As a long-time critic of American military interventionism, I've been dismayed by the lack of moral clarity expressed by some libertarians and conservatives regarding Russia's inexcusable attack on Ukraine. There's a difference between opposing, say, direct American military interference with a nuclear-armed Russia and excusing its autocratic leader, Vladimir Putin.
Sadly, many of these folks haven't just gotten close to the latter. They've gone over the line. It's one thing to argue that perhaps the United States shouldn't have pushed the North Atlantic Treaty Organization (NATO) to Russia's borders and another to sound like those old Soviet commentators spewing unsophisticated agitprop.
For instance, former Reagan administration official Paul Craig Roberts made this argument in the, er, libertarian "anti-war" LewRockwell.com: "(T)he chance of a wider war would be far less if the Kremlin had committed all of the invasion forces and used whatever conventional weapons necessary regardless of civilian casualties to quickly end the war, while refusing to be delayed and distracted by negotiations and Western bleating."
Using "whatever conventional weapons necessary" doesn't sound like an anti-war idea, nor does the invasion fit Roberts' description of a Russian "demilitarization" of Ukraine. That description is so absurd it reminds me of the cheesiest efforts of Saddam Hussein's propagandist, Baghdad Bob, who always claimed that Iraqi was rousting American armed forces. I'm more concerned about war crimes than Western bleating, but what do I know?
Former GOP presidential candidate Pat Buchanan even called Putin "a Russian nationalist, patriot, traditionalist and a cold and ruthless realist looking out to preserve Russia as the great and respected power it once was and he believes it can be again." That's high praise from the nationalist, traditionalist Buchanan. His columns have blamed the Russian invasion on the United States, and excused Putin's seizing of Crimea: "Teddy Roosevelt stole Panama with similar remorse."
It's far too easy to find glowing descriptions of Putin on the nationalist right, and not just from Donald Trump. "Remember that Zelensky is a thug," Rep. Madison Cawthorn (R–N.C.) said recently. "Remember that the Ukrainian government is incredibly corrupt and is incredibly evil and has been pushing woke ideologies."
It's actually not that hard to understand this fascination with Putin and similarly minded autocratic leaders such as Hungary's Viktor Orban. "See, this is the thing," wrote American Conservative pundit Rod Dreher last year (who has made a pilgrimage to Hungary). "Putin, Orban, and all the illiberal leaders…are all completely clear and completely correct on the society-destroying nature of wokeness and postliberal leftism." Well, the Italians were right about trains, but you know how that went.
Dreher has criticized the Russian invasion, but like other populist conservatives he doesn't spend much time examining allegations that Putin's government murders journalists, poisons political foes, and imprisons people who participate in peaceful protests. These far-right conservatives like that he's a nationalist, so-called patriot tough guy who doesn't put up with open immigration, "fake" media criticism, or anything, well, gay-related.
Many conservatives seem willing to toss aside our nation's constitutional protections and market economy in favor of post-liberal autocrats because they're frustrated by our nation's cultural tilt. Prominent conservative writer Sohrab Amari famously tweeted that he's "at peace with a Chinese-led 21st century," because "(l)ate-liberal America is too dumb and decadent to last as a superpower."
Liberal democracy is perhaps too messy for them. But what explains the views of many libertarians?
"(L)obbyists for the military-industrial-complex are already 'explaining' to a very receptive Capitol Hill audience why the Ukraine crisis justifies increasing the military budget to 'counter the threats' from Russia, China, and whoever else can serve as a convenient boogeyman," wrote former congressman and libertarian icon Ron Paul, in a column remarkable for its level of free association.
Paul labeled Putin the "new coronavirus," and seemed more worried that Big Tech companies were censoring people who "question the U.S. government's claims regarding the Ukraine crisis" than he was about the Russian military's attack on hospitals and apartments. Such thinking is harder to unpack, but I believe it stems from the habit of perpetual outrage at our own government's abuses.
There are plenty of zany right-leaning hot takes that take an even more unusual view, such as this idea from a "Forbidden Knowledge TV" column: "Vladimir Putin is good friends with Henry Kissinger, the ultimate New World Order Deep State toady here, in the United States; the Rockefeller poodle who made his living serving as a shill for the New World Order." Yes, that explains everything.
The Ukrainian situation is not a moral conundrum. It's wrong for Russia to invade a neighboring country. The United States should avoid direct conflict but help Ukraine defend itself. Despite their flaws, democracies are better than tyrannies. The U.S. government does many awful things, but it isn't actually to blame for everything. I remember when conservatives and libertarians used to understand those points.
This column was first published in The Orange County Register.