Toward What in Ukraine?

by Kevin D. Williamson
What do the anti-neocons have to say for ourselves?

Call them — us — paleos, isolationists, libertarians, non-interventionists, peaceniks, or what you will, a broad coalition touching left, right, and center precipitated out of the cloud of regrets and recrimination floating around the Iraq War specifically and the Bush foreign-policy legacy generally. The Left and the Buchananite Right reiterated their favorite conspiracy theories (respectively, war for oil and corporate profits and war for Jewish interests), but there was a realignment in less feverish quarters, too, as many on the post-Bush right recoiled from the final cost/benefit analysis of the so-called democracy project. The new non-interventionists might not have been entirely sure what we wanted, but we knew what we didn’t want more of, and that was the sort of foreign policy that has come to be fairly or unfairly synonymous with neoconservatism. Are we anti-neocons? Maybe, though that would imply a more adversarial position than is always the case. Perhaps we are only chastened post-neocons.

The Russian invasion of eastern Ukraine in prelude to effective annexation — and let us not pretend that it is something less than that — has presented us with the first great foreign-policy test of the post-neocon era. We are not handling it convincingly.

Senator Rand Paul, the most prominent of the anti-neocons and someone I admire greatly, was typical in his tepid, incoherent response to the Russian invasion. He wrote that we should “make it abundantly clear to Russia that we expect them to honor the December 1994 Budapest Memorandum,” and explained to the Russians, as though they had not considered the question, that “economic incentives align against Russian military involvement in Ukraine.” He hinted in the vaguest possible way about economic retaliation through the World Trade Organization.

Vladimir Putin does not seem to have consulted Senator Paul about the economic incentives in question. He appears to be playing a very different game, and to be making very different economic calculations. If economic sanctions and expulsion from the G-8 are the toughest things the West has to offer in response, Putin seems ready to endure them.

Republican Senator Marco Rubio of Florida and Representative Tom Cotton of Arkansas have offered some idea of what a strong response short of military action would look like: the revocation of visas, the implementation of broad economic sanctions, the seizure of assets belonging to those associated with the Putin regime, admission of Georgia to NATO, the offer of financial aid to Ukraine.

President Obama, meantime, has spoken very sternly about Russia’s possible loss of standing in the international community, a sentiment that must certainly have been greeted with some mirth in Moscow. The White House is threatening to take a Boy Scout merit badge away from Al Capone.

One question that must be addressed by the post-neocons is whether our response to Russia is to be national or international. There are those who, ever mindful of George Washington’s warnings about foreign entanglements, seek a response that is mainly national. This promises to be inadequate. What is needed is a strategy that combines such economic and diplomatic weapons as we have in our arsenal with President George H. W. Bush’s masterly and lightning-fast coalition building prior to the first Iraq war, which found Saddam Hussein facing not only American might but a world that was almost entirely united against his invasion of Kuwait, with a coalition that included at least rhetorical support from players who might have been expected to sit the conflict out in their own interests.

Thus far, the great internationalist Barack Obama has shown no aptitude for building such a response, and it does not seem at all likely that such a figure as John Kerry can be trusted to do so.

Those who object to the term “isolationist” protest, with justification, that what we seek is not a world order in which the United States is disconnected from global affairs, but an order in which the United States relies more heavily upon non-military tools than upon military ones. But what we are getting is something that is difficult to distinguish from isolationism by any measure other than the merely rhetorical and the pro forma. The so-called Obamacons — remember them? — thought that by repudiating Republicans in 2008 they would force the country to take a step toward a less bellicose foreign policy. And so we have, but whether we have taken a step toward an alternative foreign policy that is credible and effective is far from clear.

— Kevin D. Williamson is roving correspondent for National Review.