Congratulations to Paul Krugman! The latest offering from the Nobel Prize-winning economist and New York Times columnist is both ethically disgusting and historically ignorant.
The ethically disgusting elements of Krugman’s December 21 column, “Conquest is for Losers”? The charge that American neoconservatives who supported the U.S. invasion of Iraq in 2003 were (and remain) a group of would-be conquerors who are typically “eager to fight” and who have viewed Russian leader Vladimir Putin’s recent aggression “with admiration and envy.” According to Krugman, “What really bothered [neoconservatives]was that Mr. Putin was living the life they’d always imagined for themselves.”
I’m a long-time critic of the neoconservatives. Even though I supported the second Iraq war and still believe it was necessary to launch. I have repeatedly upbraided the neocons for defining America’s overseas interests far too broadly, for being excessively optimistic about exporting American values to regions to which they are completely alien, and for viewing international activism as the real measure of this nation’s worth. And because of their bloated view of what’s needed to ensure American security and prosperity, the neocons do indeed tend to overestimate the utility of military force in achieving foreign policy goals.
But that’s a far cry from qualifying as warmongers. As for the claim that the neocons support (or even “admire and envy”) Putin-like efforts to take over or politically dominate foreign countries contrary to the expressed wishes of their populations – that’s nothing less than the worst kind of smear. Unless Krugman really believes that the neocons ever wanted to turn Iraq into a U.S. satellite? Or wanted to keep large numbers of U.S. boots on the ground one moment longer than necessary? Maybe he’s forgotten that the Bush administration approach to post-Saddam Hussein Iraq was widely (and accurately) lambasted for the lack of a serious follow-on plan. Remember the so-called “Pottery Barn Rule”?
Krugman’s broader point that, nowadays, for great powers, “War makes you poorer and weaker, even if you win,” is even more obvious know-nothingism. Not to mention having the most destructive implications for U.S. foreign policy. Take his example of Putin and Ukraine. It’s eminently defensible to argue (as I have) that no major American response to this instance of Russian revanchism is needed because Ukraine’s independence has never (for good reason) been seen as a significant American security or economic interest.
But if you disagree (and it’s not clear whether Krugman does), then it matters decisively that the trouble Putin and Russia have now encountered have resulted not from Russia’s aggressive actions as such but from a combination of the Western sanctions response and an oil price drop that was predicted by almost no one. For those believing in the importance of Ukraine’s independence and territorial integrity (and the security of Russia’s other threatened neighbors), simply counting on the costs of Putin’s aggression either to produce rollback or adequate containment is the height of recklessness. Unless Krugman thinks that oil prices will remain this low forever?
Krugman is also utterly mistaken in suggesting that Putin’s moves reflect a desire for “tribute” (the author’s words) or any other type of economic gain. Instead, Moscow is clearly motivated mainly by security considerations – specifically, a determination to keep western influence, and NATO forces, out of Ukraine and certain other neighbors. So far, he’s succeeded. In theory, Putin could at some point determine that whatever costs he’s paying to control Ukraine (and it’s not entirely clear what they are) have become high enough to require reversing course. But even that turn of events is likelier to stem ultimately from setbacks on fundamentally separate fronts that reflect Russia’s built-in economic weaknesses.
Like everyone, Krugman has every right to speak out on issues outside his core competence of economics. But his latest column once again makes me wish that he paid more attention to one of the central theories of that field – comparative advantage – and left the foreign policy commentary to people who actually know what they’re talking about. In the process, he could do his bit to keep our national debate on these matters out of the gutter.