In 2009, when Israel was bombing Gaza, one of the most prominent advocates of the realist school of international relations, John Mearsheimer, wrote an article explaining that while the nominal goal of Israel’s “Operation Cast Lead” was to counteract Hamas rocket attacks, the underlying purpose was “to get the Palestinians in Gaza to accept their fate as hapless subjects of a Greater Israel.”
He predicted it would fail in this purpose and that armed conflict would persist until the underlying issue of the status of the Palestinian territories was resolved. Sadly, this analysis proved to be as prescient as his more famous warning about mounting tensions between Russia and the West over Ukraine.
In both Eastern Europe and the Middle East, we can see the bitter fruits of policymakers ignoring these warnings. The United States is pumping arms and money into local wars that both threaten to spiral into far larger conflicts. In both cases, the stated war aims of our local proxies are unlikely to be achieved any time soon — if at all. And in each case, veteran advocates of a more restrained U.S. foreign policy have advocated a long-term ceasefire and moves toward diplomatic resolution of the underlying conflict.
University College London professor of international relations Philip Cunliffe, however, has argued that the Left’s foreign policy restrainers are being inconsistent. He thinks we were being driven by “sober realism” on Ukraine but have now “lost it” and let ourselves be swayed by humanitarian emotions about the Palestinians.
This critique doesn’t survive a closer look. It misunderstands the relationship between realist critiques of the aims of war and moral horror at the consequences of war. And it ignores everything the two cases have in common.
A Tale of Two Wars
Neither the terrorist attack on October 7 nor Russia’s invasion of Ukraine were morally justified. They were, however, both predictable and widely predicted. Cautious voices at the heights of the Western foreign policy establishment had been saying that encouraging Ukraine’s long-term ambitions to join NATO could inflame tensions with Russia since the end of the Cold War. And there were numerous similarwarnings that Netanyahu’s strategy of simultaneously digging his boot deeper into the necks of the Palestinians and trying to make a separate peace with surrounding Arab states, thus depriving the Palestinians of the one thing they had going for them — the support, however ambiguous and inconsistent, of those states — was a recipe for exactly this kind of explosion.
In both cases, failure to see the warning signs has been compounded by subsequent U.S. policy. While this policy may finally be changing in Ukraine, the Biden administration’s default approach to both conflicts has been to write blank checks. In both cases, there have been signs of regret and hesitation along the way — weapons systems that aren’t sent to Ukraine for a few months out of concerns that they’re too escalatory (and then get sent anyway) or Biden begging Netanyahu for “humanitarian pauses” even as 1.7 million of the more than 2 million residents of Gaza had already been displaced and thousands of children lay dead.
Both Zelensky and Netanyahu have pushed back hard against such squeamishness and both men have, more often than not, gotten their way — even though, in both cases, it seems quite unlikely that our allies’ stated goals will be achieved on the battlefield.
Ukraine retaking both Crimea and every last inch of the Donbas seems supremely unlikely even given another five or 10 years of more war. Similarly, counterinsurgency campaigns with the goal of “eradicating” some terrorist or guerilla force are a dime a dozen around the world. It’s far less common for such campaigns to lead to the actual extinction of the targeted force. As Israeli propaganda itself emphasizes, the top leadership of Hamas is not in Gaza but Qatar. Moreover, after seven weeks of “total war” that Israeli officials themselves are eager to compare to atrocities like the Allied bombing of Dresden, it’s not yet clear how much the Gaza-based operations of Hamas have been hampered.
Meanwhile, as even Elon Musk has realized, displacing millions of Palestinians from their homes and killing and maiming vast numbers of innocents is a recipe for supercharging future recruitment to Hamas or even more radical organizations. As is so often the case around the world, trying to solve long-term geopolitical problems by dropping bombs creates many corpses and few solutions.
In both cases, the most likely consequence of a less belligerent course of action would be some sort of territorial compromise that falls considerably short of perfect justice. I’ve arguedelsewhere that liberal democratic principles which in other contexts would be accepted by most Westerners across the political spectrum would entail simply offering West Bank and Gaza Palestinians citizenship in the single state that has de facto existed between the Jordan River and the Mediterranean Sea for the last 56 years. But I’m not deluded about that happening in the short term — and even if a “two-state solution” involved Israel’s full retreat to its pre-1967 borders, that would mean the State of Palestine would be created in 22% of the shared homeland.
Similarly, as hawks have long fretted, any sort of negotiated peace in Ukraine will mean Russia retaining some of the land it illegally seized in the course of a bloody war that it started. These are bitter pills to swallow.
Nevertheless, you’ll find realist scholars and commentators advocatingpeace in both contexts — and for the same reasons. In both cases, pointlessly prolonging the wars would lead to enormous and avoidable suffering for civilian populations. In both cases, the families of the soldiers whose lives would be sacrificed by pointless extension of the wars can be spared. And in both cases, moves toward diplomatic resolution can head off the terrifying possibility of these wars spiraling into larger regional or even global conflicts.
Cunliffe accuses advocates of peace in both conflicts of selectively choosing not to share graphic images of the Ukrainian victims of the Russian invasion while over-sharing images of Palestinian death and destruction. Providing hyperlinks of articles by me and Branko Marcetic, he says the “strangest saddest cases” on the anti-war Left are those of us “who for long years managed to preserve their intellectual poise and political integrity in the face of monolithic mass conformity, elite hostility, and relentless gaslighting by the mainstream media, only to eventually crumble and succumb to supporting the ‘latest thing.’”
This is a misunderstanding on several levels. For one thing, I know of no case of a left-wing critic of both wars whose position on Israel/Palestine wasn’t the same two years ago. Second, the idea that “mass conformity, elite hostility, and relentless gaslighting by mainstream media” flow in the direction of advocacy for the Palestinians feels like news from an alternate dimension.
While I’ve never particularly enjoyed being called a “Putin apologist” for advocating de-escalation and peace negotiations in Ukraine, that sort of rhetorical ugliness doesn’t even begin to touch the tidal wave of firings, deplatformings, denunciations from politicians of both parties, and mass public shaming that’s come down on advocates of peace in Israel/Palestine since October 7. (There have also been some incidents of free speech crackdowns the other way, as institutions try to prove their “even-handedness,” but no one really denies that it’s been lopsided.) Nothing remotely equivalent has happened to advocates of a negotiated solution in Eastern Europe. There are no trucks driving around university campuses displaying the names of “anti-Ukraine” students and professors. There are no laws against boycotting Ukraine on the books in any state.
Finally and most importantly, Cunliffe misunderstands the relationship between humanitarian concern about the carnage of war and realism about what can be achieved by war. Outrage about one side’s crimes can be — and often is — used to whip up support for wars that will only make everything worse. So, for example, Russian crimes in Ukraine are often showcased for the purpose of bolstering support for prolonging a war whose continuation won’t move the eventual ceasefire line very far, but will result in decades of Ukrainian children being blown up by unexploded cluster bombs.
Furthermore, the grisly atrocities committed by Hamas on October 7 are being used to justify mass death and displacement in Gaza, which will do nothing to reduce the threat of future terrorism. But the objection to such deceptive military solutions to long-term geopolitical problems isn’t just that they won’t work.
Anti-war protestors levitating the Pentagon through the power of meditation won’t work either — but if someone wants to dedicate an afternoon to giving it a shot, that’s fine with me. The problem with these awful and pointless wars is that they won’t achieve their stated objectives but they will result in vast numbers of dead, maimed, and psychologically broken human beings.
Cunliffe isn’t wrong that restrainers feel moral horror about this in the case of Gaza. He’s wrong to think we don’t feel it in the case of Ukraine — or that advocacy of restraint in both cases isn’t a consistent position.
Ben Burgis is a Jacobin columnist, an adjunct philosophy professor at Rutgers University, and the host of the YouTube show and podcast Give Them An Argument. He’s the author of several books, most recently Christopher Hitchens: What He Got Right, How He Went Wrong, and Why He Still Matters.
On Tuesday, U.S. Treasury Secretary Janet Yellen strongly endorsed efforts to tap frozen Russian central bank assets in order to continue to fund Ukraine.
“There is a strong international law, economic and moral case for moving forward,” with giving the assets, which were frozen by international sanctions following Russia’s 2022 invasion of Ukraine, to Kyiv, she said to reporters before a G7 meeting in San Paulo.
Furthermore on Wednesday, White House national security communications adviser John Kirby urged the use of these assets to assist the Ukrainian military.
This adds momentum to increasing efforts on Capitol Hill to monetize the frozen assets to assist the beleaguered country, including through the “REPO Act,” a U.S. Senate bill which was criticized by Senator Rand Paul (R-Ky.) in a recent article here in Responsible Statecraft. As Paul pointed out, spending these assets would violate international law and norms by the outright seizure of sovereign Russian assets.
In the long term, this will do even more to undermine global faith in the U.S.-led and Western-centric international financial system. Doubts about the system and pressures to find an alternative are already heightened due to the freezing of Russian overseas financial holdings in the first place, as well as the frequent use of unilateral sanctions by the U.S. to impose its will and values on other countries.
The amount of money involved here is considerable. Over $300 billion in Russian assets was frozen, mostly held in European banks. For comparison, that’s about the same amount as the entirety of Western aid committed from all sources to Ukraine since the beginning of the war in 2022 — around $310 billion, including the recent $54 billion in 4-year assistance just approved by the EU.
Thus, converting all of the Russian assets to assistance for Ukraine could in theory fully finance a continuing war in Ukraine for years to come. As political support for open-ended Ukraine aid wanes in both the U.S. and Europe, large-scale use of this financing method also holds the promise of an administrative end-run around the political system.
But there are also considerable potential downsides, particularly in Europe. European financial institutions hold the overwhelming majority of frozen Russian assets, and any form of confiscation could be a major blow to confidence in these entities. In addition, European corporations have significant assets stranded in Russia which Moscow could seize in retaliation for the confiscation of its foreign assets.
Another major issue is that using assets to finance an ongoing conflict will forfeit their use as leverage in any a peace settlement, and the rebuilding of Ukraine. The World Bank now estimates post-war rebuilding costs for Ukraine of nearly $500 billion. If the West can offer a compromise to Russia in which frozen assets are used to pay part of these costs, rather than demanding new Russian financing for massive reparations, this could be an important incentive for negotiations.
In contrast, monetizing the assets outside of a peace process could signal that the West intends to continue the conflict indefinitely.
In combination with aggressive new U.S. sanctions announced last week on Russia and on third party countries that continue to deal with Russia, the new push for confiscation of Russian assets is more evidence that the U.S. and EU intend to intensify the conflict with Moscow using administrative mechanisms that won’t rely on support from the political system or the people within them.
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Activist Layla Elabed speaks during an uncommitted vote election night gathering as Democrats and Republicans hold their Michigan presidential primary election, in Dearborn, Michigan, U.S. February 27, 2024. REUTERS/Rebecca Cook
A protest vote in Michigan against President Joe Biden’s handling of the war in Gaza dramatically exceeded expectations Tuesday, highlighting the possibility that his stance on the conflict could cost him the presidency in November.
More than 100,000 Michiganders voted “uncommitted” in yesterday’s presidential primary, earning 13.3% of the tally with most votes counted and blasting past organizers’ goal of 10,000 protest votes. Biden won the primary handily with 81% of the total tally.
The results suggest that Biden could lose Michigan in this year’s election if he continues to back Israel’s campaign to the hilt. In 2020, he won the state by 150,000 votes while polls predicted he would win by a much larger margin. This year, early polls show a slight lead for Trump in the battleground state, which he won in 2016 by fewer than 11,000 votes.
“The war on Gaza is a deep moral issue and the lack of attention and empathy for this perspective from the administration is breaking apart the fragile coalition we built to elect Joe Biden in 2020,” said Rep. Pramila Jayapal (D-Wash.), a progressive leader who has called for a ceasefire in Gaza, as votes came in last night.
Biden still has “a little bit of time to change this dynamic,” Jayapal told CNN, but “it has to be a dramatic policy and rhetorical shift from the president on this issue and a new strategy to rebuild a real partnership with progressives in multiple communities who are absolutely key to winning the election.”
Rep. Ro Khanna, a prominent Biden ally, told Semafor the vote is a “wake-up call” for the White House on Gaza.
The “uncommitted” option won outright in Dearborn, a Detroit suburb with a famously large Arab American population. The protest vote also gained notable traction in college towns, signaling Biden’s weakness among young voters across the country. “Uncommitted” received at least 8% of votes in every county in Michigan with more than 95% of votes tallied.
The uncommitted campaign drew backing from prominent Democrats in Michigan, including Rep. Rashida Tlaib (D-Mich.) and state Rep. Abraham Aiyash, who is the majority leader in the Michigan House. Former Reps. Andy Levin and Beto O’Rourke, who served as a representative from Texas, also lent their support to the effort.
“Our movement emerged victorious tonight and massively surpassed our expectations,” said Listen to Michigan, the organization behind the campaign, in a statement last night. “Tens of thousands of Michigan Democrats, many of whom [...] voted for Biden in 2020, are uncommitted to his re-election due to the war in Gaza.”
Biden did not make reference to the uncommitted movement in his victory speech, but reports indicate that his campaign is spooked by the effort. Prior to Tuesday’s vote, White House officials met with Arab and Muslim leaders in Michigan to try to assuage their concerns about the war, which has left about 30,000 Palestinians dead and many more injured. (More than 1,100 Israelis died during Hamas’s Oct. 7 attacks last year.)
The president argues that his support for Israel has made it possible for him to guide the direction of the war to the extent possible, though his critics note that, despite some symbolic and rhetorical moves, he has stopped far short of holding back U.S. weapons or supporting multilateral efforts to demand a ceasefire.
Campaigners now hope the “uncommitted” effort will spread to other states. Minnesota, which will hold its primaries next week, is an early target.
“If you think this will stop with Michigan you are either the president or paid to flatter him,” said Alex Sammon, a politics writer at Slate.
Meanwhile in the Republican primary, former President Donald Trump fended off a challenge from former South Carolina governor Nikki Haley. With 94% of votes in, Trump came away with 68% of the vote, while Haley scored around 27%.
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Central Intelligence Agency Director William Burns prepares for a Senate Select Committee on Intelligence hearing on worldwide threats, at the U.S. Capitol, in Washington, D.C., on Thursday, March 10, 2022. After the House passed a late night government funding bill with more than $13 Billion in additional funding for Ukraine, the Senate is expected to take up the measure and pass it before a government shutdown deadline.
The White House’s messaging on the Ukraine war is built around two simple-yet-powerful adjectives: “We are united in our condemnation,” said President Joe Biden almost two years ago in a joint statement with EU Commission President Ursula von der Leyen, “of Russia’s unjustified and unprovoked war of aggression against Ukraine.”
The “unjustified and unprovoked” line has been used numerous times by a chorus of top U.S. officials and allies, quickly becoming a rhetorical mainstay of Biden’s maximum pressure campaign against the Kremlin.
This messaging conflates two important, yet fundamentally different issues. There is little question that Russia’s invasion has wrought a horrific human toll on Ukraine and upended European security in ways that few anticipated prior to February 2022. But it is also not without its context, which includes a litany of grievances that — however unjustified from the perspective of the West — constitute what the Kremlin saw as sufficient provocation to initiate the most destructive war in Europe since 1945.
An explosive New York Times exposé by Adam Entous and Michael Schwirtz sheds light on major developments preceding the full-scale invasion of Ukraine. According to the report, the Ukrainian government entered into a wide-ranging partnership with the CIA against Russia. This cooperation, which involved the establishment of as many as 12 secret CIA “forward operating bases” along Ukraine’s border with Russia, began not with Russia’s 2022 invasion, but just over 10 years ago.
Within days of the February 2014 Euromaidan Revolution that culminated with the ouster of President Viktor Yanukovych and ushered in a firmly pro-Western government, the newly appointed head of the Security Service of Ukraine (SBU), Valentyn Nalyvaichenko, reportedly proposed a “three-way partnership” with the CIA and MI6, the UK’s foreign intelligence service. Ukrainian security officials gradually proved their value to the U.S. by feeding the CIA intelligence on Russia, including “secret documents about the Russian Navy,” leading to the establishment of CIA bases in Ukraine to coordinate activities against Russia and various training programs for Ukrainian commandos and other elite units.
A graduate of one such CIA training program, then-Lt. Col. Kyrylo Budanov, went on to become the chief of Ukrainian military intelligence.
Kyiv routinely pushed this relationship’s boundaries, violating the Obama administration’s red lines around lethal operations by carrying out assassinations of high-profile Russian fighters on territory controlled by Russian-aligned separatists. The Kyiv-CIA partnership deepened under the Trump administration, yet again putting the lie to the baseless idea that former President Trump was somehow amenable to Russia’s interests while in office.
As Budanov reportedly put it, “It only strengthened. It grew systematically. The cooperation expanded to additional spheres and became more large-scale.” This cooperation, as painstakingly outlined by the Times, went far beyond helping Ukraine defend itself against Russia in a narrow, technical sense — rather, Ukraine was drawn into a Western coalition for the purpose of waging a broad-based shadow war against Russia.
The New York Times’ exposé offers no shortage of disturbing implications. Ukraine is, needless to say, a sovereign state in charge of determining its own security arrangements. The underlying issue is not whether Ukraine is within its rights to enter into this kind of relationship with the CIA, as it obviously is, nor is it whether the Maidan Revolution put Ukraine on a certain path toward political cooperation with Western entities.
The problem, rather, is one of basic security perceptions. Moscow repeatedly warned — for many years before 2014 — that it was and remains prepared to take drastic action to prevent Ukraine from being used by the West as a forward operating base against Russia. Yet that, as recounted in lurid detail by The New York Times, is precisely what has happened over the past 10 years.
The fact that Ukraine has not just willingly but enthusiastically submitted to this arrangement is immaterial to Russia’s core concerns. Nor can this issue be entirely reduced to NATO membership: Ukraine can play the role of an anti-Russian outpost on NATO’s eastern flank without ever formally joining the alliance, and this, too, is unacceptable to the Kremlin.
Justification is by nature a subjective exercise, but there can be little question that the activities described in this exposé constitute, from the Kremlin’s perspective, a dire provocation and would be seen as such by the United States if the situation were reversed and a rival superpower established such bases in Mexico. This perception is an inseparable part of the military and political context that shaped this war’s outbreak. It can be dismissed as paranoid, but if so it is a paranoia common to all security establishments.
It is unclear what concrete U.S. interests these joint intelligence activities served. They certainly did not facilitate de-escalation between Moscow and Kyiv or promote regional stability, goals ostensibly shared by the Obama and Trump administrations. On the other hand, it is quite easy to see how Kyiv’s deepening relationship with the CIA needlessly fed into Moscow’s worst security fears and precipitated its conclusion — whether justified or not — that it must act decisively in the face of an implacable conflict with the West over Ukraine.