On Tuesday, Slate covered the disorienting effect of Russia’s Ukraine invasion on pundits who’d rolled their eyes at the idea that Russia would invade Ukraine or that Americans would care if it did. Misreading a situation that badly can mess with your head, not that I’d know anything about such an experience.
On the other hand, there are some people who seem to have been thrown off by reading the crisis correctly and predicting the consensus reaction to it—of having believed an invasion was imminent and that the U.S. should lead the international community in defending Ukraine in order to prevent a humanitarian disaster and protect the democratic freedom of its people.
To wit, NBC News foreign correspondent Richard Engel:
Engel is pretending to ask a neutral question. But really he’s loading up one side of the argument with the image of the West watching sadly in silence as Kyiv is crushed. As he kind of alludes to, NATO destroying the convoy would mean fighting an all-out war against Russia—an idea so historically catastrophic that there’s an aphorism about it in The Princess Bride. (Engel, despite working for one of the news entities that takes pride in considering itself objective and nonpartisan, was also recently seen campaigning for the U.S. to stay in Afghanistan.)
Here is more perverse cheerleading:
McFaul, a frequent MSNBC guest, was the ambassador to Russia for two years under President Barack Obama. As a diplomat, one might expect him to be more diplomatic about the effort to get another country’s population behind a certain position, rather than just writing on social media that he will consider them complicit in a violation of international law if they don’t risk being beaten and jailed by their authoritarian regime.
He later deleted and sort of apologized for the tweet, but did so in a 15-message thread in which he quoted at some length the criticism of white civil rights moderates in Martin Luther King Jr.’s “Letter From Birmingham Jail.” His analogy is that the Russian citizens who haven’t taken a public position on Vladimir Putin are like the 1950s moderates whom King criticized for wanting to make civil rights changes incrementally. This would make McFaul (and other regime-change advocates inside and outside of Russia) the situation’s MLK.
Speaking of regimes, here is Benjamin Wittes, a Brookings Institution fellow, Atlantic magazine contributor, and, again, a frequent MSNBC guest:
Wittes, too, later qualified that statement a bit after some pushback from critics including the Intercept’s Murtaza Hussain, who noted that calling for Putin to be deposed would be a serious escalation of the U.S. confrontation with Russia, and would amount to an announcement to someone with control of nuclear weapons that he was fighting for his political survival and, potentially, own life. (Wittes says he’s not suggesting regime change should be the policy of the U.S. government.)
This one requires more explanation:
Applebaum is a longtime foreign policy journalist, now at the Atlantic, who once wrote for Slate. She is also a frequent MSNBC guest. “Mearshimer” is John Mearsheimer, a political scientist who has argued for years that the U.S. and NATO were provoking a confrontation by expanding their sphere of influence east toward Russia.
This is Russia’s argument as well, and Applebaum is speculating, in a way that implies some disloyalty, that Russia got the idea from an article Mearsheimer wrote in 2014. But according to multiple accounts, the argument that NATO expansion would provoke Russia was in circulation in U.S. national security circles as early as the late 1990s. Also, “the other side provoked us” is what every country that launches a war says, right? And what every person who starts a fight says? Did Russia really need a crack team of researchers reading political science journals to come up with that one?
It goes on. Illinois Republican Rep. Adam Kinzinger, who’s come to prominence by voting to impeach and investigate Donald Trump over Jan. 6, recently retweeted a claim about Putin’s allegedly low likelihood of using nuclear weapons that was made by British fantasist Louise Mensch, who is famous for having “reported” in 2017 that Steve Bannon was in imminent danger of being executed for espionage and that the “marshal of the Supreme Court” was beginning impeachment proceedings against Donald Trump. (The marshal of the Supreme Court is a real person, but their job is handling security at the actual Supreme Court; in the American system of government, the judicial branch does not impeach presidents or lead any prosecution. Trump was also not impeached until late 2019. Bannon lives to this day.) Kinzinger is a member of the House Foreign Affairs Committee, and the idea of Louise Mensch influencing U.S. policy at any level is a bit concerning.
What’s going on here? The perverse incentives of cable news and social media begin to explain it, I think. Being on TV makes you feel important, and getting retweets and likes online makes you feel important as well. Over the course of the Trump administration, MSNBC became the channel of anti-Trump partisanship, collecting respected figures from various law enforcement, national security, and journalistic institutions into a coalition. Those people, whatever expertise and judgment they’d previously accumulated, may have increasingly begun communicating only with one another and with their audiences. They also had one single goal, which came to feel like a holy crusade: getting rid of Donald Trump. Amid the frenzy, perhaps their standards of sourcing and skepticism have eroded.
They also never really got rid of Trump, which brings us to the second element at play. A lot of the figures who were upset about Trump were members of the U.S. national security and foreign policy establishment who were offended by his relationship with Russia. They tended to be people who also still believe in a Cold War, pre–Iraq war vision of America as a global Superman that comes out of the sky to save lives and protect human rights. They’ve likely felt beleaguered for the last decade-plus not only by Trump, but by the failure of their broader ambitions as the U.S.’s chaotic, extremely costly occupations of Afghanistan and Iraq have given rise to anti-interventionist movements on both the right and left.
But with the Ukraine crisis, they’re getting their revenge on Trump (via Putin) and isolationism at the same time. This is the best their worldview has looked since the ’90s, and it’s making them a little nuts. We can only hope they don’t ride this hot streak all the way into a nuclear apocalypse!