The Washington PostDemocracy Dies in Darkness

Opinion Ignore the hawks, Mr. President. You’re right on Ukraine.

A satellite image shows battle group deployments at the Pogonovo training area in Voronezh, Russia, on Jan. 16. (Maxar Technologies/AP) (AP)

Sohrab Ahmari is a contributing editor of the American Conservative and a visiting fellow at Franciscan University.

America can’t, and mustn’t, go to war with Russia over Ukraine. President Biden stated this inescapable truth at his Wednesday news conference — and sent foreign policy hawks into a sputtering rage. Their reaction says more about the hawks’ mindless rigidity than it does about Biden’s oft-questioned mental acuity.

The president was admittedly ineloquent — but he managed to ramble his way to a refreshing realism. He made clear that the U.S. response should be proportional to the magnitude of Moscow’s aggression; that we can’t guard Europe’s frontiers if the major European powers themselves are divided; and that the Kremlin has strongly held concerns about Ukraine joining NATO.

The reactions are revealing. Left and right agree on very little these days, but they share a sense that something has gone profoundly wrong with America — internally. The two camps disagree over the diagnosis, whether it’s structural racism or elite liberalism that’s to blame, but the symptoms are apparent to both: our decrepit infrastructure, the loneliness that haunted young Americans long before social distancing, widespread job and health precarity, addiction and homelessness. And this isn’t even to mention our cultural incohesion, our inability to agree on the most basic facts about our history and identity. Yet the hawks’ always-escalate reflex continues to distort national priorities.

The work-from-home MacArthurs blew a predictable gasket. “Much of that performance was profoundly disturbing,” tweeted National Review’s Rich Lowry, “especially on Russia.” Sen. Ted Cruz (R-Tex.) said the president had “shocked the world by giving Putin a green light to invade Ukraine.” The Wall Street Journal editorial page, where I used to work, linked the West’s failure to deter Vladimir Putin to Biden’s earlier decision to abandon the Afghanistan war after two fruitless decades. Meanwhile, Biden’s usual defenders railed at him for inadvertently revealing fundamental truths they would prefer to remain obscure.

The outrage over Biden’s indiscretions — including in Kyiv and other European capitals — prompted the White House to issue a statement vowing a “swift, severe and united response” in case of a “renewed invasion.” It’s too bad. Biden’s posture was perfectly sensible, given the political mood in Europe and especially its pivotal power, Germany. It also reflected a deeper wisdom, in continuity with his two immediate predecessors, that U.S. power is overstretched, exhausted and battered by domestic polarization and decay.

The hawks are in essence asking Team Biden to be more zealous for European security than are Europeans themselves. The fact is that a majority of Europeans are ambivalent, at best, when it comes to America, NATO and the Russian threat.

A 2020 Pew Research Center survey of populations in 16 key NATO states found that a majority opposes using force to defend a fellow member state in a conflict with Russia. In France, 53 percent oppose fulfilling the Western Alliance’s Article 5 obligations under such a scenario, compared with 41 percent who’d back military action. More startling still, 60 percent of Germans oppose using force to defend a fellow member state.

Ukraine, of course, isn’t even a NATO member. Its territorial claims inspire even less resolve in Europe’s core. Biden’s statements triggered much grumbling across the Atlantic. But Western Europe’s sentiments about Ukraine’s inviolable territorial integrity are just that: misty sentiments.

This is a bitter reality. But it’s a reality reflected in Western Europe’s response to the Ukrainian question going back to Russia’s 2014 annexation of Crimea and stealth invasion of the eastern Donbas region. At various points since, Paris and Berlin resisted economic sanctions against Moscow, on occasion even calling for existing sanctions to be lifted.

Meanwhile, Germany has remained determined to push ahead with Nord Stream 2, a natural gas pipeline running from Russia to Germany under the Baltic Sea — thus bypassing Ukraine and Poland and tightening Moscow’s energy stranglehold on the continent. Successive U.S. administrations of both parties begged for a rethink, to no avail, until Biden dropped the issue last year. Lately, Berlin has signaled it might abandon the project if Russia invades Ukraine — maybe.

So is it really that crazy for Biden — and the American people — to groan at a supposed duty to police Europe’s borders when Europeans have been this indifferent, this long? No, it’s the height of sanity, actually.

What, exactly, does our deeply divided America stand for abroad? Will a potentially catastrophic confrontation with nuclear-armed Russia over Europe’s miserable peripheries — or with nuclear China over the island of Taiwan — address any of our deeper internal crises?

By saying no to the hawks, Biden gave the right answers to these questions. The United States has treaty commitments that it must honor, to be sure. But we can’t create flash points wherever revanchist powers such as Russia, China and Iran seek to reassert claims within their historic civilizational spheres. There has to be at least some attempt at prioritization.

For two decades, America neglected the internal foundations of its power while pursuing stupid and costly regime-change wars in the Middle East and North Africa. Our domestic hearth crumbled. The hawks have much to answer for and no standing to complain about the consequences of their policies.