It’s not exactly a sign of a healthy democratic discourse that it’s virtually impossible to ask a critical question about the United States’ role in the Ukraine-Russia conflict without being smeared as a Putin apologist or an “isolationist.”
We’ve been bombarded with bromides about a civilizational struggle that pits the forces of autocracy and liberalism against each other. “It’s not just about freedom in Ukraine,” President Joe Biden tells us. “It’s about freedom of democracy at large.”
Yet Ukraine — which, before the war, regularly slotted in somewhere beneath Burma, Mexico and Hungary on those silly “democracy matrixes” left-wingers used to love — isn’t any kind of liberal democracy. Maybe one day it will be. Today Ukraine still shutters churches and restricts the free press. Maybe you believe those are justifiable actions during wartime, but under no definition are they liberal. Ukraine has never been a functioning “democracy.” Its people defend its borders and sovereignty in the face of a powerful expansionist aggressor. That’s good enough.
But a person is capable of rooting for Vladimir Putin to be embarrassed, beaten and weakened, without accepting the historical revisionism and a highly idealized version of Ukraine. A person is fully capable of rooting for Putin to be embarrassed, beaten and weakened, and also asking questions about where this is all headed.
Last week on “Fox and Friends,” probable presidential candidate Ron DeSantis answered a few queries about the war. Perhaps one day the governor will morph into the next Charles Lindbergh, but none of his answers were remotely “isolationist,” despite the claims of media. Unless, that is, anything short of automatic, lockstepping support for every foreign entanglement is considered “isolationist.”
DeSantis’ central criticism was that Ukraine has “a blank check policy with no clear strategic objective identified.” Is this contention even debatable? The administration has offered no identifiable endgame, other than “beating” Russia, which is fantastic. But what does that entail? Does it mean we keep sending weapons and billions of dollars until Russia is ejected from the Donbas region of eastern Ukraine or until Volodymyr Zelensky takes back Crimea, as well — which would surely escalate the war into a new bloody phase? Or does beating Russia happen when Zelensky finally rides a Jeep up to the Kremlin? That might take a while.
At The Washington Post, Jennifer Rubin (weirdly) accused DeSantis of pandering to “pro-Russian apologists” by dismissing the country as “a third-rate military power.” The Biden administration apparently agrees that Russian tanks aren’t going to be rolling into Paris or Berlin or Poland any time soon. Under Secretary of Defense Colin Kahl told Congress this week: “Ukraine is not going to lose. There will be no loss in Ukraine. I think Vladimir Putin hoped that that would happen. It hasn’t happened. It’s not going to happen.”
MSNBC’s Steve Benen didn’t like that DeSantis criticized his “own country’s president” — so much for dissent being patriotic — and that he suggested that “his own country deserves part of the blame for Russia’s invasion of Ukraine.” But that’s not what DeSantis suggested.
He suggested Biden deserved part of the blame. And maybe he does.
History did not begin in 2015. CNN, for instance, points out that DeSantis has changed his tone on the issue of Ukraine aid since 2012. Fair enough. It is also true, and far more consequential, that Biden spearheaded “reset” efforts after eight years of purported Republican antagonism toward Russia. It was Biden who led the administration’s efforts to readmit Russia access to the World Trade Organization — one of “the most important item(s) on our agenda.” It was Biden who claimed Mitt Romney was “totally out of touch” on Russia. It was his boss Barack Obama who told Dmitry Medvedev that he’d have more flexibility after 2012. And it was Putin who likely saw all this as weakness and invaded Crimea. Obama didn’t arm that Ukrainian resistance back then, probably because he needed Russia to pursue the most important foreign policy agenda item: the Iran deal.
Perhaps history unfolds differently if the Obama administration hadn’t appeased Putin.
Perhaps not. Whatever the case, a president with decades of foreign policy incompetence on his resume, only recently costing 13 American servicemen their lives in a botched Afghanistan withdrawal, should not be immune from debate or criticism.
And, no doubt, there are those on the right who are genuine isolationists. There are those who let politics cloud their assessment of Putin’s autocracy. Then, there are those on the left who have allowed conspiracy theories that were cooked up during the 2016 election to warp their understanding of Russian power. You get the sense that if Trump had been more bellicose toward Putin, left-wing columnists would be clamoring to send him tanks.
Regardless, if Ukraine’s cause is righteous, and our opaque but open-ended commitment is necessary to save Western democracy, there should be no reason to chill debate.