Why We Need Wartime Dissent

But this leads to the second point, which is that dissent can still be important in cases where the interventionists are initially correct. Our decision to topple the Taliban in 2001, for instance, remains the right and necessary call in hindsight, notwithstanding the debacles that followed. But that didn’t make Lee’s dissenting vote any less important — because it anticipated the disaster of our nation-building effort, the over-expansive application of the authorization to use military force, the various abuses of presidential power in the War on Terror.

Likewise, in the current moment there’s no way to know for sure whether Thomas Massie’s libertarian warnings about the House’s measures — that they’re overly broad, escalatory and liable to presidential abuse — will be borne out by events. But it’s entirely possible for arming Ukraine to be good policy and for Massie to be right that some elements of the American response to Russian aggression could go badly or disastrously astray.

Finally, dissent matters because the potential scale of a disastrous outcome in a conflict with Russia is so much greater than even the worst-case scenarios in other recent wars. Let’s say, for the sake of argument, that because of the Biden administration’s caution, there’s only a 5 percent chance that our support for Ukraine leads to unexpected escalation, to the American military’s direct involvement in the war. Whereas if you looked at the Bush administration’s policy toward Iraq in late 2002, you would have said that the odds of a war for regime change in that case were well over 50 percent.

On that level, the Biden policy seems much safer for a cautious realist to support. But that hypothetical 5 percent risk carries with it some still-more-fractional risk of nuclear escalation, which is a much more existential danger than even the more disastrous scenarios for Iraq. That has to create its own distinctive set of calculations. Even if the Biden policy is the best course, you still need an unusual level of vigilance, a somewhat hyperactive caution, around the possibility of escalation. And here the anticipatory critique of elite failure that we’re getting from the populists becomes valuable: Not because it will necessarily be vindicated, but because even a small risk of elite folly is worth worrying over when nuclear weapons are potentially involved.

For a practical example of that folly from Republican politics, consider the G.O.P. Senate primary in Ohio, where J.D. Vance has been running as a populist traitor to the intelligentsia that helped make his “Hillbilly Elegy” a best seller. (Full disclosure: I used to have long conversations with Vance about the future of the G.O.P., if you’d like to hold me responsible for the tone of his campaign.) That populist pitch has included a strong dose of anti-interventionism, which led him to declare his indifference to “what happens to Ukraine,” relative to domestic concerns, just before Vladimir Putin gave the order to invade.

It’s a comment that has been highlighted and condemned by populism’s critics since the invasion, and in the recent Republican Senate debate Vance took predictable fire over the issue. But in the same debate the two candidates who are seemingly ahead of him in the polls, Mike Gibbons and Josh Mandel, both endorsed an improbable halfway kind of escalation — a no-fly zone somehow imposed by Europeans rather than Americans, with the idea that this would thread the needle between thwarting Russia and accidentally starting World War III.

It was an idea that only Vance wholeheartedly condemned, and he was right. Under wartime conditions, the escalatory fantasies of his rivals — have our European allies close Ukraine’s skies, and then when they get into a shooting war with Russia, we do … what? — carry a more immediate risk than the dangers of populist indifference, the flaws of isolationist dissent.


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