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The Ukraine Conundrum

Democrats ask ‘what’s the endgame,’ then withdraw the question (which nonetheless persists).

A Ukrainian family gathers across the border as they become refugees from the war tearing apart their country.,

Now you see it; now you don’t. This afternoon, roughly 24 hours after 30 House Democrats sent a letter to President Biden urging him to try to negotiate a settlement of the Ukraine War with Vladimir Putin, the signatories withdrew the letter. Turns out their signatures were gathered in early and midsummer, before Ukraine had begun some successful counteroffensives. At the time, Republicans had not yet been vowing to stop U.S. aid to Ukraine—a position the 30 Dems have made clear they oppose; they said they favored both negotiations and a continuation of aid. Within the past week, however, Kevin McCarthy (who inspires no confidence he could identify Ukraine on a map) has promised that a Republican House majority would end aid to Ukraine, which made yesterday’s letter look like a piling on against Biden administration policy and Ukraine.

Apparently, most of the signatories didn’t know the letter would be sent yesterday; some appear to have believed it was effectively dead. Now, it is—though the questions it raised and the critique it posed remain unanswered.

That critique was posed most succinctly by George Beebe of the Quincy Institute for Responsible Statecraft. Beebe was quoted, in The Washington Post’s story that broke the news about the letter, as saying, "The risk of the [administration’s] strategy is it has no conception of an endgame." That’s true enough, although the only parties that appear to have conceptions—albeit diametrically opposed ones—of an endgame are Russia and Ukraine.

Despite the ocean of uncertainty and contingency in which we all are bobbing around, there are, at least, a host of distinct, identifiable tendencies in how Americans and the West think about Putin’s war. To name just a few, there are, to begin, the simply wrong-headed, including:

  • The pro-Putin fascists. The faction’s founder was Pat Buchanan, who nearly two decades ago began writing that since Putin was clearly anti-gay, anti-feminist, something of a white nationalist, and an opponent of liberal democracy, the American right should embrace him. Subsequent adherents include Viktor Orban, Tucker Carlson, and some portion of the Trump undergrowth (Steve Bannon comes to mind), though most have thus far muted their support.
  • Wannabe tin-pots. Both Donald Trump and, last weekend, Silvio Berlusconi (whose party is one of the three now governing Italy) have expressed their admiration for Putin’s presumed toughness, autocratic verve, and (when they compare him to themselves) relative youth. This is not to say that these aging thugs aren’t also pro-fascist, but there’s a personal element here that shouldn’t be ignored.
  • Followers of the Republican base. Polling shows that the percentage of Republicans who want to cut off U.S. aid to Ukraine has now risen to one-third of party members and leaners—doubtless, the third most consumed by hatred of Satanic Democrats, and most susceptible to Trump’s and Tucker’s Putin-philia. This is a group that most Republican electeds, and Kevin McCarthy in particular, are mortally fearful of offending; hence the House GOP pledges to cut Ukraine off.
  • The small slice of the left that blames the U.S. for the war: For such as these, the expansion of NATO to Russia’s borders is the casus belli that justifies Putin’s follies. To be sure, there were many on the left (including George Kennan and, well, me) who long ago wrote that NATO’s eastward march was a mistake, but most of us don’t think that exculpates Putin in the slightest for the murderous slaughter he’s chosen to wage. The anti-German stipulations in the Treaty of Versailles, after all, were not raised as a defense for the Nazi leaders at the Nuremberg trials.

Then there are those who support the U.S. support for Ukraine, in part or in whole. They include:

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  • Foreign-policy traditionalists. This group appears to include such NATO advocates as Mitch McConnell, who may or may not go to the wall to defend democratic values (certainly not when it comes to voting rights for all Americans), but who oppose those who threaten American hegemony.
  • Foreign-policy traditionalists also committed to American hegemony but with a greater appreciation for democracy, and a desire to defend it and to fight fascism when possible, than Mitch McConnell has. I.e., the Biden administration, among others.
  • Liberals and progressives who are ever ambivalent about American hegemony but are die-hard democrats and anti-fascists.
  • Realpolitikers who, like Beebe, don’t see how this ends well and fear the consequences of prolonged (let alone escalated) war to Ukraine, Europe, and the U.S. and global economy—but still wish to support Ukraine.

The 30 signatories to the now-withdrawn letter fall into both of those latter two categories—as, I suspect, do most liberals and progressives generally.

How long the American people will support our aid to Ukraine is anybody’s guess. The Republican base is now weaponizing the issue as part of its anti-Biden diatribes, but there’s no telling whether this opposition will overflow the base. Or, more accurately, when this opposition will overflow the base, as our support, however necessary and commendable, cannot be indefinite.

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