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The Stories That Hardliners Tell
Hardliners always need to portray the status quo as too accommodating to adversaries in order to sell their extreme preferred policies.
U.S. policy toward post-Soviet Russia has never come close to the extreme accommodationism that Vindman describes. Washington did try to forge a partnership with Moscow, but those efforts were carefully circumscribed to avoid even the impression of a great-power condominium. When American and Russian interests diverged, the United States did not hesitate to act. Even in the 1990s, the heyday of bilateral relations, Washington actively pursued NATO enlargement, intervention in Kosovo, and ballistic missile defenses in the face of Moscow’s vehement objections.
Contrary to Vindman’s claims, U.S. policy has been consistently nonaccommodationist in Russia’s immediate neighborhood, seeking to prevent a new Moscow-led regional juggernaut from reemerging after the Soviet collapse.
It is clear that Vindman gets the history of the last thirty years badly wrong, and this matters because he uses this misreading of the past to push for an even more aggressive policy towards Russia than the one that the U.S. has already had. This is a common move that hardliners make when there is a crisis or conflict, especially when it is at least partly the result of policies that the hardliners supported. When confrontational policies blow up in our face, hardliners come up with a story to explain how the real cause of the problem was that the U.S. was too passive or too willing to compromise. The story is usually false, but it can be appealing to policymakers that want to avoid accountability for past errors.
I am reminded of how many of the most aggressive interventionists responded to 9/11 by inventing a fictional version of U.S. foreign policy in the 1990s where the U.S. had supposedly been ignoring the rest of the world for the entire decade. This was doubly useful for interventionists, because it allowed them to deflect attention from the role that U.S. interventionism had in stirring up hostility to the United States and it also let them pretend that the U.S. had been on a “holiday from history.” Charles Krauthammer put it this way: “We are now paying the wages of the 1990s, our holiday from history. During that decade, every major challenge to America was deferred.” By painting the 1990s as an era of feckless neglect of international problems, interventionists were laying the groundwork for the hyperactive foreign policy that they wanted. The hardliners also had an advantage that this distortion of the past came with simple recommendations of “do more” and “be aggressive” that could be applied wherever they wanted.
These were the hardliners of their time that thought that even the frenetic interventionism of the Clinton administration had been inadequate and weak. The disastrous results of the 2000s and after followed from this idea that the big problem with U.S. foreign policy was that it had not been active and aggressive enough. Now we are hearing a new version of this on Russia policy as hardliners try to rewrite the history of the last thirty years to make it seem as if problem was that the U.S. and its allies were too friendly to Russia. As an account of what happened, it is nonsense, but it’s nonsense that hardliners want to use to justify escalation. If we are lucky, policymakers will not be so receptive to the hardline revisionism this time, but we cannot take that for granted.
Interventionists always need to minimize the negative consequences of their own policies, and if they can pretend that the failures of U.S. policy stem from inaction and non-intervention then so much the better for them. Whenever something goes so wrong that it can’t be ignored, they will look to put the blame on the “isolationism” of Americans and our government’s supposed “appeasement” of adversaries when there is no evidence of either one. Interventionists hate it when anyone tries to hold the U.S. responsible for things that it has actually done in the world, but they will be the first in line to blame the U.S. for “failing” to confront this or that threat. As far as they’re concerned, America can do no wrong except when it is refraining from “doing something.”
Hardliners always need to portray the status quo as too accommodating to adversaries in order to sell their extreme preferred policies, but in almost all cases the hardliners have been among those responsible for creating the worst aspects of the status quo. It is the old story of the arsonist causing the fire and then claiming to have the solution by setting more things on fire. The easiest way for hardliners to dodge accountability for their previous blunders is to invent a useable history that exonerates them and shifts the blame to imaginary accommodationists that never existed.