It’s been interesting to follow the lefty spin on the current Russo-Ukrainian conflict — or rather lack thereof.
If hardcore American progressives have traditionally possessed one consistent virtue, it’s moral clarity on foreign policy. During both the Cold War and the War on Terror, lefties were tireless in calling attention to the human cost of American geopolitical calculations, loudly reminding everyone of the body count of American-backed dictators, the destructive toll of American-led bombings, and the ignored human suffering of regions beyond the realm of US interests. In that sense, campus radicals, street marchers, and socialist intellectuals of various stripes absolutely deserved the “conscience of the nation” title they were sometimes politely given — even if they didn’t always have the best record of betting on the right horse themselves.
As we enter the so-called “post-American era,” however — an era in which the United States is no longer the world’s primary mover-and-shaker in foreign crises and conflicts — much of the left’s interest in standing up for principle and human rights abroad seems to be waning in sync. The complete lack of a compelling left-wing narrative on Ukraine is a good case study.
Though this now feels like a million years ago, we may recall that a couple months back, the Russian government was officially declared an enemy of the progressive left following President Putin’s approval of a regressive law that outlawed so-called pro-gay “propaganda” in public places. For a brief window, Putin was fashionable to hate, and hate progressives did, with memes and hashtags and vodka-dumpings and all the rest. It was post-modern foreign policy-making at its finest, and a reflection of the central role gender/racial/sexual identity issues have come to play in contemporary liberal thinking — often at the expense of much else.
But then Putin invaded Ukraine, and no one knew what to think anymore.
Ukraine was the conflict’s plucky underdog to be sure, and in that sense a natural ally of those who usually enjoy siding with David over Goliath. But at the same time, some of her staunchest defenders were neo-con Republicans like John McCain and Lindsey Graham, problematic allies for any self respecting lefty to be sure. Those guys were warmongers, and certainly no one wanted to start a war over godforsaken Crimea, not after we just got everyone out of Iraq. Not with Afghanistan in eyeshot of the finish line.
But mounting an effective “US out of Ukraine” campaign was never going to be easy, either. After all, America had no vested interests in the country of the sort that could be turned into a cute, “No Blood For Oil” style slogan, exposing Uncle Sam’s shallow self-interest in feigning concern towards this remote nation’s tragic plight. As many observers have noted, Russia barely has any self-interest in Ukraine, so economically dysfunctional is the country and resource-barren its land. In short, a standard materialistic analysis of the Crimea conflict — one of the academic left’s standard prisms for determining moral righteousness in foreign affairs — simply doesn’t work.
So how then, to spin? The best efforts were pretty threadbare.
Patrick Smith in Salon argued the realities of the whole conflict were being hidden under a “thicket of misinformation, disinformation, spin, propaganda and straight-out lying” from the American political establishment, born from a “century-and-a-half habit of demonizing Russia” for vaguely racist reasons. The Putin government, Pat said, was actually “open to negotiations” with Washington over Ukraine, but of course Washington was disinterested since the Victoria Nuland tapes had already revealed America’s ultimate aim was nothing less than the installation of a compliant Ukrainine “puppet government” full of neo-Nazi thugs.
Similar words were echoed by Stephen Cohen in the pages of the Nation, where the veteran leftist historian spoke in confident, Chomskyian tones of Ms. Nuland’s “coup” against the “democratically elected” regime of the deposed Ukrainian strongman Viktor Yanukovych in the service of various “zealous ultranationalists” backed by Senator McCain and others.
None of this was very convincing. Even if the Ukrainians are tainted with the sin of imperialist American support, the enemy of my enemy should at least possess some redeeming qualities, and a modern leftist who tries to find any in the current gang running Moscow is simply “pathetic,” in the words of Jonathan Chait in New York Magazine. At least old school Soviet apologists could make excuses for the USSR on the basis of sticking up for the“one country in the world [that] was implementing socialism,” says Jon, but “Vladimir Putin’s Russia follows no model except Russian nationalism.” Not to mention, you know, all the gay-hating, journalist-killing stuff.
In the end, it seems the most dogmatic leftists have found the easiest resolution to the many inelegant ambiguities of the Ukraine situation is to embrace a sort of blasé neutrality about it all. Indifferent to Putin’s Russia, but similarly uneasy about being associated with the plight of a celebrated American ally, the mainstream conclusion of the picket and placard set is to simply sit this one out. It’s a drift into unprincipled isolationism not terribly different from the stance some further right types took during President Obama’s 2011 raids against Libya, and a no less revealing reflection that theirs is a cause far more about contrarianism and ideological opportunism than anything particularly enviable.
A peaceful, sovereign nation has been invaded, and a chunk of its territory forcibly annexed, by one of the world’s preeminent rogue regimes. Yet because this story does not fit neatly into some preexisting narrative of Imperial America, oil, and capitalism, no one on this continent will take to the streets in their defense.
So much for anti-war, so much for human rights, so much for international law. So much for Ukraine.
So much for the left.