Virtue Signaling as a War Policy

Democrats back Biden on Ukraine while dissent spreads within the GOP.

Photo illustration: Elise Swain/The Intercept; Photos: Getty Images

U.S. war planners have indicated that Ukraine plans to launch a spring offensive in an effort to retake territory lost in Russia’s invasion. Military analysts have also suggested that Kyiv, backed by the U.S.-led NATO alliance and its weapons shipments, is likely to attempt to purge Russia from Crimea. Russian President Vladimir Putin has indicated that he has no plans to cease his military operations, and the stage is being set for further bloodshed with no end in sight.

This week on Intercepted, the Quincy Institute for Responsible Statecraft’s Kelley Beaucar Vlahos joins Jeremy Scahill and Murtaza Hussain for a wide-ranging discussion on the proxy war, the uniform support among Democrats for Joe Biden’s policies on Ukraine, and the growing opposition among Republicans to funding the war. Last week, a group of Republican lawmakers sent a letter to President Biden saying they will no longer support what they called “unrestrained” aid to Ukraine. And they added they “will adamantly oppose all future aid packages unless they are linked to a clear diplomatic strategy designed to bring this war to a rapid conclusion.” The letter, which was signed by 19 Republicans, included three senators: Mike Lee, Rand Paul, and J.D. Vance. Vlahos, Scahill, and Hussain also discuss the various factions comprising the current GOP and discuss how the enduring focus on Russiagate and the 2016 election has fed into the discourse on the war in Ukraine.

[Intercepted theme music.]

Jeremy Scahill: This is Intercepted.

Welcome to Intercepted. I’m Jeremy Scahill. 

Murtaza Hussain: And I’m Murtaza Hussain. 

JS: Or are you Murtaza Hussain? I don’t see any blue check mark floating above your head anymore, Maz.

MH: No, actually, I’m somebody else who’s joining you today, and I can just sweep myself in here at the moment. There’s no need for verification.

JS: You know, when I was doing all these investigations — into Blackwater, and then the Joint Special Operations Command, and the CIA — it was when Twitter was really blowing up, and I was in Yemen when I got my verification email, my blue check mark. I was in a group of other people — journalists and some Yemenis — and I remember just thinking, oh, that’s weird. I didn’t really grasp what it was.

But then I had some imitation accounts that were making fun of me. And so, now I’m trying to see if maybe one of those accounts can get verified, and then the real Jeremy can stand up again.

MH: Well, I think it’s happened to a few people, actually. Some fake accounts have impersonated them with a blue check, pretending to be them for at least a little while. I think it’s kind of funny, actually. I think people are trying to shame me into getting the blue check on behalf of democracy, or paying Elon because it’s the moral thing to do now to help him out. But I don’t know, I think it’s fine. I think that if they want to blow up this pseudo-caste system of Twitter in this weird way, it’s OK.

The only thing I find concerning is that Twitter’s pretty useful for finding people or for surfacing raw information from time to time, that I think it seems like he’s going to downgrade the experience, and make you pay for the old experience back, with the blue check. Which will kind of suck, but I think it’s really disillusioned anyone who thinks that these tech libertarian ideas are going to be good, or it would be nice to be governed by these people.

Imagine being governed by the parallel to Elon Musk. But, just from the microcosm of seeing how [he] runs Twitter, would not be very, very endearing.

JS: I think that would be great, to have a program where you can purchase a blue check for someone else, just to troll them. I would do that for our colleague Ryan Grim.

MH: Oh, he lost his blue check too.

JS: Yeah, everybody lost the blue check. OK, anyway, only the real ones have no blue check now.

It seems like we’re going to have the presidential campaign blasting into full steam right now. Of course, we have Donald Trump and Ron DeSantis on the campaign trail, and you had RFK, Jr., and Marianne Williamson announcing that they’re challenging Biden for the Democratic nomination. And we’re not going to be talking about the horse race today, we’re going to be talking about serious foreign policy issues, and issues of war and hopefully, peace.

Just to start off, I wanted to share a few thoughts about where we’re at with the Biden presidency, and I’ve thought about this, really, since Biden was thrust onto  the scene, in terms of being made the Democratic nominee over Bernie Sanders in 2020. If you look at the past couple of years of the Biden administration on a foreign policy level, there’s really very little that’s remarkable about this presidency, when you put it in the context of American empire, except for the historical moment that it’s taking place in.

Like, if we were living in a science fiction novel, I think that Biden would be something like a semi-human artificial intelligence orb that has absorbed all of the priorities of imperial America. He’s sort of ruling by a statist algorithm, and it’s aided by technocratic programmers; you know, the Anthony Blinkens of the world, and others within the administration.

And Biden’s nomination as the Democratic nominee to face Trump back in 2020 was largely the result of the Democratic Party machinery mobilizing, really to kind of convert this half-century-in-Washington politician into a safe establishment placeholder that they believed was capable of defeating Donald Trump with a zone defense instead of taking Trump on, one-on-one. If we really want to be bluntly honest about this, there really isn’t a Joe Biden anymore, there’s just the Democratic Party establishment machine presidency.

The reason I’m bringing this up is because what we’re going to talk about today is not, “Is it going to be Biden versus Trump again?” Or really, even the state of the Democratic Party, but I think it’s important to place Biden’s presidency in that kind of context at this moment because what we’ve seen happen since 2020 is that on issues of war and foreign policy, the Democrats have become a much more monolithic party, and they’ve become much more invested in — or at least deferential to — the politics of empire, to institutions like the FBI and the CIA, and American exceptionalism. And on foreign policy within the Democratic Party, there’s an almost total absence of dissenting voices when it comes to established elected politicians.

And in many ways what’s happening in the Republican Party is much more chaotic and at the same time, much more interesting. And I think in general, the Republican Party is sort of a raging dumpster fire of lunacy, and it’s composed of this loosely knit coalition of Trumpists, and neocons, and rightwing libertarians, and a smattering of old guard GOPers. But unlike the Democrats under Biden, the Republican factions don’t actually function as a seamless unit, certainly on issues about civil liberties, corporate influence, [and] war. They do on a lot of other issues but on these issues that we’re going to talk about today, there’s quite a bit of diversity within the Republican Party when you contrast it with the Democratic Party.

And if you take the issue of the war in Ukraine, every single Democrat — including Bernie Sanders and Alexandria Ocasio-Cortez — they’ve been all in in supporting the Biden administration policy of just pouring billions of dollars in weaponry and other military assistance to the war effort. And even — you know, you guys all remember this — last year, when some Democrats suggested that maybe we want to possibly explore some sort of diplomatic resolution to the war in Ukraine, they were taken to the whipping post, you know? They were chastised, they were denounced, and then they had to quickly retract the whole thing, and then basically apologize to the empire for even suggesting that we explore an alternative option.

And this all happens, the broader discourse on this, the proxy war in Ukraine is also in a political narrative sense wrapped into the Trump Russiagate hysteria. It fits perfectly into coming out of the 2016 election through the Trump presidency and right up until this moment, but this is a war where people are dying in large numbers every single day. I think it’s really a disservice to a democratic society that we don’t have any discourse or debate about this on the Democratic side. It’s all coming from the Republican side.

I’m not giving a political lecture, I’m just stating a fact, that the only debate in established power right now about Ukraine is coming from the Republicans. And last week, a group of GOP lawmakers sent a letter to President Biden saying that they will no longer support what they call, “unrestrained aid to Ukraine.” And in their letter, they said that they will, “adamantly oppose all future aid packages unless they’re linked to a clear diplomatic strategy designed to bring this war to a rapid conclusion.”

Now, that letter was signed by 19 lawmakers, three of them Senators: Mike Lee, Rand Paul, and JD Vance. Now, it was also signed by some of the premier charlatans on Capitol Hill of the moment — people like Lauren Boebert, and Marjorie Taylor Greene, and Paul Gosar, and others. But nonetheless, the letter is raising really important points. It is raising questions that I think need to be asked in a democratic society when your nation is deeply immersed in a proxy war that could very quickly become a hot conflict.

So, there’s a lot to unpack with this and to do so, we’re joined today by Kelley Vlahos, who is a senior advisor at the Quincy Institute. She’s also the editorial director at the publication Responsible Statecraft. She spent the last couple of decades in Washington reporting on and writing about U.S. foreign policy, national security, politics, veterans, civil liberties. She’s a really great journalist, you should check out her whole body of work.

And I should say that she’s also spent a lot of time navigating the various factions of the conservative movement. She’s worked at The American Conservative. Earlier, she worked as a reporter at Fox and she’s been tracking this phenomena for a really long time, and it’s sort of coming to prominence right now.

To get started, Kelley, welcome to Intercepted, and thanks for joining us again.

Kelley Vlahos: Thanks, Jeremy and Murtaza. Really appreciate it.

MH: So, Kelley, I have some theories about what Jeremy unpacked there, about the differences of the different factions between the Republicans, and why we’ve seen so much lockstep support among Democrats and a bit more diversity of thinking, or diversity of expression of perspective on the Ukraine war among Republicans. But as someone who’s been seeing the conservative war-skeptic side for many, many years, the American Conservative, people may not know but it really got its wings under opposing the Iraq War many, many years ago.

Can you talk a bit about why, and what the makeup is of this war-skeptic camp or camps as they exist in the Republican Party today?

KV: This all started with Trump, and it started from Trump in a sense that Republicans began to feel empowered to talk about the failures of the global war on terror when then-candidate Donald Trump hit the stage — I believe it was in April, 2016, I might have the date wrong — where he gave his first foreign policy speech at The National Interest. And he talked about the failures of Iraq, he talked about putting America first, he talked about not spreading our troops too thin and engaging in overseas adventures.

And these were all things that conservatives were saying, possibly behind the scenes. I know The American Conservative had been out front since 2002, opposing the Iraq War and the global war and terror, but normie, quote-unquote “conservatives” really had held back on talking this publicly about their disenchantment with the wars, with the lies that they know their government told them in terms of getting into the war in Iraq. The many, many troops who come from red states, rural America, heartland America, who had been poured into these wars. Two million plus Americans had fought in those wars, many of them coming from these places that are dominated by Republican voters. And representatives were really tired. They were like, “What are we getting out of this?” And I know it was Donald Trump who made it OK to question that, and then it just really took off from there.

He used the phrase “ending endless wars,” something that a lot of us had been talking about on both sides of the aisle for years. And guess what? He won. You know, he went on stage during the debates and he told Jeb Bush that his brother had lied to get us into the war in Iraq, and the war in Iraq was a big failure. And those of us in Washington who were working in the media were like, “Oh, he’s totally going to lose.” I mean, that debate, he was terrible.

The next day his numbers went up. They kept continuing to go up, because he touched a nerve. He didn’t say it for the first time but he took the temperature of the conservative Republican base and ran with it, and he won. And that’s not gone away.

It was very interesting during the four years of his presidency that he continued to grow this anti-war sentiment inside his base. Now, was President Trump ideal in terms of keeping us out of wars? Well, he didn’t start any new wars. We were still in Iraq, we’re still in Syria. He got us out of the Iran nuclear deal — the JCPOA — and tensions are worse than they ever were. But instead of going away because their guy was in the White House, these anti-war sentiments they grew roots. And there was an enormous amount of support to get out of Afghanistan. 

And like it or not, Trump was the one who made the deal with the Taliban to start taking troops out of that country. He did not succeed in getting them out before he left, though he wanted to. The U.S. military had pushed back and slow-walked it to the point where it was Joe Biden that ultimately got us out of this war. But if you go back to that period and early in Joe Biden’s presidency, the Republicans — the base — continued to call for the withdrawal of troops even though Trump was gone, and Biden would be the one to take the credit for it.

Now, we know that he’s taken a lot of hits for the actual withdrawal and how that took place, from Republicans. They’re having hearings on the Hill right now about it, but they continue to support. And where I’m at, at the Quincy Institute, we’re transpartisan, so we’re working with both left and right on these issues. And I can safely say that those groups on the right continued to work with Quincy on that, all the way through, along with some left-leaning groups, but a lot of those tapered off when Joe Biden took office. The folks on the right were the ones that really helped push for that withdrawal and have continued — as you pointed out, Jeremy — to be the main vocal opposition to an unchecked unconditional Ukraine aid policy, and have been calling for diplomacy to end the war sooner than later. All that energy is coming from the right.

To me, it’s pretty exciting, having been at The American Conservative since the mid-2000s, and seemingly fighting against not only the conservatives and the neocons who thought that we were out of control, and off the rails, and off the reservation, but also the centrist Democrats who wanted to stay in Afghanistan, who were afraid to talk out against Iraq. And now, seeing all of this stuff vocalized mostly by Republicans on the right, it’s an interesting place to be. And for me, it makes my job a little easier because, basically, one of my roles at Quincy is to keep this transpartisan balance and be able to bridge both sides and as much as it’s been difficult because of all the domestic turmoil, and the mistrust, it’s been interesting on the foreign policy side. It’s actually been kind of fun. 

MH: You know, Kelley, it’s very interesting — and Jeremy, I’m sure, remembers this too — during the early years of the Iraq War, some of the very, very eloquent opponents of the war actually emerged on the right, and someone who I remembered quite a lot was Ron Paul at that time. He was a very, very, articulate and very, very passionate opponent of the war. And at that time, I actually thought that he was one of the most interesting politicians in America, in a way, for the way he was expressing it. Very honestly, and openly, and without fear, at a time which was a very jingoistic environment in the country.

So, when Trump came, and his campaign, I wouldn’t say that he was sounding like Ron Paul, but he embodied some of the same sentiments, articulated in a very, very different way. But I find that, when he came to office — and you alluded to this, Kelley — he sort of governed not entirely opposite but he staffed his administration with people like John Bolton and Pompeo, and that ultimately reflected in the way that he governed.

And I find that this is a very common theme, including on the left: when they’re in opposition, they do take up this very critical and interesting take on U.S. military presences around the world. And we saw it on the left, too, during the Trump years, AOC and some other politicians were quite vocal about being anti-war, and saying things you’d like to see someone in office saying.

But then, when they got in the office, whatever forces, or powers, or pressures upon them, got them pretty much in line about various policies that you would’ve expected them to have some, if not opposition to, at least have some sort of critical take on. And the letter debacle among the Democrats, which Jeremy alluded to also, was a perfect example of that.

So, one thing I wonder is, now, today, agree or not agree, there are many people on the Republican side who are critical of the Ukraine war, and are saying things, taking up that mantle of being against endless wars, as they see them. But do we think that that’s just because they’re in opposition? And how do we make it such that, if there’s going to be a transideological partnership against militarism, or reducing the Pentagon budget, that stays in place when people are in power?

Maybe I’m too cynical, but I feel like whenever they get into power, everyone finds the intoxications of it so much that they end up signing off on whatever’s happening at that moment, in regards to war and Pentagon policy.

KV: It’s really frustrating. Everything you say is completely accurate. And just before I go on, I do want to say that Ron Paul is one of my favorite people on the planet, and he did all of the hard work that allowed Donald Trump to take it to the finish line. Because he did oppose the wars in two presidential campaigns, and he’d been booed off stages by his Republican colleagues and the Republican establishment during the conventions, and really sidelined and marginalized.

But he was the one who built this base. Starting with the Libertarians, then growing further out to independents, and then gathering steam with even the left-of-center folks, you know? And Bernie as well. I don’t want to take away from him but, on the right side, I think Ron Paul took all the slings and the arrows, and then Trump was able to bring in the rest of the less libertarian conservatives into that movement.

But yeah, I find it very, very frustrating. And I’ve gone through this a few times, having been there at 9/11, and seeing the aftermath of that, and the wars. And going from the Bush administration to the Obama administration, you know, the same thing happened. During the Bush administration, Democrats were becoming more and more vocal about their opposition to the war in Iraq and how it was being handled in Afghanistan.

And then Obama won, and all of a sudden it was like, “Oh, well, Afghanistan is the good war, and we can do the surge that, you know, Petraeus had blueprinted for us in Iraq, and then we can take it to Afghanistan, and we can make this whole of government approach work.”

And you know, Jeremy, you’ve written so extensively about this, and that it was completely the opposite, and it was an absolute disaster. But it was very frustrating to see a lot of those Democrats and so-called anti-war liberals suddenly give Obama a pass, particularly for the drone wars, which he actually escalated during his first four years. And so, I wasn’t surprised to see a lot of Democrats peeling off, or not being as vocal during the aftermath of the invasion last year, when we were calling for restraint at Quincy. You know, we ruffled a lot of feathers, and all those feathers were on the left.

So, there you have two things going on and, maybe, in some cases, they overlap. But you have people who — like you said, Murtaza — they have their guy in office, they’re in control, they’re intoxicated with the power, and they want to believe their president’s going to do the right thing. And so, they’re less inclined to call for restraint in foreign policy matters.

And then you have those — and this is probably a deeper problem — who see responding to what happened in Ukraine with military force and more weapons as being a humanitarian cause and a moral issue. And this is where a lot of the restrainers on the left split, because they believe in restraint under certain circumstances but, in military intervention and others. And in the latter, they believe it’s over humanitarian impulse or imperative, and this is akin to the responsibility to protect, this effort or this strategy that had been coined in the 2000s, and went away, because it became unpopular and cheesy and nobody wanted to defend it.

But we’re looking at a reiteration of that now, that we have a responsibility to protect Ukrainians, defend them from the Russians, and then, writ large, defend democracy in the region and throughout the globe. And if you don’t want to do that, somehow you are aligning yourself with the forces of autocracy, i.e., Putin. And so, the restraint impulse is not consistent.

There are a lot of people who are consistent on the left but, increasingly it’s the far left. And on the right, we can question the motivations of the folks on the right, though I think there are a number of different factions and motivations that are behind this anti-war movement on the right. But, as far as I’m concerned — and for folks like at The American Conservative and, I can speak for them, because they’re my friends and I’m still affiliated — it’s a consistency. It’s a consistency, an anti-war restraint consistency that you can apply to every foreign policy issue, not just a la carte, which I think a lot of the folks on the the left are suffering from right now, unfortunately.

JS: Part of the dynamic at play on Capitol Hill among Democrats — and I would say it’s true even more broadly among liberals in the United States — you have this concoction, or this sort of political mixture if you know your history, of some of the Bill Clinton doctrine from his eight years in power where, you know, Noam Chomsky at the time called that the “new military humanism,” and I often talk about “cruise missile liberals.”

Young people may not even be familiar with what happened under Bill Clinton. Bill Clinton was a totally belligerent warmongering president, just breaking down his history on Iraq. He comes into office and in very short order proceeds to bomb Iraq over a completely fictional alleged plot of Saddam Hussein to have George H. W. Bush assassinated on a visit to Kuwait. Clinton then presides over the longest sustained bombing campaign since Vietnam, under the guise of the so-called “no-fly zones” in Iraq. He presides over the most brutal and devastating and murderous regime of economic sanctions in modern history.

Then you have the civil war in Yugoslavia, where Joe Biden emerges in the U.S. Senate as the most prominent hawkish figure, calling for radical escalation of military action. When the war in Bosnia was happening, Joe Biden was calling for bombing Belgrade in Serbia, he wanted Milošević overthrown. And Clinton hits the largest pharmaceutical plant in Africa, bombing it in Sudan, after the U.S. embassies were blown up in Kenya and Tanzania in 1998.

You had the first attempt to assassinate Osama Bin Laden in Afghanistan was conducted by Bill Clinton. You had the first discussions about using weaponized drones. You had the Clinton administration showering Turkey with aid that was being used to just mass slaughter Kurdish people at the same time that the U.S. was saying that they needed to protect the Kurdish population in Iraq from Saddam Hussein. But the entire Clinton doctrine was wrapped up in the language of militarism for humanity’s sake.

And when the Iraq war happens under George W. Bush. You know, in Afghanistan, there were a lot of Democrats, only Barbara Lee — we all know this well, but other people may not remember this — there was only one member of the entire United States Congress who voted against the 2001 authorization for the use of military force, which was the blank check that Bush and Cheney and co. used to wage war across the world. And it led to the creation of the CIA black sites, it led to the occupation of Afghanistan, and it led to, essentially, then the drone assassination program, that Obama fully embraced and then put on steroids.

But you did have this moment in history, particularly leading up to the invasion of Iraq, where the left started to get its ducks in a row again, coming out of the Clinton era, when a lot of people found it very confusing about, you know, “Yugoslavia? What is this?”

And in fact, just one parenthetical — I remember this because I was on the ground covering the 1999 NATO bombing of Serbia and Montenegro — but there was an incredible story that unfolded on Capitol Hill where Republicans led a charge to block Clinton by citing the War Powers Act, saying that only Congress can declare war, and the notion that you’re going to conduct a 78-day bombing of Serbia and Montenegro without the consent of Congress is illegal. And Joe Biden, who was one of the original sponsors of the War Powers Act, as a senator, actually openly said, yeah, we probably should do this, but sometimes the mission is more important than the letter of the law.

But, the point is that Bill Clinton went ahead anyway, even though Congress did not— There was a vote on it, and it was voted down in the house, and Bill Clinton went ahead and did that. But no one remembers that, that’s been totally memory-holed, that it was a Democratic president who violated the War Powers Act, who overrode the fact that Congress had voted against it, and it was actually led by the Republicans, the opposition to that 1999 bombing. Which makes kind of Murtaza’s point too, because I wonder how many of them would’ve opposed it if there had been a Republican. I mean, maybe Kelley would disagree with that, I’m kind of cynical about some of this Republican opposition. But, facts are facts, and they did actually do it.

And then the late Michael Ratner from the Center for Constitutional Rights, who was no one’s idea of a Republican, tried to then sue Bill Clinton, saying that he was violating the War Powers Act.

But the point I’m getting at here, is that you then had Bush. And the invasion and occupation of Iraq was such a brazen act of criminal imperialist American warmongering that you had this energy that came back into the room, and it sustained for quite a while. And then, Obama was sort of the perfect political figure to suck all of that energy out of the room, and was able then to spend eight years building up credibility among the liberal base for the notion that we don’t only have the right to do assassination around the world, but we are right to do assassination. In fact, it’s a smarter way of protecting us because we don’t have to subject American boots on the ground to coming back in metal boxes to America. 

And then you had Trump. And you know, it broke so many people’s brains when Donald Trump became president, and there were some devastatingly dangerous aspects to that presidency. Like, no one should downplay how nutty and dangerous that guy was. But on a foreign policy level, Trump fell largely within the parameters of accepted American imperial presidential politics. And he was more murderous than Jimmy Carter, but he was far less murderous than George W. Bush. And he did have some of those instincts that you’re talking about, Kelley, where he really — And part of it may just be cowardice, he didn’t want to be killing people. But part of it genuinely seemed to be that he didn’t like that look for America.

He says that he put people like Bolton in the administration so that Trump himself could kind of look like an unpredictable force, you never know what he’s going to do. But he also did really dangerous things, like killing Qasem Soleimani in Baghdad. He bragged about dropping the mother of all bombs in Afghanistan. He dramatically ratcheted up drone strikes in some periods. Yes, he didn’t start any new wars, but man did he pummel Iraq, Syria, and Somalia. He also hit Syrian government targets. You know, Obama didn’t go that far. Trump did.

So it wasn’t necessarily that Trump was some grand anti-imperialist, but he definitely did not have an overriding belligerent presidency on a foreign policy level. He was on the other end of the spectrum of the American presidency.

And I’m sorry for talking so long, but I just wanted to give people this history. But now, what I think is at play in Ukraine a bit is that Democrats are still so obsessed with this notion that Vladimir Putin was in full control of Donald Trump, that the Russiagate, the politics of the Russiagate stuff bled into this conflict and has ratcheted up the bloodthirst that Democrats hope is going to lead to Vladimir Putin’s head on a pike. And I think that part of what is driving this is domestic politics that is now being applied to a foreign war where the overwhelming majority of the victims are Ukrainian.

KV: It’s a perfect storm, actually. So, their guy is in power, so you have the political motivation to support military aggression, intervention, what have you, proxy war. You have the responsibility to protect the moral imperative. And then you have this domestic factor which, as you mentioned is so strong, and it’s been deliberately applied.

I think it was before the holidays. Biden had given that speech where he basically said, if you don’t support the U.S. policy in Ukraine, if you don’t support Ukraine, then you are supporting Putin, you are supporting autocracy. Ergo, you are supporting MAGA. And he conflated all of the three. And I went out on Twitter, and I’ve written about this, and I commissioned stories, because I saw this as the new McCarthyism. Because if your president is telling you and is telling Americans that are center-left, for example, that if you’re not altogether in favor of giving more weapons to Ukraine, and supporting Ukraine to the hilt, no matter how long it takes, against Russia, that somehow that you are siding with MAGA, that you are siding with Trumpies. That is putting a chill on the anti-war movement here.

And he hasn’t done it lately. It was right around the 2022 election, so it was part of his own domestic political campaign, obviously. And I’m with you, that this conflation of the domestic politics with the foreign policy, to me, is designed to silence dissent on the war, and his own war strategy on Ukraine. And I think it’s had a pernicious effect because the domestic politics are so fraught right now, they’re so angry. And I’ve personally seen a lot of people peel off and accuse Quincy, The Quincy Institute of siding with MAGA — siding with Trump.

And I’m proud that a lot of the folks at Quincy have let this stuff roll down their backs, but it’s not easy, because we are transpartisan. And as you said, Trump has got a lot of baggage. You know, if you’re not already inclined to be Republican, a supporter of Trump, or whatever, you don’t want to be roped in with some of these people, like Marjorie Taylor Greene, or Lauren Boebert, or Donald Trump. And when the president is explicitly saying, “you’re either with us or against us,” that’s pretty tough, and I’ve been chafing against it ever since, I’ll tell you that much.

MH: Yeah, I think one of the really dangerous and alarming things about foreign policy discourse in the United States is a level of groupthink, and the sort of moral bludgeoning that takes place to get everyone on the same page, which is very effective. That’s why I’m very glad The Quincy exists — whether I agree with every single policy or not is kind of beside the point — but having some other voice is very, very important, because there’s not really another voice on foreign policy, and it’s an issue Americans pay less attention to, comparatively, than some other issues. So, they don’t really see the negative impacts directly. And if there is this sort of homogenization, it kind of flies under the radar.

Well, you mentioned earlier, Kelley, that there’s this idea — and Jeremy, you said this too — like, there’s this idea that Biden puts it forward that, well, we’re fighting on behalf of democracy, or against autocracy, or there’s a moral component to U.S. foreign policy. And I think that if you really look at the big scope of U.S. foreign policy in the past and today, it’s a very farcical argument because, clearly, we partner with a lot of autocracies. We fight against democracies, or undermine democracies or nascent democracies when it’s in our interest, and that’s really not what drives U.S. foreign policy at the end of the day. It’s driven by elite interests, sometimes national interests, and driven by maintaining a certain balance of power favorable to the United States or factions therein.

So, I think, during the years of the war on terror it was very, very easy, actually, in a way, to be anti-war, because the wars themselves didn’t seem to, for the most part, have any direct relation to U.S. interests. It’s hard to explain why the wars were taking place in many cases. It became clear very, very early in the Iraq War, and into the Afghanistan War, that these wars seemed to have no exact goal. They seemed to have no specific motivation or end point, so opposing them seemed quite logical.

The Ukraine war is very interesting, because it’s a bit different from those wars, in the sense that, well, the U.S. didn’t seem to, at least, approximately initiate the war. And the optics of it are a bit better, because they’re arming another country which is being invaded by another country to defend itself.

So, it’s kind of interesting. Like, how do you navigate that sort of difference? And I think that part of the issue with the anti-war restraint is that every situation is a bit different. And I think some of the people who are pro-arming Ukraine, for instance, on the left and middle and the right, they take the Robert Kagan view of things that, well, we have to hold whatever order exists in the world that’s in our favor at the moment. And if we can’t impose order, so to speak, on the Middle East, or Asia, or wherever else, well, Europe is really our backyard, and we have our interest in doing that, lest Russia take over and so forth.

So, on a U.S. interests basis — leaving the morality aside — is there a compelling reason for the U.S. to support Ukraine against Russia as it’s doing at the moment?

KV: Well, I think early on, as an organization, when we were talking about this internally and we were struggling with some of the attacks that had been hurled at Quincy for not standing four-square with Ukraine, which was wrong. We supported, even at first, the sanctions against Russia to punish them for the illegal invasion, but that wasn’t enough. And we weren’t talking enough about the war crimes, and we weren’t talking enough about the brutal invasion, and we were talking too much about what led up to the war, and the fact that the NATO expansion had led to the hostilities on the borders in Eastern Europe and whatnot.

And we were talking in too much of a realism fashion on how we could end this war through diplomacy. And so, we struggled. And we decided early on, we’re not going to cede the moral argument, because I, and Quincy, and a lot of folks who agree with us, don’t believe that it’s moral to continue fueling a war that is only going to destroy Ukraine, and destroy the people, and kill people, and throw millions of young Ukrainian men into a meat grinder.

And so, our point is that the moral imperative is to end the war as soon as possible. And sending more sophisticated weapons, long range missiles, and the like, into this war is not only going to protract it, and it’s already turned into a grinding war of attrition, but it escalates the tensions between the U.S. and Russia, and NATO and Russia, and could escalate into a nuclear confrontation, and we’ve been warning about that since day one. And so, we think that is the moral issue here.

As to the moral question, we don’t feel that we have ceded that at all, and we continue to talk about that in the grander or broader picture of what restraint is. And the Robert Kagans of the world and the Elliot Cohens of the world who believe that the United States needs to not only lead the so-called liberal international order, but should continue and even pour more sophisticated weapons, if not go directly into combat with Russia and Ukraine. We’re saying, wake up, look at the world. This is no longer a unipolar world where the United States gets to make all the decisions for the rest of the world.

And you can see in U.N. votes on the resolutions condemning Russia, you can see in the meetings that world leaders of big powers, and middle powers, and so forth, have been having with Russia and China, there is a huge movement among The Global South and even among our partners to end this war, and to engage and be helpful in mediation, and they don’t need the United States telling them when, where, and how it’s going to happen. And it’s not only happening in Russia and Ukraine, but you see it happening in the Middle East today, you see it happening with the issue with the Arab states, and they’re starting to engage in rapprochement with Syria. You’re seeing it with our partners and allies in East Asia, and India, and how they’re dealing with the China issue.

You know, the United States is no longer the leader of the free world, and it seems like we’re the last to get the news. And I think, and Quincy thinks, that there can be an international response to what’s happening in Ukraine and Russia right now without continued fueling of the military aspect. Even our own leaders, like Chairman of the Joint Chiefs of Staff Milley have said that this war is not going to be won on the battlefield, so the Biden administration needs to sort of catch up with that.

And I feel there are so many people on the left and the right who are talking about this and, slowly, the left is coming on, and you see this in op-eds and whatnot, about the need for a diplomacy track and an actual active one. But I just feel there’s a lot of energy behind that.

Like you said, Jeremy, the Democrats are so caught up with their Russia hate, and the tie-in with Russiagate and whatnot, that they’re not getting on a bus as fast as they need to.

JS: My position from very, very early on in this is that what Putin initiated in Ukraine — And I’m very familiar with the whole history of NATO expansion, of the incidents that took place in 2014 in Ukraine, of the entire political context. I think it’s completely relevant, it should not be some taboo subject to discuss ways in which the United States and NATO brought us to this point.

But the fact is clear that Vladimir Putin made the decision to militarily invade Ukraine a year and some months ago, and he should be held accountable for that. There should be war crimes prosecutions going to the highest levels of power. And I can add the caveat, yes, the same should be true of Bush and Cheney. I think most, most normal people who understand history would agree on that — that the international standards and laws should be applied equally to all countries, including the United States. But we’re talking about Ukraine and Russia here.

So, to me, there shouldn’t even be a serious debate about this. I mean, what Putin is doing is criminal. As far as I’m concerned, end of story. That is totally clear. But there are a lot of other issues here that are perfectly legitimate to talk about. One of them that I wanted to talk to you about, Kelley because at Quincy you guys are deep in the weeds on all of this stuff. You have really sharp analysts who’ve been following these geopolitical struggles for a very long time.

My sense is that the narrative that the public has been fed through a combination of Ukrainian propaganda, NATO propaganda, U.S. propaganda, [and] the challenges of reporting on Ukraine. I think there are a lot of good journalists on the ground trying to get to the bottom of a variety of stories, but it’s extraordinarily difficult circumstances. But my sense is that the narrative is a completely fictitious one about what actually is happening on the ground. And I think that the airmen who allegedly leaked these documents on Discord, Jack Teixeira, that one of the things that his documents are indicating is that the losses on the Ukrainian side are far greater than the public has been led to believe.

And when you take the fact that it seems as though the narrative that has been crafted around Ukrainian success against Russia, and you couple that with the calls for more escalation, in terms of weapons shipments and other expenditures, and you then look at the foreign policy elite and what they’re saying right now. People like Richard Haass, Council on Foreign Relations, just wrote a piece in Foreign Affairs saying, oh, we’re going to eventually have to find a brokered solution.

When I first saw the headline, I thought, OK, this is interesting. And then I start reading it, and what he actually is saying in the piece is, what we desperately need to do is expedite the weapon shipments to Ukraine. And as far as I can tell, his argument is basically, let’s get as many weapons in there right now as we can, let’s support them in fighting, but then we’re going to have to negotiate.

And General Petraeus talking about, oh, you know, we’re going to have this big thing in a month or two where the Ukrainians are going to make a real push, and they have a real shot at taking Crimea back. What if none of that happens?

And the thing is, you can go back and read articles from people like me, and people at Quincy, and others, from the very beginning of this thing, making what should have been an uncontroversial statement. The question must be asked, if we play this all out, are we going to find a better diplomatic solution three years from now with hundreds of thousands of civilians dead, than we could get by the whole world pushing to try to find a resolution to this right now? And I think that really is an urgent question.

And I wanted to just put it to you, Kelley, what you see as that dynamic, about how propaganda is impacting the nature of the discourse, and then you see the elite now starting to say, “Well, we may have to find a negotiated solution, but first let’s pour a bunch more weapons in there, and let’s take as much of a pound of flesh as we can out of the Russians.”

KV: It’s really schizophrenic because, if you asked me weeks ago when these leaks started happening, it seemed as though the veil had been ripped off. Because these leaks had indicated that, internally, the U.S. government was warning Zelenskyy that, no matter how well they might do in a spring offensive, it still might not move the needle towards a diplomatic solution, and that would remain a bloody stalemate through the next year.

And those were the headlines right when those leaks started, and then people started digesting it and going, “Yeah, things aren’t looking very good.” And it’s really starting to reflect some of the op-eds and analysis that we’ve been hearing from Quincy and others, and even the things that Milley had been sprinkling around in his speeches.

And then you had an article like, you had the Richard Haass piece — which I think was written with Charles Kupchan — like you said, like, you explained, you said they start off by saying, only a diplomatic solution will work here, but let’s give them one more shot, and give them everything they need, to get that spring offensive and get better footing for the negotiations.

So, there seems to be this weird acceptance that the war will not be won on the battlefield, but yet this real resistance to conceding that the military solution should be taken off the table. And that’s just going to result in a continued fueling of this war, a protraction of the battlefield casualties that we know are happening. We have every indication that Ukraine is literally pulling guys off the streets to throw them into this meat grinder, particularly in Bakhmut right now, recruiting anybody they possibly can. People are trying to avoid it.

Anatol Lieven, our director of Eurasia studies, just came back from Ukraine. And he said, there are guys on chat rooms that are warning people where the recruitments are popping up on the street, so they can avoid them. So, we have every indication that Ukraine has lost far more soldiers than it is admitting.

Yet, here, in the safety of New York and Washington, these writers are just calling for just one more big push. And I’m personally afraid that the Washington establishment, which holds the levers of the media megaphones will continue to reinforce this idea that if we don’t support Ukraine, that somehow we aren’t giving them the ability to defend themselves from Russia.

And moreover, there seems to be this fueling of the idea that our NATO efforts can help the Ukrainians kick Russia out of Crimea. And I’m sure you’ve seen some of those op-eds, and I’ve seen that in the headlines, today — this being Monday —that there’s some confidence that Ukraine can keep the land bridge to Crimea, and even move to thwarting the Russians there. And I think that’s a fool’s errand but, like you said, Jeremy, there is an enormous amount of propaganda going on. And a lot of that is just this opacity of information that we’re getting from Ukraine, and this idea that victory is always around the corner for them, if we have the stomach to support them in all they need.

And this reminds me, of course, of Afghanistan. For 20 years they told us that victory was right around the corner, and if we just had the stomach to keep on, that somehow that will happen. And of course, it never did.

MH: I think that there are some people in the U.S. National Security establishment who are very, I don’t want to say the word “turned on,” but they get a very great thrill out of seeing military success that they can attribute to themselves, especially when the people dying are not actually American. So, the political cost in the United States of having a longer and longer war, I think, is quite tolerable to most Americans, as long as they themselves are not being forced to be thrown into the meat grinder — as you said, Kelley — of the conflict.

And even in the Middle East for many years after the major phase of the U.S. War in Iraq wound down, the war actually continued on for a very long time after, just with local forces being used to arm the fighting, and so forth. So I think it’s a great danger that the war in Ukraine can continue far, far beyond the point that it makes sense politically to any party, just because outside forces are funding it.

I do wonder, is there an endgame that we can sort of game out or propose, that would end the war on terms which would be expeditious and acceptable enough to all parties, the Ukrainians and Russians, most importantly, that’s realistic? And one thing I wonder is, sometimes people argue in favor of arming Ukraine and then having a negotiated settlement thereafter, their argument as well has put them in a very strong position so they can negotiate terms which are acceptable now. And also, make it such that Russia has dissuaded from wanting to continue the war any further, because the costs are just too high.

I want to know, Kelley, from your perspective, or Quincy’s perspective, what is a reasonable or a realistic game plan to ending the war as soon as possible? Which we should all be pushing for, as you are.

KV: Quincy has never advocated for cutting off the spigot. I know that there are Republicans out there right now, including Matt Gaetz, who had issued a bill or introduced a bill that he called the Ukraine war fatigue resolution [Ukraine Fatigue Resolution], and he called for cutting off aid — economic and weapons. And you mentioned, Jeremy, the Republicans who signed that letter to Biden, who didn’t go so far as to say, to cut off aid, but just said that they will oppose any new aid unless it’s paired with a clear strategy, a diplomatic strategy to ending the war sooner than later. Like a rapid close. I can’t remember the exact word.

And so, Quincy has always advocated giving Ukraine what it needs to defend itself, but not like these more sophisticated longer range missiles, or F-16s, or a no-fly zone or anything like that, but to pair it with a diplomatic track. And I think we’ve always advocated that it should have started yesterday, where the United States’ diplomatic core is more actively reaching out to both Russian and Ukraine counterparts to initiate talks, maybe along the Minsk-2 path.

But George Beebe, who is our Director of Grand Strategy [at the Quincy Institute], has mentioned as recently as last week, he was saying in a conference that I attended with him that this needs to be beyond just Russia and Ukraine talking, or the United States and NATO. This is a European security issue, and so all parties must be involved in pushing this thing to talks. Why? Because there has to be some sort of security architecture in Europe that is amenable to both Russia and Ukraine and our partners there.

As Jeremy pointed out, this is part of a longstanding security issue involving NATO expansion and — whether or not anyone likes it — Russia is part of the world in their region. And without some plan in incorporating Russia and those countries in a security architecture that is amenable— And I don’t know what it looks like. You know, there are a lot of things being thrown around, but I feel like the diplomatic path, track, whatever you want to call it has just not been active enough.

And I know there are Democrats out there that are listening and they’re saying, “The Biden administration has been engaging in these efforts all along. What are you talking about?” Well, I don’t know anything about that, and I don’t feel, at least in their public pronouncements, the Biden administration has always been, it’s up to the Ukrainians when they want to talk, and when they want to negotiate, and we are not going to tell them what to do. Well, I think we need to be a little bit more active in this. We have given or at least allocated $113 billion of U.S. taxpayer money to fund their defense, their war. NATO is set to put tons more troops on the front lines there. We are on the hook for a lot.

And they’re talking about taking this, through the years. There was an article in The New York Times last week about the emboldened NATO, and how NATO plans to grow its presence in Europe as a result of this war. So, if we’re on the hook for billions more, and commitments that involve our troops, our weapon systems, our advisors, what have you, then I think we have to take a more active role in pursuing talks.

Now, does that mean that Russia is going to be amenable to talks? No. But what are the alternatives? You have a bloody stalemate, which it looks like it’s moving towards that anyway. Or a frozen war which, I guess, is better than an active one. It’s still not going to resolve the security problems in Europe, and I think that we need to face that fact sooner than later. 

JS: I do think a lot of the political posturing in Washington on this issue is really akin to the kind of shit that you see on Twitter, where people are like, you know, they’re virtue signaling. It’s one thing to virtue signal on Twitter and, “Oh, I’m against this.” And it’s another to do it when you’re talking about war. And what it ultimately leads to is a completely fictional notion of your own power and standing in the world, and how the rest of the world perceives you because you’re just virtue signaling to the base. And that basically is what American foreign policy is right now, it’s all a kind of coordinated virtue signaling.

But what it’s ignoring is Brazil, what it’s ignoring is China, what it’s ignoring is India. What it’s ignoring is most of the population of the world that has a totally different view on these issues than the United States and its NATO allies. And whether you like it or not, the United States is not in charge of the world right now, and it’s decreasingly in charge of the world, especially because of China, especially because of Russia, especially because of Brazil.

I mean, this is an altered reality, and virtue signaling may feel good, but unless you want to actually engage on the facts — And a negotiation with Russia, as long as Vladimir Putin is in power there, is going to mean that you’re going to have to listen to their story, also, and there’s going to be concessions that are going to be painful. But the position seems to be so entrenched in this notion that it’s like, no, unconditionally Putin needs to do this or else. Well, you can say that, and it might make you feel good to say that, and you can own people on the global Twitter or whatever, but that’s not going to end this war, you know?

I think that that’s the first part of it, is that there’s a complete rejection of reality right now, that you aren’t in charge anymore of the entire world. You just aren’t.

KV: You know, another thing is, there has been so much destruction in Ukraine, because of the invasion, because of the Russian invasion, and the war that has ensued. None of that is going to get fixed until we end the war. So there is an imperative, you know? There’s a lot of money waiting to be poured into Ukraine right now, to rebuild the economy, to rebuild, literally, their infrastructure, and none of that is going to happen, none of that is going to happen until the fighting stops. So that should be an additional incentive to stop the fighting.

And guess what? Americans and Europeans are going to start — They see their own pocketbook issues starting to press as recession might be befalling Europe. We have inflation here. We’re watching billions of dollars go into this country far away that most Americans can’t explain what is happening over there.

I think fatigue really will set in, and you see this in the polling. There’s less support for funding Ukraine unconditionally now than there was last spring, and that’s seen in poll after poll. And I feel, and I fear, for the Ukrainians that the Biden administration is going to switch to campaign mode at some point after this “spring offensive,” with air quotes, that we don’t even know what is going to happen. And they might be like, you know what? We’ve done all we can, but I have to focus on domestic issues now, thank you very much.

And so, I’m afraid that if we don’t start this diplomatic process, that the Ukrainians are going to not only be bereft of the continued support — like, full support — of Europe and America, but they’re going to start seeing the actual aid taper off. Then they will really be on their own, and I don’t want to see that happen either.

MH: Kelley, thanks so much for sharing these insights, and it’s always a pleasure having you on Intercepted.

KV: Thank you, guys.

MH: That’s Kelley Vlahos, a senior advisor for The Quincy Institute, and Editorial Director at Responsible Statecraft. She spent the last two decades in Washington reporting and writing about U.S. foreign policy, national security, politics, veterans, and civil liberties.

[Intercepted end theme music.]

JS: And that’s it for this episode of Intercepted. Intercepted is a production of The Intercept.

José Olivares is lead producer. Our supervising producer is Laura Flynn. Roger Hodge is Editor-in-Chief of The Intercept. Rick Kwan mixed our show. This episode was transcribed by Leonardo Faierman. Our theme music, as always, was composed by DJ Spooky.

If you want to support our work, you can go to Your donation, no matter what the amount, makes a real difference. If you haven’t already, please subscribe to Intercepted. And also, do leave us a rating or a review, it helps people to find us.

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Thank you so much for joining us. Until next time, I’m Jeremy Scahill.

MH: And I’m Murtaza Hussain.

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