The War in Ukraine: A National Debate is Needed 

 By Arnold Oliver

Of late (generational dark humor alert), I have begun to feel as though Professor Peabody and his trusty human Sherman have stuffed me into their WayBack Machine and sent me back to 2003. As you may recall, back then we skeptics about the US invasion of Iraq were subjected to all manner of scorn and abuse for our audacity in pointing out that Iraq likely did not possess weapons of mass destruction and posed no dire threat. We were said to be disloyal, cowards and lovers of Saddam. In some cases our jobs and persons were threatened. 

And now in the present, skepticism concerning the war in Ukraine is met with similar open hostility. When we point out the decades of clear warnings about the risks of NATO expansion eastward, the diplomatic failures such as the Minsk Accords, and the presence of extreme ethnic nationalists in Ukraine (Russia has them as well) we encounter waves of invective clearly aimed at silencing reasoned discussion. We are labeled Putin lovers, supporters of Russian imperialism, and genocide enablers, just for openers. 

So yes, in some ways 2022 feels like 2003 – and not in a good way. 

There are no more important decisions that republics can make than whether to go to war. In such times of crisis, citizens are obliged to inform themselves on the facts and issues as best they can, and to speak out clearly and forcefully. But it is difficult to see how this is possible if any questioning of a rigid orthodoxy leads to immediate attacks on one’s character; or worse, if the major media outlets are in lockstep on the march to war, and deny the public access to dissenting views. All of this happened in 2003, and it is again happening now. 

If one is searching for evidence of the major US media outlets’ failure to provide balanced information on the war, one need look no further than their treatment of the issue of extremist ethnic nationalists in the Ukrainian military and society. Prior to the war, this issue was covered widely and treated as a serious problem for Ukraine. But as soon as the Russian attack was launched on February 24th, US media declared it to be merely the product of Russian propaganda. Similarly, the issue of corruption in the Ukrainian government (second worst in Europe only to Russia) was widely noted and discussed, as well as the well documented history of US meddling in Ukrainian internal political affairs in 2014 and other times as well. But once the shooting started, that news vanished from most media accounts. 

At the same time, informed skeptical voices are ignored by Big Media, including a number of respected analysts who got it right in 2003, and who were shut out of the media discussions then, just as they are now. They can be found on the internet, but you will not see them on the nightly news. Old school realists such as Stephen Walt and John Mearsheimer come to mind, as do experts Andrew Bacevich and Phyllis Bennis and Ray McGovern, among others. Even FOX news is now on board with the war narrative. 

All of this is not to excuse Russia’s brutal assault on Ukraine, but understanding that conflict is not the same as justifying it. The Russian invasion would be wrong, whether or not NATO and the US provoked it – and it appears that they did just that. 

“Why have a national debate?” you might ask. Who needs it? Well, for one thing, consider the possibility that Biden’s goal of “weakening” Russia might well be realized. The consequence could well be more break-away ethnic minorities and republics from the Russian Federation that rapidly devolve into a number of failed states ruled by warlords with loose nukes. Would we be better off then? Would they be better off? And is there a chance that Ukraine could be taken over by extreme ethnic nationalists as in Hungary or Poland, only worse? Could the better historical parallel here be, not appeasement as in Munich in 1938, but 1914 in the Balkans in which a conflict involving a small country spiraled out of control to engulf much of the planet? When the use of nuclear weapons and wider war are on the table, Congress and the American public need to be fully involved. 

The lessons from 2003 and 2022 are not comforting. In both cases a swath of the public and the media banded together to beat the drums of war and to stifle reasoned discussion. 

It would be great if Professor Peabody could show up and straighten us out, but I am not counting on that. 

Arnold Oliver, Ph.D., is Emeritus Professor of Political Science, Heidelberg University.

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