The empty moralism of the anti-war left

Joe Ciricione joined Briahna Joy Gray on her podcast to discuss the war in Ukraine and the Congressional Progressive Caucus letter calling for negotiations between the United States and Russia.  The podcast is subscribers only, but a clip and follow up talk by BJG are available on line. 

BJG is a talented debater, but her arguments against support for Ukraine are an absurd, moralistic mess.  My rough transcript from the clip above:

There are gangs that have overtaken Haiti, there are the cholera pandemic that was started by the U.N., UN members raped Haitians, a third of Pakistan was underwater due to climate crisis, should we go to invade China because Uigurs are in concentration camps? . . .

Until you can articulate to me what the rationale is behind where America intervenes and where it doesn’t, and give me some kind of moral accounting that makes me believe it is actually about moral commitment and realizing how much of our money and our resources in the richest country in the world can go to saving lives and increasing quality of life for the most people as opposed to a strategic military intervention for territory, resources and political control.  If you can articulate to me why this truly the most deserving humanitarian case on the planet, as opposed to a continuation of these cold war policies we want our economic system, our oppressive by the way economic system, to maintain global dominance then I can start to entertain a conversation about what our intervention should be how long and how much.  But there is nowhere in the entire public sphere that that conversation is actually happening and nowhere close to a rationalization that’s been presented.

From the follow up talk:

We’re leftists, we obviously know and believe that the Democratic Party is controlled by warmongers.  The deep state knows no D or R party affiliation.  This is not even a controversial statement.  . . .

Joe struggled to answer one fundamental question:  What assurances are there that US aid is motivated by a humanitarian drive towards peace rather than military adventurism . . . Libya . . . Afghanistan . . . Iraq . . . I think it’s a reasonable question.  Russia has violated international law by invading Ukraine, but given America’s past behavior what assurances can experts like Joe give us that the US’s role here isn’t pretextual . . . I think it’s a necessary question given that America regularly ignores humanitarian causes like the genocide in Rwanda or Bosnia and since our own president and state department officials keep saying that our goal is to weaken Russia, a goal that is not quite the same as protecting Ukrainian people or borders . . . the fundamental question, why save these women, these children, but not these ones . . . why and to what extent American should play the world’s policeman, and if it does adopt the role of global cop, why are we only choosing to police certain neighborhoods?

This is all just childish moralism.  Sure, the United States has too often been a bad actor in international affairs.  It intervenes when it shouldn’t (Iraq), and it sits on its hands when it should intervene (Rwanda, Bosnia).  But what does this have to do with whether we should support Ukraine in its fight against Russian occupation and genocide? 

Why does it matter what is motivating our support for Ukraine?  In truth, there is no single motivation for supporting Ukraine.  I support Ukraine for humanitarian reasons, and also for strategic reasons (mostly to avoid the instability and incentives for nuclear proliferation that an easy Russian victory would produce; I consider weakening Russia to be good but a secondary consideration).  But I don’t really care very much why others support Ukraine.  I’m looking for allies, not moral purity.  (Of course, if there was some reason to think that bad motives would lead to a disastrous peace, that might make me reconsider my support, but I do not see this as a substantial risk in this case.  The peace could be disastrous, but not because we are acting from bad motives.)  Too many progressives are more interested in moral purity than finding allies and building a coalition that can win elections and get things done.

A few other points:

BJG takes it for granted that leftists “know and believe” the Democrats are warmongers.  This kind of identity-based reasoning about a complicated foreign policy question – rather than evaluating the case for supporting Ukraine on the merits – is a recipe for bad decision making.  It is easy, though!

BJG may be troubled by the fact that we are intervening to protect Europeans, when we left Syrians, Uigurs, Bosnians, Rwandans to their fate.  (She doesn’t come out and say the part about Europeans in the clips I listened to, but it’s a common complaint and a natural interpretation of her remarks.)  At least in some cases there are good reasons we might help Ukraine and not others.  To take the obvious case, there is a very good reason not to attack China to protect the Uigurs, viz., China has nuclear weapons.  There may also be economic motives to help Ukraine that were not present in other cases.  But let’s say that we would not be aiding the Ukrainians if they were non-European.  This double standard would indeed be wrong, but it doesn’t mean we should leave the Ukrainians to their fate.  (For the record, I suspect that we would aid the Ukrainians even if they were non-European.  But regardless, the notion that we cannot aid Ukraine if we would have wrongly not aided them if they had not been European is absurd – two wrongs do not make a right – as is BJG’s insistence that we need to answer unanswerable questions about counterfactuals and motivations before deciding whether to do the right thing in this case.) 

Based on other clips not transcribed:

BJG seems to think that money spent in Ukraine should be spent here at home.  But there is no reason to think that this is possible.  Republicans did not say “we will support either a child tax credit or aid for Ukraine”. 

BJG seems to resent higher gas prices being paid by Americans.  But does she really believe that we shouldn’t even put sanctions on Russia for its invasion?

BJG seems to think that support for Ukraine is bad for Ukrainians, because Russia will ultimately prevail (we are encouraging them to “fight to the last Ukrainian”).  This is paternalistic and reflects a serious misunderstanding of the situation on the ground.  There are no guarantees in war, but there is a good chance that Ukraine will retake all of its territory outside of Crimea, and a reasonable chance they will take Crimea as well if the United States and Europe support this (my guess is that we won’t, but we’ll see). 

Finally, a couple of points about rhetoric and debate.

BJG is a talented debater, but she is more interested in vindicating her vision of leftism than arriving at the right policy choice.  She shifts the burden of proof to Ciricione (“until you can articulate to me”), and frames the issue in a way that there is no way he can possibly meet it.  BJG arguably engages in a Gish Gallop, flinging out multiple arguments that are impossible for a debate partner to refute.  I tried to respond to many of her points above, but this is impossible in a debate.  The right response in a debate is to declare that foreign policy is messy and not based on clear moral principles, that failing to help Ukraine will not undo the invasion of Iraq or save the Uigurs from persecution, and that in this case the reasons for helping Ukraine are very strong.