Matt Walsh’s Misguided Isolationism
Lately, conservative blogger Matt Walsh, of “Johnny the Walrus” fame, has been posting uncharacteristically foolish comments on Twitter. In response to initiatives to defend Ukraine against the growing military menace it faces from Russia, Walsh has pushed the doctrines of non-interference which have been infecting American conservatism in recent times. Walsh is often a voice of reason, so these tweets show how otherwise sensible people often kiss facts and logic goodbye when it comes to foreign policy.
First, Walsh tweeted this:
So Walsh does not see why he should care if a foreign country is invaded. We will get into the USA’s self-interested reasons for caring about such things shortly. First, I would like to note the complete lack of empathy for victims of war on the grounds that Matt Walsh would not personally be victimised by said war. I bring this up not to shake my finger at him in indignation, but to point out that Walsh’s moral standards are inconsistent. Note the following.
After attending a schoolboard meeting in Tennessee to argue against mask mandates, Walsh said this on Episode 773 of his show:
Now I should acknowledge at the outset that, yes, I homeschool my kids. […] But my money attends public schools in this town. […] And so the school’s policies are very much my business. Also, I care about the mistreatment of children, even if they are not my own. Imagine that.
Fair enough. But unless Matt Walsh is unaware that children exist in other countries than the USA, how can his blanket indifference to conditions in other countries be reconciled with his above statement? Is the difference that he only cares about other people’s (children’s) welfare when they are fellow Americans? That seems unlikely, since he evidently attaches little importance to the category “citizen of the USA” as it now exists: in an earlier tweet, Walsh had called for a breakup of the USA.
So Walsh not only does not care to prevent warlike aggression and butchery abroad, but his reaction to injustices in his own country is to shed the corresponding territories and sequester himself off into a more like-minded remnant of the United States of America. For all his justified lamentations of the decay of American culture and values (e. g., “How Modern Culture Destroys Masculinity”), some of his policy preferences betray a slack-jawed and dispirited reluctance to uphold those values which have made America great. In a way, Walsh embodies today’s meek, crestfallen USA, its back turned on the gallant principles of ambition and assertiveness which, Theodore Roosevelt made clear in his famous speech on “the strenuous life”, have been common to the American way of life and American foreign policy.
Walsh also tweeted:
There are at least three major problems with this tweet. Firstly, claiming to be “prepared to act” does not translate to a commitment to deploy troops. Other measures are available. For example, the USA are already attempting to use the pipeline Nord Stream 2 as leverage against Russia. Indeed, Senator Ted Cruz argues that Joe Biden’s allowing the pipeline to be completed in the first place invited the current Russian threat. If this is true, it was actually a lack of readiness to act (by means of sanctions) which created the present problem in the first place.
In fact, on 08 December 2021, the date of Walsh’s tweets, Politico ran a story titled “Sending U.S. combat troops to Ukraine ‘not in the cards right now,’ Biden says”. The story also cited Jack Sullivan, the Joe Biden’s national security adviser, as having said
that — in addition to financial sanctions leveled in coordination with European allies — the U.S. would “provide additional defensive material” to Ukraine and “fortify our NATO allies on the eastern flank with additional capabilities” if Russia invades.
Secondly, whatever else American foreign-policy élites happen to be doing that undermines American sovereignty is irrelevant to the issue of the appropriate response to Russia’s threat to Ukraine.
Thirdly, and most importantly, defending Ukrainian sovereignty helps to defend American sovereignty. Donald Rumsfeld once said: “if history has taught anything, it’s that weakness is provocative. It entices people into doing things that they otherwise would not do”. Not long before Walsh’s tweets, his colleague at the Daily Wire, Ben Shapiro, had referenced on his own show the news that China may soon acquire the ability to “re-arm and re-fit [its warships] opposite the east coast of the United States” and mused sarcastically: “So, uh, hemming in China — that’s going really well, particularly after we surrendered in Afghanistan and made clear that we are a complete and utter paper tiger”. It really does seem that timid and unassertive foreign-policy behaviour by the USA emboldens American enemies. Why would backing down on Ukraine be any different from backing down on Afghanistan? Matt Walsh seems not to realise how fragile the stability of the current international order really is. An article by one Ian Easton avers, based on leaked Chinese materials, that “China’s rapid military buildup is focused on acquiring the capabilities needed to annex, or conquer, Taiwan”. Easton further quotes a book used by the Chinese People’s Liberation Army as saying:
As soon as Taiwan is reunified with Mainland China, Japan’s maritime lines of communication will fall completely within the striking ranges of China’s fighters and bombers… […] After [Japanese]imports have been reduced by 50%, even if they use rationing to limit consumption, Japan’s national economy and war-making potential will collapse entirely[.]
The alterations in square brackets are mine. This evidence suggests that a Chinese attack on Taiwan and, subsequently, Japan is not inconceivable. With Japan subdued, it seems safe to say that South Korea could not stand by the USA against China — and with Japan, Taiwan, and Korea under its control, who is to say what economic damage China could inflict on the USA? This alone should show that the USA ought to demonstrate indomitable resolve on the matter of Ukraine.
Furthermore, Russia’s threat to Ukraine looks to be part of a larger offensive against the United States of America. At CEPA, one Kseniya Kirillova writes that, “for all the abundance of anti-American rhetoric, both Russia’s domestic and foreign policy are extremely American-centric”. She maintains: “In Ukraine, the Kremlin sees a continuation of the confrontation with the US”. This illustrates one reason why the USA has a strong interest in opposing Russia forcefully. The damage Russia can do to the USA is suggested by past hacks of multiple American government agencies, including the Treasury Department and the Department of Commerce, as well as the apparent reality that Russian secret service agents blew up a warehouse in the Czech Republic in 2014, killing two people.
Kirillova’s article also illustrates how the USA’s conflicts with China and with Russia are inextricably linked, because the two hostile powers’ shared enmity with the USA disposes them to ally themselves with each other:
At the same time, the Russian authorities’ outlook has become so distorted that they often celebrate events contrary to their own interests, as long as they are thought to harm the US; for example, Russia’s growing dependence and failure to respond to China.
In a previous post, I have also laid out reasons for the USA to seek to defend Ukraine specifically against Russian aggression. There, I quoted the words of John Herbst at the Atlantic Council:
“Now, we have no commitment to defend Ukraine […], but we do have a commitment to defend the Baltic states. And if you want to make sure we don’t have to defend [them] with American forces, you make the Kremlin pay a heavy price in Donbas.”
More broadly, Americans benefit greatly from the liberal, rules-based international order — in terms of national security, certainly, but also with respect to their economic welfare and political freedom. These points are elaborately explored by Professor Paul D. Miller in the document “Leading the Free World: How America Benefits”.
At the beginning of this post, I alluded to a tendency many people have to turn their faculties of resoning, however acute they may usually be, off when thinking about foreign policy. A striking example of this tendency was seen when Walsh tweeted this:
Here, Walsh ignores the obvious. The tweet to which he is replying is in reference to defending Ukrainian democracy against a Russian invasion. If Russia invades Ukraine, the Ukrainians will hardly have “chosen” for that to happen.
Finally, Walsh tweeted this:
There are two possibilities here. Either he is talking about the Cold War and the War on Terror, or he is talking only about the War on Terror. Just in case, I will comment on the Cold War as well.
The economic benefits which came of the opening of former communist economies when the Cold War was won obviously made the whole thing worthwhile in economic terms. I should not have to cite the already well-known data which show this here. Still, it could be argued that such economic boons cannot make up for the American lives lost during the Cold War. However, the United States of America were not safe during that conflict, but had to mount a strong defence against the Communist threat. There were many who argued that, whatever happened to the rest of the world, Americans were safe because of the deterrent power of their nuclear weaponry. For example, the Libertarian Party’s presidential candidate, Roger MacBride, made this argument during his appearance on Firing Line. However, this faith in American security was mistaken. As Richard Pipes compellingly argued in a 1977 article, the USA could not rely on nuclear deterrence in such a manner because, as the article’s title stated, “the Soviet Union Th[ought] It Could Fight & Win a Nuclear War”.
The War on Terror was prompted by the attacks of September 11, 2001, which also cost “trillions of dollars and thousands of lives”. It was fought to prevent similar attacks from happening in the future. Was it unnecessary; was it overkill? Well, it is impossible to say what conditions we would be seeing if the War on Terror had never been attempted, but even as it stands, Americans have had multiple close shaves with would-be terrorist attackers since 9/11, including an attempted attack on Times Square. In a 2018 post, James Slate writes (emphasis added):
Aren’t we overstating the threat, being that its almost 18 years after 9/11? There have been a few attacks on US soil since 2009 and even more attempts disrupted after they were well underway. In December 2009 Umar Farouk Abdulmutallab successfully got an explosive device (in his underwear) onto an aircraft and attempted to detonate it over US soil. The attempt failed only because the device was faulty — not because we disrupted the attack. In May 2010, Faisal Shahzad got a vehicle loaded with explosives into Times Square in New York City. Again, the attack failed only because he had built the bomb badly and it was discovered before it exploded.
If he had designed the bomb properly (which is not all that hard to do), the attack would have succeeded. In Fall 2010, al Qaeda in the Arabian Peninsula (in Yemen) hid bombs in printer cartridges and got them into the parcel delivery system headed to targets in the US. The bombs were discovered en route. In April 2012, a Saudi informant tipped Riyadh off about another underwear-bomb plot, which was disrupted while underway by Saudi and US officials.
And yet, as Noah Rothman remarks in the National Review, American removal of the terrorist safe haven in Afghanistan helped to create a reality of “zero major foreign-directed terrorist attacks on U.S. soil in the generation that has elapsed since September 11”. I would not call the War on Terror a waste.
Matt Walsh is a commentator whom I respect and consider generally insightful, not to mention witty. Perhaps he has taken his down-to-earth, straight-shooting, common-sense attitudes too far and they have prevented him from seeing the larger realities of international politics behind the immediate costs of foreign policy. Perhaps he simply has a blind spot. Either way, I fondly hope that he will read this essay.