Opinion: We need to grapple with the idea of more U.S. involvement in Ukraine

A cloud of smoke rises after an explosion in Lviv in western Ukraine on March 18.
A cloud of smoke rises after an explosion in Lviv in western Ukraine on March 18.
(Associated Press)

Good morning. I’m Paul Thornton, and it is Saturday, March 19, 2022. If you plan on driving or taking a bus in Los Angeles tomorrow, you’ll need to keep this list of road closures because of the L.A. Marathon handy. Let’s look back at the week in Opinion.

There’s a lot of talk about “offramps” for Russian President Vladimir Putin to end his unprovoked attack on Ukraine — of peace talks between the aggressors and their victims, of a post-Putin Russia emerging from economic strangulation by sanctions, of Europe’s newfound political cohesion as a defensive posture against a more aggressive Moscow. In the grimmest way possible, this is all very optimistic — reminiscent of those early pandemic days in March and April 2020 when some of us were imagining a more humane world on the other side of the death and suffering that was still almost entirely ahead of us. In fact, I remember publishing a letter from a physician in March 2020 wondering if there might be a long-term silver lining to the pandemic.

Two years later, we’re still waiting to arrive at that post-pandemic world. A lot happened that we did not anticipate — the devastating surge the following fall and winter, hospital systems (especially in New York City) nearly brought to collapse and a president who would undermine public health guidance for political gain, to name a few. The point is, our optimism at the onset of a crisis ignores the slog of uncertainty and suffering ahead. Perhaps it’s a necessary coping mechanism.


So it is with the war in Ukraine, which is why you need to read Nicholas Goldberg’s chilling column warning that wars tend to escalate in unpredictable and devastating ways. President Biden’s stated goal is to avoid setting off a more direct military conflict between Russia and the U.S.; problem is, there’s only so much he can control. Goldberg writes:

“In Ukraine, barring some kind of negotiated solution, it is Russian President Vladimir Putin who is most likely to take things to the next level. He could do so by invading a nearby non-NATO country such as Moldova. Or he could begin using chemical, biological or — heaven forbid — even more dangerous weapons.

“Putin’s unpredictable nature, his supposed sense of grievance at Russia’s treatment by the West and his conviction that brutal military force can work to his advantage — all these make escalation on his part more likely.

“Obviously, this is a terribly dangerous cycle. You start with a strictly limited role, but slowly you can get drawn in. Remember when we only had ‘military advisors’ in Vietnam?”

So, where are we in this conflict? It’s impossible to know beyond the situation on the ground (which strategically isn’t going well for Russian forces, who have resorted to indiscriminate shelling of Ukrainian cities and unacceptable brutality against civilians), but some voices are expressing worry that the U.S. and its allies are failing to learn from history by not involving themselves sooner to stop Putin. They want Ukraine’s Western allies to enforce a no-fly zone and send in fighter jets, both moves that Biden has resisted out of fear of unnecessary escalation.

The “learn from history” argument is emotionally appealing — certainly to me, who grew up listening to old Norwegians talk about the Nazi occupation of the old country. But I believe the opportunity for learning from the last century to prevent another World War III has passed. The time to prevent another conflict was perhaps years ago, when the U.S. and its allies should not have been so timid about possibly admitting countries such as Ukraine and Georgia into the transatlantic defense alliance known as NATO.

Instead, as Russia expert Fiona Hill observed, in many ways we’re already in World War III, and the decisions we make now must be based on the need to help an ally in Ukraine while also containing Putin. In this sense, you can still think World War III is already underway while also wanting to hold back U.S. and NATO aerial military engagement (known euphemistically as enforcing a no-fly zone) for fear of dramatically escalating this conflict between nuclear-armed powers.

Whatever happens, I think the only safe assumption is that we need to prepare for more involvement in this war — while doing what we can to avoid it. Unnerving, yes, but so is war.

This isn’t another Cold War, so stop saying it is. Among other differences, says columnist Jonah Goldberg, is that one of the main antagonists in our current cold war (uncapitalized, mind you) is China: “China is the world’s second largest economy and a global manufacturing powerhouse. Any expectation that the U.S. and the international community would sever ties with China over a Taiwan invasion the way they have over Russia’s invasion of Ukraine seems overly optimistic. China crushed democracy in Hong Kong and is putting Uyghurs in concentration camps and the international business community has for the most part shrugged.” L.A. Times

Sunlight at 7 p.m. — feels nice, doesn’t it? The Times Editorial Board thinks so, but that isn’t the only reason it applauds the Senate for unanimously passing (yes, you read that right) a bill to put the United States on permanent Daylight Saving Time. Readers, for their part, are mostly in disagreement with the editorial board; they say (with an opinionated assist from me) that consigning much of the nation to wake up and go to school or work in darkness during the winter months is foolish. Says one reader: “Changing clocks to an inaccurate setting neither adds nor subtracts a single nanosecond of daylight to or from any day. It merely tells us we’re hapless dupes who, like Chanticleer the rooster, believe the sun rises only because we crow.”

It’s been two years of COVID-19. It’s time for a full accounting of our response. The pandemic isn’t over, says the editorial board, but with cases and deaths waning and officials looking toward the endemic phase of this disease, we need an honest assessment of what happened: “Many elected officials complained during the chaotic months in the first year of the pandemic that there was no playbook for them to follow. They were right. The last viral pandemic of the same scale as COVID-19 happened more than a 100 years earlier, at a time when record keeping and disease reporting were spotty and decades before the creation of the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention. But we can’t bank on being safe from another major global viral outbreak until 2122. We owe it to our future selves and our children to do what we can to help them survive the next pandemic.” L.A. Times

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He almost died from COVID-19. Now, he’s worried that he helped create a climate of fear. David Lat was a healthy 44-year-old runner who was admitted to a New York hospital in 2020 and ended up on a ventilator. He wrote about his near-death and painfully slow recovery to share with the public how seriously the coronavirus needed to be taken. Now, he’s happy to see states and counties lifting restrictions but acknowledges the pandemic is still raging: “We need to support healthcare workers suffering from burnout, depression and anxiety. We need to treat people enduring ‘long COVID,’ as I did for more than a year. We need to remember and mourn the almost 1 million Americans, and more than 6 million people worldwide, who have lost their lives to this disease. Here’s what we don’t need: more fear.” L.A. Times

You’ll also want to read a separate piece Lat wrote about attitudes toward free speech, particularly among law school students. Lat, a lawyer who pens a newsletter about the legal profession, looks at recent instances at two prestigious law schools where protesters on the left tried to disrupt events featuring conservative speakers — who demand to be challenged because of their statements and advocacy, but not by being shouted down. The concern he expresses about attitudes toward the free, respectful exchange of ideas is confined to present-day law students, but as the letters editor for a newspaper opinion section (and some of you have derisively called me “woke” in your emailed replies), I’ve noticed a similar intolerance for opposing views taking hold among some of our letter writers. Increasingly, readers expressing a mainstream conservative viewpoint are met with responses that make some variation of the argument “that letter did not deserve to be published.” This isn’t anything close to the voluble taunting directed law school speakers, but from my perch, it’s a trend I’ve been picking up with some dismay. Original Jurisdiction

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