Salvo 02.26.2024 5 minutes

Morally Empty

President Biden Meets With Visiting Ukrainian President Zelensky At The White House

The case for funding endless war in Ukraine is bankrupt.

The future of American support for Ukraine is uncertain. The Senate recently passed an aid package that included money for the war-torn European nation, but the House has not proven eager to take it up. The cause of the uncertainty is the state of public opinion, from which House members can never afford to stray very far. The American public is just not solidly convinced that support for Ukraine is a vital national interest, and, as a result, public approval for providing more money and arms has waned.

Recognizing this change in public opinion, supporters of further aid have moved to a new set of arguments. These arguments are illuminating, though not in the way that those making them intend. The arguments suggest the intellectual and moral bankruptcy of the current case for continuing the war—and of the people in charge of our country.

Advocates for the Senate bill have pointed out that it creates and supports jobs in America. Military equipment destined for Ukranian hands will be built here in America by American workers; thus, our representatives should pass the aid package in order to prop up employment in America.

This argument, which is economically illiterate, has been made even by conservative defenders of the aid package, who, as proponents of limited government and a free economy in other contexts, ought to know better. Government spending programs do not create jobs that would not have existed otherwise. The money for such spending has to come from somewhere. If it is raised through taxation, it is taken out of the private economy, where it would have supported employment. If it is raised through borrowing, the effect is the same. The government will have borrowed money that might have been lent to private business to provide work for other workers in some productive and viable enterprise.

Moreover, even if this argument were economically sound, it would still be more than a little alarming and depressing to hear our leaders making an economic argument in support of war spending. Defending military aid on the basis of the jobs it will create seems depraved when the goods to be produced will be used to kill people.

Some leading Americans talk as if it is a manifest good to kill as many Russians as possible. Probably most Americans don’t feel that way, or support for continued Ukraine aid would be greater than it now is. In any event, even (for the sake of argument) treating the destruction of Russian lives as a proper objective overlooks the obvious fact that arming Ukrainians to kill Russians inevitably leads the Russians to kill more Ukrainians.

War is sometimes justified by genuine necessity, and in such cases the terrible costs must be borne. But we shouldn’t foster a public culture that would encourage the continuation of a war between foreign nations because of the alleged economic benefits to American workers and investors.

Others have said that the spending is useful because it builds up our military industrial base. But given the untold trillions spent on our military industrial base over the last generation, why are we in need of building it up even more? If our military industrial base is inadequate to our defense, isn’t this an indictment of the competence of our governing class? If our national security requires that we build up our military industrial base, then we should appropriate the money to do so. We can pay our defense contractors to build and stockpile the weapons necessary to defend the United States. But it’s perverse to think we need to back a European war in order to bolster our own capacity at home.

Most recently, proponents of more funding for the Ukraine war have seized upon the death of Russian politician Alexei Navalny as a justification for their preferred policy. It is impossible to overlook the way in which such people treated this sad event as a propaganda opportunity. Within hours of the news, war supporters were blaming Navalny’s death on Putin and claiming it as another reason to pour more money into the Ukraine war.

Assuming that Putin directly ordered Navalny’s death, it would show that Putin is a brutal tyrant capable of the most ruthless acts in defense of his own power. But this recognition has nothing to do with continued American support for the war in Ukraine.

Saddam Hussein was a far worse ruler for his own people than Putin is for his. Saddam’s tyranny, however, was not an adequate justification for going to war with Iraq and killing huge numbers of his subjects. Wars are justified (or not) by being necessary for our security, and not by the moral failings of foreign rulers.

This line of argument is not only beside the point but also indicative of a moral deterioration in the minds of our own leaders and opinion makers. It is strange—and, let’s be candid, sickening—to see powerful people who are personally safe contending that we have to “punish” Putin for Navalny’s death by continuing to fund the Ukraine war, overlooking that this “punishment” requires the violent deaths of thousands of people unconnected to Putin’s domestic misdeeds.

That this kind of monstrous thinking has become usual does not make it any more sensible. It has become common in the post-Nuremburg world for proponents of foreign interventions to insist that some dictator or another has to be held to account for his crimes. But leaders usually cannot be punished for their crimes except through total war and unconditional surrender, which inevitably involves much suffering for innocent bystanders. Demanding “punishment” in such cases, while overlooking these costs, is not moral but foolish and fanatical.

Edmund Burke was right to warn, more than two centuries ago, that “a great empire and little minds go ill together.” Regrettably, however, it is not uncommon in history to find very powerful nations governed by foolish, superficial, and arrogant people. The quality of the Ukraine debate suggests that this is a real problem for our own country, unless and until we can give ourselves better leaders.

The American Mind presents a range of perspectives. Views are writers’ own and do not necessarily represent those of The Claremont Institute.

The American Mind is a publication of the Claremont Institute, a non-profit 501(c)(3) organization, dedicated to restoring the principles of the American Founding to their rightful, preeminent authority in our national life. Interested in supporting our work? Gifts to the Claremont Institute are tax-deductible.

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