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Congress Is Grappling With the Wrong Questions on Ukraine

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Beavers is Vice President of Public Affairs at Quincy Institute for Responsible Statecraft; Moyn is Non-Resident Fellow with the Quincy Institute for Responsible Statecraft and Professor of History at Yale University

Last week, Members of Congress took two votes on U.S. involvement in the war in Ukraine, and the outcomes were radically different. These votes illustrated something peculiar about the politics of war: while there is considerable room to challenge how humanely war is conducted, it remains politically fraught to work towards ending war itself.

The first vote was a quite tepid proposal led by Representative Warren Davidson (R-OH) that would have required the Biden administration to submit a strategy to Congress that included potential diplomatic pathways to facilitate a negotiated settlement to the war. As a mild enforcement mechanism, this proposal conditioned a relatively small percentage of Ukraine aid in the NDAA (amounting to about $300 million) on the administration’s production of such a report. This proposal was soundly rejected, with only 129 Members — all of them Republicans — voting in support.

By contrast, a separate proposal to restrict the transfer of cluster munitions to Ukraine secured a surprisingly solid bipartisan vote count. This outcome was particularly notable given last-minute maneuvering from House leadership late Wednesday night that appeared as a blatant attempt to sabotage the proposal’s success. A broad bipartisan proposal to ban cluster munitions anywhere was replaced by a Republican-only measure that banned only transfers to Ukraine and was led by Representative Marjorie Taylor Greene (R-GA). Despite the eleventh hour switcheroo, which almost certainly diminished some support, 49 Democrats and 98 Republicans still joined to support, although the measure fell short of passage.

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Opposition to transferring cluster munitions is not a radical position. Those weapons, which are banned in a treaty ratified by over a hundred nations, are notoriously inhumane, not just in the immediate damage they inflict by spewing grenades in a large blast radius. They also leave some percentage of unexploded ordnance for years, for civilians to trip over unawares. The Defense Department initially offered assurances that America’s are new and improved, before its own statements proved how frequently the very grenades we are sending fail to explode immediately.

To be sure, constraining how war is fought is important work and not a diversion. But our political leaders must scrutinize and challenge not just the means and methods of killing, but also the killing itself. When states banned explosive bullets in the nineteenth century, pacifist Russian Leo Tolstoy asked: “Why are a wound and death from an explosive bullet any worse than a wound caused by the simplest kind?”

Many Americans and their elected representatives seem to think reducing brutality in war excuses them from asking more fundamental questions about it. This politics came into its own during America’s war on terror, when the biggest controversies tended to concern not why, where, and for how long our wars were fought, but how detainees were treated or whether drones and missiles killed too many civilians.

This legacy continues in the current era even for those members of Congress who, to their credit, did mobilize during Trump’s presidency to withdraw American support from Saudi Arabia’s bloody war in Yemen. Back then, legislators were not just opposed to this or that weapon, but American connivance with an immoral war itself. They spearheaded a resolution to declare that involvement in violation of our War Powers Resolution of 1973 — one of the last remnants of the Vietnam concern with war itself that has been reduced to tatters. Yet this week, many of those same legislators only went as far as calling for a bit more humanity in the Ukraine war.

Perhaps they are right to do so, of course: unequivocally, Ukraine is not Yemen and the U.S. is neither aiding the aggressor in this case nor capable of unilaterally ending the conflict. As Matt Duss argued at the beginning of the conflict, there is a moral case for assisting Ukraine in its struggle. But it is also clearer than ever that the war increasingly resembles a proxy war. A year later, there is also a moral case for recognizing that the war is as stalemated now as it has been nearly from its earliest days. It is increasingly obvious that a negotiated peace is the only answer, something the humanization of the war does nothing to bring nearer. Indeed, it may function to postpone that peace. President Biden commented the other day that the Ukraine war is likely to be long, assuming current policy continues.

In this perspective, while cluster munitions are vile, the debate around them is highly misleading. The side in favor of using them insists they will radically transform a quagmire into a Ukrainian victory. Those against insist that no calculus should permit certain tactics, even if they might advance a military cause. Neither side is prioritizing a negotiated settlement, and another endless war — however humane — is likely to be the result.

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