Progressives Make a Half-Hearted Call for Peace in Ukraine

Wars seem like good sport when your side is winning, especially when most of the costs are borne by others in distant lands. But no one likes losing, freezing in the winter, or paying $5 a gallon for gas. Despite the sustained media campaign, one gets the sense the establishment is starting to get worried about Ukraine.

In October, the Congressional Progressive Caucus (CPC), which includes Bernie Sanders and Alexandria Ocasio-Cortez, submitted a letter to the White House advocating for peace negotiations. But the CPC quickly backed down amid scathing backlash. Nevertheless, the attempt briefly represented a crack in the establishment’s unanimity on Ukraine. It was also a reminder that the left has collapsed as an anti-war force in the U.S.

For a long time, the American left was the peace party. It accrued major support as the vanguard of the anti-Vietnam War movement of the 1960s. This reputation continued through the Reagan years, when the left championed the anti-nuclear movement and opposition to U.S. intervention in Central America. After the Cold War, things began to fragment. 

While the left did strongly oppose the Iraq War, particularly once it began to falter, that opposition was more a case of partisanship than high principle. Barack Obama—as well as many others in the party—simultaneously championed the equally flawed Afghanistan War as the “good war” and ordered the “surge” in troop deployments there during his first term. 

In Obama’s second term, any tendencies to foreign-policy restraint disappeared. Democrats began to endorse “humanitarian wars” under the rubric of the “duty to protect” concept championed by Secretary of State Hillary Clinton and United Nations Ambassador Samantha Power. The interventions in Libya and Syria fit this mold. 

Ukraine is now the most egregious example of the left’s abandonment of peace as a goal and diplomacy as a tool. Today, even those who sport “COEXIST” bumper stickers and virtue-signal their pride in being vaccinated have festooned their homes and social media profiles with Ukrainian flags. The CPC’s brief flirtation with peace has given way to the bellicose idealism of the FDR years.

The left supports Ukraine not least because Ukraine is the military underdog, but also because Russia is a champion of traditionalist nationalism in Europe. In the process of opposing Russia, the left has abandoned its previous preferences for multilateralism, diplomacy, and the once-universal recognition that wars with nuclear risks are not worth the risk to humanity. 

Wishful thinking about the war has only enhanced the left’s enthusiasm. At first, American and Ukrainian propaganda mocked Russia’s fighting capability and threw in tall tales for good measure, such as the myth of the “Ghost of Kiev.” The left thought it would be easy and Russia would be quickly beaten, if not by sanctions, then by the Ukrainians’ martial prowess and NATO arms.  

Conditioned by CNN footage, Americans expect war to look a certain way, with fast results secured by planes, precision, speed, and “shock and awe.” After the ignominious departure from the 20-year slog in Afghanistan, this new war would be an exemplary one, where the good guys win, vindicating American virtue and arms. The Ukraine war is supposed to be like the Gulf War for liberals.

Reality has been stubbornly resistant to that analog. Initially, Russia took a lot of territory and then fought a long urban campaign in Mariupol. Since then, there have been some significant reversals, including the withdrawal of Russian forces around Kiev and then, more recently, from the Kharkiv oblast. Many have also been predicting that any day now the Russians would get beaten badly in Kherson in the south. Yet the fighting goes on.

Rather than a “shock and awe” war involving high tech and airpower, this conflict has been slow and plodding. It is a war of attrition made even slower by low numbers of troops from both sides straddling a very long battlefront. Fifty-year-old artillery pieces are using high-tech drones to acquire targets. Soldiers fight, bunker by bunker, to gain a few hundred yards. 

Information on day-to-day events is hard to come by and often confusing. While lots of raw footage and commentary are available from Russian and Ukrainian Telegram channels, reports of alleged Ukrainian blitzkriegs usually have not translated to gains on the map, and casualty figures from both sides are either nonexistent or appear massaged. 

At the moment, 300,000 Russian reserves are on their way to the front. Plus, Russia has recently appointed a new commander, Sergei Surovikin, who has begun significant and sustained assaults on Ukrainian dual-use infrastructure, like power plants, using swarms of kamikaze drones. Ukrainians in the rear were spared from most of the war’s effects until recently. Now there are widespread power outages and shortages throughout the country. The pain is also spread over Europe in the form of reduced natural gas supplies, made worse by sabotage—by an unknown party—of the Nordstream pipelines in the Baltic Sea. 

Putin clearly considers this an existential fight with all of NATO. He is not alone. Chairman of the Joint Chiefs Mark Milley recently said that “if Ukraine falls, the current world order will collapse.” But this is the kind of war where any victory for NATO and Ukraine may be a Pyrrhic one. 

The Russian leadership has explicitly said nuclear weapons could be used, particularly to defend Russian territory. Following the annexation of the separatist regions conquered by Russian forces, any encroachment on what Russia deems its territory could trigger a nuclear response. How the U.S. and NATO would respond to such an act is dangerously unclear. In other words, if Ukraine somehow wins by achieving its maximalist goals for the recovery of lost territory, we could all lose. 

Though the U.S. and NATO seem ready to urge Ukrainian resistance down to the last man, most wars are not resolved in such extreme terms but rather with mundane exchanges of territory, commitments to neutrality, and the like. War and negotiation are two sides of the same coin. That understanding, that type of diplomacy, has been forgotten in the age of idealism. 

Barack Obama unwittingly stumbled upon some foreign-policy successes because, being an America-hating leftist, he was also skeptical of the American empire. But now that that empire has become explicitly leftist—committed to gay rights, feminism, abortion, and “democracy”—the left has become bloodthirsty cheerleaders for wars fought in the name of leftist principles, including the Ukraine War. 

It would help the U.S. and the world if the Democrats returned to their roots. But, as we see with the abandonment of their once stalwart commitment to free speech, their claimed moral principles, when they were out of power, were mostly just a pose.

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