Why James Kirchick is wrong about the war in Ukraine

James Kirchick’s essay How the Anti-war Camp Went Intellectually Bankrupt in The Atlantic is a defense of U.S. involvement in the war in Ukraine. The essay consists mostly of name-calling and of ridicule of cherry-picked arguments made by antiwar commentators from the left (e.g., Noam Chomsky), from the right (e.g., Ron Paul), and from what he calls the realist center (e.g., The Quincy Institute of Responsible Statecraft).

Kirchick resorts to name-calling and sarcasm because he fails to address many of the strong arguments made by peace groups calling for a negotiated peace in Ukraine.

In particular, Kirchick doesn’t discuss the ways in which NATO expansion was unnecessarily aggressive and was opposed by many senior U.S. diplomats.

Kirchick also doesn’t acknowledge how U.S. military planners were quite aware that their actions in Ukraine and other Eastern European countries would be perceived by Russia as a direct threat to its security and would provoke a military response from Russia. See, in particular, the 2019 RAND Corporation study Overextending and Unbalancing Russia, which says “Providing lethal aid to Ukraine would exploit Russia’s greatest point of external vulnerability. But any increase in U.S. military arms and advice to Ukraine would need to be carefully calibrated to increase the costs to Russia of sustaining its existing commitment without provoking a much wider conflict in which Russia, by reason of proximity, would have significant advantages.” The highlighted words show that the authors knew that U.S. actions would provoke war.

Would the U.S. allow Russia or China to set up armed client states along its borders? The U.S. doesn’t even allow vaguely socialist countries in South America to be established without sanctioning them or instigating a coup.

Kirchick doesn’t acknowledge U.S. support for the 2014 coup in Ukraine or the presence of neo-Nazi forces in Ukraine (e.g., the Azov Batallion) and their anti-Russian violence.

I present here a point-by-point rebuttal to Kirchick’s arguments.  For a concise summary of U.S. provocations see my Playing Russian Roulette in Ukraine With Rep. Adam Smith in the Seattle Emerald.  For a detailed accounting of U.S. provocations, and documentation about Nazi activities, see How the U.S. Provoked Russia in Ukraine: A Compendium.

In short, the U.S. is far from innocent in Ukraine  — echoing Thomas Friedman’s opinion piece This Is Putin’s War. But America and NATO Aren’t Innocent Bystanders in the NY Times — and, hence, the U.S. needs to show more restraint in a crisis that could lead to nuclear war.

Another reason to end the war is that it is doing substantial damage to the economies of Europe and the U.S.   The sanctions against Russia are failing; Russian oil exports have increased in value since the start of the invasion, and now OPEC has agreed to restrict production, further raising oil prices and risking Democrats’ reelection chances in November.  See Pactrick Cockburn’s How the West’s Sanctions on Russia Boomeranged.

Even Henry Kissinger and former Admiral and Joint Chief of Staff chair Mike Mullen are calling for a negotiated end to the war in Ukraine.

To be clear, I do not claim that U.S. provocations justify Russia’s invasion — which was criminal, brutal, and stupid. But the U.S. bears substantial responsibility and should work hard to de-escalate the crisis. Instead the U.S. is intent on weakening and humiliating Russia, even at the risk of causing a nuclear holocaust.  Both sides are wrong in this crisis.

Kirchick has been called a neoconservative by Ben Norton in Salon, by Jonathan Chait in New York Magazine, by Glenn Greenwald in The Intercept, and, indeed, by himself. So it’s no surprise he would defend this war.

Point-by-point rebuttal

  • Kirchick says the “fascistic Russian regime wages war against Ukraine”. I can agree that Russia is fascist in some ways, but so is Ukraine. See here for documentation in the form of dozens of articles from mainstream news sites describing Nazi extremists in Ukraine.
  • Kirchick says that domestic critics of U.S. involvement in the war in Ukraine “are not pacifists in the strict sense of the term. Few if any oppose the use of force as a matter of principle.” That’s not true. World Beyond War is one of the leading anti-war groups on the left. It and its leader David Swanson condemn all wars.  They condemn both Russia’s invasion and the U.S. arming of Ukraine. Many members of peace groups such as Code Pink and Veterans for Peace are also pacifist in principle, as are most members of Black Life Matters movements.  These groups generally follow the committed pacifism of Gandhi (satyagraha) and Martin Luther King. They call for nonviolent resistance to violent aggression.
  • “It is not sufficient, they say, for the West to cut off its supply of defensive weaponry to Ukraine.” Many of the weapons are far from defensive (e.g., medium range missiles).
  • “It [the U.S.] must also atone for “provoking” Russia to attack its smaller, peaceful, democratic neighbor.” Calling Ukraine “peaceful” ignores the years of military confrontation between Ukraine and Russia, neo-Nazi attacks on Russian-speaking Ukrainians, U.S. aid for the 2014 coup, and years of NATO supplying Ukraine with arms.
  • In several places Kirchick puts “provoking” and “provoke” in scare quotes, but he doesn’t address the ways (see the Compendium) in which the U.S. did in fact provoke the invasion.
  • Kirchick says that “even if the U.S. had made such a promise [to integrate Ukraine and Georgia into NATO], how would that justify the invasion and occupation of Ukraine?”. Would the U.S. allow Russia or China to set up armed client states along its borders with Mexico or Canada, or in Cuba?  The U.S. doesn’t even allow a vaguely socialist government to form in South America without the C.I.A. instigating a coup.
  • Kirchick ridicules Russia’s “legitimate security interests.” Every country has legitimate security interests, and Russian leaders have clearly described their interests, for decades, to deaf ears. Again, Kirchick doesn’t address them.
  • Kirchick describes The GrayZone as “campist, denoting a segment of the sectarian far left that sees the world as divided into two camps: the imperialist West and the anti-imperialist rest…. and America is always to blame.” Later he writes “The fringe left … blames America for everything” (my emphasis).  Most antiwar groups in the U.S. are quite aware that nations such as Iran, Iraq, Afghanistan, Russia, and China also have bad actors and have done evil things.  The U.S. isn’t the sole perpetrator of evil in the world.  The problem is that the U.S. tends to demonize adversaries and to provoke them.  I am reminded of an arsonist firefighter and a self-licking ice cream cone.  The U.S. military behemoth creates its own enemies to justify its own existence. It intervenes in ways that do more harm than good, as well as causing terrible blowback. Consider Iran, Vietnam, Afghanistan (twice), Iraq, Syria, Libya, Latin America (refugees), and now Ukraine (e.g., inflation, possible starvation, possible nuclear war).   The point isn’t that America is always to blame. The point is that America should more often mind its own business, stop searching overseas for demons to slay, stop provoking wars, and stop trying to be world policeman.In fact, saying that the U.S. is playing the role of policeman whitewashes U.S. intentions.  U.S. foreign policy is trying to maintain unipolar dominance everywhere on earth.  The U.S. has about 800 military bases in about 70 countries. According to Brown University’s Costs of War Project, U.S. wars since 9/11 have killed over 900,000 people and cost $8 trillion.   The U.S. should start cleaning up its own act at home and to engage in the world in constructive ways through diplomacy.
  • Kirchick criticizes Ron Paul, Noam Chomsky, Doug Bandow and others for using the phrase “fight to the the last Ukrainian.”  In response to Ron Paul’s essay “Is Washington Fighting Russia Down to the Last Ukrainian?” Kirchchick says

    It was a strange question for Paul to be posing just three weeks into President Vladimir Putin’s unjustifiable and unforgivable invasion, especially considering the extraordinary lengths to which the Biden administration had gone to avoid “fighting Russia.”

    That fails to see the point of “down to the last Ukrainian, ” which is that it’s Ukrainians, not American soldiers, who are bearing the brunt of damage from this war.

    Kirchick also says that the phrase denies Ukraine any agency.  Not so. It just makes clear how the U.S. is using Ukraine as a pawn in the strategic chess game with Russia.  It’s the definition of a proxy war.

    Finally, Kirchick points out that Putin repeated the phrase “down to the last Ukrainian” — as if the fact that Putin says something is proof that it’s wrong.

  • Kirchick resorts to a lot of name-calling: “objectively pro-fascist”, “campist”, “a fringe leftist”, “fringe left”, “anti-woke Maxists and Catholic theocrats”, “moral bankruptcy”, “unmoored from reality”, and “moral myopia”.  The reason for the name-calling is that he doesn’t address the real issues.
  • Kirchick criticizes The Quincy Institute for Responsible Statecraft for its policy of restraint. He says restraint is inappropriate when “a rapacious, revisionist dictatorship wages total war on its smaller, democratic neighbor.” But characterizing Russia’s invasion as rapacious both ignores U.S. provocations and fails to justify U.S. involvement. Who appointed the U.S. to be judge, jury, and enforcer throughout the world?  Hasn’t the U.S. done enough damage in the disastrous wars since WWII?  And in fact, Russia’s invasion was not “total war.” Western military analysts were surprised at the restraint shown by Russia. (But just recently, Russia has escalated its attacks on Ukrainian infrastructure, in response to the bombings of the Crimean bridge and the Nord Stream II pipeline.)
  • “Condemning the U.S. and its allies for the unfolding tragedy in Ukraine requires one to ignore or downplay a great deal of Russian misbehavior.” Not at all! Can’t both sides be wrong? One can condemn both sides, and I do.
  • Kirchick criticizes John Mersheimer for writing in 2014

    Russian President Vladimir Putin, the argument goes, annexed Crimea out of a long-standing desire to resuscitate the Soviet Empire, and he may eventually go after the rest of Ukraine as well as other countries in Eastern Europe.

    Kirchick said Mersheimer was wrong, because Putin did later invade Ukraine. But Kirchick’s interpretation is wrong if the U.S.provoked that invasion, with help from far-right Ukrainian forces, and if Russia was defending its legitimate sphere of influence. NATO has been arming Ukraine and has promised to take back Crimea (see the video referenced in the next paragraph). Furthermore, since 2014, when Mersheimer wrote those words, the situation has changed. Ukraine, with NATO aid, escalated attacks in Eastern Ukraine to push out Russia from Crimea. There were also brutal attacks on ethnic Russian Ukrainians outside of Crimea. In fact, Crimeans reported that rising neo-Nazi violence there pushed them to vote in 2014 to become aligned with Russia.

    See the YouTube video of John McCain, Lindsey Graham and Amy Klobuchar in Ukraine (December, 2016) . Surrounded by Ukrainian soldiers in U.S.-style Army fatigues, and with Senator Amy Klobuchar watching, Senators Lindsey Graham and John McCain promise to help Ukraine stop Putin.

  • Kirchick criticizes Mersheimer for saying that Russia’s invasion was not imperialistic. “All of this linguistic legerdemain would surely come as news to the Czechs, Poles, Slovaks, and other peoples of the region who once suffered under the Russian imperial yoke.”  Basically, Kirchick’s argument is that because the Soviet Union was imperialistic after the Second World War, that shows that Russia is imperialistic in Ukraine.  But that’s a weak argument, because it ignores Russia’s legitimate desire to not have hostile military bases,  missiles and client states along its borders.  Russia is especially sensitive to military adversaries on its western border, because as many as 27 million Russians were killed by Nazi Germany in World War II. It is true that the U.S.S.R oppressed Eastern Europe, just as.the U.S. invaded and overthrew governments all over the world during the Cold War, often supporting brutal regimes.  Russia is no longer a superpower and no longer in a position to invade and occupy Eastern Europe. It can barely hold onto territory in Ukraine. Since February, the U.S. has sent Ukraine about as much money as Russia spends on its military in a year.
  • Kirchick criticizes John Mersheimer for pointing out that the U.S. has been involved in at least 15 “overseas wars of choice” since 1980 (including Afghanistan, Iraq, Libya, Panama, Serbia, Syria, and Yemen), but Russia was involved in only one war (Syria) “beyond the former Soviet Union.”  Kirchick denies that the wars in “Georgia in 2008 and Ukraine in 2014 were permissible through some sort of Cold War–continuity droit de seigneur.” But Kirchick is ignoring the phrase “beyond the former Soviet Union.” Georgia and Ukraine were part of the former Soviet Union, and Russia has close historical or ethnic ties with both countries. While this doesn’t justify Russia’s invasion — it is a mitigating circumstance and calls into question U.S. eagerness to draw those countries into NATO and to arm Ukraine. Kirchick points out that had Mersheimer gone back to 1979, he would have had to include Russia’s war in Afghanistan. But the U.S. helped provoke that war, to weaken Russia, just as it provoked the war in Ukraine.
  • Kirchick says Ukraine had “no need of any American to prod or gull them into defending their homeland.” That’s absurd, since NATO has been arming and aiding Ukraine for many years and Ukraine wouldn’t have been able to defend itself without the billions of dollars in NATO aid since February.

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