On the menu today: As Russian forces accelerate their shelling of Ukrainian cities and targeting of civilians, the world confronts a great evil — one that is not easily explained or addressed by so-called “realist” foreign-policy thinkers. The Russia hawks were right about Vladimir Putin; KGB men don’t turn over a new leaf. Now, as ever, if Americans want to live in a peaceful world, we must prepare to fight and win in a warring one.
The Hawks Are Vindicated
For a long while — perhaps the failure to find the expected weapons of mass destruction in Iraq in 2003? — when Americans pay attention to foreign policy, has been almost de rigueur to scoff at “hawks” — or those who prefer larger defense budgets, a larger military, and a more assertive or even aggressive response to potential threats overseas.
This is well-trod, even exhausted territory that has been debated most of my adult life: “Neocons.” “Warmongers.” “Fighting for oil companies.” “The military industrial complex.” “Nation-building.” “Forever wars.”
Anger over the loss of blood and treasure in Iraq and Afghanistan is easily justified, as is fury over U.S. inability to guide either country to a smooth and stable future. No serious observer of American foreign policy can deny that over the past 20 to 30 years, the U.S. has made extraordinarily consequential mistakes. The U.S. government has demonstrated an ability to win wars in the form of destroying enemy forces, but not an ability to turn a defeated territory into a stable country, run by a competent and decent government. (The Iraq of 2022 is a big step up from the regime of Saddam Hussein, but still has a long way to go.)
But the world beyond our borders will not just go away, and it is deadly naïvete to think that the world’s motley crew of thugs, brutes, and other menaces — from powerful autocrats such as Putin and Xi Jinping; to rogue states such as North Korea and Iran; to terror groups such as al-Qaeda and ISIS; to transnational criminal groups such as drug cartels, organized crime, or mercenary groups — will ever just go away and not be a threat to Americans at home or abroad. The world is full of bullies who can only be deterred by a metaphorical punch in the face, or the fear of someone literally punching them in the face.
No, not every problem in the larger world ends up coming over here. But not every problem stays out there, either. Recent history is full of bloody examples of what happens when the U.S. either decides to stay out of it entirely or foolishly believes it can trust a hostile force:
The world has no shortage of evil people — rulers who see weakness in neighboring states and seek to conquer them, raping and pillaging, building or rebuilding empires atop the backs of subjugated neighbors. The world has simmering ethnic hatreds and madmen who dream of genocide, and angry young men (and sometimes women!) who find meaning by joining up with extremist movements and lashing out violently against innocent people.
The presence of rulers, regimes, factions, and movements that we would define as evil is a cold, hard fact, and one that I suspect many people instinctively turn away from, preferring to believe we’ve left that kind of wanton malevolence behind in the darker chapters of our history books. The idea that someone powerful would deliberately hurt others, just because they can, is frightening; it’s better to conclude that everyone is always acting out of rational self-interest, and that if we just approach them with the right combination of carrots and sticks, they will calm down and be reasonable. (Senator William Borah reportedly said, upon learning that Germany invaded Poland in September 1939, “If only I could have talked with Hitler, all this might have been avoided.”)
You can find foreign-policy thinkers who will turn themselves inside out to argue that every attack on Americans or American interests traces back to some sort of U.S. “provocation.”
At the end of last month, after Russia invaded, political scientist John Mearsheimer declared that, “My argument is that the West, especially the United States, is principally responsible for this disaster. But no American policymaker, and hardly anywhere in the American foreign-policy establishment, is going to want to acknowledge that line of argument, and they will say that the Russians are responsible.”
Russian forces are shelling and killing innocent civilians on evacuation routes, but the real problem, Mearsheimer explains, is the April 2008 NATO summit in Bucharest.
Putin’s Russia, the Taliban, Saddam Hussein’s regime in Iraq — you can always find some sort of allegedly “realist” foreign-policy thinker who insists that those countries were just standing there, minding their own business, when the big bad Americans came along and picked a fight.
It’s always our fault; as Jeanne Kirkpatrick accurately assessed, “They always blame America first.”
You know what’s great about hawks? We never blame America first. (Admittedly, it’s rare we ever get around to blaming America for anything at all.) Hawks rarely get blindsided. Hawks will almost never look at a simmering potential crisis overseas and conclude, “Eh, it’s not that bad.” We don’t count on luck or on problems to solve themselves. Maybe we do come across as paranoid, but it’s partially because we have long memories.
We generally believe that deterrence is the best policy; if you have sufficient military assets in a geopolitical neighborhood, and everyone believes you’re willing to use those military assets in that geopolitical neighborhood, very few people want to start a fight. You don’t see many thieves robbing the doughnut shop across the street from a police station.
After Russia invaded Ukraine, Kerry, now the president’s special envoy on climate change, declared that, “I’m very concerned about, I’m concerned about Ukraine because of the people of Ukraine and because of the principles that are at risk, in terms of international law and trying to change boundaries of international law by force. I thought we lived in a world that had said no to that kind of activity.”
After Russia invaded Georgia and seized Crimea — on Kerry’s watch! — Kerry had the nerve to exclaim, “I thought we lived in a world that had said no to that kind of activity.”
Many countries say no to that kind of activity — 141 of the 193 member states of the United Nations, to be precise. But 35 abstained on the resolution denouncing the invasion of Ukraine and demanding a withdrawal of its forces, and Russia, Belarus, North Korea, Eritrea, and Syria opposed it. A world that is 73 percent opposed to territorial conquest is a world that is still going to have attempts at territorial conquest.
It is good that world opinion overwhelmingly denounces Russia. But world opinion doesn’t stop tanks and planes and ships. It is not enough for the world to say no to that kind of activity; the consequential question is what the world is willing to do in the face of that kind of activity.
Hawks also rarely underestimate foes. In December 2016, outgoing President Obama was asked about Russian attempts to influence the previous presidential election, and characterized Russia as a flailing, spent force: “The Russians can’t change us or significantly weaken us. They are a smaller country. They are a weaker country. Their economy doesn’t produce anything that anybody wants to buy, except oil and gas and arms. They don’t innovate.” As Benjamin Haddad and Alina Polyakova summarized in 2018, “Though Russia’s invasion of Ukraine in 2014 was the final nail in the coffin of the ‘Reset,’ President Obama remained reluctant to view Moscow as anything more than a local spoiler, and thought the whole mess was best handled by Europeans.”
And in a 2016 interview, Obama insisted that Russia’s use of military force was a sign of weakness, not strength:
The notion that somehow Russia is in a stronger position now, in Syria or in Ukraine, than they were before they invaded Ukraine or before he had to deploy military forces to Syria is to fundamentally misunderstand the nature of power in foreign affairs or in the world generally. Real power means you can get what you want without having to exert violence. Russia was much more powerful when Ukraine looked like an independent country but was a kleptocracy that he could pull the strings on.
In retrospect, Obama’s worldview was infuriatingly naïve, a denial of difficult facts, and a more eloquent version of Kerry’s insistence that we live in “a world that had said no to that kind of activity.”
“If you want peace, prepare for war” — it is so simple and yet so counterintuitive, at least to significant swaths of Americans.
ADDENDUM: Finally, discussing a topic much lighter than war, I recently chatted with Scott Mason of Play Like a Jet about the state of the New York Jets and what the team should aim to do in the offseason.