In an episode that could have hardly been more emblematic of the present state of US left-liberalism, the Congressional Progressive Caucus published, then retracted within fewer than 24 hours, a joint letter that putatively called on President Biden to seek a diplomatic resolution to the war between Russia and Ukraine.

Among the many glacier-sized ironies associated with this episode is the fact that even if the letter had just been left to stand, it would have been essentially meaningless. The furor was set off when The Washington Post described it as a demand by House progressives for a “dramatic shift” in Ukraine policy. Few seemed to have actually read the letter before emoting about it. Those who did would have quickly realized that the letter—again, pre-retraction—was effectively an endorsement of the policy status quo. Signatories reaffirmed their enduring support for the “military and economic support the United States has provided to Ukraine,” while merely “urging” that this “support” be “paired” with a “proactive diplomatic push.”

Note that “urging” isn’t the same as “taking actual legislative action to compel,” something that the letter’s signatories indicated zero desire to do, despite the vast array of legislative mechanisms potentially at their disposal to exert influence on Ukraine policy. But that’s the thing: as Progressive Caucus chairwoman Pramila Jayapal desperately rushed to clarify, if one simply looks at the text, “nothing in the letter advocates for a change” in the current US policy of “unequivocal commitment to supporting Ukraine”—i.e., the whole suite of appropriations and authorities that have been granted to Biden so he can unilaterally run the war effort.

Despite its fundamental inconsequentiality, the letter may have given signatories the ability to claim they were “pushing” for diplomacy, even if this “pushing” amounted to little more than a toothless, face-covering p.r. maneuver. Still, it was something they could perhaps cite to constituents who might wonder what they are doing about Biden’s warning that nuclear armageddon fast approaches.

Rep. Mark Pocan reassured a worried supporter that the letter he signed was most certainly not about “criticizing Biden” for his warmaking efforts, because Pocan has long “supported the efforts” and “will continue” to do so. The letter was conceived as a statement “defending the president's approach,” Pocan later added, “rather than altering course.” In other words, Pocan expressly disclaimed any intent to take substantive legislative action with regard to Ukraine policy, such as, theoretically, conditioning continued provision of “aid” to Ukraine on the Biden administration setting forth some concrete plan for diplomatic engagement. By all accounts, the letter was intended by signatories as a restatement of their commitment to indefinitely supporting Ukraine appropriations, with a few polite suggestions thrown in for Biden to ignore at will.

The toothlessness of the letter is all the more glaring because back in May, the very same Progressive Caucus concluded that “logistical support and intelligence sharing” by the United States for a different war constitutes “unauthorized US military involvement,” and introduced a War Powers Resolution to restrict Biden’s ability to continue facilitating that “involvement.” This had to do with Saudi Arabia’s war in Yemen, however, not Ukraine. It’s become increasingly permissible to criticize Riyadh in harsh terms after decades of bipartisan consensus, even as Ukraine policy has undergone the opposite trend. Naturally, the Saudi resolution has also gone nowhere in the months since it was introduced, but at least it was a tangible invocation of Congress’ authority to exert oversight in relation to foreign policy. Apparently lost on all involved is that the current US military intervention in Ukraine fits the same criteria progressives denounced with respect to Yemen, and would therefore be equivalently “unauthorized.” But the progressives would never dream of speaking about US policy in Ukraine such a manner.

Even before the letter was retracted Tuesday afternoon, White House spokesman John Kirby verified its fundamental pointlessness when he condescendingly informed the signatories that he “appreciates their very thoughtful concerns.” However, Kirby advised, they should be aware it remains US policy that “Zelensky gets to determine, because it’s his country, what success looks like and when to negotiate.” That Washington has dispersed approximately $9 billion in “direct budgetary support” to Ukraine for the maintenance of the most basic government services, such as paying public-employee salaries and pensions, apparently has no bearing on Zelensky’s eternal “sovereignty” to make relevant governmental decisions.

Also before the letter was officially retracted, signatory Rep. Mark Takano swiftly mobilized to proclaim that he “will continue to support appropriations to aid Ukrainian self-determination,” because “only Ukrainians have a right to determine the terms by which this war ends.” Increasingly, the top officials of the Ukrainian government are leaving no ambiguity whatsoever about those “terms.” In an address on Oct. 24 to mark the eight-month anniversary of the war’s start, Volodymyr Zelensky declared, “All of Ukraine will be free.” By this, he specified that he was referring to not just “Donbas, Kharkiv Oblast, Kherson,” but also “Zaporizhzhia Oblast and Crimea, as well.”

Hence, the “terms” to which the Progressive Caucus has now bound itself would require accepting a scenario few considered plausible when the invasion was first launched in February—that US intervention would eventually be marshaled so far as to enable a full-fledged Ukrainian military offensive in Crimea. This had once been seen as among the scenarios whereby Vladimir Putin could decide Russian territory was under “existential threat” and use nuclear weapons in response.

Any legislator who genuinely would like to effectuate a shift in current US policy on Ukraine could demonstrate this by doing something novel: taking legislative action. But almost no member of Congress is really doing this. And yes, that includes Republicans, some of whom have marginally modified their rhetorical posture in recent months by professing superficial partisan criticisms of Biden’s war management. In substantive policy terms, though, they give scant indication they would ultimately do anything of significance to alter the status quo.

Hearts across DC went aflutter when Kevin McCarthy, the potentially incoming speaker of the House, vaguely suggested that Republicans would not give Biden a “blank check” on further Ukraine appropriations if the party wins a majority next month. At the same time, McCarthy is going around the country delivering stump speeches in which he elaborately expounds on his theory that Putin is the modern-day Hitler. The idea that McCarthy, in conjunction with Sen. Mitch McConnell, would suddenly cease appropriations for the Ukraine war effort is not sustained by any real evidence. Vaguely gesturing against the idea of a “blank check” is not some iron-clad resolution to oppose writing a check of any kind. Adding another layer of irony to the whole Progressive Caucus saga, the progressives cited McCarthy’s nonexistent repudiation of Ukraine appropriations as a factor compelling them to retract the letter and announce an even more radicalized, hard-line stance on the war. Bipartisan fakery piled on top of bipartisan fakery.

Speaking of bipartisanship, Sens. Jack Reed and James Inhofe recently slipped a gloriously bipartisan amendment into the forthcoming National Defense Appropriations bill that would grant the Defense Department “emergency” procurement powers, designed for “wartime,” so contracts can be more expeditiously brokered with the weapons manufacturers to drastically accelerate the provision of munitions to Ukraine (and, simultaneously, Taiwan). This move has the quality of being actual, tangible legislative action, so it’s not likely that the House progressives have even heard about it, and even less likely that they would fathom taking legislative action of their own to counter it. Because, as they have now gone out of their way to make abundantly clear, they are enthusiastic backers of the current policy mix.

“Progressives tend to be among the most fervid backers of this ... military intervention.”

Jamie Raskin, the House Progressive Caucus member who was presumably the most horrified to find his name had been attached to the excessively pro-diplomacy letter, soon after released a statement that elucidates the moral and political prism through which progressives are being instructed to view the Russia-Ukraine conflict. Raskin reproaches “progressive and liberal people” who exhibit the “colonialist reflex” whereupon they would seek to exert any influence at all over US policy in Ukraine. What all right-minded progressives must understand, Raskin exhorts, is that Moscow is a “world center of antifeminist, antigay, anti-trans hatred, as well as the homeland of replacement theory for export. In supporting Ukraine, we are opposing these fascist views, and supporting the urgent principles of democratic pluralism.” That the current government of Ukraine embodies “the urgent principles of democratic pluralism” is demonstrated, per Raskin, by the fact that “a woman serves as deputy minister of defense” and “sexual minorities are represented within the Ukrainian armed forces.” If there is a more beautifully distilled encapsulation of why self-proclaimed progressives tend to be among the most fervid backers of this particular US military intervention, no one has yet produced it.

In one sense, it may be for the best that the Progressive Caucus ensnared itself in this farcical letter-retracting episode. Pursuant to the melodramatic press release in which they “hereby withdraw” the letter, the progressives explicitly professed their staunch opposition to diplomacy, declaring that diplomacy could only be conceivably entertained “after Ukrainian victory.” This means diplomacy is to be outright abandoned as a method for achieving any cessation in hostilities—replaced with a tenacious, uncompromising zeal to inflict total military defeat on Russia. As such, the progressives are also fully on board with whatever hard-line, maximalist war objective Zelenksy and his government officials demand next. (One of Zelensky’s top advisers, Andrii Yermak, recently dismissed the possibility of negotiations with Moscow on the ground that his would-be Russian colleagues are “cavemen” who “only understand the language of power.”)

In the name of defending Ukraine’s “national sovereignty,” the progressives now officially resolve to pretend indefinitely that the “sovereign” decision-making power in this warfare arrangement is somehow not in the possession of the United States—i.e., the government that is single-handedly sponsoring, bankrolling, and operationally coordinating a foreign belligerent’s sprawling war effort against the country with the world’s largest nuclear arsenal.

That the United States could even be in the position to purportedly delegate “sovereign” authority to Ukraine over diplomatic, strategic, and military decisions just further demonstrates that the ultimate decision-making authority in fact resides in Washington, DC, and not the Eastern European capital formerly known as “Kiev.” And the Biden administration is therefore exercising its own “sovereign” discretion to pursue increasingly maximalist war aims, notwithstanding a level of nuclear risk that Biden himself says is comparable to the Cuban Missile Crisis. Passionate support for this policy approach was basically always the progressives’ position, but their p.r. blunder has helpfully clarified things for anyone who might have been confused.

Michael Tracey is a contributing editor of Compact.


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