Discover more from Persuasion
The Left Case Against the "Restraint" Policy on Ukraine
I have been a critic of disastrous foreign wars. This time is different.
Like many people my age, my first active involvement with progressive politics was through protests against the war in Vietnam. The first political film I ever saw was the anti-colonialist “The Battle of Algiers” at a college teach-in. My first public presentation was a slideshow detailing the weapons used by American jets on Vietnamese villages—and the companies that made the napalm they dropped.
I was part of a broad tradition. For over one hundred years, two bedrock elements of progressive belief have been staunch opposition to imperialist intervention and steadfast support for a nation’s right of self-determination. These principles guided progressive policy during the post-colonial era, including opposition to Western wars in Algeria, Vietnam, Africa and elsewhere.
So when Vladimir Putin launched his brutal invasion, many of us on the left rose in opposition to Russia’s aggression. Recent polls show overwhelming support among liberals and progressives for aid to the Ukrainian resistance, with some 76 percent approving of how President Joe Biden is handling the war. Support is even stronger among the European left.
Congressional Democrats, meanwhile, largely agree with Rep. Jamie Raskin that “[we] are determined to see the Ukrainian people win victory over Vladimir Putin and expel his imperialist forces from their country.” They have repeatedly demonstrated their solidarity through votes on the floor and their rejection of the embarrassing pro-restraint Congressional Progressive Caucus letter last October.
Nevertheless, a vocal minority of anti-war activists and left experts continue to blame the United States for the war. This is not to say that they support Putin. To varying degrees, they condemn Russia’s invasion. But they focus primarily on the sins of past U.S. policies and claim that supplying weapons to Ukraine escalates and prolongs the conflict. While most people recognize that at some point negotiations may be needed to end Putin’s invasion, these left analysts, journalists and activists use diplomacy as a cudgel against aid to Ukraine.
Their logic is simple. For decades they have been working to end the militarization of U.S. foreign policy. Just as those efforts began to show promise, with the U.S. withdrawal from Afghanistan and the embrace by the Biden administration of a “foreign policy for the middle class,” the war in Ukraine pulled policy back to more weapons, larger military budgets and great power rivalry.
Some on the left additionally believe that America provoked the war. Branko Marcetic, writing for the socialist magazine Jacobin, blames it on “a U.S.-backed, far right-led revolution in Ukraine.” This view echoes throughout the peace movement. Richard Krushnic of the Massachusetts Peace Action titled his recent newsletter “U.S. Push for Heavy Arms to Ukraine Is a Dangerous Escalation.” The organization has joined with dozens of small groups in demonstrations to oppose “endless U.S. wars” and blame the “U.S. war machine,” not Russia, for escalating the war.
In short, since Russia shows no willingness to stop its invasion, the left restraint movement wants the United States to force Ukraine to end the war by declaring an immediate cease-fire, promising Ukrainian neutrality and agreeing to Russian occupation of parts of the country, particularly Crimea. The right of Ukrainians to determine their own strategy and their own future must be subordinated, in this view, to the need to end the war, at which point the left can return to their main goals of ending American domination of global affairs.
But these critics make the worst mistake one can make in strategy: they misidentify the main threat. They focus on the past rather than the future. They fail to see the rising danger from an increasingly fascist Russia under Putin and the consequences for global peace should he succeed in redrawing the map of Europe by force. It is capitulation in a diplomatic cloak.
In part, their views reflect the commendable desire to avoid more wars, such as the catastrophic U.S. invasion of Iraq. For decades, Americans have been told that we must intervene in some remote land, must send troops to stop an imminent threat, must defend democracy over there before they attack us here. The premises of these wars have often proven false, with disastrous results.
But left critics have turned this sentiment into opposition to any U.S. military action, even one to stop an imperialist aggressor. To support their stance, some have forged common cause with conservative academics and activists, and even with the MAGA movement’s openly pro-Putin positions. This coalition promotes cuts in aid to Ukraine and military budgets, and favors a new “restraint” foreign policy.
The guiding star for many in this movement is University of Chicago Professor John Mearsheimer. A leading proponent of the restraint position in international theory, Mearsheimer sees Putin’s invasion as an understandable reaction to NATO expansion in the 1990s and early 2000s. He holds that “the United States is principally responsible for causing the Ukraine crisis”; that “Putin is not bent on conquering and absorbing Ukraine”; and that “it was only when the Ukraine crisis broke out in February 2014 that the United States and its allies suddenly began describing Putin as a dangerous leader with imperial ambitions.” He concludes that “the United States is not seriously interested in finding a diplomatic solution to the war,” and is the principal obstacle to peace.
Others in the movement, such as Jeffrey Sachs, a former advisor to Sen. Bernie Sanders, argue that the war started with a U.S. coup in Ukraine in 2014 (the reality is that they were popular protests that led then-president Viktor Yanukovych to flee to Russia.) Sachs also claims the U.S. blocked a reasonable peace settlement from Vladimir Putin in 2021, and that American foreign policy—not Putin’s attempt to annex a sovereign country—“is putting us on a path to nuclear devastation.”
This “restraint” left has found close allies in the libertarian movement. Indeed, because of the libertarian Charles Koch Foundation’s substantial investments over the past few years in national security projects promoting this analysis at universities and think tanks, restraint experts are now more dominant in Washington foreign policy debates than the traditional left. The left-libertarian current fuels, for example, the newly-established Quincy Institute for Responsible Statecraft. “Sending weapons to Ukraine will strengthen U.S. primacy and the national security state that supports it, ultimately preventing the achievement of left-wing goals,” writes Daniel Bessner, a fellow at the institute. “This should concern those aware of the U.S. Empire’s history.”
There is little empathy in these views for Ukraine’s right of self-determination or for the Ukrainian victims of the occupation. “Putin’s ambitions in Ukraine seem almost modest in comparison” to the U.S. invasion of Iraq, says Quincy co-founder and board chair Andrew Bacevich. He argues that Putin only “sought to reassert Russian dominance over a nation the Kremlin had long deemed essential to its security.” Repelled by this callousness, I resigned from my position as a non-resident distinguished fellow at Quincy last July.
In their zeal to continue their opposition to past U.S. policies, the left/libertarian critics are in danger of losing their humanity. They have a blind spot for Russia. Their brief criticisms of Putin are prophylactically slapped on articles like cancer warnings on tobacco ads, but they avoid any sustained analysis of Russian soldiers’ torture, murder, rape and forced deportation of Ukrainians lest it distract from their U.S. policy criticism. While claiming to support aid to Ukraine they do nothing to actually support Ukraine or expose Putin’s vicious assaults on the Ukrainian people. If anything, they see the war as proof that the Russian army is much less of a military danger than supposed.
Fortunately, this tendency is still small on the left. Most agree with Yale University historian Timothy Snyder that a Russian victory “would extend genocidal policies in Ukraine, subordinate Europeans, and render any vision of a geopolitical European Union obsolete.” They side with Chairman of the Munich Security Conference Christoph Heusgen, who argues that “the Russian invasion of Ukraine marks a turning point in history,” and believe the United States must take the lead in building a coalition to defeat the invasion.
Yet this unity of purpose remains a final barrier for some. It is anathema to them to make common cause with those who championed the unnecessary wars of the past two decades. They worry that Ukraine’s success against Russia has brought with it a triumphalism that will drive a return of America as the world’s policeman, with all the costs that role would bring. “If Western support enables Ukraine to defeat an invading army... then the failures of Iraq, Afghanistan, Libya, Syria, and the Balkans can be swept into the memory hole,” says Harvard professor Stephen Walt. “The campaign to expand the U.S-led liberal order will get a new lease on life.”
We can be patient with this debate. It took years for Europeans and Americans to understand what the rise of fascism in the early twentieth century meant and what was needed for its defeat. Many never thought such a struggle would come again, or still don’t recognize it now that it has. But without abandoning valid critiques of the past, we can focus on the new task. “It’s possible to believe that the undue influence of the U.S. war machine… is very real,” writes presidential candidate Marianne Williamson, “and at the same time believe the Russian invasion of Ukraine is a criminal venture that cannot be tolerated by the world.”
Though Putin has long been consolidating his regime domestically, we have just passed the first year of its manifestation on the global stage. And the world’s response has overall been swifter and stronger than it was when fascism rose one hundred years ago. After a year of war, “a stable 65% of U.S. adults prefer that the United States support Ukraine in reclaiming its territory,” according to the latest Gallup poll. The left-libertarian-MAGA opposition to supporting Ukraine remains on the policy fringe.
We should not take their relative isolation as permanent. If Ukraine’s resistance falters, this left-right coalition could gain strength in Congress. But we should take comfort in the direction of the debate. It seems that the mistakes of the past can, in fact, inform a wiser policy for the future. All that’s needed is for the rest of the left to get over the line.
Joseph Cirincione is a national security analyst and author.
And, to receive pieces like this in your inbox and support our work, subscribe below: