Hawks and Doves: How Past US Presidential Administrations set the stage for Russia’s Invasion of Ukraine

© The Ukrainian Week

Article by Bogdan Tsupryk, analyst. The Ukrainian Week

NATO expansion is also a vital American interest, as they need new strong allies who will revitalise the alliance in Europe.

A History of Hawk ‘recessions’

After a few relatively calm decades in military foreign policy following the Vietnam withdrawal in 1973 under president Richard Nixon, who was undoubtedly a foreign policy hawk, the war effort and Nixon lost their public approval. In fact, already four years prior to the withdrawal in 1969, around 60% of all age groups in the US believed that the war should not have taken place, compared to 20-30% three years prior. Despite the importance of anti-communist measures globally, the war was unpopular for its brutality as well as its cost, both in terms of human life and economic resources. Nixon subsequently initiated a withdrawal from Vietnam in 1973, eventually leading to the rapid collapse of the South Vietnamese government by 1975. 

After a series of hawkish presidencies (i.e. Johnson and Nixon) and the withdrawal from Vietnam, came the demand for a more dovish president. Jimmy Carter’s election in 1976 as president was the imminent reaction of the electorate. As a president at the time and to this day, he is viewed as one of the most dovish US presidents in modern history. Nevertheless, due to the energy crisis of the late 1970’s, he was replaced by a more hawkish competitor – Ronald Reagan, who took to the confrontation of the Soviet Union, technologically as well as economically. So long as major military failures and their negative economic consequences would be avoided, hawks had all the odds to get re-elected. This was characterised by several decades of relative peace following the Vietnam war (without major conflicts involving the US alone). Ofcourse, involvement in the Gulf War under George H. W. Bush was a success, as Saddam Hussein’s forces were defeated in Kuwait. The fall of the Soviet Union and end of the Cold War reduced the demand for a more aggressive foreign policy (at least, so it seemed) and Bill Clinton, an undoubtedly more dovish candidate, won the 1992 election. For a time, there was a deceitful feeling that the end of history had arrived, as communism collapsed globally and one would think that the entire world would be taken over by liberal democracy.

It is only after the long years of war in Iraq and Afghanistan starting in 2003 and 2001 respectively, had public opinion changed once again, in favour of more dovish policies. For example, American and British public support for military action against Iraq in 2003 was 54%, in 2015 – only 37%.  Likewise, Some 70% of Americans supported a US troop withdrawal from Afghanistan.  

We can hence outline two major waves of hawk versus dove fluctuations since the Vietnam war. After failure in Vietnam, there was a ‘hawk recession’ in public opinion which led to Carter’s presidency. A second hawk ‘peak’ could be seen during George W Bush’s two terms from 2000 to 2008 (the age of counter-terrorism), leading to Barack Obama’s first term. In fact, Barack Obama was accredited to his early anti-war stances shortly after the Afghanistan war in the early 2000’s and duly rewarded by his success in his presidential campaign. During his presidency, Obama initiated some of the most substantial defence budget cuts – leading to the lowest manpower of the US military since World War Two. This can be seen as the second ‘hawk recession’. 

‘Hawk recessions’ have proven to encourage tyrannical opportunists – a time for US foreign policy concessions. Emboldened by a seemingly careless US foreign policy, Russia annexed Crimea from Ukraine and invaded the Donbas region in 2014. An even more careless Europe (their defence spending even as NATO members were mostly well below the 2% mark set) contributed to the appeasement of Russia, encouraging the authoritarian regime to continue to come up with new demands after every concession. Following the waning of US foreign policy under Obama, things seemed to be going the same direction under Trump, despite an annual increase in the federal defence budget. Trump was reluctant to help Ukraine as well as put more effort into fighting against Assad in Syria, and was constantly bickering with his advisors on options to pull out of Syria, Afghanistan, Iraq and other regions of US operations. Under Trump, there was no resurgence in foreign policy, but rather a continuation of Obama’s downward spiral.

Afghanistan Withdrawal, the last step before the war in Ukraine  

Not only was this one of the most defining moments of the Biden administration, but also Trump’s (he decreed a withdrawal from Afghanistan). It was no secret that Trump (as described in John Bolton’s memoir The Room Where It Happened) often held isolationist views and was willing to withdraw from Afghanistan, Syria and Iraq without careful consideration of the implications this would bring. It can be easy to imagine that public regret on America’s Afghanistan strategy would have increased since the withdrawal. After all, the US spent 2.3 trillion USD to keep the Taliban out for exactly 20 years. Without a long lasting permanent regime change and over 2400 troops killed, it would be quite logical that the American public would look towards various forms of isolationism to avoid such mistakes in the future.

Similar concessions could be seen elsewhere under Trump’s administration. Without any concrete demands in hand, Trump wanted to be in the spotlight by being the first president to meet a North Korean leader, as well as the first to meet and sign a peace deal with the Taliban. The same Taliban, that was essentially labelled a terrorist group just some years back. This was in fact, a zig-zag in foreign policy that projected weakness (Trump’s advisers warned against any such meetings unless certain conditions were met prior). At this rate, perhaps the next administration would recognise Crimea as part of Russia, one would never know. Trump seemed to be more worried about his media coverage rather than US strategic stances on Russia, China and the Middle East. For example, countless military strikes by Iran in Yemen went unanswered. In fact, Trump was eager to withdraw from as many places as possible, as long as he would not be publicly associated with the suffering of US troops abroad. Thus, US foreign policy was in full retreat, especially in the Middle East. As of April 2022, it can be said that the ‘hawk recession’ is very much alive and shows no signs of waning from the time of its origin in 2009, following Obama’s election. 

The Biden administration’s withdrawal had the US army leaving 80 billion USD of equipment in Afghanistan – first at the hands of the Afghan army, which then almost instantly surrendered to the Taliban following the US withdrawal thereby leaving all the weapons with the Taliban. To put this in retrospect in terms of military aid, Biden’s cabinet seems to think that the announcement of a new 800 million USD military package for Ukraine will be seen as a big deal (versus 80 billion). It is clear which of the two countries actually deserved more equipment and military aid.

US Public Opinion in 2022 and its effect on foreign policy

All in all, it may seem that the last three presidencies show that the public demand for hawks may not be around the corner at all. With Ukraine being the most critical military conflict since World War Two on European soil, to say that the Biden administration is not doing enough, would be a grave understatement. However, such are the consequences of failures in Afghanistan and the costly presence in Iraq. George W. Bush exhausted the American public’s patience for military interventions, and as it seems, Americans are still recovering. Only 17% of Americans support giving Ukraine all it wants (despite overall support for Ukraine), if it risks an open confrontation with Russia – as it has only been a few months since the failure in Afghanistan. The betrayal of the thousands of Afghans who worked with the US military will torment many veterans’ minds for years to come. Vladimir Putin chose this window of opportunity, as the US was startled with internal issues upon drawing conclusions of the war in Afghanistan. 

As a democracy, where presidential approval rating ultimately decides the president’s near future, policy would always be constrained by the public factor. Russia, being an authoritarian state, does not have this constraint at all. This means that US foreign policy would be put at a great disadvantage and Ukraine would not receive the help it deserves.

Overall, military conflicts involving the US, dictate American public opinion, depending on their costs and outcomes. Following a series of costly wars with limited success in Iraq and Afghanistan, public regret has been sitting at an all-time high. The three previous administrations were constrained by this factor, in addition to a personal lack of determination to pursue a bold foreign policy. Not only did this not prevent Russia’s invasion of Ukraine in 2022, but set the perfect conditions for it. Over-compensating through isolationism as a form of populism in reaction to previous unsuccessful interventions has never worked for the US, and it surely is not working now. The best way forward is not to draw virtual ‘red lines’ which Russia does not pay any attention to, but provide direct military assistance to Ukraine. Moreover, the scale of military assistance must be increased exponentially to bring it on par with the billions that were spent in Afghanistan. 

The moment US foreign policy ceases to be a bluff, would be the moment that peace would get its fair chance. How could four US presidents (including hawkish Bush) drop the ball with Russia? Not only is this a foreign policy failure, but a colossal failure of judgement by four US presidents. After war crimes during Putin’s first term in Chechnya, Georgia, Syria and Ukraine (2014), surely, this would have signalled a time to change the ‘management’ strategy of Russia’s tyranny? The strategy remained the same. ‘As long as things stay calm till the end of my term, this is the next administration’s problem’ is perhaps the line of thinking here by all four US presidents. 

A Bold Foreign Policy Strategy aimed at Russia is synonymous with American Interests

In 2008, the Bucharest NATO summit was inconclusive on Georgia’s and Ukraine’s membership aspirations. Weakened by a lack of political will as well as German/French reluctance, the Ukrainian government did not take any further steps towards a NATO membership despite the doors being kept ‘open’ by the alliance. Nevertheless, US president George W. Bush was optimistic on the matter. The failure to join NATO ultimately led to years of political turmoil and war with Russia. The US and its NATO partners, did not take major steps into strengthening its presence in Ukraine, as it pursued a policy of appeasement of Russia, despite the constant threat it posed.

John McCain, one of Ukraine’s greatest American friends and an opponent of the appeasement policy of Russia, has warned America and the world of the threat Russia poses. For years, he has been pleading for more weapons to be delivered to Ukraine and often expressed shame for how little the US was doing for the country, despite not hesitating to spend billions in the Middle East on the most sophisticated equipment. Without a doubt, he would not hesitate to provide all the help he could to Ukraine in this difficult moment had he been given a chance. He would also likely pursue a radically different ‘deterrence policy’ on Russia in the months prior to the invasion. It is likely that alternative prior conditions to the invasion would have prevented this bloodshed. Had Russia understood that Ukraine had the absolute full backing of the US (this was never made clear by the US) before the 24th of February 2022, lives would have been saved. It seems though, back in 2008 as well as now, the American public does not want an experienced and ruthless leader like McCain to truly confront global threats like Russia when it really matters. Democracies must rethink about how to defend themselves and their democratic allies around the world, as authoritarian regimes continue to exploit them through higher risk-taking approaches while democracies remain hesitant and inactive. 

Only in 2018, under the command of general James Mattis, then Secretary of Defence, had the Pentagon put Russia on the National Defence Strategy as a global threat. More often than not, there was incohesion between the Pentagon and the White house (not only under Trump’s presidency), as military advisers often seeked immediate reaction on numerous provocations by America’s adversaries but the White House would be reluctant to execute. 

It is obvious now that Russia should have been the main focus of any national defence strategy. China, while being an adversary to the US economically and politically, has not violated international law like Russia did. Yes, China is known for its countless human rights violations, but it has not yet poisoned its defectors or brutally invaded its neighbouring countries. In fact, the last time China was at war was in 1979, when a large-scale border clash with Vietnam ended in a stalemate. Overall, the lack of focus on Russia as an adversary by four presidencies was fatal. Four presidencies turned a blind eye on Vladimir Putin’s numerous atrocities in the almost regular wars he initiated. The cost of procrastination in opposing the Russian threat went up with every year.

Now, after almost two months of the war in Ukraine, 1.7 billion worldwide may be on the brink of starvation (Africa and Middle-East in particular). The US, which helped form a global economy after World War Two, will undoubtedly feel the side-effects of this catastrophe. Starvation will lead to more extremism and terrorism in unstable countries that were the focus of US foreign policy. The interests of a smart foreign policy should be the treatment of the root of cause of this now global crisis – Russia. It is Russia that is the number one threat to the current global order. A global order that has been beneficial to the US as it tops the world both in terms of its economy and military power. Working with Europe in matters and security will only strengthen the US, as it will not only provide the diversification of energy sources for both the US and Europe, but will also provide an augmented global trade order favourable for the US. In essence, NATO expansion is also a vital American interest, as they need new strong allies who will revitalise the alliance in Europe.