Ukraine is obviously a powder keg. With each passing day, in fact, the war there poses new threats to the world order. Only recently, Vladimir Putin’s Russia intensified its attacks on civilian targets in that beleaguered land, while threatening to use tactical nuclear weapons and adding Ukraine’s neighbor Belarus to its side on the battlefield. And don’t forget the Russian president’s decision to draft hundreds of thousands of additional civilians into his military, not to speak of the sham referendums he conducted to annex parts of Ukraine and the suspected cyberattack by a pro-Russian group that disrupted airline websites at hubs across the United States.
President Biden has repeatedly pledged not to enter the war. As he wrote in an op-ed in The New York Times last May (and has continued to signal): “So long as the United States or our allies are not attacked, we will not be directly engaged in this conflict, either by sending American troops to fight in Ukraine or by attacking Russian forces.” Washington has instead carved out a cautious but decidedly engaged response to the war there.
So far, that conflict has not posed a threat to this country and the Biden administration has held fast to the president’s commitment not to engage directly in that fight. But the war does continue to escalate, as do the taunts of an increasingly desperate Vladimir Putin. To date, the United States has pledged $15.2 billion in military assistance to Ukraine and its neighbors, an investment that has included arms, munitions, equipment, and training. The Biden administration had also imposed sanctions against more than 800 Russians as of June with additional ones announced in late September, while blocking oil and gas imports from that country.
At such a moment of ever-increasing international tension, however, it seems worthwhile to recall what lessons the United States learned (or at least should have learned) from its own wars of this century that fell under the rubric of the Global War on Terror, or GWOT.
We certainly should have learned a great deal about ourselves over the course of the war on terror, the global conflicts that followed al-Qaeda’s devastating attacks of September 11, 2001.
We should have learned, for instance, that once a war starts, as the war on terror did when the administration of George W. Bush decided to invade Afghanistan, it can spread in a remarkable fashion—often without, at least initially, even being noticed—to areas far beyond the original battlefield. In the end, the war on terror would, in its own fashion, spread across the Middle East, South Asia, and Africa, with domestic versions of it lodging in both European countries and the United States in the form of aggressive terrorism prosecutions, anti-Muslim policing efforts, and, during the Trump administration, a “Muslim ban” against those trying to enter the United States from many largely Muslim countries.
In the process, we learned, or at least should have learned, that our government was willing to trade rights, liberties, and the law for a grim version of safety and security. The trade-off would, in the end, involve the indefinite detention of individuals (some to this very day) at that offshore prison of injustice, Guantánamo; torturing captives at CIA black sites around the world; launching “signature drone strikes” which regularly made no distinction between civilians and combatants; not to mention the warrentless surveillance that targeted the calls of staggering numbers of Americans. And all of this was done in the name of keeping ourselves safe, even if, in the end, it would help create an America in which ever less, including democracy, seems safe anymore.
Finally, we should have learned that once a major conflict begins, its end can be—to put the matter politely—elusive. In this way, it was no mistake that the war on terror, with us to this day in numerous ways, informally became known as our “forever war,” given the fact that, even today we’re not quite done with it. (US troops are, for instance, still in Iraq and Syria.) According to the Costs of War Project at Brown University, that conflict has cost this country at least $8 trillion—with an additional estimated $2.2–2.5 trillion needed to care for the veterans of the war between now and 2050.
Given all of this, there are, at least, three lessons to be taken from the war on terror, each sending a strong signal about how to reckon with Russia’s aggression against Ukraine.
Beware Mission Creep
The war on terror was in large part defined by mission creep. What started as an incursion into Afghanistan to rout al-Qaeda and the perpetrators of 9/11 grew exponentially into a global set of conflicts, including a full-scale invasion of Iraq and the use (largely) of air power in Pakistan, Somalia, Yemen, and other countries across Africa and the Middle East. This was all deemed possible thanks to a single joint resolution passed by Congress a week after the attacks of September 11, the Authorization for the Use of Military Force (AUMF), which included neither geographical areas nor specific adversaries other than those who conspired to bring about (or supported in some fashion) the 9/11 attacks. It was, in other words, so vague as to allow administration after administration to choose its enemies without again consulting Congress. (A separate 2002 authorization would launch the invasion of Iraq.)
The war in Ukraine similarly continues to widen. The 30 nations in NATO are largely lined up alongside that country against Russia. On October 11, the Group of Seven, or G7, including Canada, France, Germany, Italy, Japan, the United Kingdom, and the United States, pledged “financial, humanitarian, military, diplomatic, and legal support… for as long as it takes.” On that same day, the UN met to consider responses to Russia’s escalating missile and drone attacks on Ukrainian cities as well as its claim to have won a referendum supposedly greenlighting its annexation of four Ukrainian regions.
Meanwhile, the US commitment to support Ukraine has grown ever more geographically extensive. As Secretary of State Antony Blinken explained during a visit to Kyiv in September, the American mission encompasses an effort “to bolster the security of Ukraine and 17 of its neighbors; including many of our NATO Allies, as well as other regional security partners potentially at risk of future Russian aggression.” Moreover, the United States has acted on an ever more global scale in its efforts to levy sanctions against Russia’s oligarchs, while warning of retribution (of an undefined sort) against any nation that provides a haven for them, as did China when it allowed a superyacht owned by a Russian oligarch to dock in Hong Kong’s harbor.
When it comes to Ukraine, the imperative of defining and limiting the scope of American involvement—whether in the areas of funding, weapons supplied, training, or even the deployment of US troops near Ukraine or secret operatives in that country—couldn’t (in the light of GWOT) be more important. So far, Biden has at least kept his promise not to send US troops to Ukraine. (In fact, just before the Russian invasion, he actually removed national guardsmen who had been stationed there in the late fall of 2021.)
It is perhaps a sign of restraint that the Biden administration has so publicly specified just what weaponry it’s providing to that country and which other countries it’s offering assistance to in the name of security concerns over the war. And in making decisions about which munitions and armaments to offer, the administration has insisted on deliberation and process rather than quick, ad-hoc acts. Still, as the GWOT taught us, mission creep is a danger and, as Putin’s Russia continues to expand its war in Ukraine, it’s important to keep a watchful eye on our expanding involvement, too.
Honor the Law
Notably, the war has been defined by Russia’s escalating abuses of international law and human rights. To begin with, that country violated international law with its unprovoked invasion, an act of straightforward aggression. Since then, reports of atrocities have mounted. An Independent International Commission of Inquiry on Ukraine issued a report last month to the UN’s Commissioner for Human Rights citing the use of explosives in civilian areas; evidence of torture, rape, and brutal executions; and the intentionally cruel treatment of those in custody. The massacre of civilians in the Ukrainian towns of Bucha and Izyum signaled Russia’s intent to continue its gruesome violations of the laws of war despite Ukrainian President Volodymyr Zelensky’s appeal to the UN for accountability.
That this is the road to lasting problems and an escalating threat environment is a lesson this country should have learned from its own war on terror in this century. The atrocities carried out by terrorist groups, including 9/11, led top officials in the Bush administration to calculate that, given the threat facing the country, it would be legitimate, even imperative, to ignore both domestic and international legal restraints. The greatest but hardly the only example of this was the willingness of the Central Intelligence Agency to use torture, which it relabeled “enhanced interrogation techniques,” including waterboarding, exposure to extreme cold, sleep deprivation, and painful, prolonged forms of shackling at CIA black sites scattered around the world. That brutal program was finally laid out in 2014 in a nearly 600-page executive summary of a Senate investigation. Other illegal actions taken during the war on terror included setting up Guantánamo offshore of American justice and the Bush administration’s decision to invade Iraq based on a lie: that autocrat Saddam Hussein possessed weapons of mass destruction.
When it comes to Ukraine, the war-on-terror experience should remind us of the importance of restraint and lawfulness, no matter the nature of the Russian threat or the cruel acts Putin has countenanced. “Russian forces were likely responsible for most casualties, but so too Ukrainian troops—albeit to a far lesser extent,” the UN commissioner for human rights said in a video message last spring. In August, Amnesty International issued a report which held that “Ukrainian forces have put civilians in harm’s way by establishing bases and operating weapons systems in populated residential areas, including in schools and hospitals.”
Plan for an Ending
Despite Vladimir Putin’s predictions that the war would end quickly with a Russian triumph and despite his continuing escalation of it, there has been no dearth of scenarios for such an ending. Early on, observers saw the possibility of a negotiated peace in which Ukraine would agree not to seek future membership in NATO, while Russia withdrew its troops and dropped its claims to Ukrainian territory (Crimea excepted). Soon thereafter, another scenario forecast “a new iron curtain” after Russian gains in eastern and southern Ukraine left “two antagonistic blocs staring each other down over a lengthy militarized border.” Others have predicted endless further escalation, including a possible Russian tactical nuclear strike in that country causing the West to retreat—or counter with its own nuclear gesture.
Only recently, almost eight months into the war, 66 nations at the UN General Assembly called for its end, while even retired American Admiral Mike Mullen, the former chairman of the Joint Chiefs of Staff, told ABC’s George Stephanopoulos, “I think we need to back off [the war] a little bit and do everything we possibly can to try to get to the table to resolve this thing.” Others agree that the conflict should be ended sooner rather than later.
And for good reason! This country’s war on terror should be an apt reminder that planning for an ending is imperative, sooner rather than later. From the beginning, you might say, the forever war had no sense of an ending, since Congress’s authorization for the use of force lacked not only geographical but temporal limits of any sort. There was, in fact, no sense of what an end to hostilities might involve. Not even the killing of Osama bin Laden, the leader of Al Qaeda, in 2011 was seen as ending anything, nor was the death of autocrat Saddam Hussein imagined as a conclusion of that American war. To this day, that 2001 authorization for war remains in place and one of the main symbols of the excesses of the war—Guantánamo Bay—remains open.
Right now, despite any calls by former warriors like Mullen or diplomats for an end to the war in Ukraine, it’s proving a distinctly elusive proposition not just for Vladimir Putin but for the United States and its NATO allies as well. As a senior administration official told The Washington Post recently, speaking of Putin’s threat to use nuclear weapons and his draft of new Russian conscripts, “It’s definitely a sign that he’s doubling down, that we’re not close to the end, and not close to negotiations.”
In a speech delivered at the UN in late September, Secretary of State Antony Blinken caught the forever-war mood of the moment on all sides by expressing doubts about diplomacy as a cure-all for such a war. “As President Zelensky has said repeatedly,” Blinken told the Security Council, “diplomacy is the only way to end this war. But diplomacy cannot and must not be used as a cudgel to impose on Ukraine a settlement that cuts against the UN Charter, or rewards Russia for violating it.”
Given the lessons of the war on terror, casting doubt on the viability of future negotiations risks setting the stage for never-ending warfare of a distinctly unpredictable sort.
Though the war in Ukraine is taking place in a different context than the war on terror, with a different set of interests at stake and without the non-state actors of that American conflict, the reality is that it should have yielded instructive lessons for both sides. After all, America’s forever war harmed the fabric of our political life in ways almost too numerous to name, many of them related to the ever-expansive, extralegal, never-ending nature of that conflict. So imagine what this war could do to Russia, to Ukraine, and to our world.
The war in Ukraine offers Washington an opportunity to push the international community to choose a new scenario rather than one that will expand into a frighteningly unknown future. It gives the Biden administration a chance to choose law over lawlessness and emphasize a diplomatic resolution to that still-escalating crisis.
This time around, the need to exercise restraint, caution, and a deep respect for the law, while envisioning how the hostilities might actually end, could not be more important. The world of our children lies in the balance.