In a wild Ohio Senate Republican primary, there appears to be only one issue that separates the two leading contenders. On the one hand, Josh Mandel—the former Ohio State Treasurer is part of what appears to be a bipartisan consensus in favor of deepening the U.S. commitment to supporting Ukraine against the illegal Russian invasion of its territory. Mandel even expressed a willingness to support a no-fly zone over Ukraine if America’s NATO allies committed to the measure. On the other, former venture capitalist and Hillbilly Elegy author J.D. Vance believes that the idea of a no-fly zone is a reckless gesture that could lead to a direct confrontation between the United States and a nuclear power that could lead to World War III.
That’s a substantial difference that should be noted if only because almost all of the commentary about that race concerns the decision of former President Donald Trump to endorse Vance. Today, both men are, like most Republicans, ardent Trump supporters. Mandel, who is now backed by Sen. Ted Cruz (R-Texas) and the conservative advocacy group Club for Growth, was a strong supporter of Trump in 2016 when Vance was trashing him as “reprehensible” and an “idiot.”
Vance got Trump’s nod for a number of reasons and not necessarily because of his stand on Ukraine since some of Trump’s rhetoric on that issue has also been very anti-Russia. But Vance seems to speak for many on the right who are befuddled by the way support for Ukraine is considered by many in both parties as a priority while the flood of illegal immigrants across America’s southern border—one estimate says that the population of illegals has increased by more than a million since President Joe Biden took office—is ignored.
Trump’s endorsement gave Vance an advantage in the polls, and that has led many observers to view the outcome of the primary as a measure of the former president’s influence over GOP voters. But regardless of the outcome, we do better to ponder just how much concern over Ukraine is changing the way we think about American foreign policy and if that shift is for the better.
One person who expressed the hope that this would be the case is John Podhoretz, editor of Commentary magazine. In a recent issue of Commentary, Podhoretz made the argument that the war in Ukraine vindicated neo-conservatism.
The word is now more often used as a term of abuse—Vance believes that labeling Mandel a “neocon” is a telling blow in the aftermath of the failed Iraq and Afghanistan wars. Most of the people who employ it have little understanding of its origin (as a reference to former leftists who were “mugged by reality” and shifted to the right) or the way neoconservative thinkers helped guide the West to victory in the Cold War and to understanding the pitfalls of the liberal welfare state in the late 20th century.
Podhoretz makes the case that what happened in Ukraine was the result of a collapse of American deterrence that was similar to the failures of the Carter administration with respect to Russia and Iran in the 1970s. Liberal realists—like Biden and House Speaker Nancy Pelosi—opposed the tough stance of neocons against the former Soviet Union in that era. But the neocons were vindicated by the Soviet empire’s collapse and by the realization that their policy of responding forcefully to aggression wherever it occurs was wise.
Subsequently, neocons were blamed, somewhat unfairly, for what happened in Iraq and Afghanistan. It’s fair to say that in the last decade, a bipartisan consensus—both the right and the left—began to listen to neo-isolationists, who opposed further foreign adventures, especially those involving the promotion of democracy, regardless of their merits.
One of the most remarkable things about the impact of Russian President Vladimir Putin’s invasion is not so much the general outrage over an indefensible act of aggression. Rather, it is the way politicians and pundits who were once deeply skeptical about the idea of American involvement in foreign conflicts have had a very different reaction to Ukraine. Pelosi is a good example of this, and her proclamation on her recent visit to Kyiv that America “stands with Ukraine until victory is won”—like Biden’s recent demand for regime change in Moscow—aptly illustrated this shift.
Both were deeply skeptical of past American commitments abroad, whether during the Cold War era or in the post-9/11 war on Islamist terror. If this represented a belated awakening on the part of both Biden and Pelosi to the need for American strength abroad as a way to deter rogue nations, then it would be something sensible people should applaud. But both are ardent supporters of appeasement of Iran and less than enthusiastic about confronting the greatest threat to American security and influence in the form of the Chinese Communist regime, not to mention their unwavering faith in multilateralism and the corrupt anti-democratic and anti-Semitic United Nations. So, it’s difficult to make the argument that common sense on foreign policy now prevails in Washington.
There’s also some merit to the argument that treating Russia as if it were the former Soviet Union is foolish and has little to do with protecting American interests. Like its Iranian and Chinese allies, Russia seeks the overturning of the Western values that won the Cold War. That makes them dangerous, but the idea that American security or even that of the NATO alliance relies on the defense of Ukraine’s territorial integrity, regardless of the barbarity of the Russian invasion, seems a stretch.
It’s not just that war “until victory” with greater American involvement via no-fly zones and the shipment of ever more lethal weapons to Ukraine need to be better defined. That’s especially true with respect to the indifference on the part of these doves-turned-Ukraine-hawks to the possibility of an unwanted escalation of the conflict. After all, Moscow is both a nuclear power and still controls a lot of Ukrainian territory, including the Crimea, which it invaded in 2014 when few Americans thought of that tortured country as an ally.
Just as troubling is the way the administration is using its anger at Russia as a way to vindicate international organizations like the U.N. Human Rights Council. No one can explain how kicking Russia off the UNHRC is a victory for the West and its values while tyrannies like China, Cuba and Venezuela still sit on it.
Were the seeming consensus about Ukraine to lead to a genuine wake-up call about the need for a strong defense and not to tolerate, let alone appease, menaces like Iran, then there would be reason to be encouraged. But that hasn’t happened. Aiding Ukraine is a righteous cause provided that it is done in a way that, like Cold War proxy fights, doesn’t involve the possibility of it escalating into a confrontation between nuclear powers. But as a stand-alone measure, it does nothing to make the United States or allies like Israel safer.
Stripped of their specific context, the arguments about neoconservatism or isolationism are meaningless and usually caricatures of what these ideas actually have stood for. Neoconservatism wasn’t about feckless involvement in all wars. It was an understanding that the West needed to be defended against powers or movements, be they Communists or Islamists, who willed their destruction. Supporting the defense of Ukraine doesn’t make one a neocon or someone urging a repeat of the rush to war against Iraq. But neither does questioning whether “victory” for Ukraine is a vital American interest make one an isolationist.
The emotional enthusiasm for Ukraine that currently prevails is not a substitute for a foreign policy that will protect American interests or help defend democracies like Israel. Until the talk of victory is replaced with realistic goals and a path out of this mess that forecloses the possibility of direct conflict with Russia, any idea that common sense is now prevailing in Washington is premature.
Jonathan S. Tobin is editor-in-chief of JNS (Jewish News Syndicate). Follow him on Twitter at: @jonathans_tobin.
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