For those members of the Washington establishment who have observed the rise of Florida Gov. Ron DeSantis with dismay, last week was a time to celebrate. The D.C. uniparty — liberal corporate media shills and Bush-era Republicans alike — cheered when the governor committed what they think is his first major blunder when he expressed skepticism about the uniparty’s current favorite project: an open-ended commitment to the war in Ukraine.
When asked to comment on DeSantis’s claim that fighting for Ukraine’s territorial claims was not a vital national interest of the United States, Sen. Lindsey Graham dismissed DeSantis’s statement last week, saying, “The Neville Chamberlain approach to aggression never ends well.” On March 21, Texas Sen. John Cornyn repeated the Chamberlain dig against Federalist CEO Sean Davis.
The jury of left-leaning, pro-war GOP and Never Trump talking heads on the networks allege DeSantis’s statement that the fighting in Ukraine is a “territorial dispute” was an unforced error that severely damages his 2024 prospects, if not disqualifies him for the presidency. They’re wrong both about the policy and the politics of opposing an open-ended commitment to an endless and unwinnable war in Ukraine.
Making the conclusions about this kerfuffle particularly misleading, it came in the same month the country observes the 20th anniversary of the U.S. invasion of Iraq. While most Americans rightly remember that war as a catastrophic error, some of the same people attacking DeSantis are trying to rewrite the history of the last war they promoted.
Graham, along with the late Sen. John McCain and former Sen. Joe Lieberman, formed a bipartisan “three amigos” of true believers in the Iraq War. The latter claimed in The New York Post this week that “Our collective memory of the Iraq War is simply wrong.” In spite of all the evidence otherwise, Lieberman still claims the prolonged war was a brilliant success rather than an expensive, deadly quagmire that failed to produce the promised Jeffersonian democracy in the Middle East and immeasurably strengthened Islamist tyrants in neighboring Iran.
As a general rule, it’s best to avoid analogies to Adolf Hitler, Winston Churchill, and Chamberlain. Not every bad guy is a Hitler, not everyone who we perceive as a hero is a Churchill, and not everyone who thinks getting caught up in any particular war is a bad idea is a Chamberlain. Yet somehow the temptation to frame the discussion about Ukraine as similar to the choice Britain and the West faced when Nazi Germany threatened Czechoslovakia in 1938 is something Iraq War revisionists can’t resist.
In his statement issued to Fox News’ Carlson, DeSantis said: “While the US has many vital national interests — securing our borders, addressing the crisis of readiness with our military, achieving energy security and independence, and checking the economic, cultural and military power of the Chinese Communist Party — becoming further entangled in a territorial dispute between Ukraine and Russia is not one of them.”
That last phrase about the war being a “territorial dispute” is being analogized to Chamberlain’s cowardly characterization of the German desire to conquer the Czechs as “a quarrel in a faraway country, between people of whom we know nothing.”
Republicans like Graham and Sen. Minority Leader Mitch McConnell of Kentucky are treating the opportunity to fight Putin as if this is another Cold War proxy battle or a post-9/11 moment. The invasion of Ukraine was a brutal act of aggression, but treating Russian President Vladimir Putin as if he were another Hitler and the idea that Moscow’s goal is a Hitlerian-style conquest of Europe is absurd.
One year into the war, with Ukraine’s independence no longer in doubt and the continuation of the fighting a matter of Kyiv’s desire to win back every inch of territory it held in 2014, DeSantis is also not wrong to declare it a “territorial dispute.”
Post 9/11, President George W. Bush’s decision to launch a foreign war was popular on both sides of the aisle. Bush didn’t lie about the consensus among U.S. and Western intelligence agencies that Iraqi dictator Saddam Hussein posessed weapons of mass destruction, but it was nonetheless mistaken.
As Eli Lake observed in an article on the Iraq war anniversary in Commentary, the ouster of Saddam and his brutal regime was in many ways a net plus for humanity. Yet, the sincerity of its architects notwithstanding, it is equally true that the unintended consequences of that war, in terms of the cost to Americans, the impact on Iraqi society, and the way it magnified the power of an even more dangerous regime in Iran, must outweigh any satisfaction we might derive from Saddam’s justified fate at the end of a hangman’s rope.
Those who still seek, as Lake and Lieberman do, to argue that the war did more good than harm, are unpersuasive.
Our National Interest
Since 1945, Americans have veered back and forth between a willingness to see every potential threat as another Munich-style test of will and courage and the desire to avoid any foreign entanglements. How can leaders decide whether a willingness to engage in wars is as necessary as it was when Chamberlain failed to act against Hitler in 1938 or whether it is a function of hubris and a misjudgment of the stakes involved, as it was 60 years ago in Vietnam and 20 years ago in Iraq?
A good place to start would be to ask the question DeSantis is posing. Is the willingness to back Ukraine for, as President Joe Biden has pledged, “as long as it takes,” really in the national interests of the United States?
Pretending, as Ukraine war hawks in both parties do, that Putin’s forces could conquer NATO countries is risible, especially after their dismal performance in the last 12 months. It is possible, however, for Washington to blunder into a direct confrontation with Moscow that poses World War III-like nuclear Armageddon that should be avoided at all costs.
A wise leader might understand that treating Ukrainian President Volodymyr Zelensky as if he were Churchill is at odds with the truth. It makes sense to seek a peaceful resolution to a war that has now become a “territorial dispute” that neither side can probably win outright. That would also allow the United States to devote its resources to preparing to contain a far more lethal threat from Communist China.
To those who see every challenge as another Munich, reasonable caution will always look like Chamberlain-esque appeasement. But not every war is an existential struggle against a Hitler bent on the destruction of Western civilization, and fighting sometimes leads to worse outcomes. Americans should have learned that lesson in Iraq. Those Iraq War revisionists who think DeSantis’ sober analysis of American interests is disqualifying are drawing false conclusions from history they refuse to understand.