Published March 20, 2023
Neoconservatives have launched another ill-considered assault, this time against Ron DeSantis. The popular Florida governor (and presumptive GOP presidential contender) issued a statement on the war in Ukraine asserting that Ukraine is not central to American interests, and we should not endlessly fund the Ukrainians.
This sensible view echoes an older, more restrained Republican foreign policy, which is why the neocons then went after him with (rhetorical) guns blazing. Voters should consider this a point in his favor. Indeed, it is difficult for me to think of a better endorsement for DeSantis’ nascent foreign policy than being denounced by the people I most regret having heeded in my younger years.
A partial roll call includes John Bolton, who tweeted he was “disappointed” and that DeSantis was “badly wrong.” Bill Kristol, who ran the Weekly Standard into the ground, imperiously demanded that the editors of still-publishing conservative media outlets “not only come out strongly against DeSantis on Ukraine, but also discuss whether being on the wrong side of the defining foreign policy issue of our time isn’t disqualifying for the presidency.”
David French, who has sold out his conservative Christian principles all the way to a New York Times gig, declared DeSantis is projecting “moral confusion and profound timidity” and that a DeSantis victory would mean that “the Reagan Republican Party is truly lost, its moral clarity is gone.” National Review’s Jay Nordlinger proclaimed, “Ukraine is the frontline of a broader contest between freedom and tyranny. If Putin were allowed to eat Ukraine, he would not be sated. He would go on to his next meal. Aggression, if it goes unchecked, will aggress on. Once more, a dictator is redrawing the borders of Europe by force. We have seen this before.”
Well, we’ve certainly heard this song before, back when they played on our patriotism, anger, virtue, and ignorance to goad us into trying to make the Middle East safe for democracy. The tune has lost its luster since then.
Twenty years after invading Iraq, these voices are showing they have learned nothing from their mistakes. They are still sounding the same notes. But Republican voters are no longer so charmed by their song of moralistic interventionism—although the neocons have found an audience with Democrats, who are increasingly enthusiastic about American intervention overseas (much of the Left didn’t hate war, they just hated Bush).
Despite the many foreign policy debacles of the past two decades, neocons have barely even updated their rhetoric, let alone their thinking. They presume to have moral clarity, but good intentions aren’t nearly enough in foreign policy.
After all, we had plenty of moral clarity regarding Iraq, which was ruled by a tyrant with whom we were still in a low-level conflict. But the people who insisted they had a plan for after he was gone were actually clueless. Kicking out the dictator wasn’t enough for good to triumph.
After Iraq, Afghanistan, Libya, Syria, and so on, the neocons’ clarity seems less than moral and their intentions less than good. Genuine moral clarity must be thoroughly realistic, not arrogantly self-righteous.
With regard to Ukraine, yes, Russia is the aggressor and has committed horrific war crimes. In a just world, Putin would hang from a gibbet. But we do not live in a just world, and the use of force to try to deliver justice requires prudence to avoid making matters worse. The price of delivering justice in this life to Saddam was too high, and the cost of bringing Putin to justice would be much worse.
Furthermore, many of the neoconservative claims are ridiculous. For example, Putin is not going to roll through Europe if he isn’t stopped in Eastern Ukraine. This war has shown the Russian army would be no match for the North Atlantic Treaty Organization in a conventional conflict. That is why many European nations see this as an opportunity to further freeride on the U.S. military, rather than a warning to improve their own forces. The European Union’s enthusiasm for more military spending has faded quickly.
The U.S. interests in this war are limited, and they are primarily about hurting Russia (and perhaps prodding our ersatz allies to pull their own weight in NATO). The grandiose stakes dead-end neoconservatives posit are imaginary.
We cannot bring Putin to justice without risking global thermonuclear war, and we don’t need to stop the Russians in the Donbas to keep from fighting them in the suburbs of Paris, or even of Warsaw. There is no risk of a larger catastrophe unless we foolishly provoke it through mindless, moralistic escalation.
There is plenty of space for reasonable debate over how much to aid the Ukrainians, how much it is in our interest to bleed Russia of men and resources, and what costs and risks we are willing to run to achieve those ends. DeSantis did not foreclose that debate, nor declare that we should cut Ukraine off entirely.
But there will inevitably be a limit to how much we will do to help Ukraine, and Putin may be willing to outbid us in blood and treasure, given the enormous asymmetry of interest in this conflict. Russia will always care more about Ukraine than the United States will. Furthermore, China, our primary geopolitical rival, is aiding Russia, hoping it can drain us of resources and keep American focus on Europe.
It is therefore in our interest to work for a negotiated settlement, rather than prolonging the war. Indeed, after the failure of Russia’s initial campaign, it was inevitable that this war would end around a conference table.
Democracy is not at stake. The future of Europe is not at stake. The international order is not at stake. The question at issue is how much land Russia will get to keep. That is what people are dying for as each side tries to improve its negotiating position. As much as we may sympathize with Ukraine, there is not a vital American interest or principle here.
DeSantis, to his credit, appears to understand this. His most vociferous critics do not, as they are high on their own self-righteousness. Fortunately, even if they have learned nothing from their failures, the rest of us have.
Nathanael Blake, Ph.D. is a Postdoctoral Fellow at the Ethics and Public Policy Center. His primary research interests are American political theory, Christian political thought, and the intersection of natural law and philosophical hermeneutics. His published scholarship has included work on Jean-Jacques Rousseau, Hans-Georg Gadamer, Alasdair MacIntyre, Russell Kirk and J.R.R. Tolkien. He is currently working on a study of Kierkegaard and labor. As a cultural observer and commentator, he is also fascinated at how our secularizing culture develops substitutes for the loss of religious symbols, meaning and order.