Doves Split Over Ukraine
Foreign policy makes strange bedfellows.
Dan Spinelli and Dan Friedman have a fascinating report at Mother Jones, “America’s Top Anti-War Think Tank Is Fracturing Over Ukraine.”
Two prominent figures have resigned in protest from the Quincy Institute for Responsible Statecraft—the only major think tank to promote a skeptical view of US power and military interventionism. In announcing their departures, Joe Cirincione and Paul Eaton criticized the organization’s dovish response to the Russian invasion of Ukraine.”
Quincy is brand new, co-founded in 2019 by Andrew Bacevich, a retired Army colonel and longtime Boston University scholar. A combat leader in Vietnam and the Gulf War, he’s had a strong second career as a critic of US adventurism abroad. His son, Andrew Jr., was killed in Iraq, a war his dad rightly viewed as folly. Cirincione and Eaton are also incredibly respected figures in the national security community.
They take this indefensible, morally bankrupt position on Ukraine,” Cirincione said in an interview Thursday with Mother Jones. “This is clearly an unprovoked invasion, and somehow Quincy keeps justifying it.”
Cirincione, who was until recently a “distinguished non-resident fellow” at Quincy, tweeted news of his resignation on Thursday, citing the institute’s “position on the Ukraine War” as his reason. Formerly the head of the Ploughshares Fund, an influential grant-giving foundation in the small progressive foreign policy world, Cirincione helped raise money for Quincy in its early days and connected it with key donors. But Ukraine proved to be his breaking point.
In articles posted online and in media appearances, other Quincy experts have called for the Biden administration to press Ukraine to reach a peace deal that allows Russia to keep some of the territory it has seized, arguing the alternative is a prolonged war and increased risk of direct conflict between the United States and Russia. That position has little public backing from prominent Democrats in Washington, who support the administration’s efforts to aid Ukraine’s military.
In an interview Thursday night, Cirincione said he “fundamentally” disagrees with Quincy experts who “completely ignore the dangers and the horrors of Russia’s invasion and occupation and focus almost exclusively on criticism of the United States, NATO, and Ukraine.”
Cirincione’s exit comes just days after Eaton—a retired Army major general who has long been an adviser to Democratic politicians and liberal advocacy groups—resigned from Quincy’s board for similar reasons. When asked why he left the organization, Eaton said on Twitter, “I support NATO,” an apparent reference to the strain of thought among anti-interventionists that Russia’s invasion was motivated by the expansion of the NATO alliance.
Even though I ultimately came to support the Iraq War,* I was then and remained a general skeptic of US military intervention abroad. But the problem with adopting “Restraint” as the sine qua non of a think tank is that it an become something of a totem. I simultaneously believe Russia’s invasion of Ukraine is an outrage to which the United States must respond and yet not worth sending in US military forces and risking escalation to a direct superpower conflict. I suspect that’s where Bacevich, Cirincione, and Easton are. But hiring staffers who are reflexively anti-militarist leads to, in this case, excuse-making for Putin to justify not taking action.
The fissures within Quincy reflect a deeper conflict among skeptics of US military power. Russia’s invasion of Ukraine has exacerbated that conflict, with some backers of the Biden administration’s Ukraine policy accusing critics of being Putin apologists.
For Cirincione, the Ukrainian resistance to Putin’s unprovoked invasion “is a just war” deserving of US financial and military support. He disputes the view that the United States is engaged in a proxy war with Russia or attempting to “bleed Russia dry.” (Many international relations experts, not just at Quincy, have said the conflict is edging closer to a proxy war.)
On Responsible Statecraft, Quincy’s online magazine, “you cannot find a criticism in depth of Russia’s foreign policy pronouncements justifying the war,” Cirincione said.
Trita Parsi, the co-founder and executive vice president of the Quincy Institute, called Cirincione a friend, but said that Cirincione’s criticisms were “not only false but bewildering.”
“A quick glance at our website would show that that statement is just simply not true,” Parsi said. “It is true that we are pushing for diplomatic solutions. We are not going along with the idea that it’s a good thing to change the objectives in Ukraine towards weakening Russia, because we believe that could lead to endless war.”
Parsi said that Cirincione had been encouraged to disagree—in private and and in public—with other Quincy experts. But Cirincione “wanted Quincy as a whole to adopt his position,” Parsi said, adding that such a move would be incompatible with the think tank’s mission and not “necessarily compatible with progressive foreign policy either.”
While I think Cirincione overstates the case a mite, he’s closer to the truth than Parsi here. If one scans Quincy’s posts related to Ukraine—which are a surprisingly small percentage of their overall posts considering how central the conflict is to the larger national security conversation right now—they’re pretty one-sided. Essentially, they advance three points. In no particular order: 1) Putin was compelled to invade because of Western belligerence in the form of NATO expansion; 2) every move the West makes to support Ukraine risks escalating the conflict; and 3) Ukraine should cede territory to de-escalate and end the conflict. None of those are wildly unreasonable points. But they come across as rather bloodless and Chamberlainesque in the light of Russian aggression and wanton slaughter in Ukraine.
A particularly knotty issue for some progressive thinkers is the question of military aid, which is the main forum through which the United States has supported Ukraine. Matt Duss, a foreign policy adviser to Sen. Bernie Sanders (I-Vt.), used a recent piece in the New Republic to appeal to progressives on this point, arguing that the Left should not let prior US misadventures abroad “blind us to the instances when provision of military aid can advance a more just and humanitarian global order.”
There is not much division among congressional Democrats on that question. Not a single Democrat in the House or Senate voted against President Joe Biden’s request for $40 billion in weapons and humanitarian aid for Ukraine. But outside of the Democratic Party, a collection of prominent figures spanning the progressive left and libertarian right have been vehemently opposed to such a huge aid package, which is one of the largest sums of foreign aid in US history.
I’ve known Matt for going on 20 years now and consider him a friend. We don’t see eye-to-eye on domestic policy, as one might suspect given his employment as a top Sanders advisor, but he’s a clear-eyed and thoughtful foreign policy analyst. And he demonstrates this very clearly in the above-linked TNR essay:
Today, the U.S. left is stronger and more influential, and growing faster than at any time in my lifetime. On the most important national security, economic and trade policy, and social justice issues of our time, the left has gotten it right. But it’s important to think through how our values of social justice, human security and equality, and democracy are best served in a response to Russia’s war on Ukraine.
We should acknowledge absolutely that skepticism toward the kind of righteous sloganeering we’ve seen around Russia’s war is entirely reasonable. Our political class advocates military violence with a regularity and ease that is psychopathic. Our politicians demand others show more courage in the face of Vladimir Putin’s violence than they’ve ever been able to muster in the face of Donald Trump’s tweets. We should not, however, let all of this absurdity blind us to the instances when provision of military aid can advance a more just and humanitarian global order. Assisting Ukraine’s defense against Russian invasion is such an instance.
The endless military interventions of the last 20 years have engendered a hard-won skepticism not just among the left but among the American people toward the use of force. Our arms dealer-funded think tanks don’t like it, but this is the appropriate default position for a responsible democracy. It’s hard to escape the impression that many in Washington see the war on Ukraine as a boon, something to help both transcend our internal battles and lift U.S. foreign policy out of the doldrums and restore its meaning and potency. This is incredibly dangerous.
But we should also recognize that the Biden administration is not the Bush administration. The Biden team clearly did not seek this war, in fact they made a strenuous, and very public, diplomatic effort to avert it. Having been unable to do that, they’ve acted with restraint and care not to get drawn into a wider war with Russia while also making clear the stakes of the conflict for the U.S., for Europe, and for the international system. I have not been shy about criticizing this administration where it has failed to uphold progressive principles. It’s a long, depressing, and growing list. But Ukraine is an area where I think the administration is getting it mostly right.
And, again, while our domestic politics are quite different, we’re in agreement here. While I’ve criticized some of the more belligerent statements from top administration officials in this conflict—including some off-the-cuff remarks from Biden himself—his actual policy decisions have been spot-on. We’re providing an appropriate amount of military aid to a country that’s been invaded, while simultaneously bolstering the Western alliance and weakening Russia, a country our strategy documents correctly identify as “an acute threat.”
Back to the Rolling Stone piece:
Many of these critics view the source of the conflict as broader than Putin himself. Taking their lead from John Mearsheimer, an influential international relations professor and non-resident fellow at Quincy, they argue that the United States gravely miscalculated at the end of the Cold War by expanding NATO to include several Eastern European countries that were once part of the Soviet Union. Mearsheimer has argued that the US government should have expected Russia to perceive the expansion of NATO as a security threat.
I respect Mearsheimer and his work tremendously and don’t fundamentally disagree with him. I was a critic of Bill Clinton’s NATO expansion policies, which were a break from the quiet diplomacy of George H.W. Bush and Brent Scowcroft, and continued to oppose further expansion under George W. Bush and Barack Obama. In contrast to the addition of Sweden and Finland, longtime Western partners with a robust military and economic capability, bringing in former Soviet satellites did little to bolster our security while rubbing Russia’s nose in its diminished status. At the same time, that simply doesn’t excuse Putin’s aggression and war crimes in Ukraine.
Many of these critics do not think the US government’s aims in Ukraine are necessarily noble. As examples, they have seized on comments from Secretary of Defense Lloyd Austin, who said that he wants to see Russia “weakened,” and media leaks that claiming that US intelligence is helping Ukraine kill Russian generals. (“I think the Biden administration has done an exemplary job of aiding Ukraine, but it’s not flawless,” Cirincione told Mother Jones.)
Again, Cirincione ain’t wrong. I’m actually perfectly happy to see Russia weakened and the generals responsible for murdering Ukrainian women and children killed. But we should shut the hell up about it.
While functionally a debate about means and ends—no different from many arguments in the national security space—the fractious conversation about Ukraine on the Left also speaks to the kinds of questions that remain out of bounds in the elite world of US foreign policy. Quincy was a unique entry in to the debate from the start. The institute is proudly not progressive; it prefers to call itself “transpartisan.” Its experts often align with the anti-militarist worldview shared by many progressive Democrats and libertarians, a coalition that is reflected in the organization’s primary funders: George Soros and Charles Koch.
Indeed, I would be shocked if Bacevich himself weren’t a fairly conservative Republican, at least before the Iraq War. One can oppose foreign adventurism and not be a progressive—and vice versa. Indeed, the so-called Blob consists of neoconservative hawks and liberal interventionists.
Outside of Quincy, there is not much money on the anti-militarism side, making the institute even more important as a rare voice of dissent from foreign policy orthodoxy. Even as figures like Cirincione and Eaton find substantial support from Democrats in Congress, their views have encountered backlash among the wider progressive community. Whether there continues to be room for a progressive foreign policy that includes skepticism of NATO expansion or the wisdom of a prolonged war against Russia is still an open question. For Cirincione, there remains a glaring need for a truly progressive think tank. “A lot of us thought Quincy was going to be it,” he says. “But it’s just not.”
There are plenty of progressive think tanks out there, actually. But Quincy was never supposed to be that. Again, it was funded with Koch AND Soros money. (Koch also funded, around the same time, a Restraint-focused center at the Atlantic Council that’s in stark contrast with the more activist lean of the larger institution.) Beyond that, there’s simply no reason that everyone who holds a given domestic policy agenda will agree on foreign policy, particularly on the matter of intervention in wars. (The closest to that is libertarians, who tend to be reflexively anti-militarist.)
*I was the reverse John Kerry: against it before I was for it. As I’ve likely recounted here before, I was at an AUSA convention in DC in late 2002 listening to Paul Wolfowitz explaining that we needed to conduct regime change in Iraq because of atrocities Saddam had committed during the Iran-Iraq War and thought it was just nuts. I was ultimately persuaded by the nuclear argument in wake of advances in North Korea’s program that radically shifted our set of options there.