The first step toward ending a war is talking about ending a war.
This week, unfortunately, we learned that even starting that conversation is apparently off-limits.
On Monday, a group of 30 House Democrats sent a letter to President Joe Biden calling for the United States to negotiate directly with Russian President Vladimir Putin in the hopes of ending the war in Ukraine.
Less than 24 hours later, the lawmakers withdrew the letter, apologized for having sent it, and blamed the whole mess on a staffer.
What caused such an abrupt reversal? The letter sparked widespread condemnation from the writers' fellow Democrats, left-wing political strategists, and the foreign policy establishment. It was denounced as a ploy to boost Russian resolve in the face of ongoing Ukrainian advances on the battlefield and a gift to Putin. Sen. Chris Murphy (D–Conn.) called it a "moral and strategic peril" to even suggest negotiation with Putin. "Vladimir Putin would have signed that letter if asked," an unnamed House Democratic leader told Politico.
Based on the reactions and the hasty retreat, you might think that the letter writers had suggested that Ukraine immediately surrender and that America should give Russia whatever Putin wants in order to end the war.
In fact, the letter laid out a reasonable and grounded argument for why the United States should seek to end the war as quickly as possible. Even if nuclear weapons are never unleashed, a war that "is allowed to grind on for years" will displace and impoverish more Ukrainians and will wreak continued havoc on the world's food and energy supplies. In light of those dangers, the letter urged Biden to engage in "vigorous diplomatic efforts in support of a negotiated settlement and ceasefire" to ensure an independent Ukraine.
And contrary to what many of the reactions implied, the letter did not cut Ukraine out of the peace-making process. "It is America's responsibility to pursue every diplomatic avenue to support such a solution that is acceptable to the people of Ukraine," the letter reads. But the lawmakers also pointed out that America's contribution of billions of dollars of weaponry and support to Ukraine's cause "creates a responsibility for the United States to seriously explore all possible avenues, including direct engagement with Russia, to reduce harm and support Ukraine in achieving a peaceful settlement."
There is nothing wrong with any of that. And no one, perhaps least of all progressive Democrats, should be castigated for simply pointing out that diplomacy is essential to ending wars.
Does that mean negotiations with Putin are an ideal solution? Of course not. But the ideal outcome of the war in Ukraine went out the window the moment that Russian tanks rolled across the border.
You don't have to support any particular outcome in negotiations to admit that negotiations should be at least on the table. Yes, Russia should be forced to return the occupied territories that it now claims—the result of sham referendums last month—but the prospect of ending the war ought to be valued above everything else. That's not a concession to Putin, it's a concession to reality.
As the now-retracted letter put it: "The alternative to diplomacy is protracted war, with both its attendant certainties and catastrophic and unknowable risks."
The Biden administration's approach has been to defer to Ukraine when it comes to the question of negotiating with Russia. But Ukraine's interests are not necessarily identical to America's—even if they are aligned in many ways. And if the United States (and other countries) is going to spend public funds to finance the war, then it has a responsibility to its own citizens and taxpayers to consider. How much more is going to be spent? Outsourcing decisions about the war's end to Kyiv creates a potentially open-ended obligation, with diminishing benefits to Americans—except those working for defense contractors and weapons manufacturers.
Again, this week's backlash wasn't a negative response to any specific agreement for how the war would end—any such negotiation will have to be judged on its own merits—but merely against the concept of negotiating. That's insane.
"Clearly, the time to negotiate is not now. But it will come," Emma Ashford, a senior fellow at the Stimson Center (and a Reason contributor) wrote on Twitter. "And if every attempt to broach the topic, or to discuss the parameters under which the US might push for a settlement is shouted down, then we may miss or squander that opportunity when it does arise."
If we can't talk about how to end the war, the war won't end.