Karen Greenberg Military Russia-Ukraine

Is There an Off-Ramp From the Latest Forever War?

Consider what lessons — if either our leaders or the Russian president were rational creatures when it came to such endless wars — might be drawn from America’s Global War on Terror now.
[Alisdare Hickson / CC BY-SA 2.0]

By Karen J. Greenberg | TomDispatch

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 U.S. 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.

Lessons Learned?

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 U.S. 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.  (U.S. 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 11th, 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 11th, 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 U.N. 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 U.S. 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 U.S. 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 U.S. 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 U.N.’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 U.N. 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 U.N. 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 U.N. 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 U.S. 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 U.N. 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 U.N. 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.

The Stakes

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.

Copyright 2022 Karen J. Greenberg


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Karen J. Greenberg, a TomDispatch regular, is the director of the Center on National Security at Fordham Law and author most recently of Subtle Tools: The Dismantling of Democracy from the War on Terror to Donald Trump (Princeton University Press). Julia Tedesco conducted research for this article.

22 comments

  1. I will limit my observations of your article to just one.

    The Russian invasion of Ukraine was NOT unprovoked. The NATO invitation, (read United States invitation,) to Ukraine to apply for memberdhip in NATO, was a blatant disregard of the George H. W. agreeement with Gorbachev not to expand NATO one inch further East. R
    understandably Russia would be threatened with having a member of NATO, a western military organization, only a few hundred miles from Moscow.

    1. Exactly. The war was definitely provoked. The US is yet to learn thry are done as the sole power in the world. The sooner they realise it, the better the world will be. Europe must cease being a mere vassal, hiding under americas skirt. Where are the real leaders?

  2. Russia’s war into Ukraine was not “unprovoked” no matter how many times the corporate US mainstream newsmedia claims this. You are all liars and you know it. How could you leave out the 2014 US coup that took place when we have all seen the many videos of the like of Victoria Nuland, John McCain, Lindsey Graham and even Joe Biden were all involved. The coup cost us only $5 billion and Nuland even chose the next Ukraine leader “Yats is the one”. This was a deliberate provocation of Russia extending NATO to the very borders of Russia. And you are all lying about who did the exploding of the pipe lines as well when
    you accuse Russia. One can only wonder what new false flags are in the works from the USA.

  3. The U.S and NATO started this war, going back to the overthrow of a legitemately elected government in Ukraine. The U.S. has the policy of pre-emptive first strike with nuclear weapons, Russia and China do not. Putin is not “threatening”, he is warning, like he has been doing since the 2007 Munich security conference. Russia is once more answering the call, as it did in 1709, in 1812, and in 1941. Just remeber, Russia doesn’t start wars, it finishes them. It’s the so-called West that uses destruction, sanctions, and and genocide to veil its terrible inferiority-complex. The U.S./NATO is a war machine, Rusia and China are civilized cultures.

  4. Greenberg leaves out the role of the military industrial Big Five who profit, according to their own statements, from “disturbances” no matter where or what the cause. Arms are America’s only industrial export of any note.And we top the world in arms exports. Arms are manufactured in all 50 states – a jobs program like no other. Ultimately, if Alfred McCoy is correct, the US is persuing conflict with the “Eastern Alliance” countries for world energy/power hegemony. There will probably be modulations, but this is a Forever War in Orwellian dimensions.

  5. Thank you for keeping peace on the agenda with this piece that provides the detailed analysis we all need to pursue an end to the war in Ukraine and conflicts elsewhere. The suffering of Ukrainians and Russian dissidents breaks my heart as well as the thought of soldiers killing each other daily and hourly. As we enter this season of cold and night, the killing and destruction must stop.

  6. There are questions about who committed the Bucha murders. The murdered could have been Russian collaborators, and perpetrators the Ukrainian military.

    1. That is a pro-Russian fantasy for which there is no evidence. Too many were killed, and the Ukraintsi have no qualms about publicly saying so when they kill or punish in some lesser way a collaborator. They *want* traitors to know what’s coming to them so that they’ll flee for their lives, as Yanukovych did.

  7. @Barbara Mullin

    If you believe what you write, then you’d agree that the occupation of Luhansk and Donetsk, let alone the Crimea, exhausted any grievances Russia might have had.

    Unfortunately we clearly see that Russia’s only objective is to destroy the Ukraine as a souvereign country and re-integrate it into a new Russian Empire. That alone merits the response the US and others have given.

    1. Actually they did until the US destroyed the two gas pipe lines and blew up part of the Crimean Bridge to Russia and no doubt other things. This is what Russia is responding to. You sound like a spokesperson from the CIA.

  8. @John Corey

    You really seem to believe that the Ukraine has no right to protect itself from its aggressive Russian neighbour.

    You will note that until Russia actually invaded in February 2022 there never was any talk of the Ukraine being allowed to join NATO. This was only due to Western forbearance of Russian sensitivities.

    I put it to you that Russia has shown willing to use illegal military means to obtain what it could never otherwise gain. As with Finland and Sweden, Russia’s self-styled and paranoid desire to use neighbouring countries as a ‘security zone’ cannot be deemed to outweigh the just interest of said neighbouring countries.

    It is Russia’s punishment for committing robbery with violence on its neighbour, the Ukraine, to see the Ukraine join NATO as soon as Russian invaders have been evicted.

  9. Finally a balanced and well-thought out article. It displays an admirable awareness of the potential for escalation and mission creep while clearly highlighting the (one-sided) Russian culpability but mentions reprehensible actions on part of the Ukraine (the Amnesty International report; although one can debate about its justifications) and US (in the War on Terror) as well.

    I largely agree with Karen Greenberg’s reasoning, but I have one or two questions.

    (1) What should our position be versus religious fanatics like al-Qaeda that espouse a medieval version of Islam and wish us in the West dead for no other reason than that we exist? I believe there can be no compromise and no co-existence with those who have set themselves the goal of eradicating us. I have the impression that any response other than with violence will only fuel their belief in Western weakness and decadence and invite further atrocities on their part.

    (2) Are you saying that for the same of ending the war we ought to withdraw our support from the Ukraine and let it be subjugated by Russia? If so, what would you say to those who were determined to fight Nazi Germany to its unconditional surrender? That in order to secure peace they should learn to live with most of Europe under Nazi occupation?

    I understand your caution about

  10. @Nelson Betancourt

    Interesting response. I disagree with practically every sentence.

    (1) I personally believe that it is absolutely clear that Russia started this war, and no-one else. This is born out by just about every piece of news and first-hand social media post on the subject.

    (2) There was never an ‘overthrow’ of any legitimate Ukrainian government. There was an insurrection after a corrupt president refused to implement a decision by Parliament to join the EU.

    (3) The US has strategic ambiguity about a nuclear first-use, just as Russia and China do.

    (4) Putin has been “threatening” (and following up his threats by violence) ever since he got into power.

    (5) Russia started this war (Ukraine). It also gleefully asssisted Nazi Germany in its unprovoked war against Poland by backstabbing Poland when Hitler invaded (the Molotov-Ribbentrop pact and later the Katyn murders). Unfortunately for Russia, Hitler double-crossed Stalin before Stalin could get around to double-crossing Hitler. The enormous casulaties the USSR sustained against Nazi Germany were a direct result of Stalin executing practically the entire Russian officer corps and replacing them with politically reliable incompetents. Something Russian ‘patriots’ love to cavil about despite the incontrovertible evidence.

    (6) As far as I can see, sanctions are a very civilised and appropriate response to Russia’s illegal wars of aggression in the Ukraine in 2014 and 2022. Besides which they are effective in preventing the Russians from utilising Western components in their own weapons. This is the reason that Russia has run out of precision munitions and has had to buy Iranian drones for their terrorist attacks on civilian infrastructure.

    (7) NATO and the US have kept the peace in a difficult and volatile situation for more than 70 years. Even against corrupt evil and repressive regimes like the USSR andnow China.

  11. offramp? Russian full victory, american humiliation and Russian denazification of ukraine—the only acceptable
    “offramp”

  12. The author neglects to mention that Guantanamo Bay was wrested from Cuba (not unlike the Crimea from Ukraine) through threat of endless occupation by the US in the early years of the 20th century. Also unaddressed are our rightful call for Russia’s withdrawal from the occupied parts of Ukraine, while ignoring international law calling for the withdrawal of Israel for the Occupied Palestine and Golan Heights. It is hard to claim the moral high ground when you are neck deep in your own sewage.

  13. I find it fascinating that the author of this article, an ardent proponent of “humanitarian intervention” when the U.S. empire intervenes militarily on that pretext as in Serbia, Kosovo, Syria, Libya, and elsewhere, is able to muster no support at all for Russian intervention in Ukraine to end 8 years of shelling by ultranationalist Banderite maniacs of Russian-speaking Ukrainians — killing at least 14,000 people for the crime of having an ethnic Russian background — and demilitarize and denazify these U.S. proxy forces.

    I leave it to others to discuss the 2014 U.S.-backed violent ouster by these very same proxies of the democratically elected president of Ukraine for committing the unforgiveable crime of guiding Ukrainian geopolitical neutrality through the rada or the 20-year U.S.-led project, including unilateral abrogation of the ABM, INF, and other nuclear weapons treaties, of expanding the NATO military alliance, which is predicated on hostility to the Russian state, onto Russia’s doorstep.

    Russia has offered diplomatic off-ramps to the U.S. on numerous occasions both before and after its Feb. 24 invasion of Ukraine, including as recently as Oct. 14, and the U.S. has ignored, disparaged, or refused to accept them all. In March, Turkey brokered a cease fire that the U.S., via its UK vassal, torpedoed.

    I respect Bob Scheer for allowing American Exceptionalist drivel, in the spirit of free speech, to be published on his website. I hope the author of this article realizes few here will get beyond her first sentence or two.

  14. Pathetic. Julia Tedesco, who did research for the article is equally pathetic. Where is the editorial over-sight? I expect better from Scheerpost.

  15. It is clear from reading Golodh and all the other comments here that we believe what we want to believe, regardless of any arguments we read. If the writer fits our mindset, all the better.
    I appreciate Mr. Scheer including this opinion piece because we have to look beyond our opinions, no matter how brilliant they are, if we are to solve this mess .

  16. @William Sterr

    Valid points I think. Especially Guantanamo Bay. No-one is exactly blameless.

    The issue of Palestine is a difficult one, that of the Golan heights much less so.

    Let’s take the easy one first: the Golan heights. Surely you remember the Yom-Kippur war in which Arab countries launched a surprise attack on Israel with murderous intent. The Golan heights are suitable to mount a defense in, the lowlands which it overlooks much less so.

    This allowed Syria’s overwhelmingly more numerous invading tank army to wage a war of attrition against the Israeli defenders which could only be stopped at great cost. Where other countries might have staged an orderly withdrawl, trading space for time, Israel did not and does not have that luxury. They have the sea at their back. Therefore a defense in place was needed at a tremendous cost of life.

    Syria’s opportunity to strike at Israel’s unprotected lowlands was neutralised when Israel occupied the Golan heights. I believe it is totally unreasonable to ask Israel to sacrifice its security versus Syria by giving up the Golan heights. For this reason I believe the case of the Golan heights is not comparable to that of the Crimea. After all, Russia has no legitimate (or even plausible) security interest in the Crimea so that its occupation can only be viewed as unwarranted and indefensible.

    As to Palestine, I think you have a point. Legally speaking.

    Let’s not forget however that Israel’s legitimate security interests (i.e. the interest not to be conquered and having its population murdered) are quite fragile. Permitting an independent state in Palestine (the West Bank), about 25 km. from Tel-Aviv amidst an Arab world that by and large still has the destruction of Israel as its official policy, does not strike me as a reasonable request. For that reason I reject your suggestion that ‘the West’ ought to remedy that before it has any moral right to object to Russia’s occupation of tracts of Ukrainian territory.

    Generally speaking, I don’t think that pointing to other countries’ faults is a valid excuse for committing one’s own crimes.

  17. This is a really bs article and, in my opinion, far below your standards. From the first paragraph on, it is nothing more than US government propaganda that has seeped from the mainstream media to publications like TomDispatch. It is full of lies and omissions that support the lies. The most egregious is that the USA already has boots on the ground in Ukraine and poised at the border.

  18. There is an off ramp – a complete Russian withdrawal from Ukraine 5 occupied provinces, letting Ukraine make its own decisions with respect to both NATO and the EU, and putting Putin on trial for war crimes, followed by a complete lifting of sanctions on Russia, and negotiations on reparations for the destruction in Ukraine.

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