Matt Duss fails to make the case for intervention
As in, he never actually gets around to it.
Reading Why Ukraine Matters for the Left in the New Republic, written by Bernie Sanders foreign policy advisor Matt Duss, I can’t help but recall an old essay by Barthes called Operation Margarine. Ads for margarine, he writes, often follow a simple formula. The protagonist complains at length about the inferiority of margarine, acknowledging all of its shortcomings when compared with butter; but then he tastes a mousse or some other dish prepared with margarine, and discovers to his shock that it is actually delicious! And this is persuasive precisely because we gave all of the failures of margarine such a hearing; instead of talking us out of using it, this litany simply legitimized the ad (and its conclusion) as fair, as something we should take seriously.
This, Barthes argues, is a recurring formula in political rhetoric as well:
take the established value which you want to restore or develop, and first lavishly display its pettiness, the injustices which it produces, the vexations to which it gives rise, and plunge it into its natural imperfection; then, at the last moment, save it in spite of, or rather by the heavy curse of its blemishes. Some examples? There is no shortage of them.
The very first example Barthes turns to is apologetics for militarism — but instead of quoting him again, let’s look instead at this article by Matt Duss. In it, Matt lays out an endless series of concessions to the left critique of militarism. Here’s a typical example:
We should acknowledge absolutely that skepticism toward the kind of righteous sloganeering we’ve seen around Russia’s war is entirely reasonable. Our political class advocates military violence with a regularity and ease that is psychopathic…
It would be ridiculous to quote every single passage in his piece that reads like this, but to get a sense of it, I’ll just scale it down and highlight them:
That’s a lot of agreement with the left, right? But there’s always a but. Here’s how the passage I quoted above ends:
We should not, however, let all of this absurdity blind us to the instances when provision of military aid can advance a more just and humanitarian global order. Assisting Ukraine’s defense against Russian invasion is such an instance.
That’s the formula of this essay: it’s operation margarine. You begin by laying out all of the injustice, the danger, the deception, and the death wrought by US imperialism, conceding that the left has been right to oppose these wars, and that we are right to be skeptical of this one. But then, at the last moment you add: this time, it’s different! And it turns out that the point of all of these concessions was not to follow them to their direct conclusion, but rather to demonstrate that they have been duly considered before their eventual rejection.
Critics are going to find plenty of object to in Duss’s piece, but here I just want to reiterate a point I have been making since before this war began:
Even if Russia [does] invade Ukraine the United States should still stay out of this conflict. It’s difficult to think of a tolerable outcome in that situation even if we did commit to war, but the more likely outcome is that Ukraine’s allies would make partial gestures of support that would only succeed in prolonging war before our eventual defeat. Our involvement would also inflame our relationship with Russia for the foreseeable future, of course, and…it would only have terrible consequences for everyone else, particularly ordinary Russian civilians. Finally, our involvement could very well escalate this from a limited conflict in Ukraine to a broader conflict with NATO.
What about this assessment has changed? Nothing.
And what does Duss have to say about it? Nothing more than the flat assertion that “military aid can advance a more just and humanitarian global order.” At one point he even quotes Noam Chomsky offering the same warning, noting that our current path could “obliterate Ukraine and…lay the basis for a terminal war”; but though Duss promises that he will take on such objections, he quietly neglects this one.
Which is unfortunate, because it’s the big one. Here, to repeat, is the basic form of the objection:
Military escalation against Russia over Ukraine creates an intolerable risk of expanded warfare against NATO countries, as well as nuclear warfare — an assessment shared by generations of diplomats and foreign policy architects who have much more experience in dealing with the Kremlin than today’s blob;
At current levels of military intervention, the most likely outcome is a protracted or frozen conflict that will destroy Ukraine and kill more Ukrainians than basically any scenario other than (1).
For this reason, the only productive role the US can play in this war is to call for diplomacy and to provide humanitarian relief for war refugees.
Duss spends most of his essay calling for solidarity with Ukrainians. But if this assessment of the war is correct — and I think it clearly is — then solidarity from the left specifically means taking the course outlined above. This is not going to be welcome news for leftists afflicted with our country’s incurable case of do-somethingism, but if our goal is solidarity rather than “action”, it’s the most we can do.