About a decade after the end of the Vietnam War, by which time the bloodbaths of the Communist takeover of South Vietnam and the spillover of the carnage to Cambodia were undeniable, the West German journalist Uwe-Siemon-Netto, who had specialized in anti-American reportage as a correspondent during the war, caused a stir in Europe when he publicly suggested that for him and his fellow anti-war activists, the most appropriate course of action was a prolonged period of silence.
This recommendation comes back to mind just now in watching the neocon freakout over Gov. Ron DeSantis expressing doubts about our Ukrainian policy. Bill Kristol had an embolism on Twitter, his most prominent public platform these days. (How the mighty have fallen.) The Ukraine romantics (I’ll call them) rushed to say that Gov. DeSantis’s position was “pro-Putin,” even though DeSantis said he supported aid to Ukraine, but worried that the Biden Administration and other cheerleaders for our Ukrainian support don’t have a clear strategy and seem heedless of—or frightened by—the risks. It looks more and more like Vietnam all over again, in which we thought we could calibrate “graduated pressure” to achieve a precise outcome while always fearful of what a more forceful strategy might entail. War doesn’t work like that. As Ronald Reagan liked to say in the 1960s, we should either win, or get out. Everyone said he was irresponsible and naïve.
Like Vietnam, the Ukraine scene appears to be another example of path-dependent groupthink, with dissent or qualifications not allowed. Do we want Ukraine to win, and actually defeat Russia on the battlefield? Fine—then let’s send F-16s and the other equipment to make it possible. Instead it seems we have settled into a policy of limited (if still expensive) support that ensures a ghastly stalemate of attrition on the battlefield that does nothing to relieve the threat of a widening war—and may actually be increasing it. Win or get out still seems like a better policy. Cheerleading for the plucky Zelensky, who Max Boot calls “a Churchillian figure worthy of the United States’ unstinting support,” or putting a Ukrainian flag in your social media profile, is not a policy. Nor is mere heckling anyone who expresses doubt about our course as “pro-Putin.”
This controversy occurs around the 20th anniversary of the beginning of our last major foreign war catastrophe—the Iraq War. Last week several of the leading cheerleaders for that effort like David Frum and the aforementioned Max Boot took the opportunity for long articles offering mea cuplas of sorts for this obvious disaster.
Boot, who was always an overrated, puffed-up poser, and who lately declared himself “woke” on domestic “social justice” issues because Donald Trump frightened him out of his trademark fedora, admits in Foreign Policy that “Regime change obviously did not work out as intended. . . The occupations of Afghanistan and Iraq were, in fact, fiascos. . . I am a neocon no more.”
I suppose we should make allowances for slow learners, but before pressing ahead let’s take in a bit more of Boot before giving him the well-deserved boot once and for all:
“This could be the chance to right the scales, to establish the first Arab democracy, and to show the Arab people that America is as committed to freedom for them as we were for the people of Eastern Europe,” I wrote in The Weekly Standard—the now defunct flagship of the neoconservative movement—a month after 9/11. “To turn Iraq into a beacon of hope for the oppressed peoples of the Middle East: Now that would be a historic war aim.”
So what is Boot for now? More nuclear diplomacy with Iran. It’s been such a raging success. I especially like this bit of confession: “I am trying harder than I did in my callow youth to reconcile the aspirations of idealism with the restraints of realism.” Scratch that “slow learner” bit above. Boot has reached callow adulthood.
Over at The Atlantic, David Frum offers a similar mea culpa: “In the judgment I made on Iraq, I dangerously overestimated the prospects for foreign intervention to build a stable and decent replacement regime. . . For Americans, it would probably have been better if the U.S. had kept its distance from the brewing trouble inside Iraq.” But Frum, a much better writer and thinker than Boot, essentially doubles down by asking, what if we hadn’t invaded Iraq? “Whether Iraq had an alternative future that would have been much better for the country and its people seems very doubtful to me.” Likely true, but so what? Frum notes that our failures in Iraq and Afghanistan emboldened the autocrats of the world. But then he ends on a triumphant note: “The invasion of Ukraine has recalled the peoples of the Western democracies to themselves.” Oh goody. I think I’ve seen this movie before: Neocon Scream VI. Can’t wait to see the ending.
Maybe my favorite part of the neocon freakout about DeSantis defecting from the Ukrainian party line is this paragraph in the New York Times story:
Guess who said back in 2003 at the beginning of the Great Trillion-Dollar Neocon Regime Change that regime change was a mistake born of entirely wrongheaded premises? Yes, that was the Claremont Institute, in several articles in the Claremont Review of Books. Maybe Gov. DeSantis is listening to the right people after all. And maybe the neocons with their neoknickers in a twist ought to follow Uwe-Siemon-Netto’s advice from the 1980s, and bless us all with a prolonged period of silence.