In the pages of First Things, George Weigel has weighed in with a typically forceful essay on U.S. policy regarding the Ukraine War. It contains no surprises, yet it is not without value: “What Ukraine Means” testifies powerfully to the perils of employing nostalgia as the basis of policy.
The essay contains many of the hallmarks of Weigel’s oeuvre. Weigel, senior fellow at the Ethics and Public Policy Center, calls attention to the evils of Adolf Hitler, who committed suicide in 1945. He laments the appeasement policies of Neville Chamberlain, now more than eight decades in the past. He includes an inspirational quotation by Franklin Roosevelt. According to Weigel, the dark days of World War II still lurk today.
In the unfolding plight of Ukraine, he sees a host of “chilling parallel[s] to the mid-1930s.” For Weigel, this is the past that matters, illuminating the present and pointing to a proper—and necessary—American response. “What Ukraine means for the United States,” writes Weigel in a dramatic flourish, “is that there is no holiday from history.”
Has the United States been vacationing in Aruba while history has goosestepped down the road toward Armageddon? If so, I for one missed it. If we consider the post–Cold War decades, it seems more accurate to say that the United States has vainly sought to coerce history onto a Washington-prescribed path.
Strikingly absent from Weigel’s analysis is any mention of events more recent than World War II—the 2003 U.S. invasion of Iraq, for example. Weigel himself was an enthusiastic booster of that undertaking, expecting it to culminate in “the emergence of a new, free, and stable Iraq.” Any failure to bring Saddam Hussein to heel, he predicted, would inflict “the gravest damage” on “the cause of world order and international law.” Yet if international law and order suffered damage—as they surely did—it was as a direct consequence of American recklessness. Arguably, the damage that the United States sustained domestically was even greater.
More broadly, Weigel’s latest essay gives short shrift to the entire post–Cold War interval during which the United States not only impaled itself on Iraq but also lost the nation’s longest ever war in Afghanistan even while engaging in various other ambiguous skirmishes in and around the greater Middle East. Few of them yielded success. Most of them—Somalia and Libya come to mind—we have long since chosen to forget. Meanwhile, the cumulative costs, already exorbitant, continue to mount.