The Washington PostDemocracy Dies in Darkness

Opinion In its righteous fury, America has sometimes overreached. Don’t make that mistake in Ukraine.

A rally in support of Ukraine on the Brighton Beach boardwalk in Brooklyn. (Michael M. Santiago/Getty Images)
5 min

“Beware the fury of an aroused democracy,” Dwight D. Eisenhower wrote at the beginning of World War II. His warning was apt: The United States would mobilize to defeat both Germany and Japan. But in later years that same warlike impulse would lead us into misbegotten conflicts in Vietnam and Iraq. The fury of an aroused democracy needs to be carefully channeled and controlled lest it draw America into wars that we don’t need and can’t win.

That is a warning worth keeping in mind today as Americans unite in righteous anger at Russia for its invasion of Ukraine. The official U.S. response — arming Ukraine and sanctioning Russia — has been effective. But many want to go much further. There are increasingly loud demands, including from Ukrainian President Volodymyr Zelensky, for the establishment of a no-fly zone. There have even been calls for assassinating Russian dictator Vladimir Putin from those geopolitical savants, Sean Hannity and Sen. Lindsey O. Graham (R-S.C.). Those are all bad ideas that would be likely to backfire.

U.S. attempts to overthrow or kill foreign leaders during the Cold War seldom achieved the results we were aiming for. When such plots failed, as with Fidel Castro, they resulted in embarrassment for the United States and a dangerous escalation of tensions. The Cuban missile crisis was triggered, in part, by a Soviet desire to safeguard its Caribbean client from being ousted by the Kennedy administration. Former New York Times reporter Philip Shenon even argued in his book “A Cruel and Shocking Act” that Cuban agents in Mexico City encouraged Lee Harvey Oswald to murder John F. Kennedy because they knew JFK was trying to kill Castro.

The only thing worse than U.S. plots that failed were those that succeeded: In the Dominican Republic and South Vietnam, the United States backed coup plotters who killed presidents Rafael Trujillo in 1961 and Ngo Dinh Diem in 1963, resulting in instability that eventually drew in U.S. troops.

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What, in this historical record, gives anyone any confidence that the U.S. government could either succeed in killing Putin or in managing the fallout? Loose talk of assassinating the Russian tyrant — especially from a U.S. senator — sacrifices America’s moral high ground and undermines our strategy. We need to make clear to Putin that he is better off withdrawing from Ukraine than fighting to the death. Trying to kill him won’t work and doesn’t help. For the same reason, now is not the time for war crimes prosecutions of Putin. Save him an off-ramp.

A no-fly zone is another extraordinarily dangerous idea. Let’s be clear about what this entails: U.S. aircraft firing on Russian aircraft, radars and surface-to-air missile sites. The Russians would fire back. There would be casualties on both sides, and war fever could easily get out of control. Are we really prepared to go to war with a nuclear-armed state? The United States wisely resisted that temptation during the Cold War even when it meant standing by and watching Russian tanks snuff out rebellions in Hungary in 1956 and Czechoslovakia in 1968. The same calculus applies today.

It’s not even clear how much a no-fly zone would accomplish, since so much of the damage on Ukrainian cities is being inflicted by Russian artillery and rockets, not aircraft. If we really want to protect the Ukrainians, U.S. aircraft would have to attack Russian ground columns. The Russians would then be within their rights to attack the bases those U.S. aircraft were flying from in nearby NATO states. Then we really would be in World War III. And, no, we wouldn’t be saved by former president Donald Trump’s childish suggestion to paint F-22’s — an airplane operated only by the United States — with Chinese flags.

But just because we’re not willing to risk World War III doesn’t mean that we can’t effectively oppose Russian aggression. Look at U.S. support for the Afghan mujahideen in the 1980s. Ukrainian troops are using missiles such as the American-made Stinger to shoot down Russian aircraft. Russia will never be able to claim air supremacy as long as the flow of Stingers continues. Eastern European NATO members should also provide Ukraine with Soviet fighter jets from their arsenals, while the United States should lead the way in embargoing Russian oil.

Some are alarmed that if we don’t get directly involved in fighting Russia, NATO states will be next. But Russia is so bogged down, it’s impossible to imagine Putin attacking anyone else anytime soon. And while Putin is evil, he isn’t suicidal. He is so eager to safeguard his own health that he makes his own aides sit at the end of a preposterously long table. He isn’t going to attack NATO territory, because the result would be a war he couldn’t win — and probably wouldn’t survive.

The U.S. and European reaction to the Russian invasion has sent a clear signal to Putin and other despots such as Xi Jinping: Beware the fury of aroused democracies. Don’t undermine the effectiveness of our current policy with self-sabotaging acts of overreach.