War Drums

The neo-conservative crowd in the backrooms of U.S. politics, which has always been a largely bipartisan faction, has recently found the Republican Party an inhospitable host, and has therefore shifted most of its weight over to the Democratic Party. Hence the Democrats, partly for opportunistic political reasons related to Donald Trump (who was a consistent and valuable Putin asset for five years, with or without any Clinton-funded “dossier”), have quickly been repositioned as the New Cold War Party, after having fought tooth and nail throughout their entire post-JFK period against every Republican effort to win the old Cold War. 

The neo-conservatives, broadly defined, may be divided into two groups: 

(1) Those who believe military adventurism of the “democracy project” sort is part of the historical mission and responsibility of the world’s leading superpower. These people may sometimes claim that aggressively promoting democratic notions abroad is the best way to stave off potential threats to national security at home, but in fact their primary motivation has more to do with advancing a certain romantic utopianism of “perpetual peace” (à la Kant) than with preempting any realistic external threat, as is obvious from noting some of the remote situations into which they want to insert American power.

(2) Those who believe that American society, or perhaps Western civilization more generally, is in a state of moral disarray, and that the surest and most historically tried-and-true method of reinvigorating public spiritedness and social unity is through a shared sense of danger, which may call forth the “put aside our differences” form of camaraderie that (they suppose) will lead to a refreshed sense of community and moral responsibility. These people seek to promote a feeling of now-or-never urgency around every international trouble spot because they believe a society without a sense of existential danger will always devolve toward the amoral atomism of petty self-absorption, and then collapse.

The first group, the romantic utopians, are dangerous because their goal is not freedom, but merely the abstraction of “democratic principles,” and because they are in practice willing to sacrifice real freedom — and endless amounts of national treasure — on a childish fantasy of “everyone just getting along,” as though the very word “democracy” were a magic password that could transform our universe into a fairy land where wishes really could give birth to horses.

The second group, the moral renewal types, have a more philosophically serious attitude, heavily influenced by Nietzsche’s critique of nihilism, and it would be difficult for any serious person, looking at Western society today, to deny that an infantilized form of self-interest and a general loss of any sense of shared meaning has brought modernity to the brink of moral and intellectual collapse. The neo-conservative (largely Straussian) hypothesis, however, that the needed reinvigoration may be realized through initiating a largescale “collective will” project — such as a generational war — is actually monumentally naïve and superficial, precisely in those areas where the group’s critics misperceive their intentions as cynical and conspiratorial. For as long as the social structures and institutions that fostered the spiritual decay remain in place, any momentary urges toward social cohesion under threat will quickly evaporate in a backlash of comfort-craving fatigue — or worse, disintegrate into a factionalized civil war of mutual blame and hatred, such as has been occurring at an accelerating rate in America over the past twenty years, since the neo-cons’ last great effort at national renewal. 

In other words, as long as the goal of renewal is nothing more concrete than “democracy,” while democracy as promoted and generally perceived means nothing in practice but majority rule, and while majority opinion, in turn, is largely a product of mass compulsory schooling (i.e., pro-government indoctrination) and sentimental collectivist propaganda issued continuously by a state-corporate alliance of self-interested materialist power players, any dreams of reviving a coherent and properly liberal sense of national purpose are foolish and doomed to failure. (The intractability of this problem is established by the very fact that the leading neo-conservative voices have turned over their support to the Democrats, as though socialist authoritarianism could somehow be consistent with any notion of democracy worth fighting for.) And you may add to that specific and insurmountable structural problem the general idealist folly of imagining that even the noblest grand designs could ever be infused through a society from above without any unintended consequences. 

All that by way of a preface to this simple question: Have the neo-conservative types currently joining and prodding the American mainstream media in its sudden bugle-blowing for military confrontation with Russia over Ukraine considered the possibility — or rather the obvious and certain truth — that the Biden administration’s approach to this issue is driven by its nose-diving poll numbers, rather than by any moral righteousness about protecting Ukraine? For while the more interesting neo-conservatives, relying on pragmatic distortions of Nietzsche, are living in a dream world with their hopes of saving the American spirit through international strife, the partisan political hacks have always known that war, properly presented, can be the best short-term means to political salvation. 

None of this alters the fact that Vladimir Putin is an ambitious and ruthless dictator, that he fully intends to reinvent the old Soviet block and reestablish Russian dominance over European interests, and that his invasion of Ukraine is not merely “likely,” but in truth has been ongoing since 2014, in spite of Donald Trump’s repeated attempts to whitewash this reality in defense of his thuggish hero. Putin’s threat is real. Ukraine’s loss would be the tip of a very dangerous iceberg. Simply closing one’s eyes to these things is not an option in the long term, whatever emotional succor it might offer in the very short term.

The ugly reality of these conditions, however, is no grounds for allowing either armchair utopians or cynical crisis exploiters to lead the discussion. On the contrary, it is precisely the kind of situation in which one would be best to ignore both of these factions and their respective forms of folly. They are too eager and energized by what they perceive as “opportunities” to be taken seriously when the stakes are so high. And they are too sanguine with the reductionism of an abstract “democracy” that may be filled in with whatever policies and institutions one is able to sell to the public this year, to be trusted with the future of anything, from Ukraine to your piggy bank.

And then there is Biden.– Joe Biden has foiled his neo-conservative supporters today, in the ugliest and most appallingly grotesque manner possible. Specifically, he just completely surrendered to Vladimir Putin in advance, by suggesting that a “minor incursion” into Ukraine would lead to a “lesser response” from the U.S. In other words, “Attack at will, and as long as you don’t go too far, we will keep our response to mere optics, effectively letting you have the territory you want.”

This level of stupidity, one might think, is only possible from Joe Biden — unless, of course, you have a good enough memory to remember the last two U.S. presidents, who committed such atrocities against the concept of liberty on the international stage more or less once a month. On top of everything else, Biden’s suggestion — nay his direct statement — that Putin can have what he wants from Ukraine as long as he keeps the bloodshed to a minimum flat out ignores or overlooks any possibility that the people and government of Ukraine might wish to resist such a “minor incursion,” which would necessarily lead to an escalation. Is Biden prepared to demand that Ukraine stand down in the face of Putin’s aggression, just in order to keep the optics “minor”? Or is he just so hopelessly out of his depth that he merely assumes, without a moment’s consideration, that everyone else on the planet must be as big a coward and backstabbing surrender-flower as he is being right now?

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