Robert Kagan, neoconservative writer and husband to Deputy Undersecretary of State Victoria Nuland, wrote a piece called “The Price of Hegemony” in Foreign Affairs last week that was fascinating. If I’d written his opening, people would denounce me as a Putin-concubine:
Although it is obscene to blame the United States for Putin’s inhumane attack on Ukraine, to insist that the invasion was entirely unprovoked is misleading.
Just as Pearl Harbor was the consequence of U.S. efforts to blunt Japanese expansion on the Asian mainland, and just as the 9/11 attacks were partly a response to the United States’ dominant presence in the Middle East after the first Gulf War, so Russian decisions have been a response to the expanding post–Cold War hegemony of the United States and its allies in Europe.
Kagan went on to make an argument straight out of Dr. Strangelove. Instead of doing what some critics want and focusing on “improving the well-being of Americans,” the U.S. government is instead properly recognizing the responsibility that comes with being a superpower. So, while Russia’s invasion may indeed have been a foreseeable consequence of a decision to expand our hegemonic reach, now that we’re here, there’s only one option left. Total commitment:
It is better for the United States to risk confrontation with belligerent powers when they are in the early stages of ambition and expansion, not after they have already consolidated substantial gains. Russia may possess a fearful nuclear arsenal, but the risk of Moscow using it is not higher now than it would have been in 2008 or 2014, if the West had intervened then. And it has always been extraordinarily small…
A month after Putin’s invasion of Ukraine, blood seems to be rushing to all the wrong places across the Commentariat, which has begun in earnest the predictable process of asking the public to dismiss fears of nuclear combat. Headlines of the “We’ll take those odds” variety are springing up everywhere, from the Seattle Times (“Atrocities change the nuclear weapons calculus”) to Radio Free Europe (“Former NATO Commander Says Western Fears Of Nuclear War Are Preventing A Proper Response To Putin”) to Fox (which had on Sean Penn, of all people, to say to Sean Hannity, “Countries that have nuclear weapons can remain intimidated to use them, and we’re seeing that now with our own country”). This is fast becoming a bipartisan consensus. Check out Republican Adam Kinzinger’s recent comment:
If we let nukes prevent us from action then expect literally every country to try to get nukes in next few years
Most of us look back at 9/11 and wish we’d tried to narrow the scope of the problem, not expand it in grandiose ways and make it the central fact of the lives of every person on the planet. We were told right away that 9/11 meant so much more than a policing problem, that instead of a few nut-jobs slipping through the net, bin Laden’s Twin Tower attacks heralded an inevitable, and desirable, Final Battle between new and old worlds. We’re going through something similar now. The pundit excitement over the final clash between “Democracy and Autocracy” perhaps being at hand reminds me exactly of the open praying for signs of the Apocalypse I once heard among the Rapture-ready flock of pastor John Hagee in San Antonio.
We saw a ton of this thinking after 9/11. World-domination advocates who’d been laughed out of meetings for years were taken seriously overnight. Rigid with jingoistic fervor, they were suddenly in print and on air everywhere, bursting with “plans for everyone,” as Iggy Pop put it. Such people always rush to the front of the debate in these moments and they’re always listened to, until about ten years later, when it quietly becomes okay to reflect on a question we probably should have pondered in the moment, i.e. “Hey, are these people crazy?”
At the outset of the Ukraine invasion, American talking heads with near-unanimity insisted there would be no calls for direct military involvement. We were told even the most hawkish elements in the West just wanted to supply Ukraine with weapons, and give them a chance to fight back against a brutal invader.
That stance held for less than a few weeks. Messaging moved more toward open calls for war in distinct phases. The first came via a flood of stories about how the invasion had “revitalized” or “restored faith” in the American project. To some, Putin’s march into Ukraine, whatever else it might mean, first and foremost validated every dumb foreign policy idea America ever had.
“Ukraine War Ushers In ‘New Era’ for U.S. Abroad,” from March 12 in the New York Times, was an orgy of such neoliberal crowing about Ukraine righting past wrongs. “The post-9/11 war on terror period of American hubris, and decline, is now behind us,” declared Obama’s former deputy national security adviser Ben Rhodes, echoing baseball star George Brett’s famous quote about hemorrhoid surgery in the 1980 World Series: “My pain is all behind me now!” Authors Michael Crowley and Edward Wong added:
The Russian invasion has bonded America to Europe more tightly than at any time since the Cold War… It has re-energized Washington’s leadership role in the democratic world just months after the chaotic U.S. withdrawal from Afghanistan ended 20 years of conflict on a dismal note.
Last week saw the inevitable next step, a stupendous popping of war wood, beginning with old pal Ali Velshi of MSNBC, who took a literary tone in a solemn call to escalate.
The turning point for the west and NATO will come when the sun rises over Kyiv on Sunday… There is no more time for prevarication. If ‘never again’ means anything, then this is the time to act.
Asked on Twitter what he meant, he answered, “Direct military involvement.”
Former Obama HUD official Brandon Friedman, author of a book called, no kidding, The War I Always Wanted, responded to reports of mass civilian casualties in the city of Bucha by conceding that, yes, America has a history of killing civilians, too, but never in ways that looked this bad. “No cities during the Iraq invasion were ever made to look like Mariupol, Bucha or other heavily damaged places in Ukraine,” he wrote, which I’m guessing means he never visited Fallujah.
He added that he simply didn’t believe statistics about civilian deaths compiled by the widely cited group Iraq Body Count, because the organization is currently “promoting a Michael Tracey tweet.” Former U.S. soldier and writer Matt Gallagher said that while yes, America killed civilians, these attacks weren’t “systemic or conducted on a mass scale.” He quickly deleted the comment.
The aforementioned Kagan didn’t even try to throw a hat over the thrill 9/11 once gave him. In editorial after editorial after the bombing, he tried on all Churchill poses he’d clearly spent years practicing. An October, 2001 Washington Examiner piece called “The Gathering Storm” breathlessly declared — I’m highlighting that word because a breathless tone is such an unfailing feature of soon-to-be-disastrous war takes — that the Afghanistan invasion would be just an appetizer to the much larger plan of military conquest he’d seen in his dreams.
“No one can imagine that the latest anthrax attack is the terrorists’ last move,” he wrote, jumping the gun just a tad factually on the anthrax front, but hey, he was on a roll. (By the way, it’s exactly in moments like these, when passions are running hottest, that the worst reporting mistakes tend to take place. I bring this up because people are already screaming for a reaction to reported incidents in places like Bucha or Mariupol. Sometimes it pays to wait a few weeks on such faraway controversies). In any case, Kagan after 9/11 argued: “Even if only part of what we have suggested in fact materializes, we will need to beef up our military capacities far beyond what is currently planned…”
Everyone remembers what came next. People like Kagan, co-author Bill Kristol, Don Rumsfeld, Paul Wolfowitz, and David Frum insisted that what could have been dealt with as a localized problem instead required a massive open-ended global militarization project, with accompanying Totaler Krieg. What kind of total war? The intellectuals back then had a notion ready for deployment: with a few tweaks to famed articles like Samuel Huntington’s “Clash of Civilizations,” the United States could embark upon a lengthy project of democratizing the planet, especially the backward Muslim parts. Clearly, we were told, the reason 9/11 had taken place was that we had not been vigilant enough in eliminating ancient cultures by force and replacing them everywhere with “freedom.”
This was the same xenophobe insanity that had led people like William Westmoreland to explain that “The Oriental doesn’t put the same high price on life as the Westerner” while we were dumping poison and CBUs and napalm and 7,662,000 tons of explosives all over Indochina, part of our effort to “bomb them back into the Stone Age,” as Air Force General Curtis LeMay once put it. As Chris Hedges wrote recently, the basically racist notion that foreigners are savages and only understand force is a consistent feature of pre-war propaganda. Former CIA chief and Defense Secretary Leon Panetta, who incidentally works for a firm that lobbies for Raytheon, went on CNN recently to say, “I think we need to understand that there is only one thing that Putin understands, and that’s force.”
The notion that someone else’s insanity could cure your own ought to be limited to the thinking of people who live in padded rooms. Sadly, it isn’t. Even before Putin invaded Ukraine, we saw open longing for a chance to give “leadership” (read: military intervention) a chance again. This was the thesis of the Bret Stephens article “Bring Back the Free World” way back on January 25th. Stephens decried an America so “obsessed with its own sins” that it was helping the autocracies of the world make democracy seem “divided, tired, and corrupt.” What was needed, he wrote, was a restoration of the “concept of the ‘free world,’” a way to bring back its “clarifying power and moral force.”
Viewed through this lens, Ukraine is almost good news, because it will help America re-discover its proper destiny as world Hegemon. This is America’s “I’m Your Density” moment:
Now all the same people from before are out of the woodwork, again, with the likes of Now all the same people from before are out of the woodwork, again, with the likes of Bill Kristol and Benjamin Wittes saying the crazies are the ones who worry about escalation, “like we don’t have 70 years of managing nuclear risk with Russia or something”:
As time passes, it seems there’s less and less of a chance of negotiating an end to the war in Ukraine in a way that might keeping the problem localized, because that will leave the global “clash” unresolved. Analysts and think-tankers have already moved past Ukraine in their minds, to a future reorganization of Earth:
Russia's war against Ukraine will end with the break-up of the Russian Federation. It will be replaced by small, demilitarized and powerless republics with neutrality written into their constitutions.
So into the Apocalyptic Throwdown script we return. This time it’s Gary Kasparov calling for the West to throw Russia “back into the Stone Age,” and instead of headlines like “Top General Sees Plan to Shock Iraq Into Surrendering,” we’re seeing, “U.S. and Europe Aim to Punish Putin and Fuel Russian Unrest,” once again betraying a real belief among America’s decision-makers that we can “bleed Putin” into collapse by drawing out a “quagmire” that will trigger a foreign revolution. No one even seems willing to hint at what a longshot bet that is. It’s taken for granted that a global everywhere-war is a sound and necessary plan. The fact that Putin’s own instructively catastrophic misread of how easy foreign conquest would be is sitting before all of these people makes all this even more amazing.
For most of the nineties living in Russia, I found myself gaining an appreciation for America. I thought: “As messed up as our country is, at least you can’t openly pay bribes in court, and people aren’t often boiled alive when hot water pipes burst under sidewalks.” Then I went home not long after 9/11 and, watching George Bush, soon found myself missing Russia, thinking: “At least Boris Yeltsin was too busy drinking and stealing to try to conquer the planet.” Now the worst of both worlds are on a collision course. People like Igor Strelkov are shouting the Russian equivalent of “Bring it On” to the free-worlders, and armchair warriors like Robert Kagan are shouting their own provocations back. God save us from people who dream big, without the brains to match.
Matt Taibbi, author of The New York Times bestsellers The Divide, Griftopia, and The Great Derangement, is a contributing editor for Rolling Stone and winner of the 2007 National Magazine Award for Columns and Commentary.