It's fair for conservatives to look before leaping on Ukraine war

Vladimir Putin.
(Image credit: Illustrated | REUTERS, iStock)

As Russia invades Ukraine, echoes of an older foreign policy debate reverberate on the right. Those who take the more hawkish line are once again railing against those they consider unpatriotic conservatives. The author of the original essay attacking prominent conservatives who opposed the 2003 Iraq invasion would in a decade's time concede, "That war cost this country dearly." ("This country" being the United States.)

Russia isn't Iraq, Europe isn't the Middle East, and Vladimir Putin has both the nuclear weapons and extra-territorial ambitions that 2003's Saddam Hussein did not. Still, there are lessons that remain unlearned. At that time, the argument at hand over whether the Iraq war served U.S. interests was subordinated to an opposition dump of all the crankiest things said by right-leaning skeptics of this adventure. However patriotic the hawks fancied themselves to be, and their anger in the aftermath of 9/11 was justified even if their solutions were unwise, this turned out to be bad for America.

If Ukraine was in NATO, we would be at war with a nuclear-armed Russia right now. Plenty of influential people favored the former and a few appear willing to at least risk the latter. Would that serve American interests? That's the threshold question that is being conflated with Russian propaganda and the least defensible things conservatives skeptical of this project have ever written or said.

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Every major antiwar movement in recent memory has included people who became too sympathetic to the regime the U.S. sought to wage war against. But the political idiocy of Jane Fonda or ANSWER did not make Vietnam and Iraq any less of a disaster. This willingness to whitewash bad actors to more easily oppose wars is still mistaken, both morally and as a matter of political strategy. The insistence that most governments of the world wear either white hats or black hats actually biases foreign policy debates in a hawkish direction.

If you believe Putin would have been deterred by Ukraine's presence in NATO, by all means argue that. Given his increasingly bellicose statements about Ukrainian sovereignty, it appears unlikely he could have lived with that outcome. Either way, dangling NATO membership at a time when it was highly unlikely exposed Ukraine to all of the risks and none of the benefits.

This, not unpatriotic conservatives, has gotten us to the sad place where we are today.

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W. James Antle III

W. James Antle III is the politics editor of the Washington Examiner, the former editor of The American Conservative, and author of Devouring Freedom: Can Big Government Ever Be Stopped?.