The restraint crowd facepalms over Biden’s Ukraine threats

Last week, two progressive Democrats issued a statement chiding the Biden administration for preparing troop deployments to Europe and military aid to Ukraine that the lawmakers said could escalate the crisis. On Wednesday, the U.S. announced Biden was sending 3,000 troops to Eastern Europe in response to the Russian threat to Ukraine.

“We have significant concerns that new troop deployments, sweeping and indiscriminate sanctions, and a flood of hundreds of millions of dollars in lethal weapons will only raise tensions and increase the chance of miscalculation,” Reps. Pramila Jayapal (D-Wash.) and Barbara Lee (D-Calif.) said. “Russia’s strategy is to inflame tensions; the United States and NATO must not play into this strategy.” Lee was the only member of Congress to vote against the war in Afghanistan following the Sept. 11, 2001, attacks.

In think tanks and academic institutions, meanwhile, a growing crop of restraint-oriented scholars are trying not to get drowned out by their more numerous hawkish colleagues. Some of these scholars had hoped that, in the wake of the U.S. withdrawal from Afghanistan, they could now focus on convincing Biden to pull American troops out of Iraq and Syria. Instead, they are dealing with what feels like a new trans-Atlantic Cold War, just as tensions between the United States and China are also rising in the Pacific.

“This is not as easy as some of the other cases, where, for example, it’s much more clear that the United States shouldn’t engage in any more regime change operations in the Middle East,” acknowledged Will Ruger, who helped steer funding to restraint-focused scholars from the libertarian-leaning Koch network and now leads the American Institute for Economic Research.

‘The world as it is’

The Ukraine crisis threatens to divert U.S. military and economic resources toward a potential land war that many restrainers believe simply isn’t in America’s interest. But it is unusually complicated because it also involves NATO, long-standing American military commitments to European allies and Putin, a dictator bent on redrawing the world map, whom many restrainers loathe.

The crisis also has exposed how restrainers remain a relatively weak force in Washington, including in Congress, despite the voices of progressives skeptical of military intervention who had hoped for a more sympathetic ear from the Biden team.

Richard Fontaine, chief executive officer of the bipartisan Center for a New American Security, said the Biden administration is dealing with “the world as it is.”

“I’m sure no one would have preferred to have a crisis with Russia over Ukraine,” said Fontaine, who previously advised the hawkish late GOP Sen. John McCain. “But you could either do nothing or you could do something. And if you’re going to do something, then it’s going to be a mixture of deterrence and possible accommodation to reasonable Russian concerns.”

Restrainers are found on both left and right in Washington. They include conservatives, often but not all in the libertarian mold, as well as some vocal progressive Democrats. Their ranks and influence have grown, with new think tanks and funding aimed at spreading their philosophy.

The motivations of restrainers are not all the same. Some care more about not spilling blood, others about not wasting treasure. For many, it comes down to the particular conflict; some are deeply worried about how America will face an increasingly powerful China, for instance. But broadly speaking, the goal is to limit the use of what they believe often is counterproductive U.S. military force.

A recent Twitter exchange between Washington Post columnist Josh Rogin and Rep. Ro Khanna, a progressive Democrat from California, captured some of the conflicting impulses facing restraint-oriented public figures thanks to the Ukraine crisis and the many countries and alliances it involves.

“Ukraine has the moral high ground,” Khanna tweeted at one point. “We can impose sanctions & speak out clearly against Putin aggression. But our national security requires us not to get significantly entangled in a conflict that would weaken us vis a vis China.”

When Rogin argued that letting Russia off the hook for Ukraine set a bad precedent for how restrainers would deal with a Chinese invasion of Taiwan, Khanna insisted that was a different situation because Taiwan was more tied to the U.S. economy.

Khanna was unavailable for comment. But his argument hints at the choices some restrainers believe the U.S. must make in deciding when to get involved in a foreign crisis. Those choices raise questions about restrainers’ willingness to ignore the causes of human rights and democracy when they believe it serves the U.S. national interest.

Putin’s insecurities

As they see the debate over Ukraine spiral into threats of a potentially long, bloody war, many restrainers are saying, “I told you so.”

The roots of the problem, these restrainers argue in op-eds and other forums, lie at decisions years ago by the United States and some of its allies to allow for the possibility of one day admitting Ukraine and Georgia as members of NATO.

The growth of the military alliance has long been a sore point for Putin, who has led Russia for more than two decades and sees NATO as a threat to his country’s influence over many of its neighbors. In remarks Tuesday, Putin alleged that U.S. officials are merely using Ukraine as a “tool” to “hinder the development of Russia.”

The Russian president has already carried out limited invasions of both Ukraine and Georgia; his build-up of 100,000 troops along Ukraine’s border this time, though, augurs grander plans.

Ukraine and Georgia are unlikely to join NATO anytime soon. Still, the U.S. should have taken their membership off the table completely in earlier talks with Putin in exchange for significant moves on his part, such as withdrawing forces he has in those countries, said Gavin Wilde, a former National Security Council official who dealt with Russia.

Wilde, who describes himself as a liberal internationalist-turned-restrainer, says it doesn’t help that the United States and its allies have often conflated NATO — a defensive military pact — with ideas like democracy, the rule of law and human rights.

“Now it seems like that particular opportunity to deescalate and get some concessions from Putin may have passed,” said Wilde, who is now with Defense Priorities, a restraint-focused think tank.

Plenty of foreign policy practitioners disagree with Wilde’s diagnosis.

Ivo Daalder, a former U.S. ambassador to NATO, said restrainers want to blame everything on NATO expansion when much of the problem really comes down to Putin.

“It’s a problem of Putin believing he will only be secure if he can control his neighborhood,” Daalder said, adding that the Russian dictator in particular fears that democratic progress in places like Ukraine will embolden Russians to rise up against him.

Daalder and others also dismissed the notion that Biden’s decision to pull U.S. troops out of Afghanistan had much to do with the doctrine of restraint.

Biden had long advocated for an end to the United States presence in Afghanistan, believing it was a fruitless fight that drained resources from more important standoffs, including with Russia and China, Daalder argued.

Biden the realist?

Still, plenty of restrainers are taking comfort in Biden’s promise that U.S. troops will not play a direct fighting role in any battle for Ukraine, even though some may be sent to beef up the American presence in nearby NATO countries as a deterrent.

“He continues to display a realist sensibility,” said Stephen Wertheim, a restraint-supporting scholar who last year co-authored a Foreign Affairs essay titled “Biden the Realist.” The problem? “It’s competing with both the constraints of politics and a liberal internationalist streak, too.”

Despite Biden’s promises now, restrainers worry that the conflict will evolve in a way that drags the United States into a direct shooting war, especially if hawkish lawmakers pressure the White House and campaign politics require a “tough on Russia” stance.

“You hear people talk about supporting an insurgency in Ukraine. What does that mean? Covert actors on the ground? What happens if they get killed?” Ruger said. “What happens if this gets escalated?”

One of the trickiest parts of arguing for restraint in the case of Ukraine is the risk of being accused of supporting Putin, whose human rights record includes poisoning political opponents and eviscerating media freedoms.

Commentator Peter Beinart, who long ago came to regret his support of the 2003 U.S. invasion of Iraq, recently described accusations that restrainers are pro-Putin as a type of cancel culture. He noted that supporters of deposing tyrants like Iraq’s Saddam Hussein often failed to calculate the longer-term risks.

“In deposing Saddam, the U.S. launched a war that took roughly 200,000 Iraqi lives, strengthened Iran, and helped create ISIS,” Beinart writes. “In deposing Muammar Qaddafi, the U.S. helped turn Libya into a failed state, thus scattering weapons and fighters across West Africa, some of whom reportedly helped launch a coup in Burkina Faso last week. All of which makes it quite plausible that keeping NATO membership open to Ukraine will help provoke a Russian response that leaves that country less stable, less free, and less peaceful than it would be if the U.S. supported Ukrainian neutrality.”

There are other factors in play as U.S. lawmakers and others weigh the implications of the Russian threats against Ukraine. Some people involved remember well the Cold War and are reflexively inclined toward a tough-on-Russia stance. Others came of age in the post-9/11 era and are skeptical of American use of force abroad. Many are almost reflexively anti-war: A coalition of such groups released a statement Tuesday calling on Biden to “end the U.S. role in escalating the extremely dangerous tensions with Russia over Ukraine” and blaming the crisis on NATO expansion.

Some of the sentiment is based in pure politics. To some liberals, opposing Russia and supporting Ukraine is equivalent to opposing former President Donald Trump, who repeatedly tried to curry favor with Putin and was accused of halting U.S. military aid to Ukraine in a bid to force the government in Kyiv to investigate Biden.

It’s tough to predict sometimes who will land on what side, said Stephen Miles, president of Win Without War, a progressive organization. After all, one of the most powerful voices speaking out against U.S. support for Ukraine is conservative Fox News host Tucker Carlson.

“The political signaling is all screwed up,” Miles said.

For people like Wertheim, Ruger and others, simply the fact that there is a debate already is a victory for restrainers. Ten or 20 years ago, such voices were far more easily drowned out, they say. Now, even members of the Biden administration will at least listen.

“The Biden administration at the very top has proved to be more amenable to restrainers’ way of thinking than expected,” Wertheim said. When it comes to Russia and Ukraine, the president and his aides need to think of the long-term consequences, Wertheim added, including how a commitment to this conflict could impact their stated desires to focus U.S. foreign policy more on China.

The way things are going now, “the likely outcome will be an increased U.S. commitment to Europe, and that really will be an unfortunate outcome,” he said.

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