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.

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Samuel Charap and Mike Mazarr have responded to Vindman’s fantasy history about U.S. Russia policy:

US 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, US 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 US 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 US 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 US foreign policy in the 1990s where the US 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 US interventionism had in stirring up hostility to the United States and it also let them pretend that the US 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.

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Daniel Larison is a weekly columnist for and maintains his own site at Eunomia. He is former senior editor at The American Conservative. He has been published in the New York Times Book Review, Dallas Morning News, World Politics Review, Politico Magazine, Orthodox Life, Front Porch Republic, The American Scene, and Culture11, and was a columnist for The Week. He holds a PhD in history from the University of Chicago, and resides in Lancaster, PA. Follow him on Twitter.