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Opinion | The Curious Conservative Case Against Defending Ukraine

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By Bret Stephens

Opinion Columnist

One of the stranger features of the politics of the war in Ukraine is that the most vocal opposition to it tends to come from the hard right. In some ways, that right sounds like the hard left it used to oppose so fiercely.

On April 20, 19 Republican lawmakers, including Senators Rand Paul, Mike Lee and J.D. Vance, sent a letter to President Biden decrying “unlimited arms supplies in support of an endless war.” Donald Trump and Ron DeSantis have each expressed their opposition to Western support for Ukraine (though the Florida governor seemed to walk his opposition back); both are keenly attuned to what they think will play well in G.O.P. primaries.

Opposition also comes from what passes for an antiwar conservative intelligentsia. Peter Hitchens, the brother of Christopher Hitchens, is a fierce critic, as is the Orbanist American writer Rod Dreher, whose manner of critique is “Russia is wrong, but .…” Tucker Carlson routinely used his prime-time pedestal to disparage Volodymyr Zelensky, calling the Ukrainian president a “dictator” and comparing his dress style to that of the manager of a strip club. The Buchananite American Conservative is against the war on principle; the Trumpian Federalist is against it as a matter of political opportunism.

“While forcing his own people — and those whose migration keeps the cartels supplied with the billions to buy military-grade weaponry — to suffer murder, rape and other heinous crimes, Biden is abroad encouraging ongoing violence in Ukraine,” writes The Federalist’s executive editor, Joy Pullmann, giving readers a taste of the quality of both her thinking and her prose.

Is there a coherent philosophical grounding for these antiwar conservatives? On the surface, no.

From Vietnam to Iraq, the antiwar left (both in the United States and abroad) tended to be united by a kind of instinctive pacifism, a belief that war was almost never the right answer. There has also often been a fair amount of anti-Americanism on the left — the Chomskyite view that Washington’s foreign policy is generally a force for neo-imperialism and rapacious capitalism.

But that’s not the case with the antiwar right.

Some of the more dovish conservative voices on Ukraine, who fear that the war could set off a nuclear conflagration with Moscow, are uber-hawks when it comes to China: They argue that the resources we are pouring into Kyiv should be held in reserve for a looming battle with Beijing over Taiwan. They are also the same people who fault Biden’s shambolic withdrawal from Afghanistan for making America seem weak, without appearing to be the least bit concerned about the signal that an American abandonment of Ukraine might also send.

Some of the Tuckerite conservatives who accuse Zelensky of illiberal policies in Kyiv — such as banning pro-Russian political parties that could be expected to serve as Vladimir Putin’s puppets in the event of a Russian military victory — go out of their way to celebrate the illiberal policies of the government in Budapest.

Some of the historical revisionists who embrace Putin’s pretext for invasion — that he was provoked by the West into coming to the defense of ethnic Russians who were “stranded” in a “Nazi” Ukraine after the breakup of the Soviet Union — would never accept those arguments in any other context: They’re the people who believe in the absolute inviolability of America’s southern border when it comes to the “invasion” of Latin American immigrants.

Much of this incoherence is partly explained via the George Costanza school of modern conservatism: If a Democrat is for it, they’re against it.

But something darker is also at work. In Putin’s cult of machismo, his suppression of political opposition, his “almost sublime contempt for truth” (Joseph Conrad’s memorable line about Russian officialdom), his opportunistic embrace of religious orthodoxy, his loathing of “decadent” Western culture, his sneering indifference to international law and, above all, his contempt for democratic and liberal principles, he represents a form of politics the Tuckerites glimpsed but never quite got in the presidency of Donald Trump.

It isn’t new. In the 1930s, there was Ezra Pound and Charles Lindbergh and Diana and Oswald Mosley. The hard right’s reverence for the principles of raw strength and unblinking obedience runs deep.

This is not true of every conservative. The Senate minority leader, Mitch McConnell, remains firmly on Ukraine’s side, as do the editorialists at The Wall Street Journal and National Review and even conservative firebrands like Mark Levin. A narrow plurality of Republican-leaning voters feel the same way. To tar the entire American right as pro-Putin is a slur, much as old right-wing allegations about liberal softness on Communism used to be. But there’s also more than a nugget of truth to it.

Certain conservative readers of this column will no doubt feel insulted and claim that it should be possible to oppose U.S. support for the war on strategic grounds without being labeled pro-Putin.

It’s worth reminding them what George Orwell wrote in 1942 about the position of Western pacifists vis-à-vis Nazi Germany: “Pacifism is objectively pro-fascist. This is elementary common sense. If you hamper the war effort of one side, you automatically help that of the other.”

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