Insane in the Ukraine

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My heart goes out to the people of the Ukraine. I wish them the best, and I hope they find the peace and freedom they deserve. Unfortunately, as international crises often do, the standoff between Russia and the Ukraine is prompting calls for America to “do something.” What’s more, I have now heard it said that “doing nothing” implies that America is weak. Some politicians are singing that old refrain that this is the 1930s all over again. They are using the term appeasement and invoking the Chicago Cubs of British politicians, Neville Chamberlain.

I am no fan of Russia and its kleptocracy, but I think this is one of those instances where “doing something” is the worst course of action.

For those who fear Putin’s armies on the march, I doubt we will see Russia sweep through Europe. The major lesson that has been learned since WWII is that occupying forces are always defeated, and only after they drain the blood and treasure of the invading country. Putin doesn’t want to conquer Europe. He wants to conquer the energy markets. That’s a much different fight, and it’s really what this crisis is all about. I don’t see the WWII parallels.

Here’s a thought experiment: How would you feel if Russia was pledging to send billions of dollars to a newly-formed anti-American government in Canada or Mexico right now? You wouldn’t like it, right?

The more I think about it, Canada and Mexico aren’t strong enough hypotheticals. Ukraine was part of the Soviet Union. A better analogy: What if in 1989 if the United States broke up, and Texas became its own nation? And what if Russia was now vowing to send billions in aid to the new Texas government, one that strongly opposes the rest of the U.S.? We’d be livid. We’d be calling up troops. We’d be calling for war.

In fact, one of the reasons for our involvement in WWI was German meddling in Mexico, a nation with which we had fought in the past. If there are parallels here, it is to WWI, not WWII, and the parallels aren’t flattering for us.

OK, you say, but shouldn’t America intervene when foreign peoples are threatened? There are many sad instances of nations mistreating and killing their own people and their neighbors, even today. Is their existence an excuse for America to war with each nation? Yes? Then we would be at war perpetually. So what are the standards? Which wars are worth it, especially when we have no strong, narrowly-defined, self-interested reason for our involvement? In such cases the reason tends to be, we’ll wage war when it is politically convenient.

Young blood should not be spilled under flimsy pretexts.

A friend who is an interventionist argues that¬†sometimes the concept of “just war” comes into play – costs be damned – because “the moral impact of inaction on humanity far outweighs the costs.”

To which I say: Should the U.S. have invaded China when Mao killed tens of millions? Should the U.S. have invaded the Soviet Union when Stalin killed tens of millions? Those were mass genocides. The situation in the Ukraine pales in comparison. Allowing millions to die in China and Russia certainly has a higher moral impact. Should we have launched WWIII because of the “moral impact” of our inaction?

Of course not.

So why are we only pacifists in the face of global conflagration?

I wish I knew.

The answer, most likely, does not speak well of human nature or democracy.

I have a hard time imagining a just reason for going to war in a foreign country. It’s not in a nation’s rational self-interest to spend a lot of money to send productive members of ¬†its society off to die. As economist Bryan Caplan has argued, for a war to be morally justified, its long-run benefits (which are always unknown — see WWI) should be substantially larger than its short-run costs (which are almost always horrific). I just don’t trust that we have the leadership — or that the people have enough wisdom — to be able to see when, outside of fighting for a nation’s existence, that trade-off is morally justifiable.

Twitter: @joedonatelli

Note: For a terrific discussion on the shortsightedness of antagonizing Russia, I highly recommend Dan Carlin’s Common Sense podcast episode “Poking the Bear.”

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