No Room For Diplomacy Talk In DC
Progressives sent a letter to the White House calling for diplomacy. Within 24 hours it was withdrawn.
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On Monday, a group of 30 progressives in Congress called on President Joe Biden to take a more diplomatic stance with Russia and encouraged him to engage in direct negotiations between Ukraine and Russia to end the Russian invasion.
Within 24 hours, the letter was withdrawn after widespread, yet arguably misguided, criticism that it both undermined President Biden’s approach to the conflict just weeks before the election and also that it caught many of the letter’s signers off-guard. It was initially drafted and circulated in Congress in June, but wasn’t released publicly until Monday for reasons nobody could really articulate.
The letter, in the eyes of many progressives but even some more moderate liberals, was entirely inoffensive. It encouraged the Biden administration to engage in more meaningful diplomatic efforts with Russia to help de-escalate the nuclear power’s invasion of Ukraine. It reaffirmed their support for Ukraine, and made assurances the lawmakers would still support military aid to Ukraine.
“We are under no illusions regarding the difficulties involved in engaging Russia given its outrageous and illegal invasion of Ukraine and its decision to make additional illegal annexations of Ukrainian territory,” the letter to President Biden read. “However, if there is a way to end the war while preserving a free and independent Ukraine, it is America’s responsibility to pursue every diplomatic avenue to support such a solution that is acceptable to the people of Ukraine. Such a framework would presumably include incentives to end hostilities, including some form of sanctions relief, and bring together the international community to establish security guarantees for a free and independent Ukraine that are acceptable for all parties, particularly Ukrainians.”
While the letter theoretically should have been applauded by people in the West who purportedly are concerned about the wellbeing of Ukrainians, it was, instead, met with criticism and derision.
Rep. Jake Auchincloss (D-MA) called the letter “an olive branch to a war criminal who’s losing his war.”
“This is a betrayal. These Democrats can stand with Marjorie Taylor Greene. I’ll keep standing with Ukraine,” one former Hillary Clinton adviser tweeted.
“So basically, it's now ‘progressive’ to strong arm Ukraine into accepting the loss of part of its country at the hands of a fascist maniac. There is zero chance Putin comes to the table. Bupkis. So this is some really crappy virtue signaling. Terrible job,” a Democratic consultant tweeted, along with a thumbs down emoji.
The numerous other reactions ranged from strident nationalism to insinuations the progressive signatories don’t possess sufficient loyalty to the United States or Ukraine to more militaristic views, with opponents clamoring for more war. I also strongly recommend Jack Crosbie’s piece on how the letter made everyone lose their minds.
It’s critical to underscore that this letter and the broader progressive, anti-war vision are fundamentally not at odds with Ukrainian self-preservation. It did not call for Ukraine to “accept the loss” nor did it constitute a “betrayal” or extend an “olive branch to a war criminal.” No rational person reading it came away with the impression the progressives were siding with Putin or wanted Ukraine to make deep concessions. It called for more of the same with a gentle suggestion that diplomacy remain at the forefront of peoples’ minds—as it should.
“The progressive position on the invasion of Ukraine has been clear from the start: we support the Ukrainian people’s struggle against the Russian government’s illegal, imperialist invasion, and we recognize that the U.S. has a special role to play both in supporting that struggle and in working to reduce nuclear risk in the conflict – a risk borne disproportionately by people in Ukraine,” Sara Haghdoosti, executive director of Win Without War, said. “This letter reflects this position, and emphasizes that during an appropriate diplomatic opening, the U.S. will be an indispensable partner for Ukraine in securing an end to hostilities that preserves Ukrainian sovereignty and prevents further Ukrainian deaths. We look forward to continued collaboration between the White House and congressional progressives to push for a just peace in Ukraine and the pursuit of nuclear risk reduction between the U.S. and Russia.”
Knee-jerk reactions to an incredibly tame suggestion to consider increased diplomatic efforts in the United States’ approach eliminate any room for nuance and create a void of anti-war discussion that Ben Rhodes, former Deputy National Security Advisor under President Barack Obama, warns that Democrats should fill.
“If you don’t create any space for debate in the center here around this policy, you know where all the concerns about the war are going to go,” Rhodes asked on his podcast this week. “To some of the Ukraine stans on Twitter or whatever who just pile on this stuff, you might be creating the outcome you don’t want. Because by punishing anybody who says ‘Let’s have diplomacy,’ the only alternative to your position is […] where Tucker Carlson is.”
The outrage over the letter underscores many Americans’ detachment and subconscious comfort with war abroad. It’s incredibly easy to tweet that you “stand with Ukraine” from your couch in the United States, where you are safe from Russian artillery. From the protection of their homes, they insist on lengthening an already-protracted, bloody conflict that has taken the lives of over 6,300 civilians including over 400 children, and resulted in the deaths of well over 18,000 Ukrainian and Russian soldiers, collectively. Ukraine even claims Russia’s losses are closer to 71,000. Millions of people have been displaced by the fighting and millions more throughout the world are on the brink of starvation as a consequence of the war’s impact on global food prices and Russia’s recently-resumed blockade on grain exports from Ukraine.
“The firestorm of establishment criticism that immediately targeted the letter and led to its retraction shows an unwillingness to allow any mention or discussion of diplomacy in the public discourse. That says something very disturbing and dangerous about the environment in DC today,” Marcus Stanley, Advocacy Director at the Quincy Institute for Responsible Statecraft, told me. “Even as the possibility of nuclear war is being openly discussed, any mention of diplomacy seems to be forbidden in DC.”
A society’s inability to allow any meaningful debate on the role diplomacy can–and ultimately should–have in the larger conversation pertaining to war only guarantees more bloodshed. Dismissing anti-war, pro-diplomacy voices as somehow sympathetic to Russia’s invasion ultimately does a disservice to Ukrainians.
“Negotiations allow two sides to explore whether political goals can be attained peacefully instead of through violent conflict. They do not in any way require ‘surrender’ or ‘appeasement’ or any of the other negative buzzwords used to smear any exploration of diplomatic options. Negotiations can and should be a complement to continued support for Ukraine's self-defense, not a substitute for it,” Stanley said. “Given that informed observers seem to admit that no decisive military victory for either side will occur any time soon, we believe it is vital for diplomatic efforts to be a part of the U.S. approach to this conflict.”
Defense Secretary Lloyd Austin held multiple conversations with Russian Defense Minister Sergei Shoigu over the last week, and, at a press conference on Thursday, expressed his desire to de-escalate the invasion through negotiations.
“We believe that it's important to communicate with our allies and partners and also with our adversaries. As long as we have the channels of communication open and we are able to communicate what's important to us, then I think we have an opportunity to manage escalation,” Austin said.
The United States has already subsidized Ukraine’s efforts to the tune of an estimated $40 billion, with little oversight over or accountability for the fresh stockpile of weapons. Ukraine’s role as a hub in the global arms trade has some concerned about the subsequent violence elsewhere that could be caused as a result.
Weapons manufacturers and defense contractors, however, are profiting mightily off the bloodshed. With much of the aid coming from existing stockpiles, there is now a bipartisan push in the Senate to provide the Pentagon with emergency “wartime procurement powers” so it may sign multi-year contracts with weapons manufacturers to purchase large amount of new weapons and munitions. The two sponsors of the bill, Sen. Jack Reed (D-RI) and Sen. Jim Inhofe (R-OK) have collectively received roughly $1.17 million in campaign contributions from PACs associated with the defense and weapons industries so far this cycle. Both Senators are early in their terms, with each winning reelection in 2020, although Inhofe plans to retire prematurely early next year.
President Biden and Russian President Vladimir Putin are both slated to attend the G20 summit in Indonesia next month, but US officials are reportedly working to prevent the two leaders from crossing paths.
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