Saturday, December 3, 2022

George Packer on the "Restrainers"

In the Atlantic, George Packer takes on the "restrainers" who think the most important thing in the world is for the US to stop fighting wars:

Beneath the restrainers’ views lies a shared hostility to what they often call “liberal elites”—the policy makers and plugged-in experts and pundits who never listened, and whom they despise for continuing to see America as a benevolent power. How could anyone still believe that fairy tale? For restrainers on the right, liberal zeal threatens national sovereignty and traditional values around the world and at home. For those on the left, democracy is the pretty lie that hides the brutality of capitalism and imperialism. These views are at bottom antithetical: The right wants more national power without international rules, and the left wants the nation-state to disappear. But the two sides have made a temporary marriage at what they see as liberalism’s sickbed.

With the withdrawal last year of the final troops from Kabul, restraint appeared to have won an uncontested victory. It lasted six months.

Because Russia invaded Ukraine. This has led some people to change their minds and begin supporting Ukraine, and NATO aid for its defense. But many have not budged, and still maintain that US aggression is the world's biggest danger. Some of these folks seem to think both that the war in Ukraine is America's fault and that the best thing for everyone would be for Ukraine to lose gracefully:

This restraint is not a hard-won prudence in the face of tragic facts. It’s a doctrinaire refusal, by people living in the safety and comfort of the West, to believe in liberal values that depend on American support. The restrainers can’t accept that politics leaves no one clean, and that the most probable alternative to U.S. hegemony is not international peace and justice but worse hegemons. They can’t face the reality that force never disappears from the world; it simply changes hands.

Meanwhile, the war has reduced their position to rubble. U.S. intelligence turned out to be accurate. Putin has rejected any serious negotiations, both before invading and since. His purpose is not to neutralize or “liberate” Ukraine, but to annihilate it for the dream of Greater Russia. Occupying troops have committed atrocities on an unimagined scale. NATO weapons have allowed Ukrainians to defend themselves and eventually regain lost territory in a conflict they understand to be a fight for survival. European support has not disintegrated under Russian blackmail. American leadership has proved decisive in holding the West together in defense of collective security and democratic values. The war is about freedom. Russia is likely to lose. . . .

Russia’s war has demonstrated that a decent world isn’t possible without liberalism, and liberalism can’t thrive without U.S. engagement. Ukraine shows one way for America to use its power on behalf of freedom: Instead of sending troops to fight and die for democratic illusions in inhospitable countries, send arms to help an actual democracy repel a foreign invader. No U.S. troops, no meddling in civil wars, no nation building, no going it alone. Collaborate closely with allies and take measures to avoid catastrophe. Call it the Biden doctrine—it’s been remarkably successful.

I am not much on general principles, or doctrines. I supported US withdrawal from Afghanistan, thinking we had tried to fight that war for far too long. But I support US assistance to Ukraine, because the stakes seem so clear and vital.

As to these people who seem to think that all cases are the same, so the root of the problem is always the same, and the solution is always the same, what is one to do with them? 


G. Verloren said...

As to these people who seem to think that all cases are the same, so the root of the problem is always the same, and the solution is always the same, what is one to do with them? 

Vote against them, presumably.

David said...


With our previous discussion about Strauss in mind, here are some illiberal people who aren't going to join the Marines or otherwise go off and do something safe for the rest of us. These are the sort who might get appointed to the upper reaches of the defense and foreign policy apparatus if the wrong person gets elected president.

I guess my point is that, with respect, to answer the question of what to do about liberalism's avowed enemies by saying, "I don't think they're ever going to be very dangerous" seems like a bit of a dodge. If liberalism's enemies remain weak, that'll certainly be convenient. But it doesn't really answer the question.

Imagine how Ukraine might have turned out if Trump had still been president. (I've heard an argument that Putin invaded Ukraine because Trump lost, and Putin had been expecting Trump to withdraw from NATO if he had a second term. In that case, a lot of what Putin wants might have simply fallen into his lap.)

I'm not sure I have any good answer to the question, what should liberalism do about its avowed domestic opponents? But I think it's a harder and more urgent question than you allow.

John said...

I have never known what to make of these "Trump would do crazy things in his second term" theories. After all people on the right had many of these about Obama: he was going to shut Wall Street, seize all the guns, come out as Muslim, etc. I always thought, "Why does anyone think his second term would be different from his first?" Until he lost his re-election bid, Trump was a pretty normal Republican and didn't do anything nearly as bad as Bush II's invasion of Iraq. On the other hand, Trump is an unstable narcissist with very strange ideas about foreign policy, so who knows? I don't see Trump withdrawing from NATO, but I can imagine him pulling US forces home and demaning that Europeans do more to defend themselves. Biden's request for $37 billion more for Ukraine right now suggests to me that he is worried about future funding with a GOP House, not even considering Trump.

I would also say that I don't think Ukraine is in any danger of being conquered even without more US help. They won't be able to advance without HiMARS and suchlike weapons, but I think they could hold most of their territory. Manufacturing basic artillery shells is not really a hard technical problem, and I imagine the Poles or the Czechs could do it if they needed to. So my scenario for a withdrawal of US help would be stalemate and ceasefire, not Russian conquest.

David said...

When I stuck in that bit about Trump and Ukraine, I worried that it would distract you from the fundamental issue. I'm afraid it did. You've still dodged the question.

John said...

I'm not sure what to say about illiberalism. I'm not in favor of jailing people for having bad opinions. But I have said before that the best, long term defence of the liberal world is to make it as good for everyone as possible. I do not think that a liberal order that really is making life better for most people will every be overthrown.

David said...

That is a substantive answer. I suppose one could pursue further questions. The big one is how can a liberal order make itself as good for everyone as possible, which is arguably a good summary translation of our whole civilizational project.

Then there's, what should one do if a particular liberal order one lives in makes mistakes, and doesn't self-correct in time. The answer I keep in the back of my mind for that one is "Run like hell!"