A Normal War

Russian bombs are falling on Ukraine, not American ones. On this level, the moral aspects of the war are clear. But acknowledging this is not the same as a policy response, nor does one flow automatically from it. By refusing to reflect on either the deeper causes of the war or possible ways out of it, the liberal commentariat in the US falls into its usual patterns, in which America figures as the innocent abroad, a do-gooder, for whom each crisis is something external to be acted on, never something it could be responsible for. ‘You can’t blame the innocent, they are always guiltless,’ wrote Graham Greene in The Quiet American. For the narrator, a jaded British journalist in Saigon, this is a kind of insanity, embodied in the character of the title: CIA agent Alden Pyle, freshly arrived in Indochina from Harvard in the early 1950s. ‘I never knew a man who had better motives for all the trouble he caused.’

Such is the tone underlying mainstream reactions in the press, where moral outrage is easily spent in a blaze of condemnation of a foreign country that leaves little to spare for its own. Now was not the time to argue about whether Putin’s ‘grievances had bases in fact’, insisted the New York Times as the invasion began. Putin bore sole responsibility for the new Cold War, a ‘potentially more dangerous one because his claims and demands offer no grounds for negotiations’. Most of its op-ed writers concurred, from David Brooks to Paul Krugman and Michelle Goldberg, onto not-so-odd couple Bret Stephens and Gail Collins – the US must show Putin that ‘he will never, ever win this war’. This line carried over to editorials in The New Republic, Atlantic, New Yorker. For Timothy Snyder in Foreign Policy, it was 1939 again, and Putin – as heir to both Hitler and Stalin – had made a Nazi-Soviet pact with himself. At White House press briefings, reporters urged the administration forward: had Biden erred in saying he wanted to avoid World War Three, asked ABC’s correspondent, ‘emboldening’ Putin by ruling out ‘direct military intervention’ too early?  

The business press has proven nearly as incendiary. Each issue of the Financial Times, Economist and Wall Street Journal bristles with calls for further, harsher sanctions that leapfrog the last. Banning Russian banks from SWIFT is now old hat, financial warfare for the faint-hearted. More radical measures aim at provoking overlapping debt, currency and banking crises: a block on Russian banks from dollar clearing and settlement, a ban on trading in its debt on secondary markets, and seizure of two-thirds of its dollar reserves. These joined embargos on advanced technology, by businesses and governments, including Boeing and Airbus equipment to service commercial aircraft; and growing calls to end all oil and gas imports not just to the US but Europe too – winter weather, high fuel prices, and freezing pensioners be damned. The financial journalist Matthew Klein has gone from diagnosing trade wars as class wars to promoting them, with calls for a ‘financial NATO’, endowed with ‘permanent mechanisms’ of coercion and a ‘freedom fund’ to compensate investors for the loss of the Russian market – and ‘(hypothetically) the Chinese one’.

Economic escalation has begun building towards military involvement, rather than acting as an alternative to it. The FT’s Martin Wolf concluded by mid-March that WW3 might be a risk worth taking. Enthusiastic about economic weapons, the media has been positively gung-ho on the physical sort. After two weeks, 17,000 anti-tank weapons had made it to Ukraine, according to the Times, while US ‘cyber-mission teams’ had been set up to aid them in unspecified acts of ‘interference’ against Russia – in ways that are testing the legal definitions of the US as ‘co-combatant’. Only fighter jets and a ‘no-fly zone’ – i.e., bombing Russian airfields – have so far caused any hesitation in these quarters. But there is growing pressure to concede both. The Wall Street Journal demands enough airborne materiel to make a no-fly zone redundant: 28 MiG-29s, alongside Su-25s, S-200s, S-300s, and switchblade drones. From this perspective, $800 million in new aid announced on March 15 was a kind of capitulation, ‘as if Mr. Biden is so wary of provoking Mr. Putin that he’s afraid what might happen if Ukraine won the war.’

This bravado extends to the culture industry at large, where signs abound of a moment akin to that which followed 9/11, when renaming French Fries occupied the dead time between Operations Enduring and Iraqi Freedom. Then as now, to set the attack in context was to excuse it; and there is the rush to do something, which takes a certain pride in not having thought through the consequences. What has changed is not just the erosion of the unipolar moment, but the multiplication of pathways for virtual war, for participating in it, and being manipulated by it: crowd-funding urban militias on Twitter, posting videos of captured tanks or ‘army cats’, to Instagram and TikTok. The result is somewhere between war as the health of the state and war as self-care – with ballerinas, pianists, painters and scientists disinvited from fellowships or shows, against blue and yellow banners and emojis, at no cost to Americans doing it. Warner Brothers will deny Russian teenagers Batman, Twitch will stop paying them to play video games online, Facebook will allow some users to call for their deaths.

Yet if the pitch of hysteria is as high as anything after 9/11 – the free world, civilization, good and evil, all hang in the balance once again – there is less unanimity of opinion behind it. Some of the same outlets demanding punitive sanctions, cultural boycotts and unlimited military aid have also carried dissenting voices. So far, these have been politically eclectic, as likely to be on the right as the left: the IR realist John Mearsheimer; Branko Milanovic, the scholar of inequality; former editor of the New Republic Peter Beinart; the conservative Catholic Ross Douthat who urged caution in the Times, going further than his colleague Thomas Friedman in pointing out that ‘America and NATO are not just innocent bystanders’; the sanderista Elizabeth Bruenig, now at the Atlantic; and on to Tulsi Gabbard and Tucker Carlson, called traitors or worse, as outliers on the left and right in Congress or TV.

Beyond these cases, how has the American left – defined broadly as critical of capitalism, to one degree or another – reacted to the war? A small group has resisted jingoism in all its forms. The Nation’s publisher Katrina vanden Heuvel condemned the invasion but also the ‘rank irrationality’ and ‘arrogance’ of US officials whose drive to extend a military alliance to Russia’s borders provided the context for it. She called on Biden to press for an immediate ceasefire and Russian withdrawal in exchange for Ukraine’s neutrality. Keith Gessen, a founding editor of n+1, offered a powerful account of the origins of the war, eschewing pop psychology in favour of history and reportage to question its inevitability. At the other end of the spectrum, some have eagerly joined a liberal smear campaign against alleged putinistas, amongst them George Monbiot in the Guardian and Paul Mason in the New Statesman, the latter calling for a massive military stimulus to prepare for the coming global conflagration. In the US, this role has gone directly to ‘culture vultures’ at New York Magazine or Vice.

The largest cohort – the DSA and Squad left, writers for Jacobin, Dissent, Jewish Currents, The Intercept, and other smaller publications – lies somewhere in between. Their positions differ only by degree and nuance from the State Department line: against broad sanctions, most also object to pouring arms into Ukraine. But their stance is basically defensive, trumpeting their condemnation of Russia rather than criticising Biden or NATO, in part to pre-empt accusations of ‘tankiness’. DSA’s initial statement was meandering and vague, though Democrats lined up to disavow it anyway. AOC, whose star it helped to launch, issued a communiqué a few days later, topping off a denunciation of ‘Putin and his oligarchs’ by insisting that ‘any military action must take place with Congressional approval’. As a rallying cry, this one – in effect, ‘no war of annihilation without congressional approval’ – leaves something to be desired. In Jacobin, Branko Marcetic sounded just as tough, if more concerned about nuclear war. Thanks to Jeremy Scahill, the Intercept continues to document the sheer scale of weapons transfers, but it too has tried to distance itself from a ‘tankie left’ that ‘makes excuses’ for Putin.

This cohort tends to support the ‘good sanctions’ advocated by Thomas Piketty – wielded against ‘the thin social layer of multi-millionaires on which the regime relies’ rather than ordinary Russians. Comparatively humane in spirit, sadly naïve in practice, these proposals misunderstood the motives of the power they sought to guide. Within days, Washington rolled out measures to induce a socioeconomic crisis of ordinary savers and earners, while leaving the rich relatively unscathed. ‘We are going to cause the collapse of the Russian economy’, explained France’s finance minister, matter-of-factly. Closer readings of books by two architects of the modern sanctions regime, Juan Zarate under Bush and Richard Nephew under Obama, might have cleared up some illusions about their purpose. Iranification is the order of the day, not sanctions with a social democratic twist.

In this sense, a significant section of the left has failed to think beyond a liberal interventionist framework, even if it disagrees with aspects of Biden’s response. In Jewish Currents, David Klion outlined NATO’s expansion and the fears of encirclement this aroused, only to dismiss it as irrelevant: the sole explanation is that ‘something fundamental has changed in Putin’s own mind’. In Dissent, Greg Afinogenov kept up the attack on those ‘obsessing’ over NATO – blaming a provincialism on the US left that blinded it to greater Russian nationalism, even as he rejected deeper involvement. For Eric Levitz in New York Magazine, many socialists were simply ‘too ideologically rigid to see the conflict through clear eyes’. There was ‘no basis for believing Western imperialism was the chief obstacle to a diplomatic resolution’. In fact, wasn’t the left morally bound to defend ‘a democratic government struggling against domination by a far-right autocracy’, with arms, sanctions, and the protection of NATO, if that’s what it took? Setting out to complicate the ‘pat ideological answers’ of the left, Levitz reproduced the standard justifications for US intervention from the liberal and neoconservative right – without trying to characterize US foreign policy in general, or situate its specific response here in any longer historical continuum.

Neither the respectable left nor the hardline liberals can explain how spiralling ‘punishments’ are meant to bring a quick end to the war, still less a lasting peace. Could it be they are not designed to, and that the US and its allies see a chance to settle their own strategic interests in the ‘geopolitical pivot’ of Eurasia – in which Ukrainian sovereignty, to say nothing of Ukrainian lives, figures at most incidentally? ‘On NATO territory, we should be the Pakistan’, declared NSA alumnus Douglas Lute. Condoleezza Rice had the same message of support for ‘throwing the book’ at Russia on the grounds that – expressed without a hint of irony – ‘when you invade a sovereign nation, that is a war crime’. Hillary Clinton was even more explicit: the Russian debacle in Afghanistan in the 1980s ought to be the ‘model’ for Ukraine. Plans to turn Ukraine into a new Afghanistan, from the people who just released the old one into the grip of famine, ought to give pause to anyone concerned about Ukrainians.

Even more striking than the hypocrisy of the imperial core is its continuity of outlook: regime change is the unofficial order of the day. If Biden finally said as much in Poland on 26 March, this simply underscores how little need he feels to compromise with a government in Moscow that Washington views as illegitimate: loser of the Cold War, weaker in all ways that matter, lacking a liberal or democratic fig leaf to cover its domestic predations, the regime is now a pariah of the ‘international community’ too, and no doubt this looks to many in the security ‘blob’ like the best chance they may ever have to be rid of it. It is worth sparing a moment, however, to recall the ineptitude of our rulers, whose previous efforts at regime change have ended in disaster. Even if the blithest assumptions of the US counter-offensive are born out, it is not clear what would be gained by returning Russia to the state of economic and political collapse of the 1990s that gave rise to Putin. Ukraine would remain an issue, however pliant his replacement.

Here the narrow focus of the ‘non-tankie left’ runs into an explanatory impasse. The idea that NATO is incidental to this crisis is belied not so much by ‘Putin’s narrative’ as the available American sources. In 2008, ambassador William Burns, now CIA chief, cabled that Ukraine and Georgia’s aspirations to join the alliance were ‘neuralgic points’ for Russia, which could lead it to intervene militarily. Yet the US continued to hold out the prospect of long-term membership to Ukraine, even as it withdrew from major arms control treaties with Russia and pressed forward with a $1 trillion ‘modernization’ of its nuclear arsenal. In January, Biden rejected two draft security agreements submitted by Russia as the basis for talks in Geneva, including proposals to limit military drills on its border and exclude Ukraine. ‘NATO’s door is open’, was Blinken’s dismissive response.

But the real turning point came earlier, as M. E. Sarotte’s new history of NATO expansion, Not One Inch, makes clear. Taking its title from the agreeement that Secretary of State James Baker proposed to Gorbachev in 1990, that if he assented to German reunification NATO would ‘not shift one inch eastward from its current position’, the book details how the exact opposite came to pass – with the US pursuing swift incorporation of all former Warsaw Pact countries, starting with East Germany, the moment Soviet collapse looked imminent. For those who think the issue of Ukraine begins and ends with Putin, Sarotte relates how the pacifistic Gorbachev furiously insisted to Bush that ‘Ukraine in its current borders would be an unstable construct’, had ‘come into existence only because local Bolsheviks had at one point gerrymandered it that way’ by adding Kharkov and Donbass, and Khrushchev later ‘passed the Crimea from Russia to the Ukraine as a fraternal gesture’. No overtures of any kind from NATO should be made directly to it. When Baker pressed a Russian negotiator over nuclear weapons in Ukraine, and what would happen to them in the event of a war with Kyiv, the naive reply reads as a tragic signpost en route to the present crisis. He ‘responded that there were 12 million Russians in Ukraine, with “many mixed marriages,’” so “what sort of war could that be?” Baker answered simply: ‘A normal war.”’

If much of the left is subdued, there seem to be two main reasons. The first stems from its relationship to the Democratic Party since 2016, which has effectively neutralized it as a caucus and activist base. Absent any movement on social reform legislation, progressives have gone along with the quest to link Trump to Putin, to the point that Russophobia increasingly defines the party as such. On this issue, most of the Squad hardly differ from the chair of the House Intelligence Committee. The second is moral sententiousness, underpinned by a powerfully selective memory. Months after the retreat from Afghanistan and theft of its reserves – and during the US-backed Saudi bombing of Yemen – this country is not in a position to dispense moral lessons. As an upholder of the principle of national sovereignty, its credibility is nil. And the moral vacuity of its position matters, not because it absolves Russia of wrongdoing in a warm bath of reciprocal turpitude, but because it points to the urgent need to proceed on some other basis if the aim is to find a peaceful solution. Crowd-funding bombs to fuel fighting in Kyiv is not that. Nor are indiscriminate sanctions in pursuit of regime change in Moscow. At a minimum, the US left should summon what modest reserves of independence and strength it has to call on its own government to de-escalate, pursue direct and indirect talks, to trade guarantees of neutrality for a ceasefire and troop withdrawal. A refusal to contemplate any alteration to a post-Cold War order forged in hubris by the victors is not toughness. It is war mongering.

Read on: Perry Anderson, ‘Imperium’, NLR 83.