The Congressional Progressive Caucus and Ukraine

Yesterday I suggested that the CPC letter calling for Biden to negotiate with Putin was a mistake, and that it was at least partly motivated by a desire to strike a pose for the “utopian blame-America-first segment of the democratic base.”

Events have moved quickly since then.  Rep. Jayapal, the head of the CPC, withdrew the letter.  She said it had been drafted over the summer and then released by staff without being properly vetted.  She apologized for the timing of the letter – it created the impression that Democrats are divided on Ukraine and that some progressives are aligned with the McCarthy faction of the Republican party that wants to cut off aid to Ukraine.  But she defended the substance of the letter, by stating that “every war ends with diplomacy”. 

The letter does seem to have been drafted over the summer.  How it got released now is unclear; at least some of the signers were blindsided.  A good analysis for those wanting a deeper dive is here.

Events have strengthened my view that the letter served no purpose other than pandering to voters who are either 1) critical of everything the United States does in the world or 2) scared about the risk of nuclear war and think that this justifies allowing the Russians to dismember Ukraine, with all that implies in terms of genocide/atrocities in Ukraine and for the stability of the world going forward. 

The pandering hypothesis is supported because other explanations for the letter do not make sense:  1) there is absolutely no reason to think that Biden would not negotiate with Putin if Putin was willing to put a reasonable proposal on the table, 2) if the CPC members were worried that Biden was not open to negotiations, they could have raised this issue privately, rather than making a public statement, 3) if Biden was trying to signal resolve to Putin by refusing to negotiate, making a public statement undercuts his position.  The overarching point here is that foreign policy simply cannot be conducted by Congress, much less by press releases from the CPC.

There is only one non-pandering justification for such a letter than I can see, viz., to push for an immediate settlement of the war on terms favorable to Russia to reduce the risk of a worldwide thermonuclear exchange.  This is not my view, but it’s coherent.  But it’s also not clearly embraced by the CPC.  They do cite the risk of nuclear war to justify their call for negotiations, but they do not explicitly call for Ukrainian capitulation.

I am left with the conclusion that the letter was an effort to shore up support among voters stuck in a “the United States is a colonial power” mindset.  It is also possible that the CPC members were motivated to make a public statement that gestured towards this view because they treat being “progressive” as a distinct identity that impels them to find some way to differentiate themselves from the rest of the party on every issue.  We all do this, but under the circumstances it’s a tendency that should have been resisted.

The final piece of evidence for my interpretation comes from an interview Rep. Ro Khanna gave to CNN.  Khanna is the only member of the CPC I am aware of who has publicly doubled down on his support for the letter.  He also has presidential ambitions, which gives him an incentive to curry favor with primary voters.

Khanna’s stated position in the interview is clearly incoherent.  He emphasizes that he supports military aid to Ukraine and says that we need our military leaders to talk to their Russian counterparts to reduce risk of nuclear war.  That’s fine, but those talks are undoubtedly taking place, and the letter calls for diplomatic negotiations by Biden to end the war.  His focus on nuclear escalation highlights the fact that our interests may differ from those of Ukraine, which as I noted yesterday is potentially true and could justify us pressuring Ukraine to settle on unfavorable terms to reduce the threat of nuclear war.  But this calls his commitment to military aid into question and could undercut efforts to end the war by giving Putin hope that his rope-a-dope strategy might succeed.  Finally, Khanna says we need to debate and discuss foreign policy and that his job requires him to support diplomacy.  Well, of course, but diplomacy is not conducted by press releases from the CPC, and Khanna refuses to openly embrace the only possible substantive disagreement he has with the Biden administration, viz., that the risk of nuclear escalation justifies pressuring Ukraine to settle the war on unfavorable terms.  I disagree with this, and I do not think Khanna accepts it either, but this is a debate that Congress could have.

I am left with pandering.

Finally, I should say that I do not regard this as a major incident that will have profound implications for the course of the war or the upcoming election.  Nor do I see this as a reason to oppose the CPC or a Khanna presidential bid.  We all make mistakes, and politicians sometimes pander in a democracy.  In the grand scheme of things, this is a feature of democracy, not a bug.

However, politicians sometimes can and should resist the temptation to curry favor with misguided voters.  Here, the case for trying to educate voters, or simply remaining silent, was strong. 

And I suppose Rep. Jayapal needs to review her office procedures.