Throughout modern American History, hawkish military officials have often been frustrated by the caution of civilian leadership. Military brass had little respect for President John F. Kennedy’s reluctance to use nuclear weapons against the Soviet Union. Gen. William Westmoreland chafed at the restrictions President Lyndon Johnson set on his air war in Vietnam.
This is reportedly not the case today. In a recent report about the growing U.S. willingness to cross Russian red lines by supplying Kyiv with ever more escalatory weapons, the Washington Post tells us that “inside the Biden administration, the Pentagon is considered more cautious than the White House or State Department about sending more sophisticated weaponry to Ukraine.”
It’s part of a peculiar trend evident throughout the war in Ukraine, where in a dramatic reversal, U.S. military officials appear more often on the side of restraint than their civilian counterparts.
Last November — only two weeks after a blizzard of hawkish attacks from media pundits and politicians led progressives in Congress to retract and disavow their letter calling for stepped-up diplomatic efforts — saw Gen. Mark Milley, the chairman of the Joint Chiefs of Staff and the highest ranking U.S. military officer, publicly urge Ukraine to “seize the moment” and move to the negotiating table before winter set in.
According to reporting from CNN and theNew York Times, his speech reflected his private advice to President Joe Biden, advice that received pushback from top White House advisors who believed Kyiv should keep fighting — including national security advisor Jake Sullivan and Secretary of State Antony Blinken, who is Washington's senior diplomat.
“[M]ost of the top diplomatic and national security officials are wary of giving Russian President Vladimir Putin any sort of leverage at the negotiating table,” CNN reported at the time, with one official relaying that the State department, meant to be the driving engine of U.S. diplomacy, was “on the opposite side of the pole from Milley.”
Biden’s National Security Council — comprised mostly of former speechwriters, presidential aides, lawyers, State Department officials, and others with non-military backgrounds — was “the most resistant to the idea of talks,” Politico reported, while Milley’s more dovish remarks “echoed a broad sense inside the Defense Department that the coming winter provides a chance to discuss reaching a political settlement to end the war,” with senior military officials doubtful Kyiv would force Russian forces from the territory they had seized.
In a separate report, an official close to Milley explained the four-star general was motivated by worries about the war escalating. When Sullivan publicly contradicted Milley and assured the public Kyiv would not seek to negotiate, former U.S. Ambassador to Ukraine Bill Taylor, now at the U.S. Institute of Peace, called it “very welcome.”
All of this was only two months after what we now know, thanks to the Discord leaks of classified Pentagon documents, was a dangerously close call between Russian and British aircraft, which could have sparked a direct Russia-NATO conflict had it not been for a fortuitously timed malfunction.
This appears to remain the case. As recently as this past February, Milley reiterated that the war will end at the negotiating table, insisting that there was “a rolling window” for diplomacy and “opportunities at any moment in time.” By contrast, just last week Blinken gave a speech denigrating a growing global push for ceasefire, arguing it would “legitimize Russia’s land grab” and “reward the aggressor and punish the victim.”
This stance isn’t limited to Milley. Only a few weeks before the political firestorm that engulfed Congressional progressives’ letter, retired Adm. Mike Mullen, himself the former chairman of the Joint Chiefs of Staff, spoke about the need for diplomacy.
Calling Russian president Vladimir Putin a “dangerous” and “cornered animal” in light of Ukraine’s bombing of the Kerch Bridge in Crimea, Mullen said his nuclear threats should be taken seriously, and that it all pointed to the need to negotiate, warning that Washington needed to “do everything we possibly can to try to get to the table to resolve this thing.”
Insisting that all wars end in negotiations — “the sooner the better, as far as I’m concerned” — Mullen suggested the four eastern Ukrainian provinces Putin had illegally annexed a month earlier could form part of an “off-ramp” for him.
Just months earlier, Sullivan had said the administration’s goal was ensuring the invasion was a “strategic failure” for Putin, which would see “Russia pay a longer-term price in terms of the elements of its national power.” A few months before that, when the war had virtually just begun, historian Niall Ferguson reported that a senior administration official had been overheard saying that “the only end game now” was “the end of the Putin regime,” words echoed by Biden’s own off-the-cuff remark the same month that Putin “cannot remain in power.”
At the same time that many in the West cheered the destruction of the Kerch Bridge in Crimea, it was senior intelligence and military officers who raised the alarm to Newsweek’sWilliam Arkin. “The very conditions that Putin has told us might justify nuclear escalation are emerging,” warned one. “What would drive him to use nuclear weapons, not what would satisfy some Washington pundit, is the question we should be seized with,” said another.
The task now, a third official said, was “to craft an out for him,” because “the good of the planet at this point is more important than the defeat and humiliation of a single nuclear madman.”
This was all back in October 2022. Since then, under Biden and his civilian advisors’ leadership, U.S. involvement in the war has only deepened, with Washington sending weapons like tanks and fighter jets that it had earlier considered far too escalatory to provide, giving Kyiv the green light to attack within Russian borders, and officially okaying Ukrainian attacks on Crimea even as the administration acknowledges this is could trigger the use of a nuclear weapon.
This isn’t the very first time this century that top military officials have pushed back against civilian leaders’ war plans. Adm. William J. Fallon, then the commander of U.S. Central Command, resigned in 2008 after resisting what he called the Bush administration’s “drumbeat of conflict” with Iran in favor of diplomatic engagement.
And it’s not as if Pentagon officials have all suddenly turned into doves. Kyiv’s attacks inside Russia received the tacit endorsement of the U.S. military, for instance.
But the fact that these same military officials are more favorable to diplomacy and concerned about escalation than their civilian counterparts suggests just how radically the political center of gravity has shifted on matters of war and peace under the Biden administration. As the New York Times informed us in a September 2022 report, the president “often reminds his aides” that “we’re trying to avoid World War III.”
Sixty years on from Kennedy’s tussle with his military brass, it seems it’s no longer civilian leadership who are the voices of restraint, but rather the ones who need restraining.
Branko Marcetic is a staff writer with Jacobin magazine and the author of Yesterday's Man: the Case Against Joe Biden. His work has appeared in the Washington Post, the Guardian, In These Times, and others.
US Secretary of State Tony Blinken (US Dept. of State) and Chairman of the Joint Chiefs Gen. Mark Milley (US National Guard)
DOHA, QATAR — In remarks Sunday at the 21st Doha Forum in Qatar, Russian foreign minister Sergey Lavrov seemed to revel in what is becoming a groundswell of international frustration with the United States over its policies in Israel. Despite Russia’s own near-isolated status after its 2022 invasion of Ukraine, Lavrov glibly characterized the U.S. as on the wrong side of history, the leader of the dying world order, and the purveyor of its own brand of “cancel culture.”
“I think everybody understands that this (Gaza war) did not happen in a vacuum that there were decades of unfulfilled promises that the Palestinians would get their own state,” and years of political and security hostilities that exploded on Oct. 7, he charged. “This is about the cancel culture, whatever you don’t like about events that led to the current situation you cancel. Everything that came before February 2022, including the bloody coup (in Ukraine) and the unconstitutional change of power … all this was canceled. The only thing that remains is that Russia invaded Ukraine.”
Lavrov, beamed in from Russia to the international audience in Doha, went fairly unchallenged, though his interviewer James Bays, diplomatic editor at Al Jazeera, attempted to corner him on accusations stemming from Russia’s own bloody record in Chechnya in the 1990s and and 2000s and its ongoing military campaign in Syria, which Lavrov noted was at the “behest” of the Syrian government.
On the issue of the failed ceasefire vote at the UN Security Council, of which Russia is a permanent veto member, Lavrov said, “we strongly condemn the terrorist attack against Israel. At the same time we do not think it is acceptable to use this (terrorist) event for collective punishment of millions of Palestinian people.” Did he condemn the United States for vetoing the ceasefire measure? “It’s up to the regional countries and the other countries of the world to judge,” he declared.
When asked if there was a “stalemate” in the Russian war in Ukraine, and what the Russians may have gained from their invasion in 2022, he said simply, “it’s up to the Ukrainians to understand how deep a hole they are in and where the Americans have put them.”
On whether a ceasefire may be in the offing in that war Lavrov said, “a year and half ago (Zelensky) signed a decree prohibiting any negotiations with the Putin government. They had the chance in March and April 2022, very soon after the beginning of the special military operation, where in Istanbul the negotiators reached a deal with neutrality for Ukraine, no NATO, and security guarantees…it was canceled,” he added, because the Americans and Brits wanted to “exhaust (Ukrainians) more.”
Lavrov gleefully piggybacked on themes from an earlier forum panel on the Global South. He accused “the United States and its allies” of building “the model of globalization, which they thought would serve them well.” But now, Lavrov contends, the unaligned are using “the principles and instruments of globalization to beat the West on their own terms.” As for Russia, Lavrov deployed a little “cancel culture” of his own, cherry picking the high points of his country's history over the last 200 years to project a nation that he boasts will emerge unscathed by Western assaults today.
“In the beginning of the 19th century Napoleon (rose European armies) against Russia and we defeated him; in the 20th century Hitler did the same. We defeated him and became stronger after that as well,” he said. With the Ukraine war, the West will find “that Russia has already become much stronger than it was before this.”
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UN Secretary General Antonio Guterres speaks in opening session of the Doha Forum in Qatar, December 10. (vlahos)
DOHA, QATAR — The U.S. veto of the UN Security Council vote for a ceasefire in the war in Gaza is being met with widespread anger and frustration by the international community and especially in the Arab world, as reflected in opening remarks at the 21st Doha Forum in Qatar on Sunday.
Addressing the forum, UN Secretary General Antonio Guterres said the vote was “regrettable…that does not make it less necessary. I can promise that I will not give up.” He said since the Oct. 7 attack by Hamas in Israel and the ensuing Israeli retaliation in Gaza, “the Council’s authority and credibility were seriously undermined” by a succession of failed votes to respond to ongoing civilian carnage on the Strip.
Sheikh Mohammed bin Abdulrahman Al-Thani, foreign minister of Qatar, said the current crisis and the U.S. reaction to it, including its thwarting of the ceasefire call (it was the only vote of disapproval; the UK abstained) was exposing the “great gap between East and West ... and double standards in the international community.” He pointed to those drawing attention to war crimes in “other contexts” (no doubt referring to Russia in Ukraine ) “hesitating to call for the end of these crimes in the Gaza strip.”
He repeatedly called for the creation of new multipolar world order that "respects justice and equality between the people where no people are more powerful than the other."
The U.S. said it did not approve the ceasefire resolution Friday because of the lack of condemnation of Hamas in the language, and that it not include a declaration of Israel’s right to defend itself. U.S. ambassador Robert Wood said halting Israel’s military action would “only plant the seeds for the next war.”
The result is that people here at the forum say they are more convinced than ever that U.S. policy is reflexively and intimately intertwined with Israel's activities in Gaza. As Mohammad Shtayyeh, prime minister of Palestine, charged, Washington has given the “greenest of green lights” to what Israel is doing on the ground. This was exacerbated this weekend with news that the Biden Administration is bypassing Congressional review to send 13,000 tank rounds to Israel. This, despite efforts by Democrats in his own party to condition the transfer of offensive weapons to prevent their use against civilians.
Meanwhile, humanitarian advocates repeatedly called the situation on the ground “unprecedented.” In an interview with Al Jazeera reporter Stefanie Dekker on the dais, Philippe Lazzarini, commissioner-general of the United Nations Relief and Works Agency, said his own organization is “on the brink of collapse.” They have lost 134 relief workers in Gaza since Israeli operations began. He described staff in silent stupefaction over the loss of homes, families. “There is no doubt a ceasefire is needed; we want to put an end to hell on earth right now in Gaza.”
Khaled Saffuri, executive director of the National Interest Foundation in Washington, told RS he was struck by the backlash against American brands in his own travels in Kuwait and Qatar over the last week, citing customer and restaurant boycotts of Coke, Pepsi, MacDonald’s, and Starbucks. “It’s horrible,” he said of the lopsided UN vote. “America is losing a lot in the Muslim world.”
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Journalists in the press room watch as Republican presidential candidate and former New Jersey Governor Chris Christie and fellow candidate and businessman Vivek Ramaswamy discuss an issue during the fourth Republican candidates' debate of the 2024 U.S. presidential campaign hosted by NewsNation at the University of Alabama in Tuscaloosa, Alabama, U.S., December 6, 2023. REUTERS/Alyssa Pointer
It's as if the Ukraine War has all but ended — at least for American politics.
If the Republican debates had occurred last year, they would have been consumed with talk over whether Vladimir Putin was readying to roll across Europe and how weak President Biden was for not giving Ukrainian President Volodymyr Zelensky our best tanks, our most powerful fighter aircraft, the longest range missiles we had — maybe even access to nukes.
But Zelensky wasn’t anywhere near the debate stage in Alabama last night, his name not even invoked. Fitting, we guess, since the Senate failed to pass an aid package yesterday that would have sent another $60 billion to Ukraine. This, despite administration claims that the war effort is literally running out of money. Biden even took to the airwaves Wednesday to warn of a NATO war if the funding wasn’t approved.
Republicans have been souring on the aid for months now, which might account for Ukraine’s diminished importance in the conversation. It was outweighed last night by the conflict in Israel, which in itself only drew three questions: Do we send in special forces to get the eight remaining American hostages back from Hamas? What kind of punishment could be slapped on university presidents who allow “pro Hamas” protests on campus? And how do we “get” Iran for purportedly being behind it all?
Ukraine was wielded, albeit briefly, as a blunt instrument. At the very least it gave us the tiniest of glimpses into the competing world views of the hawks on the dais (Chris Christie and Nikki Haley) and their chief agitant, Vivek Ramaswamy.
Haley raised the issue (without being asked about it) by fitting it into her usual stream of Domino Theory conciousness:
“The problem is, you have to see that all of these are related. If you look at the fact Russia was losing that war with Ukraine, Putin had hit rock bottom, they had raised the draft age to 65. He was getting drones and missiles — drones from Iran, missiles from North Korea. And so what happened when he hit rock bottom, all of a sudden his other friend, Iran, Hamas goes and invades Israel and butchers those people on Putin's birthday. There is no one happier right now than Putin because all of the attention America had on Ukraine suddenly went to Israel. And that's what they were hoping is going to happen. We need to make sure that we have full clarity, that there is a reason again that Taiwanese want to help Ukrainians because they know if Ukraine wins China won't invade Taiwan. There's a reason the Ukrainians want to help Israelis because they know that if Iran wins, Russia wins. These are all connected. But what wins all of that is a strong America, not a weak America. And that's what Joe Biden has given us.”
Vivek Ramaswamy responds:
“I want to say one thing about that tie to Ukraine. Foreign policy experience is not the same as foreign policy wisdom. I was the first person to say we need a reasonable peace deal in Ukraine. Now a lot of the neocons are quietly coming along to that position with the exceptions of Nikki Haley and Joe Biden, who still support this, what I believe, is pointless war in Ukraine. …One thing that Joe Biden and Nikki Haley have in common is that neither of them could even state for you three provinces in eastern Ukraine that they want to send our troops to actually fight for. … So reject this myth that they've been selling you that somebody had a cup of coffee stint at the UN and then makes eight million bucks after has real foreign policy experience. It takes an outsider to see this through.”
To which Chris Christie retorted:
“Let me just say something here, you know, his (Ramaswamy’s) reasonable peace deal in Ukraine. He made it clear. Give them all the land they've already stolen. Promise Putin you'll never put Ukraine in Russia, and then trust Putin not to have a relationship with China.” (Christie then essentially calls Ramaswamy a liar for suggesting he never said that.)
"These people are lying. These are the same people who told you about weapons of mass destruction in Iraq to justify that invasion didn't know the first thing about it if they send thousands of our sons and daughters to go die. The same people who told you the same in Afghanistan, where the Taliban is still in charge. Twenty years later, seven trillion of our national debt due to these toxic neocons. You can put lipstick on a Dick Cheney, it is still a fascist neocon today."
That was basically it. After $130 billion in U.S. taxpayer money since 2022, most of which we are being told has been spent in Ukraine. After hundreds of thousands of Ukrainians and Russians dead and maimed, Ukraine’s economy in such a state that the West has to prop it up, and NATO pledging more troops and weapons it doesn’t even seem to have, the issue was afforded a scant few minutes, and used only in the broadest of ways to pound each other. Gone was even the ghost of the old argument that the free world was at stake or that our obligation to Ukrainians was a moral imperative. It’s been reduced to a political cudgel, which is the first step to being memory holed in Washington. It happened to Iraq and Afghanistan in prior president debates 2012 and 2016.
The gist seems to be, maybe if we ignore it, it will just go away?