Over the course of 24 hours, a mini-scandal involving progressive lawmakers and a letter of the sort lawmakers send all the time crystallized the lines around how Washington talks about Ukraine.
On Monday, the Washington Post ran an exclusive report on a letter that 30 members of the House Congressional Progressive Caucus (CPC) sent to the White House on Russia-Ukraine policy. They conveyed support for Ukraine and praised President Joe Biden’s efforts in Europe while appealing for more diplomacy, including “redoubling efforts to seek a realistic framework for a ceasefire.”
By the evening, the caucus issued a clarification. The letter’s signatories expressed confusion about the timing of its release, saying it had been written and signed in June and July, and that it had been released without being properly revetted after a long October recess — and after the conditions of the war had changed.
On Tuesday, caucus chair Rep. Pramila Jayapal essentially withdrew the letter. The CPC disavowed it.
Even as many journalists and experts pointed out that much of the letter’s contents echoed parts of President Joe Biden’s own rhetoric or were otherwise anodyne (international affairs professor and Vox contributor Daniel Drezner called it a “giant nothingburger”), critics piled on the members of Congress on social media and picked apart every word of it.
The letter’s call for diplomacy especially drew ire from Russia hawks in the United States, who want to ramp up pressure on President Vladimir Putin and who used the letter as a cudgel to condemn progressives while Ukraine holds its own in the war. Businessman and Russia critic Bill Browder, for example, said the letter “Makes my blood boil.”
Though a negotiated settlement is unlikely to end the war today — Kyiv and Moscow have little interest in that — third-party diplomatic channels have produced small wins around grain transports and prisoner swaps. Set against Putin’s nuclear threats and the potential for a dangerous, uncontrollable escalation, the members sought to keep diplomatic channels open and create new ones.
The congressional sources with whom I spoke couldn’t remember the last time there was so much drama about a letter. But the policy debate about how the United States handles Russia’s war on Ukraine is that intense.
To be clear, the letter and its walk-back do shed light on the lack of coordination among the Congressional Progressive Caucus, an awkward hiccup at a time they could be finding their foreign policy voice. But it says more about how stifled the policy conversation in the US has been about Ukraine.
What was in this letter anyway?
Part of what Politico called a “firestorm” arose from the way that the Washington Post had described the letter, as liberals breaking with the Biden administration. “A group of 30 House liberals is urging President Biden to dramatically shift his strategy on the Ukraine war and pursue direct negotiations with Russia, the first time prominent members of his own party have pushed him to change his approach to Ukraine,” wrote Post reporter Yasmeen Abutaleb.
Except the letter hardly represented a rupture among Democrats.
It was balanced and reserved praise for the Biden administration’s efforts. “We agree with the Administration’s perspective that it is not America’s place to pressure Ukraine’s government regarding sovereign decisions,” the members wrote to Biden. “But as legislators responsible for the expenditure of tens of billions of US taxpayer dollars in military assistance in the conflict, we believe such involvement in this war also 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.”
Even former US Ambassador to Russia Michael McFaul, who served as one of President Barack Obama’s key advisers and has been a staunch supporter of Ukraine, said he agreed with the premise (though didn’t think it would add up to much).
Nevertheless, the call for diplomacy drew outrage, particularly from experts and commentators who think the way to end the war is to put maximum pressure on Putin, or those who pointed out the infeasibility of a negotiated ceasefire right now.
The fracas started over the letter’s coordination and timing. The letter had originally been drafted earlier in the summer before Ukraine’s stunning September counteroffensive, and though Politico reported some lines had been updated, others appeared out of date. (The caucus’s leadership sat on the letter because they wanted to gather a critical mass of signatures, according to two congressional sources.)
It looks bad for the progressive wing of Biden’s party to be criticizing him two weeks before the consequential midterm elections. It also made it look like the progressive cohort was siding with Biden’s congressional adversaries, coming a week after Republican House Minority Leader Kevin McCarthy said that there would be no “blank check” for Ukraine should his party win the midterms, and as billionaire Elon Musk has been floating increasingly outlandish ideas to resolve the war.
On Monday evening, the caucus issued a statement of clarification that emphasized Ukraine’s agency in the members’ diplomatic push. Later, Rep. Mark Pocan (D-WI) said he had signed it in July. “I have no idea why it went out now,” he tweeted. The next morning, Rep. Sara Jacobs (D-CA) tweeted “I signed this letter on June 30, but a lot has changed since then. I wouldn’t sign it today.”
Anatomy of a DC screwup.— Rep. Mark Pocan (@RepMarkPocan) October 25, 2022
In July, Putin started to talk about using nuclear weapons. Some warhawks started to sound off, and many of us wanted to stay the course that Biden was doing, keeping diplomacy on the table. Hence the CPC signed a letter. 1/4https://t.co/6dMAFbDRDj
By Tuesday afternoon, Rep. Jayapal and the caucus walked back the letter entirely. “The proximity of these statements created the unfortunate appearance that Democrats, who have strongly and unanimously supported and voted for every package of military, strategic, and economic assistance to the Ukrainian people, are somehow aligned with Republicans who seek to pull the plug on American support for President Zelensky and the Ukrainian forces,” she wrote.
Where’s the policy debate about Ukraine?
The entire episode shows just how fraught and constricted the policy conversation is around Ukraine.
During his State of the Union address at the war’s onset, Biden explained to the American people why supporting Ukraine is so crucial to America’s national security interests in the world. But he hasn’t really made the case in a substantive way since. (His UN speech last month was directed to a very different audience.) It’s worth reckoning with what sustaining this commitment looks like. The US has sent nearly $18 billion of weapons and military aid to Ukraine since Biden’s term began.
The public exchange of ideas among Washington policymakers hasn’t been robust enough about what it means to provide ammo to a proxy war with one of the United States’s most powerful competitors while doing everything possible to not get more directly involved. In July, a research initiative that had advocated for a more restrained American approach to Ukraine decided to leave the establishment-minded Atlantic Council because the foreign policy think tank apparently did not provide a comfortable home for a diversity of views.
Progressive Democrats should be able to say that Biden has been an effective leader in shepherding European and NATO allies in support of Ukraine and ensuring that the country has the weapons it needs to defend itself from Putin’s offensive, while at the same time putting forward their own policy ideas on what could be improved.
As with any policy proposal, some ideas will be better than others. The “ceasefire” idea, for example, is a long way off. But diplomacy does not only mean hashing out an endgame to the war. Few progressives would say either Russia or Ukraine are ready to negotiate such terms.
Some of those channels are open: Secretary of Defense Lloyd Austin spoke with his Russian counterpart twice in the last week. But progressives think that the US military should not be the primary interlocutor with Russia. To them it’s disappointing that Secretary of State Antony Blinken only held a single phone call with Russian Foreign Minister Sergei Lavrov since Russia launched the war.
A majority of Americans (57 percent) want more diplomacy, according to a recent poll fielded by Data for Progress and the Quincy Institute for Responsible Statecraft.
An early draft of the congressional letter was reviewed by the Quincy Institute, which helped build support for it and has advocated for more avenues of diplomacy outside this letter. “It’s to make sure that we’re using every tool at our disposal to make sure that we don’t miss any opportunity to be able to put an end to this war,” Trita Parsi, the think tank’s executive vice president who has written extensively about US negotiations with Iran, told me. “Because when we’re not talking continuously, there’s a high risk that we do miss those moments. Missing those moments means more people will die, and there will be more escalation.”
But now it’s just a public embarrassment for progressives.
For as long as I can remember, Democrats have struggled to get out a progressive counternarrative, let alone a new vision, on foreign policy. It’s how President Obama lost out to the generals on withdrawing from Afghanistan. It’s how a think tank like the Center for a New American Security, which the Democrats founded in 2007 as a counterweight to the George W. Bush administration’s dominance on national security issues, could over the proceeding 15 years drift closer to the bipartisan defense establishment.
Even as progressives express a cogent, straightforward, and even helpful perspective on Russia-Ukraine, they’ve been drowned out by their own flubs.
“We floated the world’s softest trial balloon about diplomacy, got smacked by the blob” — the Washington foreign policy establishment’s pejorative nickname — “and immediately withdrew under pressure,” a senior congressional aide, speaking anonymously, told me. “I hate the idea that it’s going to look now like progressives are endorsing the idea that diplomacy is appeasement,” they added.
The margins of acceptable debate around Ukraine have narrowed to the point of groupthink. How else could one explain the way that a pretty middle-of-the-road letter saying that diplomacy is an important tool could become Washington’s foreign policy spat of the day?
Unfortunately, the letter, rather than its substance, has become the story. As another senior congressional staffer, speaking on condition of anonymity, emphasized, “It says diplomacy should be on the table, and I think that is still the case.”