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Readers Debate: The Surprising Pervasiveness of American Arrogance

Last week Portside ran John Feffer's column, which generated a number of likes and shares on Portside's Facebook page. We are are sharing two comments from readers Kevin Young and Charles Patrick Lynch. We asked John Feffer to respond to these.

Rage Against the War demonstration, San Francisco, 2023,Shutterstock photo // FPIF

John Feffer's column "The Surprising Pervasiveness of American Arrogance" includes several fallacies about the war in Ukraine and about those who criticize the U.S. role. Feffer's principal argument seems to be that foreigners should let Ukrainians determine our position, or at least that they must be "the primary guides to our action." He goes so far as to compare Noam Chomsky and other principled critics of the U.S. role in Ukraine to imperialists for not embracing the Ukrainian public's position.

Ukrainians have suffered enormously and understandably want to expel Russia militarily and make Putin pay for his crimes. Since the invasion a large majority has told pollsters "their country should continue fighting until it wins the war with Russia" rather than negotiating to end the war quickly, though that opinion is most common in the areas of Ukraine least touched by the invasion (Gallup, 9/2022).

Obviously we should consider Ukrainian opinions, but Ukrainian opinions are not the only relevant factor. Automatically deferring to a particular set of victims in a conflict is an act of political laziness that absolves us of the responsibility of weighing multiple considerations. In this case, the foremost such consideration is the very real and ever-present risk of nuclear war. Additional relevant considerations include the devastating climate impacts of the war and the "widespread starvation, poverty and premature deaths" (New York Times, 1-3-23) that rising prices have caused around the world, pushing "some 70 million people closer to starvation" by UN estimates (9-15-22).

Feffer mentions none of these other considerations, though he does make vague allusion to "abstract principles" that he says should not guide our actions; perhaps nuclear catastrophe and mass starvation are just abstractions. He employs a faulty analogy: "Imagine a journalist who interviews Donald Trump about accusations that he raped a woman but doesn't bother to talk to the woman who made the accusation." The situation in Ukraine is hardly comparable. Trump's personal assaults on women affect those women; a nuclear war would affect all life on Earth. Similarly, the war's boost to the fossil fuel industry harms the entire world.

One's position on Ukraine must weigh all these considerations. Feffer's allegation that "pundit-activists" like Noam Chomsky "have not bothered to consult the victims in this conflict" is disingenuous. It would be more accurate to say that critics like Chomsky have considered Ukrainian voices but don't agree with Feffer that those voices should automatically dictate our actions.

Feffer plays fast and loose with other key facts as well. He denies that the Biden administration has opposed peace negotiations, labeling that charge a "debunked canard." This statement is inexplicable given the evidence available to us. We know that in April 2022 the United States helped scuttle a negotiated settlement. As the Ukrainian outlet Ukrayinska Pravda reported soon after, when UK Prime Minister Boris Johnson visited Ukraine he told government that "the collective West...felt that Putin was not really as powerful as they had previously imagined." Western governments sensed "a chance to 'press' [Putin]. And the West wants to use it." Putin "should be pressured, not negotiated with," as "one of Zelenskyy's close associates summed up the essence of Johnson's visit." U.S. Defense Secretary Lloyd Austin reinforced that message later in April, explaining that a major U.S. aim was "to see Russia weakened" (Washington Post, 4-25-22). Negotiating could save many thousands of lives, perhaps many millions or even billions of lives, but it runs counter to the more important aim of crushing Russia's military and economy. For Feffer and others to believe that the United States is earnestly supporting peace negotiations when U.S. officials themselves concede otherwise is baffling, and certainly not what one would expect of leftists who have been critical of U.S. policy in other contexts.

Daniel Ellsberg was quite correct when he noted last month that the Biden administration "is rejecting the idea of negotiations" (Democracy Now, 5-1-23). Ellsberg probably understands better than anyone else alive just how easily a terminal nuclear war could happen due to the recklessness of the U.S. government and/or its adversaries. On more than one occasion in the past seven decades humanity has come within a hair's breadth of obliteration. Given this danger, as well as the enormous death and suffering the war has already caused in places like Ethiopia, Yemen, and Sudan, Ellsberg is quite reasonable to label the Western opposition to negotiations "a crime against humanity." The word arrogance doesn't begin to capture it.

The only way that the U.S. provision of defensive weapons to Ukraine can be justified is if the U.S. were simultaneously pushing aggressively for diplomacy. Unfortunately, it has done the opposite. Instead of a stopgap policy to help Ukraine defend itself, the provision of weapons has become the primary U.S. strategy, the motive being "to see Russia weakened." Meanwhile, many observers cling to the dangerous illusion that Russia can, in Feffer's words, "be forced to withdraw" completely from Ukraine. That thinking has already proven disastrous and may lead to even worse consequences in the months ahead.

Kevin A. Young
Northampton, MA

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Here we go again. Members of the right wing foreign policy establishment turning to attack....... the left. Without debating the history (though that can be done), I want to address two things. The lies they tell in my and others names, and the issue of peace for the Ukraine.

For the lies, let's just address the big one, they accuse people who want peace of being pro-Putin and pro Maga (cause the mention of Trump's name should have us drooling to fight). Umm, no, we are not. Are they warmongering tools of the Military Industrial Complex? I dunno, but if we are about name calling, we can both sling away.

My question is how is peace to be achieved in Ukraine? I see three choices. 1) The Russians are defeated and withdraw in disgrace as Ukraine and perhaps NATO march on Moscow, where Putin is dragged through the streets and the people of Russia celebrate their new leaders. Surely this time, the liberal democrats we have all been waiting for. Surely. 2) The Ukrainians have plenty of weapons but run out of soldiers as more and more people head West to Poland and elsewhere. More infrastructure is destroyed, the croplands are burnt, and they are finally forced to sit down with President Somebody and negotiate. 3). Both sides sit down and negotiate now. Cease fire or no. Note that they are doing that over grain shipments and it seems to be working pretty well.

Peace comes when sworn enemies negotiate, even slowly and get the best deal they can. The peace camp favors no. 3. To the warmongers, I ask, what exactly do you see the end game being (besides more death and destruction?). Do you have a plan to achieve peace without leaving the country in ruins? Please, anything reality based would be welcome. While you call me names, Ukrainians are dying. And millions are fleeing to other countries. BTW, picking people who agree with you and anointing them the official spokes people of the other side is an old cheap debating trick.

Charles Patrick Lynch
Posted on Portside's Facebook page


John Feffer's response:

I’m delighted that my recent piece on Ukraine has generated critical feedback. Of course, I would have preferred that the critics respond to the piece that I’d actually written.

So, for instance, Kevin Young writes, “Feffer's principal argument seems to be that foreigners should let Ukrainians determine our position, or at least that they must be "the primary guides to our action."

My article was addressed to progressives in the West. So, I was urging us to consult our counterparts in Ukraine (and Russia), not the governments of those countries. The full quote that Young excerpts is: “So, first step: listen to our progressive brothers and sisters in Ukraine and Russia. They should be the primary guides to our action, not some set of abstract principles.” It seems to me extraordinary that Western progressives wouldn’t at least acknowledge the consensus position of the Ukrainian left, including peace groups, which is that Russian troops must leave the country, voluntarily or by force.

I agree that the risk of nuclear war must be considered, and I’ve written about it extensively here. I would never rule out the possibility that a Russian leader (or U.S. president) would use nuclear weapons. However, with the exception of the initial invasions in 2014 and 2022, Putin has shown himself to be quite risk-averse in this war and has avoided direct confrontation with NATO forces. That suggests a low probability that he will take the ultimate risk of using nukes, whether tactical or strategic. In fact, Putin’s refusal to wage all-out war has generated considerable criticism from the military bloggers to his right (which should give pause to regime-change enthusiasts).

I have also written about the environmental damage of the war, relying on the work of Ecoaction, a major Ukrainian environmental organization. Their position is clear as well: Russia is responsible for a wide range of eco-crimes and has also put the much wider region at risk because of its occupation of the Zaporizhzhia nuclear power plant.

Since Young insists, let’s revisit the notion that the UK scuttled promising peace negotiations in April 2022, when Boris Johnson visited Kyiv. Those who believe this scenario, that the British prime minister pressured Ukrainian President Volodymyr Zelensky, generally cite Ukrainska Pravda, as does Young. Without going into the details, which are available here, Johnson wasn’t telling Zelensky anything he didn’t already know or believe, namely that Putin couldn’t be trusted to adhere to the deal that was on the table. And since the vast majority of Ukrainians would not likely have accepted the territorial concessions of that deal—giving up the Donbas and Crimea—Zelensky knew that it was not a domestically viable option either.

The “West is blocking peace” argument is yet another example of elevating the importance of Western actors and denigrating the importance of Ukrainian actors (see, for instance, the conspiracy theory that the Euromaidan protests weren’t an authentic civic uprising but rather a U.S.-orchestrated “coup”). The Ukrainian government, to be sure, is dependent on Western arms shipments and the application of sanctions against Russia. But it is fully capable of making its own judgments about Russian intentions. And honestly, the major obstacle to real peace negotiations is Russia itself and Putin’s mission to construct a “Russian world” that includes a colonized Ukraine.

Nowhere in the piece do I argue that the Biden administration is currently pushing for a peace deal or negotiations or anything of the sort. However, the conspiratorial notion that the United States is simply using the war to weaken Russia—the “proxy war” argument—obscures the much messier nature of U.S. policy toward Ukraine (which I evaluate in greater detail here). Suffice it to say that a good portion of the U.S. foreign policy apparatus would like to see the war in Ukraine over as soon as possible so that Washington can refocus on its primary adversary, China.

I’m not sure why the complete withdrawal of Russia from Ukraine is a “dangerous illusion.” In the past, the left has demanded the complete withdrawal of U.S. troops from Iraq, Afghanistan, and (earlier) Vietnam. I’m not sure why the left shouldn’t be consistent in demanding that all imperial powers that intervene militarily in other countries should be forced—by diplomatic pressure, public protest, and, yes, military resistance—to withdraw. By the way, U.S. troops indeed withdrew from those countries—after inflicting enormous damage—and those who resisted U.S. interventions did so even in the face of U.S. nuclear weapons.

I’m taken aback by Charles Patrick Lynch’s assertion that I am a member of the right-wing foreign policy establishment – since I’ve spent nearly 40 years attacking that establishment (and, occasionally, being attacked by it). So be it: he isn’t required to read any of my books or articles before taking a position on my most recent piece.

However, it does behoove him to read my most recent piece a little more carefully. Nowhere do I accuse anyone of being pro-Putin or pro-Trump (though I am critical of some credulousness with regard to those figures). I actually have a great deal of respect for both Noam Chomsky and Medea Benjamin and have worked with them on various projects in the past. I have even worked with some of the folks in the Eisenhower Medea Project, like Larry Wilkerson. So, there’s been no name-calling. Rather, I engaged critically with the arguments.

Lynch’s three scenarios for what happens in Ukraine, meanwhile, are rather fanciful. Here are my three. Ukraine succeeds in pushing most if not all of the Russian invaders out of its territory, but either Putin remains in power or an even more noxious leader takes over (something I explore in detail here). There are few liberals left in Russia to take over in Moscow, and NATO is not going to attempt to absorb Russia. The second scenario involves a stalemate, along the lines of the Korean War, after which the two sides indeed have to negotiate some kind of armistice. Or, three, Putin manages to outwait Ukraine and its supporters, and turns its neighbor into a colony. As it does so, it commits on a much broader scale the kind of atrocities that it did in the days and weeks following last year’s invasion.

I didn’t pick people on the other side as official spokespeople. The Ukrainian left speaks with a unified voice on the subject of the current war. The Russian left, such that it is, does as well. I have given my citations. I await a list of Ukrainian and Russian progressives who think otherwise.