How Does the Russo-Ukraine War End? Prudence, Not Passion, Should Guide Washington

Russia’s invasion of Ukraine is a terrible crime. Not that such behavior is unusual in a world riven by conflict. In a little-covered war a quarter century ago an estimated 5.4 million people died in the Democratic Republic of Congo. The international community, such as it is, barely noticed.

Nor can the plenitude of sanctimonious pronouncements from Washington policymakers disguise America’s lengthy criminal record. George W. Bush attempted to laugh off the Freudian slip about his administration’s unprovoked invasion of Iraq which wrecked a country, cost hundreds of thousands of innocent lives, displaced millions of people, devastated religious minorities, and spawned future conflicts. Add to that US support for such disparate murderous despots as Iraq’s Saddam Hussein and Saudi Arabia’s Mohammed bin Salman in their cruel attacks on Iran and Yemen, respectively. Republican and Democratic presidents alike have made Americans complicit in brutal war crimes.

Unexpectedly, Ukraine’s plight has stirred an international reaction, at least in America and Europe, unlike other recent conflicts. The result has been a tsunami of financial and military assistance for Kyiv. Some Ukraine advocates have launched the equivalent of Mao Zedong’s Cultural Revolution, targeting Russian citizens. The criticism of the latter is not that they are defending Vladimir Putin’s war, but that they are Russian citizens. Hence Wimbledon’s decision to ban Russian tennis players. And fans to boycott Washington hockey star Alex Ovechkin.

The passions unleashed on Ukraine’s behalf mimic those exhibited by many sports fans. Of course, there is better reason to root for Kyiv than, say, the ill-named Washington "Commanders." Ukrainians are victims. Moscow is a villain. As often is the case in life, though, others contributed to the mess – for instance, the US and Europeans spent three decades ignoring Russia’s expressed security concerns. Nevertheless, the moral equities are strongly on Kyiv’s side. Which justifies Americans favoring Ukraine.

As for US government policy, however, passion is a negative. That claim horrifies Ukraine’s friends. For instance, in a webinar Friday the Atlantic Council’s Melinda Haring dismissed her debate opponent for "sort of clinically" discussing the combatants, which she found to be "really disgusting." She added that "this isn’t some academic debate. This is about real people and real lives."

No doubt, her fervent reaction was genuine, and she is emotionally invested in a Ukrainian victory. She said of Russia: "They are the aggressor. They’ve killed thousands of innocent people. We cannot reward their behavior." She added that it "is in America’s national interest to make sure that the world turns out right" and "is long-term US policy to support free people."

Yet her intensity, and that of so many other Ukraine advocates, demonstrates why US policymakers should, indeed, must be dispassionate, even clinical, in analyzing issues like Ukraine. First, in her zeal to justify Washington going all in for Kyiv, she imagines a principled American strategy that does not and never has existed. "US policy [is] to support free people," she said. This claim warrants a burst of hysterical laughter. Alas, nothing could be further from the truth.

Washington subsidizes, arms, supports, praises, and often slobbers over the rulers of such countries as Egypt, Bahrain, United Arab Emirates, and Saudi Arabia, which are all awful, oppressive, murderous, and even aggressive regimes. Human liberty isn’t part of these bilateral relationships, other than an occasional perfunctory call by Washington for reform. For instance, Freedom House ranks the Kingdom of Saudi Arabia among the world’s bottom ten countries and territories, along with North Korea, Eritrea, and Turkmenistan. Yet US presidents routinely make a pilgrimage to Riyadh where they kowtow, their foreheads symbolically pressing the floor. Now even President Joe Biden, who promised to treat the Saudis as a "pariah," is considering trekking to Riyadh to win the favor of the crown prince, good ole’ "Slice n’ Dice."

Nor is Washington concerned about aggressor nations that kill "thousands of innocent people." After all, the US did that in Iraq. Estimates vary widely, but several hundred thousand civilians likely died in the sectarian conflagration lit by the illegal US invasion. Some 400,000 are thought to have died in Yemen, in which Washington spent more than seven years backing the murderous Saudi/Emirati campaign – providing, servicing, and arming the very warplanes used to bomb weddings, funerals, school buses, and apartments.

US administrations also ruthlessly deploy sanctions, killing more stealthily and cruelly. When confronted over the issue of starving Iraqi babies, then UN Ambassador Madeleine Albright calmly insisted that "we," presumably meaning representatives of the imperial American state, "think the price is worth it." She didn’t even pretend to give a voice to those who suffered and died as a result. (She also complained that it was wasteful not to use America’s "superb military." And, of course, she claimed unique perspicacity when peering into the future, deciding which war to start next.)

The Trump administration imagined that starving already starving people in Syria and Venezuela would bring down hostile regimes. Amb. Jim Jeffrey said punishing the victims was "smart policy," explaining that Washington’s objective was to turn Syria into a "quagmire" for Russia. Unsurprisingly, his strategy, which treated Syrian survivors of a decade of civil war as just another means to America’s end, failed to do anything but cause more hardship. Yet the Biden administration has changed nothing.

Of course, the fact that most Washington policymakers in practice care little about lives or liberties abroad does not mean they should not do so in the case of Ukraine. However, the fact that virtually no president prioritizes the interests of other nations suggests a larger principle at play, and that it doesn’t make sense to set policy toward Russia based on feelings toward Kyiv, no matter how heartfelt.

First, Washington’s principal responsibility is to Americans. They create, fund, and staff state institutions, including the military. The government should advance the American people’s interests. However, setting that as Washington’s primary end does not mean nothing else matters. Basic principles of justice and humanity should limit the means used to achieve otherwise legitimate ends. Nevertheless, the driving purpose of US foreign policy should be to safeguard the security and promote the prosperity of the American people.

Second, this approach is the only certain foundation for Washington’s overseas activities. The American people have demonstrated goodwill to others, but quickly lose patience with lengthy and costly humanitarian campaigns. In World War II the cause was seen as just and necessary, and Americans made great sacrifices to defeat both Germany and Japan. In Iraq and Afghanistan, the causes looked foolish and frivolous in comparison, and Americans soon wanted out of these "endless wars."

Those doing the paying and serving also dislike being taken advantage of. Since NATO’s creation European members have shamelessly, even cheerfully, engaged in cheap riding on the US. So too Japan and South Korea. Hence the criticism by President Donald Trump, who had to be manipulated by his own officials to maintain support for an antiquated alliance structure in which Washington continues to carry a disproportionate burden. Political resistance to this policy is likely to grow along with federal outlays and America’s national debt.

Third, foreign policies based on emotion tend to fail disastrously. Consider the last two decades of warmongering justified as draining swamps, ousting bad guys, building nations, protecting civilians, and promoting democracy. The unintended consequences of the Iraq invasion were catastrophic, with hundreds of thousands of Iraqis killed. Ten years after the US and Europe helped oust Libya’s dictator the country is unstable and at the edge of war. All that remains after two decades of Americans fighting in Afghanistan are the graves of thousands of US and allied personnel, and tens of thousands of Afghans, both civilians and combatants.

Luckily for Americans, the greatest cost from these wars fell on other peoples. However, that might not be the case if Washington confronts a nuclear-armed state. Today the greatest foreign policy challenges facing Washington are Ukraine and Taiwan, which involve two great powers with nuclear weapons, Russia and China. The cost of mistakes in these cases is likely to be far more costly than of the conflicts of the Global War on Terrorism era.

All of which counsels caution regarding Ukraine. While passion like Haring’s for Kyiv is understandable, as a basis for US policy it is likely to yield poor, even disastrous results. Washington’s primary objective should remain ensuring American security and prosperity. That is not advanced by creating another endless war, even if conducted by others as in this case. Hoping for a Ukrainian victory is one thing. Turning that into a US objective is another.

Regarding Kyiv, Washington’s original objective appeared to be to aid Ukraine in preserving its independence. However, American policymakers increasingly have articulated seemingly much broader objectives, including regime change. Although Kyiv’s forces have done much better than expected, there are increasing fears that Western observers, having overestimated Russian capabilities to start, now are overestimating Ukrainian prospects.

The US is not made safer by promoting a potentially endless or frozen conflict. Pushing for a Ukrainian victory could be even more dangerous. Kyiv is entitled to try, but it is not entitled to US or allied support to do so. Indeed, Ukraine and its supporters might lose if it overplays its hand. If Putin believes his regime to be threatened, especially by Uncle Sam’s machinations, he could escalate, declaring general mobilization, striking Western aid shipments, and/or using chemical or nuclear weapons. As small as the chances of nuclear confrontation might seem, only afterwards did we realize how close the US and Soviet Union came to nuclear Armageddon in both the 1962 Cuban Missile Crisis and the 1983 Able Archer exercise.

Which illustrates why Washington must put the interest of Americans, rather than Ukrainians, first. Doing so does not deny the criminality of Moscow’s invasion and subsequent conduct. However, the well-being of the US – protecting its territory, population, prosperity, and liberties – must come first. And that means offering aid to Kyiv only to the extent that doing so is in America’s interest.

Calculating interests and consequences in a war looks cold and clinical because it is. However, it also is necessary. Allowing passion to dictate decisions on war and peace is a prescription for disaster. Washington’s overriding international effort today should be seeking to bring the Russo-Ukraine war to an end and establish a stable peace.

Doug Bandow is a Senior Fellow at the Cato Institute. A former Special Assistant to President Ronald Reagan, he is author of Foreign Follies: America’s New Global Empire.