Ukraine: The Credibility Mirage

As support for the anti-Russian proxy war fades, the war party blames everyone but itself.

6 mins read
[Photo credit: Review News]

As the second anniversary of Russia’s invasion of Ukraine approaches, Western support for the proxy war against Moscow is faltering. Even some members of Washington’s militant war party are losing hope. On his recent visit to the U.S., the Ukrainian President Volodymyr Zelensky was received by Biden administration officials, but without the usual fawning attention from Congress and the media. 

Zelensky was reduced to uncomprehending desperation, opining: “Nobody believes in our victory like I do. Nobody.” Even his military commanders have become reluctant to follow his orders to mount costly, ineffective offensives. Close aides recognize that the war is at best stalemated, yet, reported Time, “As they have debated the future of the war, one issue has remained taboo: the possibility of negotiating a peace deal with the Russians.”

With Kiev running out of manpower and its backers running out of patience, diplomacy offers the best hope of preserving Ukrainian independence, if not territory. That requires American and European discussions with Ukraine over present war realities and Russia over post-conflict possibilities. 

The outcome is going to be ugly. Early last year an overly ambitious and optimistic Washington helped scupper promising negotiations between Moscow and Kyiv. Today those talks must be revived under far less promising circumstances. The priority should be to end the ongoing conflict, both to halt the destruction of Ukraine and to prevent the conflict’s escalation.

The American people, however, if not the Washington establishment, should set another priority: establishing responsibility for the failed proxy war. No doubt, much blame should fall on the Biden administration, which refused to seriously negotiate with Moscow before the war, undermined talks between Ukraine and Russia, and steadily expanded a proxy war with a nuclear-armed power over stakes far more important to it than to the U.S. This aggressive strategy unnecessarily put America’s security at serious risk.

Members of the bipartisan war party share the blame. Many, including most Republican leaders, have been even more reckless than the administration. The GOP paladins often pressed extreme and dangerous approaches, such as the Mississippian Sen. Roger Wicker’s mad plan for ground and nuclear war with Moscow. (The ever-irresponsible Sen. Lindsey Graham of South Carolina had previously suggested nuclear conflict against North Korea with equal nonchalance.) Why worry about the possibility of a few score million deaths? 

Moreover, both Republican and Democratic administrations have helped turn Moscow hostile with an aggressive, expansionist military policy. Washington treated the Soviet Union and then Russia as defeated foes with the expansion of NATO, despite multiple assurances to the contrary. The U.S. also inverted the Monroe Doctrine, insisting that everything up to Russia’s border was in America’s sphere of interest, and promoted “color revolutions” and street uprisings within Moscow’s neighbors. Washington also invaded and dismantled Yugoslavia/Serbia with nary even a nod to Russia’s historic interests in the Balkans.

Unsurprisingly, members of the blob, as the foreign policy establishment has been called, insist that they are virginal public servants dedicated to all that is good and wonderful in the world. Most Washington policymakers deny the obvious: that their militaristic policies encouraged Putin to invade. Although he remains responsible for plunging Europe into war, he almost certainly would not have done so without the succession of U.S. and European decisions flouting Moscow’s security interests. After all, who imagines Washington policymakers accepting what they attempted to impose on Russia—expanding the Warsaw Pact northward through Latin America, promoting a street putsch against Mexico’s elected, pro-American government, and promising Mexico membership in the Soviet-dominated military alliance. The result in Washington would be wailing, gnashing of teeth, and rending of garments on a Biblical scale, and likely a modern Cuban Missile Crisis. 

A gaggle of neoconservative and Republican warriors have gone even further. While denying that stomping on Moscow’s interests had anything to do with the latter’s decisions, they blame Biden’s withdrawal from Central Asia for Putin’s decision to invade Ukraine. It was, they insist, the administration’s decision to end the Afghan misadventure that turned Putin into Adolf Hitler reincarnated and set him on a program of global conquest. The most enthusiastic militarists also blame potential conflict with China over Taiwan on Afghanistan.

For instance, Senate Minority Leader Mitch McConnell of Kentucky, who has never wavered in his desire to send Americans into endless wars abroad, claimed, “I think the precipitous withdrawal from Afghanistan in August was a signal, to Putin and maybe to Chinese President Xi as well, that America was in retreat, that America could not be depended upon, and was an invitation to the autocrats of the world that maybe this was a good time to make a move.” 

Another fan of needless wars, the New York Times columnist Bret Stephens, contended that “the current Ukraine crisis is as much the child of Biden’s Afghanistan debacle as the last Ukraine crisis was the child of Obama’s Syria debacle.”

European observers are particularly enthusiastic about Washington fighting stupid foreign wars to the last American. The Financial Times’ Gideon Rachman worried about the Afghan withdrawal’s impact on American “credibility,” which supposedly is at risk whenever Washington eschews war, however minimal or foolish the stakes. Rachman explained , “If the U.S. will not commit to a fight against the Taliban, there will be a question mark over whether America would really be willing to go to war with China or Russia.”

Objectively, this is one of the stupidest foreign policy arguments commonly advanced in Washington, which is quite a standard to meet. The U.S. stayed in Afghanistan twice as long as did the Soviet Union, which by this logic should have enhanced Washington’s credibility, especially vis-à-vis Moscow. Moreover, both Russia and China are better off with the U.S. entangled in a costly conflict in Central Asia; America’s presence even took care of their concerns about Central Asian terrorism and instability for them. Moscow and Beijing also likely would be very happy to see U.S. occupation forces in Iraq and Syria drawn back into conflict, especially with Iran.

The main point, inexplicably missed by Washington’s endless war enthusiasts, is that both China and Russia are major conventional powers with nuclear weapons concerned about interests perceived as serious and probably vital. America’s willingness to act as an imperial guardian elsewhere at modest cost is irrelevant to its willingness to risk conflict with them over stakes that remain minimal at best for the U.S. 

Washington policymakers have demonstrated that they believe Ukraine is not important enough for war, something Russia surely recognized irrespective of the nature of the Afghan exit. (In fact, even Foreign Affairs is running articles acknowledging that “the U.S. withdrawal from Afghanistan had no influence on Putin’s calculus.” Putin likely decided to confront Ukraine militarily before the American withdrawal.) The situation is similar with Taiwan, an unlucky resident of a bad neighborhood whose independence is not worth risking the American homeland.

This lesson is important. The world is a mess, but the U.S. remains secure—the best positioned great power in human history. America dominates its own region, reigning without serious challenge, surrounded by water and weak neighbors. Only with missiles can hostile states reach the U.S., a threat deterred by Washington’s own forces. Much—indeed, most—of the world simply doesn’t matter much to the U.S., other than for humanitarian and economic reasons: neither of which justify large-scale and endless wars.

For instance, Afghanistan and Central Asia are far from America and of little consequence. The Taliban mattered only in 2001, when it harbored terrorists who struck the U.S. Spending two decades attempting to bring democracy to that tragic land squandered lives and resources. More than two years after the administration’s admittedly botched withdrawal, the predicted tsunami of Afghan-based terrorists taking control of American cities and wreaking global havoc has not occurred. 

Similarly, there never was any serious reason to wreck Iraq, which birthed the Islamic State, or to promote the disintegration of Libya and Syria, the consequences of which still bedevil the region, or to aid the totalitarian Saudi regime in its murderous attack on Yemen, which perversely made the Houthi movement more dangerous.

Claims that a Russian victory in Ukraine would trigger a Blitzkrieg to the Atlantic are dumber than blaming the Russia-Ukraine war on Biden. Putin has demonstrated no interest and even less ability to conquer the continent. Which is why no Western ally has been willing to fight for Kiev. Chinese conquest of Taiwan would be terrible for the island’s residents, but would endanger America’s Asian influence, not America, a critical difference. That such a result would be highly undesirable does not mean that it would justify fighting a war that would probably look more like World War II than Afghanistan.

Of course, the usual suspects are attempting to bolster support for Ukraine by again wielding the credibility argument. Reported Michael Crowley of the New York Times: “Another failure to deter Mr. Putin, Biden officials and their critics agree, would deal a severe blow to an international system of rules and borders that the administration has worked hard to reaffirm.” 

Evelyn Farkas, a former Pentagon official, opposed negotiating even before Putin’s invasion since “any appeasement will only beget future land grabs not only from Putin, but also from China in Taiwan and elsewhere.” Of course. Americans must be constantly at war since their failure to be constantly at war would require them to be constantly at war. Such statements pass for wisdom among the Washington Beltway’s leading think tank warriors.

Ukraine’s diminishing chances of military success increase the necessity of a diplomatic settlement. Ending the conflict is not enough, however. After decades of needless wars, the American people should hold policy-makers accountable for lives lost and money wasted, including by recklessly risking war with Russia.

Doug Bandow

Doug Bandow is a senior fellow at the Cato Institute, specializing in foreign policy and civil liberties. He worked as special assistant to President Ronald Reagan and editor of the political magazine Inquiry. He writes regularly for leading publications such as Fortune magazine, National Interest, the Wall Street Journal, and the Washington Times.

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