What is it about Republican legislators that makes them so fond of wreaking death and destruction upon others? The late Sen. John McCain was famous for pushing American involvement in wars fought and unfought.
Iraq was his greatest disaster, in which hundreds of thousands of Iraqi civilians were killed and millions were displaced, but he never looked back. He later pushed for even bigger potential blockbusters – wars against Russia (over Georgia), Iran, and North Korea. Imagine the consequences of those conflicts! In his blood lust he was often joined by Sen. Lindsey Graham (R-SC), who continues to perform a metaphorical Maori Haka whenever he sees the possibility of dragging the US into another conflict.
However, the most dangerous GOP solon today might be Mississippi Sen. Roger Wicker. After visiting Ukraine and meeting with President Joe Biden he complained that "As of yet no one has given Vladimir Putin a bloody nose." He continued with that theme: "I think the alliance, our friends in NATO and a bipartisan majority are prepared to assist Ukraine in making sure that if it happens this time Vladimir Putin will get a bloody nose."
Even more frightening was what he said before. He issued a formal statement: "President Biden should make clear that there is no scenario under which Ukraine will be overrun by Russia, period. Putin is already courting a bloodbath should he attack Ukrainian troops. President Biden should up the ante by warning him that an invasion would saddle him with an intolerably high Russian casualty count. This means leaving all options on the table and granting no concessions."
"No concessions!" Instead, Wicker advocated "military action," which would be more than arming Kyiv. Rather, he indicated, that "could mean that we stand off with our ships in the Black Sea, and we rain destruction on Russian military capability." If that was not certain to start a war, he added: "It could mean that we participate, and I would not rule that out, I would not rule out American troops on the ground. We don’t rule out first use nuclear action."
Do Wicker’s constituents realize that he is so unbalanced that he is ready, even eager, to start a nuclear war over Ukraine because … he doesn’t want to negotiate and offer concessions … over a country which is not even a formal American ally?
It is hard not to judge his stance as, frankly, mad. He should be spending his time at a local mental health lock-up rather than the US Senate.
True, Russia is authoritarian and Putin is acting badly. However, that has rarely bothered folks in Washington. For instance, Saudi Crown Prince Mohammed bin Salman is killing far more people in Yemen – just last week launching yet another air attack which killed scores of civilians – and tossing far more people in jail at home. And MbS, otherwise known as Crown Prince "Slice ‘n Dice," for the gruesome murder and dismemberment of journalist Jamal Khashoggi, is committing his crimes with US weapons and diplomatic cover.
Still, Moscow shouldn’t be threatening to invade Ukraine. Although, truth be told, if Russia had mimicked Washington’s behavior close to the US – expanding the Warsaw Pact to Latin America, supporting Color Revolutions against governments friendly to Washington, seeking to bring Mexico into an alliance with Moscow – Wicker would not be the only Washington policymaker threatening war. The capital would be in a frenzy, without the slightest concern about the right of democratic Mexico to make its own choices.
Even so, how best to forestall a Russian invasion of Ukraine? One is to threaten Armageddon, even though the issue matters much more to Moscow. For all the friendly attention from Wicker and others to Ukraine, Kyiv has never been a vital security interest of America and never will be. Russia will spend and risk far more than the US in dealing with Ukraine. Imagine China declaring that it now viewed Mexico as a vital concern and would give the US a bloody nose if Washington sought to coerce Beijing’s vulnerable southern neighbor.
Instead of rushing off to nuclear war, Washington should do what Wicker finds to be so objectionable: negotiate. And, yes, offer concessions. Of course, this would lead to the usual charges of "appeasement." Yet appeasement was a historic diplomatic tool which defused countless threats of violence. A bit more appeasement in July 1914 in Europe would have prevented World War I.
The problem in 1938 and 1939 was that Adolf Hitler was almost uniquely unappeasable. Nothing suggests that Putin wants what can never be given. After all, in more than 20 years in power, he has gone to war far less often than his US counterparts. His policies have killed far fewer foreigners than the wars of George W. Bush, Barack Obama, and Donald Trump. Bush alone shares responsibility for the deaths of hundreds of thousands of Iraqi civilians.
Today Putin wants neutralization of Ukraine, essentially what America has with Mexico. (Canada goes further and is a formal ally.) Moscow also demanded restrictions on troop and equipment deployments near Russia’s borders. The latter, as part of a general pullback, would benefit all sides, while the former is not unusual even in recent European history. Both Austria and Finland maintained their independence and freedom during the Cold War by trimming their foreign policy sails. Today both countries are indistinguishable from their democratic neighbors.
A negotiated settlement also would provide some stability, in contrast to maintaining a permanent military confrontation. Threatening to bloody Putin’s nose would encourage him to consider a comparable response. Moscow has local military superiority. The closer the US and NATO draw to Ukraine, the greater Putin’s incentive to strike now rather than wait.
Perhaps the most serious weakness of American policymakers is hubris, a belief that "what we say" still goes, three decades after President George HW Bush uttered those memorable words. The assumption that if only an American waves his or her pinky finger, America’s adversaries will run screaming from the room. That never was the case, and it certainly isn’t today. Yet a motley kettle of (war) hawks make the same claim for Russia, China, Iran, North Korea, and any other adversary du jour. Implement their policies and the world will lie prostrate at their feet, with a bevy of dictators begging for mercy. Unfortunately, that fantasy is a prescription for constant war.
It might shock people today, but the Republican Party once included skeptics of war. That heritage was captured by recently deceased Sen. Robert Dole in 1976 when he criticized "Democrat wars of the 20th century." He was attacked for making war a partisan issue, but, in fact, Democratic presidents were responsible for US involvement in World War I, World War II, the Korean War, and the Vietnam War. More recently Democratic presidents added the Balkans, Libya, and Yemen.
However, Iraq (both times) and Afghanistan were Republican ventures. And the most reckless proposed actions against Russia – intervening in the 2008 Russo-Georgian war and threatening to shoot down Russian aircraft in Syria – were most avidly promoted by GOP officials or wannabes with Wicker-low levels of judgment. Gone is the earlier tradition of Republican Party "adults" running foreign policy. Now it is the asylum inmates.
Recent history should have demonstrated to Washington that war is an uncertain business, which usually turns out much worse than expected, witness Afghanistan, Iraq, and Yemen. Yet these conflicts would be nothing compared to a US-Russia slugfest, even if it stayed conventional. Wicker would knowingly open the gates of hell and beckon us through. His colleagues should join the president in ensuring that those doors remain tightly shut.
Doug Bandow is a Senior Fellow at the Cato Institute. A former Special Assistant to President Ronald Reagan, he is author of Foreign Follies: America’s New Global Empire.