Before Going to War, Consider Who’s in Charge

America is drifting toward war, wafted by a chorus of political and punditical sirens. A great many of them are conservatives, including popular media personalities with large audiences. They’ve been warned by other conservatives about the risks of confrontation with Russia that deeper intervention in Ukraine poses.

But since few want to abandon the Ukrainians altogether, the conservative camp faces a quandary. How much risk is too much risk? Is riskiness more a matter of the quantity or the quality of support we provide to Ukraine? Is it more a matter of optics or battlefield utility? Does it matter from exactly whence it immediately arrives? Is it important how much it steers the antagonists toward possible off-ramps? These would be difficult questions for even a consummate diplomatist to answer. Not an eager player of Russian roulette, for whatever it’s worth, I incline toward overall prudence. Keep the supplies flowing at pretty much their present rate and hope deadlock leads eventually to an agreement that neither side will like but that both can politically accept. Or so it seems to me.    

Perhaps such a mutualistic outcome isn’t possible. Perhaps one side or the other will have to be clearly defeated before full-scale war comes to an end. If so, and it’s the Russians who are going down, we face a significant likelihood that Putin will try to save himself by expanding the war or using nuclear weapons. Defeat would not be fatal for Russia, but it would probably be so for him. Avoiding that disaster will call for mature statesmanship (perhaps brinksmanship) together with a great deal of luck.

The likelihood, however, of finding such statesmanship in the Biden White House is about the same as finding pâté de foie gras on the menu at Kentucky Fried Chicken. Yet we don’t want our pantomime president, or whoever moves his limbs, to lose whatever semblance of poise and concentration they possess in meeting the challenge at hand. Men without chests are unlikely to long withstand a Jingoist gale. What the Left makes of this crisis is up to them. We conservatives need to stay sober and not fan the flames. The images on the living room screen will do enough of that.              

Our Uncaptained Ship of State

To further encourage that sobriety, I’d like to raise two concerns about going to war with Russia that haven’t been sufficiently addressed—although Tucker Carlson glanced at the second on his Monday evening show. They involve the competency of any war’s conduct and how war would affect our own position as a group despised by America’s elites.

Point one: Even if the enthusiasts for sharply raising the military ante are in principle right, even if Ukraine today is equivalent to Czechoslovakia in 1938, even if “appeasement” would invite later Russian aggression against Poland, the Baltics, or other NATO members, do we want to court a superpower war if it will be led by the same people who gave us the Afghan debacle, the Iranian giveaway, and the vaccine mandates? 

Our friends pushing confrontation seem to have forgotten what they knew only yesterday: our ship of state is virtually uncaptained. And its crew consists of a clamor of zealots, as arrogant as they are ignorant of war and history in general. 

What’s more, they thoroughly detest the nation whose military operations and war diplomacy would be theirs to direct. They don’t even identify with traditional national interests, including our country’s political autonomy and institutional heritage. Assuming the world survives superpower conflict reasonably intact, the process of a postwar settlement would provide our elites an unparalleled opportunity to reset the world according to their globalist reveries. Our rulers’ notions of what victory requires would be vastly different from our own.

This assumes that they could in fact win a war. In Ukraine, the Russian army has been shown to be unexpectedly weak. Against our forces and those of our NATO allies, they probably wouldn’t have a chance in a conventional fight. But that’s not how the Russians are likely to play the game. Putin isn’t mad and won’t rush headlong into an all-out nuclear exchange. Yet the entirety of the war would be one of nonstop terror, fought under the shadow of holocaust, every moment possibly being civilization’s last. To stoke this terror, “small” nuclear devices are likely to be detonated and massive cyberattacks launched. China might also open an East Asian front stirring further confusion and panic.

Under these circumstances, would the resolve of the West’s pampered populations, and cosseted leaders, hold? Even if the United States stood firm, would our alliances cohere? My point is that this is a war in which we could indeed be defeated, especially if fought under the idiocracy currently in charge. Alternately, we might win, but with a settlement that for patriots would be tantamount to defeat.  

The conservative pundits inviting us to a rendezvous with destiny seem to imagine a Talleyrand descending deux ex machina to see us through it. Or maybe Henry Kissinger will be recalled, taking advice about feints, bluffs, and “last clear chance scenarios” from the shades of Herman Kahn and Thomas Shelling. Or maybe Generals George Marshall and Dwight D. Eisenhower will miraculously replace Lloyd Austin and Mark Milley.

My guess is that what these commentators really fantasize is their own Churchillian selves being somehow called to the helm. But it surely won’t be they who get to choreograph our dance along the precipice’s edge, or whatever follows should we topple over its brink.            

An Opportunity for a Crackdown on the Right

Point two: A protracted military engagement with Russia (and possibly her Chinese ally) will, whatever its global outcome, plunge the American homefront into a state of emergency the likes of which the country has never experienced. Do we want the individuals running our government to have the domestic opportunities that such a crisis would confer on them? We’ve seen what they did with “collusion,” COVID, and January 6. And these hysterias were largely ginned up. How would they domestically exploit the genuine possibility of Armageddon?          

Bet your bottom Bitcoin they wouldn’t let it go to waste with respect to what really counts for them. America-wrecking is, after all, their true métier, and we, not Putin or Xi, are their real enemies. A non-vaporizing World War III would be their golden opportunity for a conclusive crackdown on the likes of us. They’re unlikely to pass it by.

Most big American wars have witnessed sweeping assaults on civil liberties as well as the commandeering of the economy. The saving grace was that earlier war leaders were at heart constitutionalists who understood their impositions to be temporary and regarded their party opponents as fellow citizens worthy of respect. None of that is true of the little Mussolinis running things today. The war they’ll fight on these shores, of a type in which they’ve demonstrated substantial skill, might well be more decisive for the country’s future than anything done on the plains of Eastern Europe or the seas around Taiwan. 

The Biden Administration, for the moment, is on the political ropes, tangled in policies that could only get the votes of an electorate in Bedlam. Introduce a realistic threat of thermonuclear war and you give them the means for saving themselves from a gruesome denouement at the polls. Imagine the potential for manipulating a 2022 election if it were conducted not under a pandemic but during a state of nuclear siege or even martial law.  

Truth to tell, as much as we weep for Ukraine, the fight for liberty and constitutionalism is most real, and bordering on the desperate, here at home—though it obviously proceeds by different means. Everything we do should therefore be weighed for its impact on that outcome. Even if the Russo-Ukrainian War ends without bringing world war, its termination will probably leave the world in a state of greatly exacerbated tension. Between now and 2024 there will likely be other international crises that present dangers comparable to the one we’re now in. We should strive to mitigate those as well.  

To get through the next three years with a country still capable of rehabilitation will require a lot of thought, astute political action, and fortunate breaks. If there is any way to avoid it, let’s not go charging into the valley of death with our junto of fatuous fanatics in command. 

About Stephen Balch

Steve Balch was the founding president of the National Association of Scholars and, from 2012 to 2020, director of the Institute for the Study of Western Civilization at Texas Tech University.

Photo: NICHOLAS KAMM/AFP via Getty Images

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