My husband and I have taught our children that in every success and failure in life, you need to own your own part. No one fails or succeeds entirely without help, and it takes moral courage to own those parts of your mistakes and failures that are yours, and to recognize the part of your successes and victories that could not have happened without help from others.
And so it is with national successes and failures. Here I take up the regrettable task of highlighting that part of Russia’s war in Ukraine owned by the United States; a war we like to think of as starting on 24 February 2022; but which in fact began with the unexpected — by most analysts in the West — collapse of the USSR in 1991. Two arguments are crucial here.
First, while the George H.W. Bush administration managed the politics of the USSR’s collapse with grace and treated the Soviet Union’s successor states — in particular, Russia — with respect; its successors proved unable to resist the temptation to crow and strut over the USSR’s collapse, and in so doing, initiated a pattern of disrespect and of ignoring Russia’s security concerns that extended from NATO’s air campaign against Serbia in 1999, through Russia’s assault on Georgia in 2008, to its annexation of Crimea in 2014, to its invasion of Ukraine in February this year.
The collapse of the USSR, and with it the unprecedented access to evidence of its long descent from a pinnacle of superpower in the 1960s to a decaying shadow of its former greatness, led many in the United States to dismiss Russia as a corrupt dictatorship; albeit one with thermonuclear weapons. This sequential lack of U.S. social IQ has proven to be, in a word, stupid.
Second, 9/11 initiated a quick shift in key tenets of U.S. foreign and national security policy and in U.S. domestic politics to more government control by the ideological descendants of those who in 1945 advocated for the use of American military power to “roll back” the Red Army from Eastern Europe by force, and opposed George F. Kennan’s arguments for “containment.”
In foreign policy, the George W. Bush administration led the United States into the use of force first — a policy I’ve termed “kinetic diplomacy” — which privileges force over diplomacy. This led to a self-fulfilling prophecy problem: Islamic religious conservatives attacked the United States and its allies, which empowered domestic Christian religious conservatives, who then insisted on the overuse of U.S. military force abroad, which then stimulated more attacks — a pattern which continued across the Obama and Trump administrations. Whacking moles only made more moles to whack. But until the Biden administration had the courage to finally withdraw the United States from Afghanistan, no U.S. president wanted to risk being the one on whose watch a political failure made sparing the military hammer look like weakness.
The George W. Bush administration also accelerated the expansion of NATO against the initially private, subsequently public protestations of the Russian Federation. (The United States had been here before: recall that in the autumn of 1950, Mao’s Peoples Republic of China warned Truman that any further advance of U.S.-led coalition forces toward the Yalu River would result in China entering the Korean War. MacArthur insisted on “victory,” and China’s intervention in December of 1950 initiated the longest retreat in U.S. military history.)
The Bush administration then brought everlasting shame to the United States by authorizing the torture of its prisoners and incarcerating its enemies without trial. It, and its successors up until Biden, continued a war in Afghanistan that, with the exception of sexual assault, resulted in every single one of the “war crimes” of which Russia has been legitimately accused in Ukraine — albeit on a smaller scale, and unlike Russia, unintended war crimes.
So sadly, the United States owns a great deal of responsibility for the current war in Ukraine. It was our own policies, and Britain’s acquiescence, that facilitated the rise, and then supported the consolidation, of a corrupt crony plutocracy in Russia. It was our over-ambitious and ultimately unnecessary expansion of NATO that undermined opposition to Russian leader Vladimir Putin inside Russia and activated legitimate Russian security concerns. And it was our own examples of “collateral damage” in Afghanistan and Iraq that made Putin question why Russia was being held to a double standard in Syria, and now so tragically in Ukraine.
To be laser clear, however, Vladimir Putin and Russia own the lion’s share of responsibility for war: both the fact of war and for the intentional assault on noncombatants. The provocation may have been real, and the United States owns a part of that for sure, but it hardly follows that starting a war against another sovereign state is an appropriate response. Whatever the outcome in military terms, it certainly shows no sign of improving Russia’s national security.
When George Kennan was attempting to illuminate Stalin’s psychology and Russia’s strategic interests in his famous “Long Telegram” of 1948, he argued that U.S. and allied strategy should be guided by the answer to a central question: was the USSR primarily insecure or aggressive? If it was insecure, and we threatened it, we’d end up in World War III. If it was aggressive and we appeased it, we’d end up losing Europe, Japan, and the Philippines to Soviet aggression. In the event, as foreign policy, containment proved to be the ideal response: it worked equally well against an aggressive or an insecure Stalin.
As domestic policy, however, it demanded patience — for Americans, always an impatient nation, a very high cost to bear indeed. It also demanded that Americans suffer the knowledge that so many of the world’s peoples must be allowed to languish in Orwellian oppression — a thought only intolerable if you believe the United States and its allies possess the power to end that oppression, which they didn’t have then and don’t have now. The United States and its allies led with violence for 30 years, and that proved insufficient to spare Afghanistan’s women from Taliban oppression.
Finally, containment prevents World War III, true, but it also leaves proponents vulnerable to the perennial conservative “unfinished business” argument; the same argument the W. Bush administration used to invade, conquer, and occupy Iraq in 2003. It’s an argument we are likely to run into again once the fighting in Ukraine stops and unless we accept what we own in the run-up to Russia’s war in Ukraine.
Monica Duffy Toft is a Non-Resident Fellow at the Quincy Institute and Professor of International Politics, founding Director of the Center for Strategic Studies at Tufts University’s Fletcher School of Law and Diplomacy. Prior to Tufts, Toft was Professor of Government and Public Policy at Oxford University’s Blavatnik School of Government and Assistant and Associate Professor at Harvard’s Kennedy School of Government. At Harvard, she was also the Assistant Director of the John M. Olin Institute for Strategic Studies and the founding director of the Initiative on Religion in International Affairs. Toft is a Global Scholar of the Peace Research Institute in Oslo, a faculty associate of Oxford’s Blavatnik School, a fellow of Oxford’s Brasenose College, a research advisor to the Resolve Network, a member of the Council on Foreign Relations, and the Political Instability Task Force. The Carnegie Foundation of New York named her a Carnegie Scholar, and she was awarded a Fulbright fellowship to Norway and the World Politics Fellowship at Princeton University. She is the author of seven books and edited volumes and has published widely on international relations, strategy, civil wars and religion, and U.S. national security in academic and policy journals. Toft was educated at the University of Chicago (MA and PhD in political science) and UC Santa Barbara (BA in political science and Slavic languages and literature, summa cum laude). Before college, she spent four years in the US Army as a Russian linguist (honorably discharged).
Handout photo shows US President Joe Biden (C-R) and Ukraine's President Volodymyr Zelensky (C-L) take part in a bilateral meeting, on the final day of a three-day G-7 summit in Hiroshima, Japan, on May 21, 2023. The final day of the three-day of the Group of Seven leaders' summit is under way in the western Japan city of Hiroshima, with focus on Ukrainian President Volodymyr Zelensky and his talks with international leaders. Photo by Ukrainian Presidency via ABACAPRESS.COM
Roughly 70% of Americans want the Biden administration to push Ukraine toward a negotiated peace with Russia as soon as possible, according to a new survey from the Harris Poll and the Quincy Institute, which publishes Responsible Statecraft.
Support for negotiations remained high when respondents were told such a move would include compromises by all parties, with two out of three respondents saying the U.S. should still pursue talks despite potential downsides. The survey shows a nine-point jump from a poll in late 2022 that surveyed likely voters. In that poll, 57% of respondents said they backed talks that would involve compromises.
The new data suggests that U.S. government policy toward the Ukraine war is increasingly out of step with public opinion on the eve of the second anniversary of Russia’s full-scale invasion.
“Americans’ strong support for U.S. diplomatic efforts to end Russia’s invasion of Ukraine stands in stark contrast to Washington’s reluctance to use its considerable leverage to get Kyiv and Moscow to the negotiating table and end this war,” said George Beebe, the director of grand strategy at the Quincy Institute.
The Biden administration has publicly rejected the idea of negotiating an end to the war with Russia, with U.S. officials saying that they are prepared to back Ukraine “as long as it takes” to achieve the country’s goal of ejecting Russian troops from all of its territory, including Crimea.
Just this week, Russian sources told Reuters that the U.S. declined a Kremlin offer to pursue a ceasefire along the current frontlines in conversations held in late 2023 and early 2024, including a round of unofficial talks in Turkey.
U.S. officials denied the claim, saying there was no “official contact” between Moscow and Washington on the issue and that the U.S. would only agree to negotiations involving Ukraine. Reuters’ Russian sources claimed that American officials said they did not want to pressure Kyiv into talks.
The Harris/Quincy Institute poll involved an online survey of 2,090 American adults from Feb. 8 to 12. The results are weighted to ensure a representative sample of the U.S. population. The margin of error is 2.5% using a 95% confidence level.
As the House weighs whether to approve new aid for Ukraine, 48% of respondents said they support new funding as long as it is conditioned on progress toward a diplomatic solution to the war. Others disagreed over whether the U.S. should halt all aid (30%) or continue funding without specific conditions (22%).
This question revealed a sharp partisan divide on whether to continue Ukraine funding in any form. Fully 46% of Republicans favor an immediate shutoff of the aid spigot, as compared to 17% of Democrats.
Meanwhile, 54% of Democrats and 40% of Republicans favored conditioning aid on diplomatic talks. “The American people seem more clear-eyed than Washington in recognizing the urgent need to pair aid for Ukraine’s defense with a diplomatic offensive,” Beebe argued.
The poll also showed that most Americans expect the war to drag into at least 2025. Only 16% of respondents thought the war would end this year. Others were evenly split on how long the war might last, with 46% expecting it to be resolved before the end of 2026 and 38% saying there is no end in sight.
keep readingShow less
Gen. Dwight D. Eisenhower, supreme commander of the North Atlantic Treaty Organization, 1952; President Barack Obama, at NATO Headquarters, Brussels, 2014.
President Trump's latest comments criticizing NATO and the ensuing media reaction obscure the fact that Americans have long held dissenting opinions on the U.S. relationship to European security.
As has happened all too often throughout the Trump era, the heat of escalating rhetoric on the part of the 45th President and his committed adversaries has distracted from the more substantive foreign policy debate.
Today, the U.S-European security relationship has never been more sacrosanct, at least in the mind's eye of the national security establishment and their allies in the mainstream press. Yet historically, the range of debate and criticism of this ostensibly sacred pact has been far more open than nostalgia or the modern commentariat may suggest.
Throughout American involvement in NATO, the nation's national security elites, members of Congress, commentators, and, yes, presidents, too, have all challenged the contours of commitment to the organization and its members at one time or another. Furthermore, they did so when Western countries faced a significantly larger Soviet military deployed deep into the heart of Central Europe.
During the early Cold War, the nature of American involvement in the alliance and its commitment to staff Europe with a permanent garrison were not seen as beyond question, even by American officials in positions of authority. In fact, American Cold War architects sold an American garrison in Europe as a temporary measure meant to shore up allies still licking their wounds from the Second World War. In congressional testimony concerning the ratification of the NATO treaty, Sen. Bourke B. Hickenlooper (R-Iowa) pressed Secretary of State Dean Acheson on if he thought the treaty meant that the U.S. would leave "substantial numbers of troops over there." An indignant Acheson responded, "[t]he answer to that question, Senator, is a clear and absolute 'No.'"
Even as Acheson's assurances to Congress proved hollow, NATO's first commander, General Dwight D. Eisenhower, while supportive of NATO's legal mechanisms of collective security, believed that America's garrison and material aid were temporary. Eisenhower warned that if "in 10 years, all American troops stationed in Europe for national defense purposes have not been returned to the United States, then this whole project will have failed."
In Congress, the extent of American military involvement remained a persistent issue for the Republican Right. Be they principled noninterventionists or Asia First unilateralists, the extent of American troop presence in Europe remained a contested issue. Retired Army officer Bonner Fellers, writing in a July 1949 issue of Human Events, a conservative magazine, summed up the widely agreed-upon position of these dissenters. While Fellers believed that the NATO treaty had "enormous psychological value," as it served as a "symbol of unity" and deterrence, he did not think that that should translate into a massive and permanent military garrison in Western Europe.
Fellers revisited the issue two years later in an article for Human Events, which was read into the Congressional Record. Rather than see the American European garrison as a deterrent, Fellers asserted that it could be viewed as a provocation and argued that the "presence of our forces on the Rhine gives Stalin a visible symbol, a unifying agent which tends to enlist the support of all Russians behind the Kremlin."
It is important to note that Fellers was hardly a dove. Instead, he was a committed anti-communist who loathed the Soviet Union and supported a nuclear deterrence on the cheap, a Fortress America 2.0. Yet, he, like many within the Republican Right, did not allow their ideological priors to automatically dictate a desire for endless security commitments to Western Europe.
On Capitol Hill, Fellers's views were common and supported by conservative Republicans who saw an American military garrison as an expensive handout to allies whose rebuilt economies could shoulder their defense, all while providing little deterrent effect. In 1953, speaking on the issue of America's military mission in Europe, Rep. Lawrence H. Smith (R-Wis.) asked rhetorically, "[w]here is the threat of military aggression?"
According to Smith, after returning from a fact-finding mission in Europe, his subcommittee on Europe reported that "there was no fear of communism in the hearts and the minds of the people there." The sentiments espoused by Fellers and Smith persisted in pockets of the Republican Right throughout the early Cold War despite the ideological demands of the era.
During the final decades of the Cold War, opposition to the presence of an American military garrison in Western Europe and the continuation of military aid emanated primarily from the left wing of the Democratic Party as a new generation of Democrats took office and sought to rein military spending and commitments. On Capitol Hill, Democrats attempted to force American troop level cuts in Europe in the House in 1988, and the Senate in 1990.
With the fall of the Berlin Wall and the collapse of the Soviet Union, the horseshoe of opposition to maintaining the status quo thickened as a body of conservative Republicans joined progressive Democrats in opposing NATO expansion, first in 1994 and then in 1999. While both votes failed, and the United States maintained a sizeable garrison in Europe, the opposition to outdated Cold War paradigms remained and flowed freely, untainted by the scurrilous charge of echoing "Putin talking points."
Indeed, even as late as November 2016, President Obama mirrored the sentiments of then President-elect Donald Trump in stating that “[i]f Greece can meet this NATO commitment, all our NATO allies should be able to do so."
This latest fervor has, as all too often now, completely ignored these historical debates around American foreign policy commitments, creating in their passions an ahistorical sense of policy inevitability. If Americans past and present, from presidents on down, could question the contours of American security commitments and did so in far more perilous times, then so should we.
Last month, Foreign Policy published a report that stirred the debate on U.S. Middle East policy. It claimed “the Biden administration is reconsidering its priorities” in Syria and may conduct “a full withdrawal of U.S. troops.” Now, legacy media is debating the future of American involvement in Syria.
Missing from this discussion is the suffering that involvement has caused.
Writing for the New York Times, retired general Kenneth McKenzie warns “it’s not time for our troops to leave” Syria. Mere talk of a withdrawal (let alone actually withdrawing), he argues, is “seriously damaging to U.S. interests.” It “gives hope to Tehran” that Iran might rival American influence in the Middle East — which is bad, supposedly. Why Iran has less of a right to influence its own region than people thousands of miles away is unclear.
McKenzie also argues that American troops must remain to “secure the prisons holding ISIS fighters.” Without boots on the ground, militants might escape and the Islamist group could “rejuvenate itself.” McKenzie doesn’t believe the Syrian government could prevent prison breaks on its own, or even with Russian and Iranian support.
This argument is highly speculative. If the Americans leave, imprisoned ISIS fighters might escape. And, if enough do, they might rebuild their organization into a force too formidable for Syrian forces to handle. Multiple unlikely contingencies must materialize to even warrant taking this reasoning seriously.
But McKenzie’s claim suffers a more fundamental problem. It confuses the cause for the antidote. Everyone from Noam Chomsky to Rand Paul knows American intervention created the conditions that allowed ISIS to grow. Bombing Arab nations to smithereens, toppling their leaders, and starving governments through sanctions and outright theft generated a power vacuum. As did deploying troops indefinitely, which prevented states like Syria from maintaining territorial integrity and establishing the mechanisms for self-governance.
McKenzie believes the Syrian government is simply too weak to quell the increasingly small threat an ISIS in retreat poses. Assuming he’s correct, it’s worth asking why that’s the case. The facts again point to American intervention.
Nearly 13 years into its ongoing civil war, Syria is in tatters. Once a middle-income nation with respectable living standards, it’s now the poorest country on Earth. More than 90% of Syrians live below the international poverty line of $1.90 per day. Their paychecks are worthless, with the Syrian pound losing virtually all of its relative value since the war began.
It’s not all America’s fault. The Syrian government undoubtedly bears significant blame for the humanitarian crisis. But American sanctions hamstring it from improving matters. The infamous Caesar Act targets anyone who "engages in a significant transaction" with the Syrian government. Signed into law by Donald Trump, this heinous policy effectively precludes the international community from helping Syria rebuild.
A bipartisan but overwhelmingly Democratic coalition of lawmakers recently voted against slapping new sanctions on Syria. Unfortunately, for every one of them, there were 12 supporters of the legislation. Dubbed the Assad Regime Anti-Normalization Act, it would extend the sunset of the Caesar sanctions by eight years. The bill would also expand the list of proscribed transactions.
But there’s more. Years ago, with America’s blessing, Turkish-backed militias stole capital from over 1,000 factories in the city of Aleppo alone. This assault on the productive forces of Syria’s industrial hub left its economy in tatters. But that’s not all the United States and its allies stole. America’s occupying troops routinely commandeer Syrian wheat and petroleum. Trump admitted as much, saying that soldiers “were staying in Syria to secure oil resources.”
The Syrian state is starving. More American intervention isn’t what Syria needs. It needs the United States’ boot off of its neck.
In these discussions of states and militants, we mustn’t lose sight of what matters most: the people. American militarism in Syria has wrought dire human costs. It has helped to plunge Syrians into the depths of unimaginable despair. Over 80% of them are food-insecure and a similar proportion lack sustained access to electricity. Many enjoy just one hour of it per day. Without electricity, you can’t refrigerate food and it rots. That causes shortages. People have taken to eating out of the garbage.
McKenzie seems to care little about this immense suffering. And why would he? His job as a general was to project American military might, whatever the costs, a position he apparently continues as a guest writer for The New York Times.