Yesterday, Senator Bernie Sanders (I-VT) weighed in on the standoff in Ukraine with the most comprehensive stance he’s taken on the conflict so far. Liberals, progressives, and socialists should all pay attention.
Writing in the Guardian, Sanders places the blame for the crisis firmly at the feet of the “liar and demagogue” Vladimir Putin and his “gang of oligarchs,” but makes clear his unease with the “familiar drumbeats in Washington” and the “simplistic refusal to recognize the complex roots of the tensions in the region.” Pointing to not just the devastating potential of war in the region, but the ruinous ripple effects that even just imposing sanctions would have on ordinary people in Russia and throughout the world, he urges all parties to “work hard to achieve a realistic and mutually agreeable resolution” — starting with taking seriously the “legitimate concerns” in Moscow about NATO’s eastward expansion.
“To put it simply, even if Russia was not ruled by a corrupt authoritarian leader like Vladimir Putin, Russia, like the United States, would still have an interest in the security policies of its neighbors,” Sanders writes. “Does anyone really believe that the United States would not have something to say if, for example, Mexico was to form a military alliance with a US adversary?”
Sanders is treading a very fine line in making a point that was once mainstream and common sense, but has in the current political climate become unspeakable: that maybe the US policy of enlarging the anti-Soviet military alliance right up to Russia’s borders has not been particularly wise or reasonable — and may, in fact, be a root cause of the current tensions.
Sanders’s op-ed comes as progressives in Congress have been increasingly vocal against Washington escalation in Ukraine. Last week, Representative Ilhan Omar (D-MN) warned the Democrats’ bill to send $500 million worth of military aid to the country — coming at a point when even the Biden administration is joining the rest of the world in admitting a Russian invasion may not actually be imminent — simply “escalates the conflict without deterring it effectively.” Two weeks before that, Representative Alexandria Ocasio-Cortez (D-NY) cautioned that “there is not a military solution to this problem,” warning it could spark an energy crisis, and blaming it all on a military-industrial complex “starved of revenue” since the Afghanistan pullout.
Statements like these carry more than a small amount of political risk, which is maybe why they took so long to materialize among the Congressional left. Progressive lawmakers have had to navigate the Ukraine crisis in a world still infected with the post-2016 viral cocktail of anti-Russian hysteria and McCarthyite-style accusations.
The Worst People in the World Have a Point
You only need to look at how the Democratic Party and its affiliates spent the year so far responding to similar antiwar and de-escalatory arguments. Disappointingly, these initially didn’t come from left-wing or even liberal lawmakers and pundits, but from the Right side of the political spectrum.
There was the New York Times’ Ross Douthat, who proposed an “ideal retreat” for Washington that would see “NATO expansion permanently tabled,” among other things. Former Trump official Michael Flynn, who once upon a time appeared to have had surprisingly sensible foreign policy views before the Internet drove him completely insane, wrote that NATO’s eastward creep would be the “principal cause of a devastating war.” More recently, Senator Josh Hawley (R-MO) has gone further than any elected official, explicitly questioning the idea of including Ukraine in NATO, and warning that “our interest is not so strong” in Ukraine’s independence and sovereignty that it would “justify committing the United States to go to war with Russia.”
But maybe most prominent of all has been Fox News’ Tucker Carlson, who as far back as December 2021 was admonishing Republicans for goading Biden into being more aggressive and using rhetoric that was “hotter and crazier and more disconnected from reality.” Since then, he’s continued to question Ukraine’s strategic value to the United States, argue against war with Russia, and compare, accurately, Ukraine’s entry into NATO to Mexico entering a military alliance with China. Carlson’s broadcasts reportedly led some Republicans to adopt his same position on the Ukraine crisis, a notable shift for a party that has typically never met a war it didn’t want to charge into.
Carlson is, of course, a charlatan who, for all his populist rhetoric, is a conventional neoliberal Republican on almost every issue. But he also happens to be completely right on this particular matter. And it’s telling that even as Carlson continued to broadcast vile agitprop calling for the banishment of the homeless and fearmongering about immigrants, it was his entirely sensible position on Ukraine that got the most aggressive widespread pushback from the liberal-Democratic side of the spectrum.
Late Show host Stephen Colbert accused Flynn of using Putin’s “exact argument,” and called Carlson an “apologist” for a “murderous dictator.” Carlson’s points were “in perfect alignment with the way Russia’s beleaguered neighbor is being smeared on Kremlin-funded state television,” wrote the Daily Beast, noting what it called “the tactic of terrorizing American audiences with the possibility of nuclear war,” as if this were a messaging strategy and not an objective fact. Even pieces of ostensibly straight reporting framed such statements as mere repetition of Kremlin propaganda. (Newsweek headline: “Tucker Carlson Backs Russia, Compares Ukraine Joining NATO With China Controlling Mexico.”)
It’s been much the same on CNN, where host Brianna Keilar accused Carlson of having a “pro-Russia stance.” “Tucker’s propaganda is very convenient for Russia,” the Daily Beast author told Reliable Sources, ostensibly the network’s media criticism show. Ronald Reagan’s son dipped into the same playbook on the network that the Right once used to attack Reagan himself for turning to diplomacy with the Soviet Union, suggesting that Carlson was one of a “number of people who would take Vladimir Putin’s side over our own president.”
“I don’t want to throw around words like ‘traitor’ or ‘traitorism,’ but that’s coming pretty close,” he said. The apple clearly doesn’t fall far from the tree.
But it’s on MSNBC where this kind of rhetoric is on overdrive, with talking heads accusing Carlson of “shilling for Vladimir Putin,” broadcasting a “very pro-Kremlin message,” of “doing the work of the autocratic Russian government,” feeding people “Russian propaganda,” and “rooting for Russia.” New Jersey Democrat Tom Malinowski came on to complain that “I started getting calls from my constituents, basically, saying: I have been watching Tucker and we’re being way too hard on Russia. And why should we go fight a war for this unimportant country, Ukraine, that’s far away?” The horror!
Accusing Carlson of “pushing this kind of Russian message,” MSNBC’s Ari Melber warned that while it may be “a dovish message and it may be the foreign policy many would agree with,” people should know it’s not the truth. For Melber, and on MSNBC as a whole, the reality presented is one in which the Ukraine issue is a battle of democracy versus autocracy, NATO has nothing to do with what’s going on, all of this is entirely due to Putin’s domestic political concerns and imperial mindset — vast oversimplifications that don’t really hold up if you know the slightest bit of the country’s recent history.
There’s almost no alternative to these views on the network. MSNBC’s long-serving progressive voice, Chris Hayes, has tended to avoid the issue, and when he has tackled it, he’s interviewed figures like Senator Chris Murphy (D-CT) — a man who stood shoulder to shoulder with one of Ukraine’s leading fascists, as he announced his support for the revolution that helped bring us to this crisis in the first place. About the only exception is Mehdi Hasan, who has challenged some of his more hawkish guests, and has said that Hawley has “got a point” on explicitly limiting NATO expansion.
Unfortunately though, this reckless type of rhetoric is now more and more seeping out from the toxic soup of cable news. The St Louis Post-Dispatch, Hawley’s hometown paper, has now run two pieces by its editorial board attacking him and Carlson from the right for being insufficiently hawkish on Ukraine, accusing them of a “pro-Russia stand,” criticizing Hawley’s “naivete regarding Russia” and for not understanding “why containing Russian expansionism remains such a big deal.” These op-eds have, in turn, been celebrated by even progressive outlets like Raw Story and Huffington Post. A letter writer likewise accused Carlson of disloyalty, and for siding with a “totalitarian adversary” instead of a “liberal democracy” — something Ukraine most certainly is not.
Now, the government is getting in on the action, too. Press Secretary Jen Psaki accused Hawley of “parroting the talking points of Russian propagandist leaders” and charged that anyone doing so is “not aligned with longstanding bipartisan American values, which is to stand up for the sovereignty of countries like Ukraine.” Even more shockingly, when an Associated Press reporter asked a State Department official last week to provide evidence, not simply assertions, that Moscow was planning a “false flag” operation to justify invading Ukraine, that official accused him of finding “solace in information that the Russians are putting out.”
Don’t Do Them a Favor
It should hopefully be clear why this is so dangerous. If what Hawley and Carlson are saying amounts to “siding” with Russia, parroting Kremlin propaganda, and “disloyalty” and “traitorism,” then the same applies to Bernie Sanders, Jacobin, and anyone else arguing against war over Ukraine or pointing out NATO’s role in the tensions. Just look at Lawfare’s Benjamin Wittes, who responded to the Democratic Socialists of America’s statement on the crisis by saying the organization “sound[s] indistinguishable from Tucker Carlson,” and was “siding with authoritarians against the democratic aspirations of Ukrainians.”
Here is the poisonous fruit of the Russiagate nonsense, which even some leftists humored, believing it to be a harmless way to undermine Donald Trump in the short-term. Instead, what’s happened is that a liberal establishment that endlessly compares Trump to the demagogic Joseph McCarthy has now wholesale adopted McCarthy’s style of reckless accusations and disloyalty charges, sprinkled with the Bush-era tendency to equate opposing a war as being on the side of the enemy.
The result has been a marked hawkish turn on national security among the left-of-center public. Tenuously construe anything as serving Russia’s interests, and that idea becomes automatically illegitimate in the eyes of a large chunk of the US public, the very strategy used to undermine withdrawal from Afghanistan under Trump. What we end up with is a powerful disincentive for any progressive official or commentator to take the kind of stance Sanders has now taken. After all, who wants the trouble of being blacklisted from cable news, or, worse, face a news cycle accusing them of doing Putin’s work?
The irony is, this kind of rhetoric is doing high-profile figures like Carlson and Hawley a favor, making them seem like far more reasonable, moderate figures to a younger, more politically amorphous audience than they actually are, just as they desire. Or to put it in a way these media and political figures might understand: your coverage is very convenient to Tucker, and is doing his work for him.
Carlson currently has a lock not just on Republican viewers, but a surprisingly high number of independents and Democrats, too. This is dangerous, because beyond every other noxious, neoliberal position he holds, Carlson, like Hawley, Douthat, and others on the Right, isn’t actually antiwar — rather, they simply prefer to pointlessly stoke conflict with a different boogeyman in the form of China, and see tensions with Russia as undermining that disastrous boondoggle.
The job of opposing war is too important to be left to right-wing hawks like Carlson and Hawley. With Sanders and others now increasingly speaking out, let’s hope it’s creating the political space for progressives and leftists to follow suit. And let’s hope the shameful rhetoric of those in the media and government who should know better doesn’t undercut them.