One Continuous War
Twenty years after the Iraq invasion: The urge to democratize Russia comes from a familiar place.
I loathe Vladimir Putin. I used to think he offered one good thing, despite his domestic tyranny. I used to think he was a defender of the idea of national sovereignty, an opinion that became actually ludicrous the day he invaded Ukraine. I confess this error, because, when dozens of others are not confessing or regretting their role in cheering on the Iraq war, we conservatives have a duty to behave better.
In fact I am far less ebullient than I thought I would be, twenty years after the Iraq invasion. I thought the anniversary would give me the chance to jeer a bit at some foolish persons. But when I tried to gloat over the follies of the pro-war journalists who made such idiots of themselves in 2003, I could not do it. Yes, they were gullible simpletons. But they have since won the battle to get the West into a state of permanent war. And it is Putin above all who has helped them achieve this. How I hate him for it. Putin has murdered peace as Macbeth once murdered sleep. By his one action he has handed the warmongers the sword of righteousness. Yes, yes, I know he has also launched an indefensible, lawless, and murderous attack on his neighbor. But this makes it worse. He has committed not just a crime, but a mistake.
The neoconservative factions, who for the last twenty years have been looking for a way back to war, have been given it by the Russian invasion of Ukraine. Who cares if their propaganda and their intelligence were wrong last time? Who cares if their other interventions in Afghanistan, Syria, and Libya all went badly wrong? The intelligence was right (for once) about the Russian invasion, and invasions of sovereign countries are always evil and wrong.
I can explain, and often do, that the initial violent aggression in Ukraine came in 2014 with the Western-backed lawless overthrow of Ukraine’s unlovely but legitimate President Viktor Yanukovych. Eight years of war followed in which many horrible things were done. I can point out that the eastward expansion of NATO was likewise an act of dangerous diplomatic aggression, warned against by many wise people in the West. I can even say (which is true) that hawks such as Robert Kagan accept that Russia was provoked. But this fact will always fail to grip about 97 percent of the people I want to reach.
As James Carville long ago observed about political campaigning, “While you’re explaining, you’re losing.” And so it is. The politics of war have become as crude and simple as a Punch-and-Judy show on a beach. Perhaps they always were, and the Vietnam era was a strange and dreamy interlude, mesmerizing to those who recall it but irrelevant to everyone else.
Traditional conservatives were useless over Iraq because they always respond to any call to the colors, however stupid. In this case, it isn’t stupid. They are delighted to be able to support a victim against an aggressor. The left, who marched by the hundreds of thousands against Iraq, are also in general pro-war, and why should they not be? They too are against aggression. Everyone is.
And as I haul myself up to the podium of yet another obscure debate on the Ukraine issue, to try to explain that it is not quite that simple, I know that most people don’t care. Putin’s tanks have ended all debate. Most people think this war is Gandalf versus the Orcs. They rejoice to see NATO (i.e., Gandalf) expanding still further. They regard calls for peace negotiations as “appeasement” and demand to know which parts of Ukraine I propose should be given up to the aggressor (and indeed which parts of my own country I would hand over in the same circumstances). You can feel them ceasing to listen within about 30 seconds of any attempt to counter these thrusts with tedious complexities.
The flag of Ukraine flies from government buildings in London as if we had merged our two countries. The same flag flies from people’s front gardens and from university colleges. Politicians wear the Ukrainian colors on their lapels. The media have become openly politicized in ways that make me start whenever I hear or see them. News reports state as fact the contentious assertion that the war was unprovoked. Attempts to question this are met with bafflement mixed with mistrust. If I say it was provoked, I am instantly deemed to be sympathizing with the aggression, even after I have made it clear that I think that the stupidest thing to do, when provoked, is to respond to that provocation. I have been accused of being a Kremlin shill, a “useful idiot,” and a Putin apologist so many times that I no longer really notice.
Yet this war was entirely avoidable, and will in my view do enormous harm to the peace and stability of Europe and the world. Many of the arguments used to sustain it are as questionable as WMD was in its time. It is even possible that if the Clinton administration had not begun NATO expansion thirty years ago, and if the Wolfowitz Doctrine had not been invented around the same time, that a reasonably free, peaceful, and prosperous Russia might now occupy the territory now ruled by Putin’s sinister tyranny. Look at the miracle wrought in countries such as Poland. I might add that if people are so concerned about Ukraine, they could have done a lot more good there in the past thirty years, by encouraging clean government and intelligent investment, than they have done with military and political meddling.
Why has a great nation so often chosen the path of war in its efforts to utopianize the world? Why does my own country so often trail behind when the USA embarks on these benevolent yet heavily armed adventures? These are fascinating subjects that could only really be discussed if we had proper oppositions and proper independent media. Yet these have shriveled and gone, with amazing speed, since 2003.
Is it war itself that these idealists want: Iraq then, Russia now, who knows where next? Is it war without end? If so, I suspect it means the disappearance of the freedom we have left, and indeed of debate and truth. “Oceania has always been at war with Eastasia. Since the beginning of your life, since the beginning of the Party, since the beginning of history, the war has continued without a break, always the same war.”