A Ukrainian soldier listens to artillery fire from his bunker at a front-line position near Bakhmut March 16, 2023 (OSV News photo/Violeta Santos Moura, Reuters).

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.

Has the United States been vacationing in Aruba while history has goosestepped down the road toward Armageddon? If so, I for one missed it.

Not for a second would I suggest that the canonical “lessons” of World War II have lost their relevance. Yet the post-9/11 period also offers instruction worth noting, not least of all that even in the so-called Information Age, war remains an uncertain instrument. In moments of honest reflection, Vladimir Putin himself might agree with that statement. Like George W. Bush in 2003, Putin last year initiated an unnecessary war expecting a cheap and decisive victory to follow. Like Bush, he miscalculated, egregiously.

Viewed through the lens of geopolitics, the chief impact of the Ukraine War has been to expose Russian weakness. The Russian military’s abysmal performance affirms that Europe—should it choose to do so—is fully capable of defending itself from a conventional attack coming from the east. An invading army that can’t make it to Kyiv won’t come anywhere close to seizing Warsaw or Berlin.

Weigel discounts the war’s immediate geopolitical significance, viewing it instead through the lens of culture and ideology. On that score, in his estimation, the stakes could hardly be higher, just as they ostensibly were in Iraq. Turning back Russian aggression in Ukraine, he writes, “will make the world, and Americans, safer, while demonstrating to China that the mature democracies that are the backbone of a decent global order have not decayed into fecklessness.” In effect, according to Weigel, brave Ukrainians are fighting not simply to preserve their own independence but to uphold (Western) civilization while simultaneously fending off China. Central to this task, he adds, is mounting a resistance to what he calls “the sludge exported by American culture.”

I share Weigel’s dismal view of the state of our culture. But he is deluded if he thinks that fighting against American decadence or trying to impress Beijing figure as Ukrainian war aims. Ukraine is fighting to preserve its existence as a sovereign state. This worthy but limited cause deserves U.S. support.

As for fostering the emergence of a decent global order, ending this conflict before the contagion of war spreads further would be a good place to start. While some wars may be necessary, all are evil and long wars are worse. It might even be time for the United States to rethink its own propensity for resorting to violence abroad. Perhaps the folly of George W. Bush has as much to teach us as the folly of Neville Chamberlain.

When American commentators try to define the war’s essential meaning—when, for example, Weigel writes that Ukrainians are “providing the West with an alternative vision of the human condition”—they appropriate a prerogative that is not theirs. “By looking death in the eye and refusing to flinch,” Weigel tells us, Ukrainians

have reminded the West that we are more than our subjectivity—that we can know, embrace, and live by truths greater than “me.” We can make sacrifices. We can exhibit courage. We can refuse to be mastered by evil.

But “we” have not made sacrifices and exhibited courage. The United States has chosen to engage in a proxy fight, sending billions in arms and ammunition while others do the fighting and dying. The American people appear to be largely satisfied with this arrangement. Given that limited role, framing the war in grandiose terms is particularly presumptuous. One might even say that it amounts to another form of exporting sludge.

Andrew Bacevich is chairman and co-founder of the Quincy Institute for Responsible Statecraft.

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