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General News    H4'ed 2/14/23

Tomgram: Andrew Bacevich, Giving Whataboutism a Chance

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Tom Engelhardt
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This article originally appeared at TomDispatch.com. To receive TomDispatch in your inbox three times a week, click here.

The name of the game in Ukraine seems to be escalation, not just in the fighting (with a major Russian offensive expected soon), but in weaponry, too. Only recently, after initially refusing, President Biden agreed to send advanced American M-1 Abrams tanks to Ukraine (partly to push Germany to dispatch its own advanced Leopard 2 tanks and other European countries to do the same). And that, sadly enough, represents just another step up the ladder to" well, who knows quite what.

The Ukrainians are now demanding that the U.S. (and so, as with those tanks, other NATO allies) supply its air force with F-16 jet fighters. In an unsettling analog to the German tank accord, the Polish government seemed to agree to deliver some of its F-16s to the Ukrainians, with one proviso: that NATO (that is, the U.S.) agree to do the same. In Washington, those planes had been considered a "red line" not to be crossed and not so long ago President Biden offered a flat "no" to the very idea -- as he had, once upon a time, with those tanks, too. In other words, in a phrase now in use at the Pentagon, he "M1-ed" the idea. As it happens, sentiment at the Pentagon already seems to be shifting, suggesting that the president's F-16 position may soon prove to be so yesterday. Only recently, in fact, the U.S. agreed to send Ground-Launched Small Diameter Bombs that would double the range of that country's rocket batteries, though like the tanks and possible planes actual delivery remains in an undefined future.

Here's a question to consider: Once promises are indeed made to deliver those F-16s, what can Ukrainian President Volodymyr Zelensky demand next? It's worth recalling that, in 1994 in a remarkable move, the Ukrainians returned to Russia the massive nuclear arsenal left there when the Soviet Union collapsed. It had briefly made the new nation into the third-largest nuclear power on Earth. The Ukrainians did so, however, only after the Russians agreed "to refrain from the threat or use of force against the territorial integrity or political independence of Ukraine." No small irony there, right?

Is it too farfetched, then, to imagine that, once those F-16s are assured, Zelensky could begin demanding tactical nuclear weapons? After all, Russian President Vladimir Putin and his confederates have already muttered more than once about using such weaponry against Ukraine.

I know, I know, that's certainly one wild jump too far, except that so much has proven unnervingly too far in the first major European war since World War II ended. As TomDispatch regular Andrew Bacevich, author of the remarkable new book On Shedding an Obsolete Past: Bidding Farewell to the American Century, suggests today, perhaps nothing is inconceivable when what's at stake is "civilization" itself (as defined in both Moscow and Washington). Tom

Tanks for Nuttin'
Is Civilization at Stake in Ukraine?


"To defend civilization, defeat Russia." Writing in the unfailingly bellicose Atlantic, an American academic of my acquaintance recently issued that dramatic call to arms. And lest there be any confusion about the stakes involved, the image accompanying his essay depicted Russian President Vladimir Putin with a Hitler mustache and haircut.

Cast Putin as the latest manifestation of the Fuhrer and the resurrection of Winston Churchill can't be far behind. And, lo, more than a few observers have already begun depicting Ukrainian President Volodymyr Zelensky as the latest reincarnation of America's favorite British prime minister.

These days, it may be Western-supplied missiles downing "kamikaze drones" rather than Spitfires tangling with Messerschmitts over southern England, but the basic scenario remains intact. In the skies above Ukraine and on the battlefields below, the "finest hour" of 1940 is being reenacted. Best of all, we know how this story ends -- or at least how it's supposed to end: with evil vanquished and freedom triumphant. Americans have long found comfort in such simplified narratives. Reducing history to a morality play washes away annoying complexities. Why bother to think when the answers are self-evident?

A Case of Whataboutism?

Not that donning the mantle of Churchill necessarily guarantees a happy outcome -- or even continued U.S. support. Recall, for example, that during a visit to Saigon in May 1961, Vice President Lyndon Johnson infamously anointed South Vietnamese President Ngo Dinh Diem the "Churchill of Asia."

Alas, that exalted title didn't spare Diem from being overthrown and murdered in a CIA-facilitated coup slightly more than two years later. U.S. complicity in bumping off South Vietnam's stand-in for Churchill marked a critical turning point in the Vietnam War, transforming an annoyance into an out-and-out debacle. An appreciation for such ironies may help explain why Zelensky's preferred anti-Nazi isn't Winston Churchill but Charlie Chaplin.

All of that said, defending civilization is an honorable and necessary cause that deserves the support of every American. Where things get sticky is in deciding how to frame such an essential task. Put bluntly, who gets to choose what's both honorable and necessary? In the editorial offices of the Atlantic and similarly Russophobic quarters, the unacknowledged assumption is, of course, that we do, where "we" means the West and, above all, the United States.

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Tom Engelhardt, who runs the Nation Institute's Tomdispatch.com ("a regular antidote to the mainstream media"), is the co-founder of the American Empire Project and, most recently, the author of Mission Unaccomplished: Tomdispatch (more...)

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