Liberal hawks are flying high once more, talons extended for the hunt. For weeks now, Javelins, NLAWs, and other “defensive” arms have been flooding Ukraine, courtesy not just of the Pentagon, but good liberals and social democrats in Brussels, Berlin, Paris, Stockholm, Lisbon, Madrid, and elsewhere. Hawks dominate TV news and major editorial pages on both sides of the Atlantic, and their propaganda multiplies online, aided by friends in Silicon Valley.
A NATO no-fly zone over Ukraine would lead to a direct and possibly apocalyptic confrontation with nuclear Russia. Nonetheless, some hawks continue to press for it. When even The Guardian publishes claims that a NFZ “shouldn’t be off the table,” it becomes clear that a deep consensus is in formation. Judging by some polls, broad majorities in the West favor a perilously escalatory response to Vladimir Putin’s misbegotten invasion.
At home, war fever manifests in sordid expressions of Russophobia: attacks against Russian businesses, the effective “cancellation” of Russia’s literary and philosophical masters, the firing of Russian artists from Western orchestras and operas. Anyone who dares question the prudence of escalation, or the wisdom and justice of US and NATO policy toward Moscow, faces the usual censure and censorship so characteristic of the “open society.”
In short: It feels like 2002-2003 all over again.
That was when Western opinion, with precious few exceptions, cheered Washington as it bombarded Afghanistan and Iraq with democracy. The project’s failure was already apparent toward the end of George W. Bush’s first term, as the Iraqi insurgency hardened and “Fallujah” became synonymous with the grinding brutality of America’s post-9/11 wars. Yet it would take much longer for members of the interventionist uniparty to accept this reality; some never did.
The consequences of those years are familiar enough: hundreds of thousands of dead Iraqis and Afghans and thousands of allied service members killed; ethnic and sectarian wars; statelessness and terror; mass dislocation and migration; warlordism and bacha bazi and a booming opium trade. The dénouement came just a few months ago, when the Taliban dealt a humiliating blow to the liberal imperium, punctuating these two decades of disastrous adventurism. President Biden ignored the hawks’ spluttering—and pulled the plug on the “good war.”
Yet it is springtime again for the “democracy” export industry: for their governmental operatives (Undersecretary of State Victoria Nuland, ex-Ambassador to Moscow Michael McFaul), institutions (National Endowment for Democracy, Freedom House), and pet theorists (Bernard-Henri Lévy, Robert Kagan, Francis Fukuyama, Larry Diamond). As for media organs, the hawks’ takeover of mainstream, left-of-center outlets is so thorough as to render the old neoconservative bastions almost superfluous.
How did they pull off this astonishing comeback? One reason is that few of the politicians and pundits who promoted the regime-change wars paid a serious price. Fukuyama published a book-length reassessment in 2007. But penitent hawks were the exception, unreconstructed ones the norm. Even Fukuyama has now re-emerged as something of a hard-line liberal enforcer, overseeing a blog dedicated to fending off challenges to Democracy, Inc.
More typical is Nuland, whose résumé is proof that the existence of the American uniparty is no conspiracy theory—but a plain fact. Launching her career in the Clinton administration, she went on to advise Dick Cheney during the early Iraq War before being dispatched to Brussels as NATO ambassador in the second Bush term, followed by stints as State Department spokeswoman and assistant secretary of state under Obama. Now she is Biden’s pointwoman on Ukraine. In the in-between years—notice which administration she didn’t work for?—Nuland retreated to a think-tank redoubt, at Brookings, where her husband, Robert Kagan, the uber-hawk historian and adviser to the 2012 Mitt Romney campaign, is also a fellow.
Partisan differences mean nothing in these circles. What matters is commitment to Democracy, Inc.
To see such figures racking up sinecures and esteem, you wouldn’t know that they presided over an epochal fiasco, a supermassive black hole of imperial hubris and nitwitted idealism that swallowed entire nations, while weakening the United States. If some other state acted as Washington and its allies did under the hawks’ leadership—violating sovereignty willy-nilly, sowing chaos and civil war—the hawks would label that state “rogue” and seek regime change.
If the liberal West were an effective empire—or America a robust democratic republic—people like Nuland wouldn’t go from strength to strength. Yet they do. Following her role in the Benghazi debacle, which earned a gentle senatorial knuckle-rapping, Nuland in 2013 went down to Maidan Square to personally supervise the velvet revolution. The Ukrainians were promised integration, Westernization, NATO-ization—things Nuland and her bosses knew would raise blood pressures in the Kremlin, no matter who sat on the Russian throne. And here we are.
Fact is, Democracy, Inc. works concertedly to see off potential threats. In the aftermath of Trump’s election, for example, men like Carl Gershman, then head of the National Endowment for Democracy and Freedom House boss Michael J. Abramowitz convened defend-democracy meetings on both sides of the Atlantic. I know, because I was asked to participate as a writer with hawkish sympathies I have since renounced.
The goal, according to the formal documents: to counter threats to “our broad system of liberty . . . from outside our borders and from within.” The external threat emanated mainly from the Kremlin, which many of the attendees believed had installed Trump in the Oval Office; some no doubt still believe it. The internal threat was more or less understood to be Trump himself and his allies, as well as “the rapid rise of digital communication, [which] has posed unique challenges for democracy, including the viral spread of fake news.”
This all sounds innocuous until you realize that by “democracy,” Democracy, Inc. means the liberal imperium, at home and abroad. And “authoritarianism” refers to Trumpism and similar ballot-box movements across the Atlantic channeling popular discontent with the imperium. At the time, it puzzled me why one of Google’s main political men, ex-Bush official Scott Carpenter, was ubiquitous at these gatherings. It takes on a more sinister aspect in light of the Big Tech censorship regime that has since gagged everyone from congressional critics of mandatory masking to a former commander-in-chief of the United States.
Half a decade later, in response to the Russian invasion, the coalition organized by Gershman, et al., published a statement urging outsiders to “trust only official sources/of official Ukrainian institutions (national army, president, Ministry of Foreign Affairs of Ukraine, etc).” Nuance, complexity, context, hearing the other side—such things impede liberal interventionism’s grammar of assent. The 2003 déjà vu you’re experiencing is carefully manufactured.