I've been a harsh critic of U.S. foreign policy, and especially of analysts who favor the aggressive use of military force in the conduct of U.S. foreign policy, for a long time now.
But Russia's invasion of Ukraine is different. For the first time in two decades, I find myself allied with neoconservatives and liberal internationalist hawks. Not on everything — and especially not with those who favor imposing a no-fly zone over Ukraine, which I think would quickly and recklessly precipitate a war between NATO and Russia. But on much else, I now stand shoulder to shoulder with many of the same people with whom I've passionately disagreed since the early days of the War on Terror.
Have they changed or have I? The answer, I think, is that neither of us have. What's changed is the character of our antagonist. What worked during the Cold War once again fits the situation in which we find ourselves, whereas that same approach was terribly ill-suited to the enemy we faced during the years following 9/11. It's important to understand this difference and what it tells us about the challenges that likely await us over the coming months and years.
I came to political self-awareness during the 1980s and was quite supportive of President Ronald Reagan's reintensification of the Cold War. That isn't to say I was a full-spectrum teenaged hawk. I've never considered the Vietnam War anything other than a colossal blunder and tended to think many of our military interventions in Latin America during the 1970s and 1980s were counterproductive. But Reagan's sharp increases in defense spending, deployment of missiles to Europe, and rhetorical confrontation with the "evil empire" of the Soviet Union seemed reasonable to me at the time.
The Cold War was broadly continuous with the conclusion of the Second World War. That meant the United States needed to guarantee the security of a militarily obliterated Western Europe and Japan, both of which quickly faced powerful geopolitical threats — the former from the Soviet Union, and the latter from both the USSR and (within a few years) China. With both communist countries animated by an expansionist ideology dedicated to the destruction of the political and economic order of what became known as "the free world," conflict was inevitable and vigilance backed up by the threat of military force essential.
On the basis of these strategic assumptions, there was plenty of room for disagreement about tactics. Did fighting on the side of South Korea against totalitarian North Korea make sense? How about risking nuclear war over the deployment of Soviet missiles to Cuba? Or defending the government in Saigon against Ho Chi Minh's communist guerrilla movement in Vietnam? Or using the CIA to help foment a coup against the elected government of socialist Salvador Allende in Chile? And so forth. The judgment call could vary in particular cases. But the underlying principle remained intact: Communist regimes were adversaries that posed a serious geostrategic threat to the United States and its allies around the globe.
That threat vanished with the fall of the Iron Curtain and then collapse of the Soviet Union. What followed was a decade of low-stakes global police work — the first Gulf War and ongoing effort to enforce UN resolutions against Iraq's Saddam Hussein, a belated NATO intervention to stop bloodletting in the Balkans, and halfhearted attempts to respond to the rise of global terrorism.
With 9/11, the terrorism that had been considered a nuisance through the 1990s instantly transformed into what felt like an existential threat to civilization itself. This gave renewed focus to American foreign policy, which now aimed at stamping out terrorism around the world.
President George W. Bush described the distinctive character of this new War on Terror in an address to Congress nine days after the World Trade Center and Pentagon were attacked: "Americans should not expect one battle, but a lengthy campaign, unlike any other we have ever seen. It may include dramatic strikes, visible on TV, and covert operations, secret even in success. We will starve terrorists of funding, turn them one against another, drive them from place to place, until there is no refuge or no rest."
I strongly supported this approach to fighting groups that aspired to execute attacks like those undertaken on Sept. 11, 2001 — along with our invasion of Afghanistan later that fall. The Taliban government had allowed Osama bin Laden and Al Qaeda to use the country as a staging ground for the attacks. When they refused to hand over the terrorists, we had to try and capture them ourselves and ensure the country would never again offer such groups a safe haven.
But beyond that? I assumed we would mainly be focusing on substate actors within countries, not invading and occupying countries themselves. To do the latter would be to make a category error — to forget that our opponents were subnational groups, not nations. Precisely that slippage appeared within a matter of months. In Bush's 2002 State of the Union address, the president spoke of an "Axis of Evil" in the world that consisted of countries (Iraq, Iran, and North Korea), not terrorist groups.
Now, instead of merely going after Al Qaeda and similar groups with a combination of intelligence gathering, surveillance, surgical military strikes, police investigations, and regulatory reforms designed to disrupt terrorist networks and financing, we would be toppling governments that supposedly posed too much of a threat and helping to transform them into liberal democracies. This would supposedly eliminate adversaries, deprive terrorists of state support, and even create new allies in the battle against Islamic extremism.
In each case, invading and deposing the bad guy's government proved to be a cakewalk, accomplished in a matter of days or a few short weeks. But in each case, that initial victory proved to be the easy part, which should have surprised no one. Breaking things is always easier than building them — and, it turns out, nothing is more challenging in politics than building a functional and stable liberal-democratic government from scratch.
It was my discomfort with the ambition to do precisely this that kept me a critic of hawkish foreign policy on down through President Biden's poorly executed withdrawal from Afghanistan this past summer after nearly 20 years. Yet, here I am just a few months later, favoring a strong response to Russia's invasion of Ukraine. That includes strong support for the crippling sanctions the West has imposed on Russia as well as for the weapons systems we have made available to Ukraine in their struggle with a formidable adversary.
Why the change? Because, even aside from the fact of Russia's centrality to both the Cold War and the current crisis, the Ukraine invasion marks a return to a world primarily dominated by competition and hostility among states. Such a world resembles the Cold War, but also the world that preceded the Cold War.
In that kind of world, the old rules of statecraft apply. Russia is the clear aggressor at the moment. Its actions are a serious threat to the countries of NATO, with which we are treaty allies. That means we have a serious stake in the outcome of the conflict. If Russia is permitted to prevail at minimal cost, NATO will be threatened next. At the same time, Russia is a nuclear armed power, which makes our involvement much riskier than it would otherwise be.
Hence our debates over how, and how much, to help Ukraine. Should we impose a no-fly zone? Or facilitate the transfer of MiG fighter jets from Poland to the Ukrainian military? And what about other weapons systems and forms of involvement?
As it was during the Cold War, I tend to be more restrained than many — hence my strong opposition to imposing a no-fly zone over Ukraine. But even many hawks agree with me on this. Others, meanwhile, are less concerned about such a potentially catastrophic series of events. I think these latter analysts are wrong, sometimes dangerously so, but the disagreement is nothing like the one that divided us for much of the past 20 years. As it was during the Cold War, we agree once again on strategy and principle while departing mainly on prudential judgment about tactics.
That's a big change — and one that I wholeheartedly welcome, if for no other reason than it allows for the maintenance of the broadest possible coalition in defense of our allies and in opposition to the threat Russian President Vladimir Putin's tyranny poses to us all.