The Disturbing Groupthink Over the War in Ukraine

At this dangerous moment, with threats of nuclear conflict looming, we need a vigorous debate about U.S. policy toward Russia and Ukraine.

President Joe Biden walks with Ukrainian President Volodymyr Zelenskyy, in Kyiv, Feb. 20, 2023.
President Joe Biden walks with Ukrainian President Volodymyr Zelenskyy, in Kyiv, on Feb. 20, 2023. Photo: Evan Vucci/AP

There is a disturbing aspect to the discourse in Washington, D.C., and European capitals surrounding the war in Ukraine that seeks to quash any dissent from the official narrative surrounding NATO’s military support for Ukraine. As the world was thrust into Cold War 2.0, the Western commentariat dusted off the wide brush wielded for decades by the cold warriors of old, labeling critics of the policy of massive weapons transfers to Ukraine or unquestioning support for the government of President Volodymyr Zelenskyy as Russian stooges or puppets. This is a dangerous trend that encourages groupthink over a potentially nuclear conflict.

Citizens have every right to question the role of their governments, particularly in times of war. Some of the dynamics around policing criticism of Zelenskyy or the Ukrainian government or the U.S. support for it are reminiscent of the efforts to stifle criticism of Israel through charges of antisemitism. Not only is this an intellectually bankrupt line of attack, but it also runs contrary to the vital principle of free debate in democratic societies. It also seeks to relegate to a dungeon of insignificance the vast U.S. record of foreign policy, military, and intelligence catastrophes as well as its abuses and crimes by pretending that only lackeys for Moscow would dare question our role in a foreign conflict on the other side of the globe.

Russia is fighting not just Ukraine, but also NATO infrastructure.

Russia is hardly a victim here. Vladimir Putin seems comfortable abetting a new cold war, and his unjustified attack against Ukraine has offered the U.S. and NATO a golden ticket to ratchet up militarism, European defense spending, and weapons production. At the same time, it is true, as Moscow alleges, that Russia is fighting not just Ukraine, but also NATO infrastructure. It is also true that prominent sectors of the U.S. security state want this war primarily to bleed Russia, and last year the White House had to walk back President Joe Biden’s off-the-cuff remark about Putin: “For God’s sake, this man cannot remain in power.” The whole enterprise is an incredible boondoggle for the war industry, which now gets no-bid contracts baked in to build the defense “industrial base.”

The idea that Putin could not have foreseen the likelihood of NATO coming to Ukraine’s defense — particularly with Biden, not Donald Trump, in the White House— is ludicrous. For years, through his actions and words, Putin has made clear that he has no respect for Ukraine as a sovereign nation, a sentiment that has only become more entrenched over the past year. The U.S. and its NATO allies, for their part, poked at Putin in an effort to back him into a corner he ultimately decided he would not accept. Still, he alone chose the path of invading a neighboring country, and for that, Putin should answer. At the same time, discussing the role of Western powers in bringing the world to this point should not be taboo, nor should it be used as a prompt to smear those raising relevant issues as doing Moscow’s bidding.


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Against the backdrop of the Ukraine war, the U.S. has steadily intensified its preparations for a potential war with China. Biden recently declared, “I absolutely believe there need not be a new Cold War” with China, yet the U.S. posture has for years indicated the exact opposite. Japan recently announced that it is looking to purchase from the U.S. as many as 500 of the newest Tomahawk cruise missiles. The long-range weapons have, to date, only been available to the U.S. and Britain, but Japan, at the urging of Washington, has been deliberately increasing its defense spending and military capacity. Defense Secretary Lloyd Austin praised Tokyo’s move toward the NATO goal of its members spending 2 percent of their GDP on military, saying it underscored “Japan’s staunch commitment to upholding the international rules-based order and a free and open Indo-Pacific.”

Meanwhile, the extremist right-wing government of Israel is on the war path against Iran and may well be actively planning for a military attack in the future. It also seems to be simply a matter of time before Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu launches yet another full-scale military onslaught against the Palestinians. Throughout the world, the U.S. and its allies are engaged in a gaslighting campaign of doublespeak as they engage in the very actions they claim their adversaries are plotting. In the National Security Strategy report released in October, the Biden administration declared that “the post-Cold War era is definitively over and a competition is underway between the major powers to shape what comes next.” It stated bluntly that the U.S. “military’s role is to maintain and gain warfighting advantages while limiting those of our competitors.”

We are in the midst of a perilous moment in world history, one that demands a robust debate about the motives and actions of powerful nation states. There should be more debate, not less. Groupthink does a disservice to a democratic society, particularly when the world is closer to the threat of nuclear war than at any time in recent history.

Members of the U.S. Army take part in the NATO military exercise 'Iron Wolf 2022-II' at a training range in Pabrade, north of the capital Vilnius, Lithuania, Oct. 26, 2022.

Members of the U.S. Army take part in the NATO military exercise “Iron Wolf 2022-II” at a training range in Pabrade, north of Vilnius, Lithuania, on Oct. 26, 2022.

Photo: Mindaugas Kulbis/AP

Brutal Anniversaries

Russia’s brutal invasion of Ukraine passed the one-year mark in late February and came just a month before the 20th anniversary of the U.S. invasion of Iraq, a war based on lies and waged with a gratuitous and sustained brutality. Biden not only supported that war, but as chair of the Senate Foreign Relations Committee in the lead up to “shock and awe,” he also helped facilitate it. The neocons and cruise-missile liberals who got it wrong on Iraq should employ a bit more humility in being so certain their analysis of global affairs is sounder than that of critics who have consistently gotten it right about American wars when it mattered — before they started.

One of the most striking aspects about the past year is how little debate we’ve seen over U.S. and NATO policy.

None of this is to say that there is only one right position on Ukraine. Nor does it mean that there are not some deranged people who are actively cheering on Putin as he wages an illegitimate and heinous war. But one of the most striking aspects about the past year is how little debate we’ve seen over U.S. and NATO policy. The role of Western powers in the war in Ukraine will have far-reaching consequences for global security and relations among nations. It will impact the stability of the U.S. economy and is setting precedents that will have repercussions, including on matters of international law. It also will legitimize a new set of norms permitting proxy warfare and will encourage malign actors to use the “Ukraine principle” to their advantage.

It is unfortunate that the most prominent political critique of U.S. policy in Ukraine from official quarters emanates from a handful of congressional Republicans whose dominant rationale for their position is a rancid potpourri of “America First” principles and warped Trumpist ideology. At its best, some Republican opposition is rooted in a libertarian anti-interventionism. Overwhelmingly, U.S. liberals, neoconservatives, and old-school Republicans have fallen into line with the Biden administration policy. Even the mildest effort at dissent in Congress has been ridiculed and calls for a negotiated end to the war retracted.

Standing alongside Zelenskyy on his recent trip to Kyiv, Biden celebrated the massive scope of military support from the U.S. and its NATO allies, declaring “that’s how long we’re going to be with you, Mr. President: for as long as it takes.” Biden announced new rounds of support to Kyiv on top of the more than $30 billion given to date in weapons and other military aid. After a series of “war games” with Ukrainian military officials this week at a U.S. base in Germany, NATO’s supreme allied commander for Europe, Gen. Christopher Cavoli, said the U.S. and NATO “can keep going as long as necessary.” Such open-ended commitments from U.S. officials are bolstered by a recent shift in U.S. defense spending and procurement authorities reminiscent of the Cold War. 

During her trip to Ukraine soon after Biden’s, Treasury Secretary Janet Yellen asserted that U.S. support for Ukraine “is motivated, first and foremost, by a moral duty to come to the aid of a people under attack.” American officials should not be able to utter such phrases without answering for why this supposed moral duty does not apply to the Palestinians or why this moral duty somehow disappears when the U.S. wages offensive wars or supports its allies in their own campaigns of mass slaughter.

The argument over whether the U.S. and NATO should be giving military aid is a trap because it’s presented as a binary choice.

Let there be no doubt: Putin should immediately stop this insanity in Ukraine. This is a gruesome and murderous campaign he’s engaged in, and the death toll is shocking. The Biden administration should do what we are constantly told is untenable, unrealistic, or characterized as appeasement: make a negotiated end to the war the top priority. China has recently indicated a greater willingness to play a direct role. This is an opportunity for a major reset among nations. But that won’t happen because we lack leaders in the U.S. who have such bold vision, leaders willing to shift from the dominant imperial posture. So we are stuck with the current prospect of countless more Ukrainian civilians dying. In the face of that, how does one tell the Ukrainians not to fight? How does one say, “No, we won’t give you weapons, but we also are against what the aggressor is doing”? It’s a reasonable position for people watching this bloodbath to want to do everything possible to help Ukrainians defend themselves, and supporting weapons transfers to Ukraine does not make you a pawn of the U.S. imperial state. But the argument over whether the U.S. and NATO should be giving military aid is a trap because it’s presented as a binary choice. What has our government done to seek alternative paths? Has it exhausted all diplomatic efforts?

Many of the supporters of NATO policy in Ukraine act as if Zelenskyy’s wishes and requests should govern the decisions of the U.S. and European nations. This is dangerous. At times, Biden has rightly pumped the brakes on sending sophisticated or high-powered weapons systems, only to later relent under pressure. Momentum is now building in Congress and among some influential liberal media voices to push Biden to authorize the transfer of F-16 fighter jets. A similar campaign has been waged to give Ukraine top-tier U.S. weaponized drones. The consequences of these decisions will impact the whole world, and people not only have a right to debate the policy, but they are also right to do so.

Questioning the current U.S. policy is not appeasement or Russian puppetry, particularly because the false choice — let Putin conquer Ukraine completely, or flood Ukraine with Western weapons — is so insidiously and dishonestly pushed by the elite power structure in Washington D.C. and Europe. The fact is that prominent U.S. officials and pundits have stated from the very early stages of this war that Ukraine is a convenient battleground to debilitate Russia and hopefully end Putin’s reign, which is very different from a “moral” duty to protect the defenseless.

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