February 20, 2023

Ukraine: Our Costly Proxy War With Russia

The monetary and geopolitical costs of helping Ukraine fight its age-old border war with Russia are growing by the day.

“Peace, commerce, and honest friendship with all nations,” said Thomas Jefferson in his first Inaugural Address, “entangling alliances with none.”

Entangling alliances with none.

Anyone who’s been following the costly and creeping mission of our nation’s proxy war with Russia can see anew the great man’s wisdom where those final four words are concerned. Because, like it or not, Joe Biden has gotten us into an entangling alliance with Ukraine — a costly and dangerous one, with no end in sight.

There’s also the matter of Ukraine being one of the world’s most corrupt countries. And it is. Just ask Hunter Biden. Ever wonder why there hasn’t been a strict accounting for all the billions we’re sending over there?

As former Marine and newly minted Ohio Republican Senator J.D. Vance said on February 8: “Before President Biden spends another taxpayer dollar in Ukraine, he must lay out the clear plan for ending the conflict in a way that advances our national security interests. No more blank checks. It is past time for the president to tell the American people how this comes to an end.”

As for those blank checks, Fox News’s Shannon Bream noted on Sunday morning during her interview with White House spokesman John Kirby that we’re “about $200 billion into this war so far.”

Two-hundred billion? We’re already $31 trillion in debt, and 15% of our federal budget is dedicated to interest payments on that debt. We feel terribly for the plight of the Ukrainian people and their corrupt government, but we’re broke. We can’t afford to undergird their healthcare system and their pension plans, as Biden accidentally admitted.

Think about what $200 billion could’ve done elsewhere — like, for example, securing our southern border, hardening our infrastructure against an electromagnetic pulse attack, or, if this administration is so hungry for conflict, why not fight a war against an enemy that’s responsible for the deaths of 300 Americans every single day: the Mexican drug cartels and the Chinese manufacturers of fentanyl?

It wasn’t just Jefferson who warned us about foreign affairs and foreign aid. George Washington had said much the same in his Farewell Address: “Why, by interweaving our destiny with that of any part of Europe, entangle our peace and prosperity in the toils of European ambition, rivalship, interest, humor, or caprice?”

Indeed, why are we interweaving our destiny with that of Europe? What existential threat does Russia’s centuries-old border dispute with Ukraine have to do with our national security? Have the Russians attacked us like al-Qaida did on 9/11? Of course not. Nor have they hinted at it. And yet we’re sending billions of dollars’ worth of our best military equipment to Ukraine for the purpose of killing Russians.

Those who think Russia poses an existential threat to the United States are literally fighting the last war, the Cold War, which ended more than 30 years ago. And those who think Russia is bent on reconstituting the Soviet Union — those who say that Poland and the Baltic states are next — haven’t given those countries enough credit, nor taken stock of Russia’s one-trick fossil-fuel economy and its diminished status on the world stage.

China, not Russia, is our primary geopolitical threat. No one with any knowledge of world affairs disputes this. And yet Biden continues to dither. As another brand-new Republican senator, Missouri’s Eric Schmitt, who sits on the Senate Armed Services Committee, put it:

Look, the message right now is, ‘China is our chief adversary.’ There’s no doubt about that. They have plans for world domination, and we’ve got to take that seriously, like seriously as a heart attack. … China has built islands in the South China Sea, and it’s not for people in Beijing to go on vacation. They’ve militarized these islands. They have anti-ship weapons systems, they have anti-aircraft weapons systems … not only to disrupt trade but for military purposes.

“I think there’s a complete disconnect here,” Schmitt continued. “When you hear the president talking about sending American tax dollars to Ukraine to help pay for their pensions, and he does nothing about the millions of people who stream across our southern border distributing fentanyl, human trafficking, and crime across the country, it is completely out of touch to not address this.”

Again, we’re not just sending javelin missiles and Abrams tanks to Ukraine; we’re helping to prop up its government, and fund its pension plans, and pay for the lavish lifestyles of its senior military leadership.

Your children’s inheritance at work.

Schmitt brought the issue home: “There aren’t a lot of people in Washington who are serious about these problems that the American people care about. … A family right now is paying $10,000 more a year than they were two years ago for groceries, for gas, for payments, everything. And Washington is completely out of touch with how are dealing with these issues at home.”

But they invaded Ukraine, you say, and they did. We can say unequivocally that Vladimir Putin is a bad man — or, to use Joe Biden’s expression, just this once, “a killer.” We can also say with some degree of confidence that his invasion of Ukraine is a war crime, including specific war crimes like bombing a maternity hospital. And we can say without a shred of doubt that it’s a gross violation of international norms, and that Russia deserves every ounce of international condemnation and sanction that it’s getting.

Our support for Ukraine here might seem simple, might seem like a no-brainer, but it isn’t. It’s deeply complicated. As Christopher Caldwell told an audience at Hillsdale College in October in a brilliantly informative Imprimis address, “Whenever people in power tell you that something is a no-brainer, there’s a good chance that it’s a brainer. And the Ukraine war is more complicated than we’ve been led to assume.”

Back in 2008, when President George W. Bush was pushing for Ukraine to be admitted into NATO, our most deeply informed Russia experts thought it was a bad idea. As Caldwell notes, one of them was William Burns, who at the time was Bush’s ambassador in Moscow and is now Joe Biden’s CIA director. Here’s part of what he wrote in a memo to then-Secretary of State Condoleezza Rice:

Ukrainian entry into NATO is the brightest of all red lines for the Russian elite (not just Putin). In more than two-and-a-half years of conversations with key Russian players, from knuckle-draggers in the dark recesses of the Kremlin to Putin’s sharpest liberal critics, I have yet to find anyone who views Ukraine in NATO as anything other than a direct challenge to Russian interests. [It would be seen] as throwing down the strategic gauntlet. Today’s Russia will respond. Russian-Ukrainian relations will go into a deep freeze. … It will create fertile soil for Russian meddling in Crimea and eastern Ukraine.

Now you know why Vladimir Putin invaded Ukraine. And why did he invade Crimea in 2014, on Barack Obama’s watch? Because the Crimean Peninsula, which juts out into the Black Sea, is some of the world’s most strategically important land. As Caldwell writes: “The country that controls it dominates the Black Sea and can project its military force into Europe, the Middle East, and even the steppes of Eurasia. And since the 1700s, that country has been Russia. Crimea has been the home of Russia’s warm water fleet for 250 years. It is the key to Russia’s southern defenses.”

Weakness, as we’ve said until we’re blue in the face, is provocative. And Biden is nothing if not provocative — which is why Putin invaded Ukraine on his watch and not Donald Trump’s watch. Nonetheless, Biden and his teammates have repeatedly told us that we’re going to support Ukraine “for as long as it takes.”

Really? For as long as it takes? Since when did the American people invest such confidence in the foreign policy expertise of Joe Biden — the guy who former Defense Secretary Robert Gates said has “been wrong on nearly every major foreign policy and national security issue over the past four decades”?

Was Biden’s handling of our pullout in Afghanistan — the surrender and retreat that left 13 of our warriors dead and left tens of billion of dollars worth of our best military equipment to the Taliban — was his performance as commander-in-chief so superb on that stage that we’re willing to trust him in a deadly game of geopolitical chess with Russia? A costly proxy war that pushes Russia ever closer to China?

Biden was at it yet again today, making a surprise trip to Ukraine to commemorate the one-year anniversary of the Russian invasion, to drum up support for a proxy war that the American people are beginning to question, and to promise yet more billions to Ukrainian President Volodymyr Zelenskyy.)

Exactly how is it in our national interest to pile more debt onto the backs of our children to help fight a war that most Americans can’t locate on a map?

Proponents of our support for Ukraine say our investment there is a “pennies on the dollar” deal. Really? So far, we’ve committed around $200 billion, our weapons stockpiles are seriously depleted, and we could be facing war with China within a couple of years. And this is a bargain? Compared to what? Compared to all-out war with Russia, which was never even a remote consideration in the first place? Is the deep erosion of our relationship with the country that has more nuclear weapons than any other country part of this bargain?

Here we must offer our own mea culpa. From the beginning of the Russian invasion, we were on the side of Ukraine. But we never signed up for an ever-escalating $200-billion proxy war with no end in sight, and the more we began to consider it, the more convinced we became that Washington, Jefferson, and Madison were the geniuses, and Biden was the dunce.

“I cannot undertake to lay my finger on that article of the Constitution,” said its author, James Madison, “which granted a right to Congress of expending, on objects of benevolence, the money of their constituents.”

Indeed, show us the constitutional case for spending 200 billion American dollars in Ukraine. We’ll wait.

If we constitutional conservatives are serious about wanting smaller government and less intervention, then we should have the exact same approach with our foreign policy. We should heed President Dwight Eisenhower’s parting admonition on “the Military-Industrial Complex.” (If anyone ought to know about the business of war, it’s the man who led the victorious forces in history’s largest and costliest and deadliest war.)

As constitutional conservatives and populist-conservatives and conservative-libertarians, we should be ever-ready to defend our nation against attack. But this isn’t that. Not even close. The truly conservative approach to foreign policy is the noninterventionist approach — the approach dictating that we dole out taxpayer funds only when it serves our vital national security interests.

Siding with Ukraine in its age-old border dispute with Russia, however noble, simply doesn’t meet that test. This is a European war, and Ukraine’s European neighbors should be funding her defense. Either that, or they should be pushing for peace talks.

As for we the American people — or at least those us who are inclined toward conservatism — we should ask ourselves: When did it become a good idea to trust Joe Biden with our wallets, and with our foreign policy?

Updated with some closing thoughts on the way forward.

POSTSCRIPT: In response to Jefferson’s warning about “entangling alliances,” some commentators have claimed that this reference is taken out of context. We disagree. In his Inaugural Address, Jefferson clearly lists this admonition as a “general principle” and indeed one of his “essential principles of government.” On a related note, our Mark Alexander writes that Jefferson himself “launched America’s first war against a foreign adversary, the Barbary pirates.” Of course, the Barbary pirates were attacking our trade ships and imprisoning and ransoming our citizens. Such a provocation, at least in this analyst’s opinion, is a far more direct and urgent one than the murky geopolitical matters which underpin our costly and dangerous proxy war with Russia.

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