Korea even though the South is dramatically stronger than the North, and underwriting the feckless Europeans as they again retreat from their commitments to do more militarily? What was gained by fomenting civil war in Libya and spending two decades trying to implant democracy in Afghanistan?

Ukraine has become the touchstone for an particularly incendiary debate on the right. How should those with a conservative temperament view the Russo-Ukraine war and America’s response? Policy should be based on putting U.S. interests, especially protection of the American people, first.

What about Ukraine, then?

Russia’s invasion was morally wrong and unjustified. Although Moscow’s grievances were real, they did not justify unleashing the dogs of war. Nor is the outcome of the conflict, though hard to predict now, likely to make anyone, including Russia, more secure.

Although an act of criminal aggression, the invasion was not extraordinary in a world filled with state-on-state war. The Iran–Iraq slugfest lasted eight years and estimates of total deaths start at a million. The Korean War ran three years and killed close to a million military personnel and perhaps two to three times as many civilians. The multi-sided contest in the Democratic Republic of the Congo, which concluded only two decades ago, is estimated to have killed 5.4 million people.

America and its allies should stop sermonizing and learn from their mistakes.

The Russo-Ukrainian war is terrible but does not threaten world order and has nothing to do with the Biden administration’s imagined autocratic-democratic divide. In fact, Washington long has been quite comfortable dealing with the most vicious authoritarian regimes, going back through Saudi Arabia today to the Soviet Union in World War II to monarchical France during the American Revolution.

Vladimir Putin is evil, not stupid, and has demonstrated no interest in a campaign of global or even continental conquest. During his first two decades in power his geopolitical moves, in Abkhazia, South Ossetia, Donbass, and Crimea, were minor compared to Washington’s interventions, which resulted in hundreds of thousands of deaths. The point is not to use whataboutism to justify Putin’s criminal acts in Ukraine but to recognize that tub-thumping moralizing across Europe and America makes it more difficult to forge a stable peace. Exiting the current crisis requires clear-eyed analysis and commitment to practical results.

Russia started the war, but the U.S. and Europeans created circumstances conducive to that decision, seemingly doing their best to turn Russia hostile. Like bureaucrats everywhere, they don’t want to take responsibility for their actions, in this case since shown to be unprincipled and reckless. Without question, the allies made a plethora of security assurances to the Soviet Union and Russia about NATO expansion; violated all of them; dismembered Serbia, a historic Moscow client; promoted regime change in “color revolutions” in both Georgia and Ukraine, bordering Russia; supported a street putsch against the elected, pro-Russian president of Ukraine; and spent 14 years promising Kyiv membership in NATO, buttressed by constant reassurances, arms transfers, training programs, exercises, and other aid. Whether or not these activities were justified, they could not help but generate insecurity in Moscow, which was widespread and oft expressed.

Compare Putin’s friendly 2001 tone speaking to Germany’s Bundestag and angry remarks at the Munich Security Dialogue in 2007. His view of the West had darkened considerably, a sentiment he freely expressed. The U.S., in particular, failed to exhibit the slightest strategic empathy for how any government in Moscow would regard America’s attempt to bring even Russia’s neighbors into a Western sphere of influence. Imagine Washington’s reaction if Moscow had extended the Warsaw Pact to Latin America; encouraged the overthrow of Mexico’s elected, pro-American government; sent its officials to wander Mexico City discussing their preferences for the new administration; and welcomed that government to join the Warsaw Pact. There would have been pure hysteria, much wailing and gnashing of teeth, and serious threats of war in Washington. Think Cuban Missile Crisis squared.

This doesn’t justify Putin’s actions. But whoever was U.S. president likely would have reacted badly under similar circumstances. America and its allies should stop sermonizing and learn from their mistakes. Repeating them would risk more wars and all the horrors that would inevitably follow.

Washington has an interest in helping Ukraine defend its sovereignty and independence. But nothing warrants the U.S. getting into a shooting war with Russia. American political leaders once believed that military action and especially interstate conflict could be justified only to advance truly vital interests. Today Washington’s ivory tower warriors — the Bill Clintons, George W. Bushes, Madeleine Albrights, and Dick Cheneys — treat bombing, invading, and occupying other nations as a first resort. During most of its history Ukraine was controlled by Moscow through either the Russian Empire or Soviet Union, and no American policymaker lost sleep over Kyiv’s status. The reason the U.S. and its NATO allies essentially lied to Ukraine — promising membership but never delivering for the previous 14 years — is because no one was prepared to go to war for Ukraine. There simply was no valid reason for any NATO member to risk its people’s lives, wealth, and future. That has not changed with the current conflict.

Thus, the Biden administration is right to carefully calibrate aid, consider how Ukraine would use weapons transferred, and place a priority on preventing both expansion and escalation of the conflict. Kyiv is entitled to decide on its war aims but not to presume allied support for its plans. While assisting Ukraine, Washington must always keep the interest of the American people first. And that means avoiding stumbling into war with a nuclear-armed power.

No one concerned about America’s defense should take lightly the risks of conflict with Russia or its willingness to use nuclear weapons. For instance, wholly mad is the proposal by David Petraeus, discredited after revealing secrets while CIA director during pillow talk with his mistress, to target Russian forces in Ukraine and the Black Sea. Ukraine is an existential interest for Moscow. Russia would not remain a serious power if it allowed Washington to destroy its military in detail. A Ukrainian threat to retake Crimea would pose a similarly serious challenge to Moscow. Russia’s relatively weak conventional forces require setting a lower threshold for the use of nuclear weapons. Only a fool would assume that the U.S. can attack Russia at will without consequence. And nothing about the Ukraine war is worth risking not just Americans, but America.

The just-passed budget-busting funding bill included $45 billion for Ukraine. That comes atop another $50 billion already voted earlier this year. As of October, the Europeans had kicked in only about $30 billion, yet the war affects them much more. America’s outlays are more than any European nation spends on defense annually. The total is more than most will devote to their militaries over a decade. And, of course, they have spent the last 70-plus years of NATO’s life cheap-riding on the U.S. for their defense. Despite dramatic and fervent promises to do more militarily earlier this year, Germany already is redefining its commitment and the new Conservative government in London has reneged on its promised spending increase. After all this, the Europeans are complaining that Americans are profiting from the conflict.

With Europeans feeling threatened by the Russo-Ukrainian war, this is the moment for Washington to finally get tough with its whiny, manipulative, ever self-centered “allies.” The Biden administration should spend the money authorized only if other NATO members appropriate an equivalent amount of aid. Moreover, Washington should announce that the extra 20,000 troops America has added to Europe since February will begin coming home in mid-2023. It is up to other members of the transatlantic alliance to expand their own forces.

Federal debt owed to the public already has hit 100 percent and is heading to the postwar record set in 1946 after the worst war in human history. At current rates the Congressional Budget Office warns that debt will be nearly twice that level by mid-century. The U.S. no longer can afford to be Europe’s sugar daddy, especially with growing concern over China’s future course and the possibility of conflict there.

The U.S. and Europeans should begin considering what kind of security order is realistic when fighting ends, as well as what kind of relationship will be possible with Russia. The desire for vengeance against the aggressor understandably will be strong — Moscow’s crimes are many and the consequences of its invasion grave — but drafting a peace treaty along those lines did not work out well in 1919. Demands for reparations would make Moscow less willing to settle at all, let alone for reasonable terms. Efforts to negotiate during World War I failed when both sides continued to insist on gaining some advantage after losing so much.

Keeping Moscow isolated and sanctioned, essentially trying to turn it into a very large and well-armed North Korea, would not promote long-term peace and stability. Neither would ignoring Moscow’s serious security concerns, which are held by much of the elite and population. Although it is natural to hope for regime change — contra some odd ravings on the right, Putin is not a genuine friend of family and religion, let alone liberty, rule of law, self-government, and democracy — there is no reason to believe his successor would be a Western-style liberal. More likely the new regime would feature an even more nationalistic autocrat. Moralizing aside, there are no easy solutions.

The allies should not attempt to impose a peace agreement on Ukraine. Negotiations make sense only when both sides have decided that the war is too costly to continue without attempting to end it on terms potentially painful to all. The U.S. and Europe, however, should not provide Kyiv with a blank check. Their support should be conditional, provided to ultimately advance their security. And that might warrant working to end the war sooner than the Ukrainian authorities or people desire. At which point Kyiv should be told to choose whether it wants to conclude the war with allied support or continue the battle on its own.

A serious debate on the right over foreign policy is long overdue. The proxy war with Russia especially deserves, indeed, requires open and vigorous discussion. Putin’s responsibility for starting the war is clear, but Western policymakers share the blame by creating a geopolitical environment in which war became likely and, in his mind, justifiable. Nor is there any clear answer on how much and for how long to underwrite Ukraine at war. Some day the conflict must end. Only Washington can act in the interest of the American people and decide when.

Doug Bandow is a Senior Fellow at the Cato Institute. A former Special Assistant to President Ronald Reagan, he is author of Foreign Follies: America’s New Global Empire.

Doug Bandow
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Doug Bandow is a Senior Fellow at the Cato Institute.
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