For America's national security hawks, old habits die hard.
Washington Post columnist Max Boot is probably best known these days as a Never-Trump conservative, a figure who spent much of his career making common cause with Republicans and then later repented of it all. Before that, though, he was for years a leading cheerleader for America's war in Iraq — a disaster that in recent years he has acknowledged was "all a big mistake."
One might think such big mistakes (and an admirable willingness to acknowledge error) would lend themselves to humility regarding subsequent matters of war and peace. But with a possible Russian invasion of Ukraine looming, Boot is once again rooting for actions that make war more likely.
In his latest column, Boot urges American leaders to clamp down on Russia's Vladimir Putin before Putin uses threats and military force to resurrect the old Soviet empire. As part of those efforts, Boot proposes an aggressive expansion of the NATO alliance. The organization "needs to bolster its military presence in Eastern Europe," Boot writes, "and renew efforts to bring Sweden and Finland into the alliance to make clear that Putin's efforts to cripple NATO will backfire."
That's a terrible idea.
It's not at all clear that countries like Sweden and Finland actually want to join NATO. Sweden actively cooperates with the military alliance — and the country's leaders have made clear that Russia won't dictate its future choices on that front — but the current governing coalition still favors official neutrality. In Finland, meanwhile, just 28 percent of the country's population likes the idea.
More importantly, Putin clearly sees NATO expansion as a threat — demanding a guarantee that the organization denies membership to Ukraine and other ex-Soviet states. Western pundits have assured themselves that Russia's leader is just reaching for excuses to expand his country's dominance and control over its neighbors, and maybe that's true. Still, it's likely that genuine efforts to expand NATO would be greeted as a provocation by Russia. Why go there? Talk of expanding NATO during this crisis allows hawks to take a tough stance against Moscow without urging the U.S. into an actual war, but it also throws tinder on the fire and makes war more possible.
Maybe all this changes if Russia does indeed go to war against Ukraine. Maybe there is no way to avoid the outbreak of conflict and violence. That hasn't happened yet, though. For now, this is the moment to be trying to lower tensions, not raise them.