America must debate Ukraine policy: Never is the U.S. more loved abroad than when Americans are dying for another country. Much of the world sees it as Washington’s duty to provide cheap cannon fodder for their defense. When Americans resist sacrificing their lives and wealth for others, they are accused of being selfish and defeatist, denounced as favoring dictatorship, and worse.
The Arrogance of U.S. Leaders
The latest screed complaining about U.S. reluctance to put the interests of other nations first comes from journalist Natalia Antonova, who denounced those who question aid to Ukraine as “supporters of foreign dictators” and who criticize Washington’s prior destructive failures, such as the Iraq invasion, as promoting the narrative that “Americans should give up and let people like Russian President Vladimir Putin run the world.”
Ivory tower warriors overrun Washington. Professed humanitarians in the image of Madeleine Albright, they ask why America has such a wonderful military if they can never use it. In their view, the world is a grand chess game, and U.S. personnel are pawns to be sacrificed at will. Why the populist resistance to fulfilling America’s evident destiny?
These crusader wannabes are particularly dismissive about the ill consequences to others — you know, foreign civilians die all the time. So why worry if U.S. military action adds to the toll?
Again, Albright famously spoke for Washington’s foreign policy establishment when she explained “we think the price is worth it” in response to a query about the countless Iraqi children allegedly killed by economic sanctions. Why should a great power like America be hampered by such unimportant matters as the welfare of foreigners, even kids?
After all, Albright — as close to the perfect embodiment of hubris and callousness as one could find in Washington — also insisted that America stands taller and therefore sees further. Peering into the future, its leaders glimpse a new world to be created through U.S. military intervention. And she, like a deity, viewed the result as “very good.”
Trust Is Tied to Interests
Washington ended up going to war in Iraq based on a lie, as America’s witless president was manipulated by foreign emigres (paid CIA asset Ahmed Chalabi hoped to become Iraq’s president); foreign governments (Israel hoped to dispose of a dangerous enemy); foreign policy warriors (neoconservatives hoped to remake the Middle East and world); and domestic partisans (Republican politicos hoped to ride the issue to political victory).
The consequences were horrendous. A regime collapsed in chaos, sectarian warfare knew no bounds, brutal insurgencies and terrorist entities proliferated. Thousands of American and allied military personnel died, as did hundreds of thousands of Iraqi civilians. Iran’s influence in Iraq and the region grew. This wasn’t just inefficient policy. It resulted in hundreds of thousands of unnecessary deaths.
Yet policymakers were not chastened after unleashing needless murder and mayhem. The U.S. went on to help blow up Libya, which has suffered through years of civil war, foreign intervention, and chaos. America spent two decades attempting to bring democracy to Afghanistan, funding a corrupt urban elite and turning rural life into a bloody charnel house. Three American presidents bowed to the arrogant pretensions of Saudi Arabia’s murderous crown prince, contributing to the deaths of hundreds of thousands of Yemeni civilians. No U.S. interest could be discerned there.
U.S. sanctions policy operates in much the same way. The U.S. has embargoed Cuba for six decades without evident benefit. The people suffer, but Communist apparatchiks remain in power. The Trump administration insisted that punishing the already impoverished Venezuelan population would drive the Maduro government from power. Similarly, Congress and the administration imagined that preventing Syrians, who survived a bitter, decade-long civil war, from rebuilding would oust the Assad government. Unsurprisingly, these moronic presumptions remain unfulfilled.
The Trump administration abandoned the nuclear deal with Iran, insisting that sanctions would leave the Islamic regime begging for mercy. Instead, Tehran and its allies restarted nuclear activities, obstructed Gulf oil traffic, destroyed Saudi oil facilities, bombarded U.S. bases in Iraq, and even targeted the American embassy in Baghdad. A more extreme regime has taken power in Iran. “Heck of a job,” as George W. Bush might say!
In none of these cases was anyone held accountable for their errors and crimes. A vast scrum of neocon warmongers continues to pontificate about policy and fill government positions, advocating new interventions and wars. Indeed, failure only causes members of Washington’s bipartisan war party to double down. While sanctions haven’t stopped Iran, war would, they insist. Strikes against Venezuela and North Korea would yield peace, love, and democracy, they believe. Confront China with war over Taiwan and the CCP will flee the scene, they tell us. Don’t worry, be happy: Trust the architects of years of failed foreign policies. Contra Antonova’s apparent fear, Washington exhibits few inhibitions to the use of force.
Today the usual suspects are edging ever closer to the brink in Ukraine, risking it all. At the loony fringe are Sen. Roger Wicker, who suggested staging a nuclear attack on Russia, McCain Center Executive Director Evelyn Farkas, who imagined leading a global crusade to divest Moscow of conquered territories, and the disgraced but unashamed David Petraeus, who advocated a full-score conventional attack in response to Russian use of nuclear weapons against Ukraine. How creative! Just imagine how a nuclear war against a great power conducted by the usual suspects likely would turn out. What could possibly go wrong?
Tales of Disbelief
The point here is not that America is inherently evil or innately wrong, but that U.S. policymakers, no less than those elsewhere, are fallible. Their flaws are exacerbated by the overweening hubris that envelops Washington. In the imperial city most everyone assumes that America’s role is to run the world, and that Washington is entitled to do anything necessary to impose its will upon distant lands. They routinely dismiss the costs, and routinely encourage tactics denounced when employed by others. Washington complains about election interference, attempted coups, assassinations and targeted killings, sabotage and cyber-attacks, economic warfare, and military action, but these are all U.S. specialties. Antonova is particularly exercised at Seymour Hersh being “celebrated by Russian war propagandists for alleging that the United States blew up the Nord Stream pipelines.”
I don’t know the truth about the pipeline, but propaganda has come mostly from the U.S. and its allies. Although Moscow’s murderous aggression against Ukraine was unjustified and should be resisted, that doesn’t mean facts are unimportant. Without the slightest proof, American and European governments accused Moscow of acting against interest by blowing up a pipeline Russia itself completed, and at great cost — a pipeline it apparently plans to repair. In contrast, many European governments had criticized the project. Washington even sanctioned it and publicly threatened to ruin private firms and public authorities involved with it.
Nonetheless, Washington should still back Ukraine with sanctions on Russia and aid to Kyiv, but it should always do so in proportion to America’s interest and be cognizant of the risks if the conflict grows and escalates. These limits are critical. The world is full of tragedy, and it is not Washington’s role to right all wrongs. Rather, the U.S. government’s primary duty is to protect this nation—its people, territory, constitutional system, liberties, and prosperity.
A World of Wars and Suffering
Ukrainians are not alone in suffering today. So are Yemenis, in part at America’s hands. Washington left the Afghans to the Taliban. Civil war is raging in Myanmar, expanding a conflict that began decades ago. On my first illicit trip over that border I was asked by ethnic Karen fighters why the U.S. did not do for them what it had done in Kosovo?
While the Russo-Ukraine war might be the worst conflict in Europe since World War II, it is not the worst one worldwide. Indeed, the automatic American and European presumption that this conflagration is self-evidently the most important in the world, is one reason the Global South has stood aloof. Far more devastating conflicts have occurred across the developing world, with Western powers ignoring the horror — or, even worse, feeding the flames. For instance, America was heavily involved in what were effectively two major civil wars with millions of casualties, Korea and Vietnam. Its involvement was tied to the Cold War, not abstract humanitarian concerns. During the 1980s Washington backed the invader, Saddam Hussein’s Iraq, against Iran, in a conflict that consumed a million or so lives. A decade later the West largely ignored an extended conflict involving the Democratic Republic of the Congo in which some 5.4 million people died.
The chief difference in America’s response to foreign conflicts is perceived self-interest: Washington unashamedly cares more about white Europeans, people of color possessing large reserves of oil, and foreign populations at risk of falling under Communist control. Other cases, not so much. Callous this might seem to be, but the ugly reality is that nothing about most foreign conflicts, tragic though they are, warrants direct American military involvement. War should be a last resort, reserved for truly vital interests affecting the U.S.
Washington policymakers should weigh seriously the costs and risks of intervention. As noted earlier, the human price is rarely paid by the deciders, but it is always terrible and usually beyond imagination. Moreover, the federal government is functionally bankrupt, with this year’s deficit up an extra half trillion dollars over last year’s estimate because of new spending programs. As a percentage of GDP, the debt burden is nearing the record set at the conclusion of World War II, the greatest conflict in human history, and it is likely to double by mid-century. Every dollar wasted on a bloated military adds to the problem.
Moreover, the risk of conflict with Russia is real. Although Washington has not sent infantry or armored divisions, there are boots on the ground in Ukraine. They are probably doing more than simply monitoring weapons shipments as is officially claimed. The U.S. is ostentatiously waging a proxy war-plus, targeting Russian generals, helping sink Russian ships, and arming Kyiv with ever more sophisticated weapons. The Biden administration is aware of the risk but so far has consistently given way to Ukrainian and allied pressure to enhance its military assistance. Kyiv wants to drag the U.S. into the conflict: In November President Volodymyr Zelensky repeatedly claimed that his nation’s missile strike on Poland came from Russia.
Nuclear Risks in This War Are Real
At the same time, Moscow’s conventional weakness leads it to rely on nuclear weapons to equalize. Allied threats of retaliation are as likely to harden Russian resolve as they are to deter Russian action. Losing to Ukraine would leave Moscow exposed as a second-rate power and could cost Putin and his ruling clique power. The longer the conflict, greater the West’s role, and the more expansive Kyiv’s ambitions, the higher the risks. Putin apparently views Ukraine as a critical if not existential interest, which means he will continue spending and risking more than the allies to triumph.
Ultimately, Washington’s international role should be protector of Americans rather than crusader for others. The Hippocratic Oath would be a good starting point for American foreign policy, first do no harm. Or as popularized by then-President Barack Obama, “don’t do stupid shit.” The U.S. should do good for others when practicable, but not at unreasonable risk to the American people.
Debate over what Washington should do to arm Ukraine, and for how long, is a patriotic duty. The U.S. government is responsible to the American people. Their interest should come first.
Doug Bandow is a Senior Fellow at the Cato Institute. A former Special Assistant to President Ronald Reagan and author of several books, including Foreign Follies: America’s New Global Empire. He is a 19FortyFive Contributing Editor.