The world is getting wearier by the day of a war in Ukraine that the Biden administration has promised to fuel “as long as it lasts.” That appears to mean at least until Vladimir Putin accepts early retirement and the Kremlin unconditionally surrenders. Not many bookies in Las Vegas are willing to bet on either of those things happening any time soon. All of which means that “as long as it lasts” could translate as “forever,” an epithet that ends up being attached to most of the wars the US gets involved in.
Even the nations of Europe most loyal to NATO have begun to understand the danger of committing to a war that they perceive as having less and less to do with Ukraine and everything to do with Washington’s belief in its capacity to control the global economy, even at the cost of undermining the economy of its allies.
Wars are expensive and produce a wide range of annoying effects. They end up taking a toll on people’s psyche. And though most of the time what the people think and want generally has little effect on policy, when elections roll around, their psyche might end up mattering. And even if the US manages to control the message at home, it counts on its allies, whose media are much harder to control from Washington.
The grief attached to the Ukraine war has begun to rattle some people in Washington. The Washington Post featured an article this week with the title: “U.S. privately asks Ukraine to show it’s open to negotiate with Russia.” The three journalists who authored the article describe the delicate task the US government is faced with today, as many leaders in Europe are beginning to worry precisely about the state of their populations’ psyche.
Chorus for Peace in Ukraine Sings Louder
As the article’s title indicates, it isn’t a question of making decisions or revising policy. The point is “to show” something, not to make it happen. Politics will also produce a particular version of hyperreality, in which things need not be real. They must simply appear to be real.
The article claims to share with its readers the true motives of the White House, “according to people familiar with the discussions.” It takes the trouble to clarify what this “show” of being open does not mean. “The request by American officials is not aimed at pushing Ukraine to the negotiating table, these people said. Rather, they called it a calculated attempt to ensure the government in Kyiv maintains the support of other nations facing constituencies wary of fueling a war for many years to come.”
Americans can thus be reassured. The “show” isn’t: an attempt to provoke the unimaginable: actual negotiations with the diabolical Vladimir Putin. It’s nothing more than a “calculated attempt” to show something that isn’t true.
Today’s Weekly Devil’s Dictionary definition:
Carefully fabricated lie designed to create an impression opposite to visible reality
The trio of The Washington Post journalists articulate with precision what’s behind this need for a calculated attempt. “US officials,” they report, “acknowledge that President Volodymyr Zelensky’s ban on talks with [Putin] has generated concern in parts of Europe, Africa and Latin America, where the war’s disruptive effects on the availability and cost of food and fuel are felt most sharply.” In other words, this is neither a diplomatic nor a political problem. It certainly isn’t inviting a debate about the morality of war or promoting the advantages of peace. No, it’s about the image of a policy that is beginning to fray some people’s nerves in other parts of the world. In short, it’s a PR problem. The task at hand is damage control.
One person cited in the report has even given it a name. “Ukraine fatigue is a real thing for some of our partners,” according to one of their anonymous officials. Notice this official’s emphasis on the idea of Ukraine fatigue being “a real thing.” It’s the fatigue that’s real and worrying, not the horrors associated with the war or its consequences for humanity at large.
Is Thinking Now Forbidden in the Media?
One interesting and revealing remark in this article concerns The Washington Post’s analysis of the state of opinion in the US, where “polls show eroding support among Republicans for continuing to finance Ukraine’s military at current levels.” The Biden administration and The Washington Post’s want readers to believe that only Republicans are questioning the unlimited generosity of the White House in its commitment to prolonging the war. In fact, a significant minority of Democrats (19%) also oppose even supporting the Ukraine war effort, let alone signing a blank check.
American media and US politicians appear to be complicit in seeking to maintain the perception of an absolute contrast between the two dominant parties, even when, more often than not, they rarely disagree, especially on foreign policy. The insistent focus on a binary contrast and party rivalry conveniently serves to deviate attention from the more fundamental issues that neither of the parties seems eager to address.
Most people are now aware of the fact that after a series of traumatic events we are living through a momentous period of history: four years of Donald Trump in the White House, three years of Covid and the dramas attached to it, the chaotic US withdrawal from the oldest of its “forever wars” in Afghanistan, and the Russian invasion of Ukraine followed by the apoplectic if not apocalyptic reaction of the nations associated in NATO, to say nothing of the increasingly visible effects of climate change. All these things have heightened everyone’s uncertainty about the future and of the trajectory of human history.
Today’s journalism has an uncomfortable relationship with history. Journalists have traditionally preferred highlighting the drama of simple oppositions, of contests that pit one side against the other. They prefer reducing questions to the level of black and white decision-making. But history will always be complex. At moments of radical transition or transformation, simple oppositions cannot do justice to reality. Believing they can make things even more desperately complex. In this case it raises the very real prospect of nuclear war.
The Washington Post’s journalists acknowledge the growing complexity but decline to make sense of it. Here is how they describe the quandary the US is faced with. “The discussions illustrate how complex the Biden administration’s position on Ukraine has become, as U.S. officials publicly vow to support Kyiv with massive sums of aid ‘for as long as it takes’ while hoping for a resolution to the conflict that over the past eight months has taken a punishing toll on the world economy and triggered fears of nuclear war.”
In Times of War History Goes Missing
The journalists even highlight what has become an embarrassing historical fact, adding to the complexity. “While Zelensky laid out proposals for a negotiated peace in the weeks following Putin’s Feb. 24 invasion, including Ukrainian neutrality and a return of areas occupied by Russia since that date, Ukrainian officials have hardened their stance in recent months.” But that is as far as they accept to go.
Unsurprisingly – because that would truly complicate things – they don’t ask themselves the essential questions any journalist aware of these facts should focus on. Who are these “Ukrainian officials?” What is their relationship with Zelenskyy or Zelenskyy’s with them? What avowable or unavowable logic is behind the “hardening” that took place? Do the hardliners represent average Ukrainians or, as some have suggested, groups of radical nationalists with strong neoNazi sympathies? Are there other identifiable interests inside or outside Ukraine that have produced this hardening?
All mainstream journalists in the US appear not to be curious about these questions. Or perhaps they are instructed not to be curious in public. As the kerfuffle within the Democratic party around progressives timidly recommending negotiations showed, seeking peace is a forbidden topic of discussion. Policy, everywhere and always, is about power plays. So why shy away from tracking and analyzing them, especially when the stakes may be nuclear war?
For the media, the answer to that question is easy. Just as at the time of George W. Bush’s invasion of Iraq, journalists interested in keeping their jobs have been given a task to accomplish: make sure that the nation remains unified behind its leaders. It’s an argument that has some merit. But when things become this complex and downright dangerous, it may be time to reconsider its wisdom.
*[In the age of Oscar Wilde and Mark Twain, another American wit, the journalist Ambrose Bierce produced a series of satirical definitions of commonly used terms, throwing light on their hidden meanings in real discourse. Bierce eventually collected and published them as a book, The Devil’s Dictionary, in 1911. We have shamelessly appropriated his title in the interest of continuing his wholesome pedagogical effort to enlighten generations of readers of the news. Read more of Fair Observer Devil’s Dictionary.]
The views expressed in this article are the author’s own and do not necessarily reflect Fair Observer’s editorial policy.