Politics

What Were the Progressives Thinking?

Their letter to President Joe Biden on Ukraine raises some questions.

Rep. Pramila Jayapal (D-WA) speaks during a news conference with the Capitol and a cloudy sky behind her.
Why, Pramila Jayapal? Why? Drew Angerer/Getty Images

It’s hard to know whether to laugh or cry at the pathetic stab at foreign-policy oversight by the progressive wing of the House Democrats this week.

First, on Monday, 30 of its roughly 100 members sent President Joe Biden a letter on the war in Ukraine that wavered between an empty-headed muddle and a sellout to Vladimir Putin. Then, on Tuesday, the chair of the caucus, Rep. Pramila Jayapal—who was also the letter’s top signatory—issued a statement withdrawing the letter and blaming the whole business on “staff.”

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“The letter was drafted several months ago, but unfortunately was released by staff without vetting,” the Democratic congresswoman from Washington explained. This sidesteps the fact that the letter was dated Oct. 24. She should also know that it is very un-progressive to blame workers for the mistakes of their bosses.

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Even in her withdrawal, she exuded no understanding of what was so dreadful about the letter to begin with. She claimed that she was pulling the letter only because its message was “being conflated by some as being equivalent to the recent statement by Republican Leader McCarthy threatening an end to aid to Ukraine if Republicans take over”—when, in fact, “nothing could be further from the truth.”

Yet, though the letter wasn’t as pernicious as McCarthy’s pronouncement last week—he said the U.S. will no longer give Ukraine a “blank check” if the GOP takes Congress in November—it came close.

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Addressed to President Biden, the letter urged him to “make vigorous diplomatic efforts in support of a negotiated settlement and ceasefire” in Ukraine. It also noted that the war has spurred “inflation and high oil prices for Americans in recent months” (a passage that belies Jayapal’s claim that the letter was written “several months ago”) and that, “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” toward a peaceful settlement, “including direct engagement with Russia.”

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Whatever this group of progressives’ intentions in writing or signing the letter, Putin would certainly take it as encouragement to hang on and keep fighting. The war is, in some ways, a struggle for time: The Ukrainians, who are on a counteroffensive roll, hope that the next shipments of Western arms might help them achieve an outright victory; Putin, who knows that many Westerners still rely on Russian oil and gas, hopes that a cruel winter—with its soaring energy prices and lowered thermostats—will push Ukraine’s European allies to push Ukrainian President Volodymyr Zelensky to lay down his arms and come to the negotiating table.

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McCarthy’s statement and the progressives’ letter are no doubt strengthening Putin’s hopes that economic and political pressure might compel even the United States—Ukraine’s main supplier of heavy arms and intelligence—to back away from the war. Were that to happen, Zelensky would probably have to cave in.

Jayapal noted, in her statement of withdrawal, that Democrats have unanimously supported every request for economic and military aid to Ukraine. The letter also began by thanking Biden for his “commitment to Ukraine’s legitimate struggle against Russia’s war of aggression,” hailed Ukrainians for “their courageous fighting and heroic sacrifices,” and stressed that any peaceful settlement must preserve “a free and independent Ukraine” in a manner that is “acceptable to the people of Ukraine.”

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But all this only raises the question of why the letter was written to begin with—what its authors were asking Biden to do that he hasn’t already done.

Even before Russia’s invasion eight months ago, Biden and his aides approached Putin and his aides about pledges and security measures—for instance, keeping Ukraine out of NATO—that might forestall war. Putin wasn’t interested. Nor does he display any interest in any “off ramps” now. Rather, in the days leading up to the letter’s release, Putin renewed his indiscriminate bombing of Ukrainian cities—and his precise bombing of their power plants—while reiterating the desire to exterminate Ukrainians and nullify their status as a sovereign nation.

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The progressives’ letter lectured Biden that “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.” But where are these diplomatic avenues? What efforts should Biden “redouble” to seek “a realistic framework for a ceasefire”?

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Now, in her withdrawal statement, Jayapal writes that she and the other progressives support diplomacy only “after Ukrainian victory.” The letter dated 24 hours earlier contained no such declaration or anything remotely resembling it.

She claimed to be withdrawing that letter because “it is a distraction at this time.” And so it is. It distracts us from the fact that the House Republican leader wants to pull the plug on Ukraine and that the past and possibly future Republican president, Donald Trump, wants to pull the United States out of NATO and its other alliances.

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But this is a distraction of the letter-drafters’ own making. It does not distract us from the fact that the progressive wing of the Democratic party (such as it is) has no coherent position on foreign policy.

The awkwardness may be understandable. At least since the mid-1960s, progressives have for the most part been anti-war. Yet the United States now finds itself on the right side of a war—and led there by a Democratic president who, on several domestic issues, can properly be called progressive.

So how to navigate the turbulent currents? One way might be to embrace values that progressives share with more mainstream Democrats—liberty, democracy, defense against aggression. The letter muddied those principles, and the retraction makes the caucus look like a clown show. Another decent thing the progressives might do: Stop blaming staff for their own muddled thinking.

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