It's obviously better to do nothing in Ukraine than to do something that will make matters even worse.
The road to intervention by the US often follows a very predictable path, and today we’ve arrived at one of its first forks. The turn in one direction has been tread so rarely that it doesn’t even have a sign. The other turn, however, is one everyone should be familiar with by now: it ends in tragedy, and it is marked by a giant, blinking sign that says DO SOMETHING.
“Do something” is the demand of every war hawk, every defense contractor, and every imperialist squish who has ever lived. Their argument is always the same:
If you have compassion for the victims of violence and oppression abroad — imagined, or very real — then you will do something to stop it. We have have a plan, but we aren’t dogmatic about it; you are welcome to propose an alternative. But it has to be something that stops this tragedy, and if it isn’t, then you need to give our plan a try.
This rhetoric is extremely compelling to a lot of Americans. Even some who think of themselves as opponents of intervention. When they think of militarism, they think of a brute, non-negotiable demand for violence, and a population driven by thoughtless bloodlust or terrorized submission to the generals. The posture of compassion, the open mind towards means1, and the pragmatic focus on outcomes seem out of character; and so we are tempted to think that this time, it’s different.
But this has happened before every war, every coup, every arms shipment, and every round of sanctions in my lifetime. And the trap is devious. Once you accept the premise that we must do something, you have conceded that even militarism would be better than restraint. And that you have a responsibility to fix a problem that we may not be able to fix — particularly within the constraints of what most people would consider reasonable.
Consider the current conflict with Russia and Ukraine. Already I have seen liberals, conservatives, and sundry “populists” / “heterodox independents” call for a lot of the usual solutions: sanctions, interventions, arm shipments, and so on. And when I’ve made the obvious points about them — that sanctions will mostly just hurt civilians, and that military solutions are likely to protract or even expand this conflict, but unlikely to win it — I’ve heard the same line over and over again. First, a magnanimous, very reasonable concession that these solutions are risky and have their problems. Then, however, the inevitable punchline: “but what do you propose we should do instead?”
Socialists — particularly those who are new to socialism, and to antiwar activism — are often tempted to respond to this kind of question by floating the most ambitious and radical solution they can think of. Abolishing capitalism, the nation-state, reviving the Comintern, and so on. If you have a receptive audience, go for it; you’ve got to take these chances when they come.
But if, as will usually be the case, you find yourself in an antagonistic conversation, or talking to a capitalist who simply isn’t open to those kinds of solutions, don’t make this harder than it needs to be. When the Biden administration calls for sanctions against breakaway republics in Ukraine or barring SWIFT transactions in Russia — proposals that will do roughly zero to the powerful but that will definitely hurt powerless workers in both regions — you do not have to offer an alternative. When blob apparatchiks start calling for a dangerous no-fly zone over Kiev, you do not have to offer an alternative. When your local cult leader says that his congregation can end the war if they set themselves on fire, you do not have to offer an alternative. The correct response to all of this madness is “your idea is so terrible that even doing absolutely nothing would be better.”
If you want to see how open-minded the person you are talking to really is, here’s a simple test: propose that NATO withdraw its offer of a Membership Action Plan (MAP) for Ukraine in exchange for a Russian withdrawal from the country. This is not an even remotely radical idea; it only restarted this process less than a year ago, and after an initial statement of support for the MAP as Senator, Obama as President was famously loathe to entangle NATO in Ukraine. This is the most modest alternative to military actions or sanctions I can imagine, but propose it and you’ll quickly discover what the “something” in “do something” really means.