Progressives Jump the Shark on Foreign Policy
Can't anyone here play this game?
“Clown show” and “amateur hour” don’t even begin to describe the debacle some thirty members of Congress inflicted upon themselves, the Democratic Party overall, and even how America is viewed around the world over the span of just over twenty-four hours earlier this week. Led by Rep. Pramila Jayapal (D-WA), this gaggle of self-proclaimed progressive lawmakers sent a letter to President Biden calling for direct talks with Russia “in support of a negotiated settlement and ceasefire” in Ukraine that would bring about “a rapid end to the conflict.”
After receiving brutal criticism of their intervention from other Democrats, a number of signatories disavowed the letter and claimed they had signed it under different circumstances in June and July. Jayapal withdrew the letter just a day after it was made public, maintaining that its timing created a false impression that progressives were “somehow aligned with Republicans who seek to pull the plug on American support for President Zelensky and the Ukrainian forces.” She backed even further away from the initial letter, now arguing diplomacy could only follow a Ukrainian victory in its war against Russia.
But the evasions and explanations offered by the letter’s signatories just won’t wash – and they certainly don’t excuse their poor judgment and foreign policy dilettantism. In point of fact, the most common rationalization offered by some signers – that circumstances had changed since they endorsed the letter – only makes their judgment look worse. Ukrainian counteroffensives in Kherson and Kharkiv only began at the end of August, meaning that a ceasefire in June or July would have locked in Russian territorial gains and given Moscow precious time to regroup militarily. Beyond that brute fact, the letter echoes the wishful thinking and empty rhetoric offered by the “restraint” foreign policy camp.
There are enough caveats and to-be-sures in the letter to serve as escape hatches for signatories, but the bottom line remains that it calls on the United States to negotiate a ceasefire with Moscow – despite there being zero indication of any interest whatsoever in diplomacy from the Kremlin – above the head of President Zelenskyy and the Ukrainian people. It also proposes to reward Russian aggression with talks “for a new European security arrangement acceptable to all parties.” It’s an entirely unrealistic proposal that fails grasp the fundamental nature of the conflict, one whose rapid and ignominious demise inadvertently revealed the vapid and unserious nature of progressive thinking about foreign policy.
It doesn’t seem like anyone did their homework here. But embarrassing unforced errors like this are what happens when Congressional members follow the lead of ideological advocacy groups when it comes to complicated foreign policy questions like the war in Ukraine.
For all their talk about diplomacy, many self-styled progressives and the restraint crowd have little real notion of how it works or what it can achieve. This group usually spends more time railing against others and defining what it’s against, and they often don’t have a clear idea of what it stands for or a notion of how to build coalitions to advance an alternative agenda. The underlying idea seems to be that diplomacy and military force are at odds, but this thoughtless way of thinking about armed conflict only crowds out diplomacy. It’s impossible to actually resolve conflicts and end wars without taking the balance of military power into account; indeed, diplomacy that doesn’t take battlefield conditions into account will likely prove ineffective at best and could well prolong conflicts at worst.
It's important to remember that these foreign policy views remain dramatically out of step with the American public, even among many of those who consider themselves progressive. Out of a Congressional Progressive Caucus more than one hundred members strong, just thirty representatives signed onto the Jayapal letter – and many of its signatories effectively withdrew their support for it when confronted with the harsh political implications of their move. The contrast with the Republican Party’s ongoing internecine skirmishes on foreign policy generally and military aid to Ukraine in particular is striking.
What’s more, poll after poll shows even more support for Ukraine among Democrats than Americans as a whole. Some 79 percent of Democrats in a recent Gallup poll said that the United States should support Ukrainian military efforts to reclaim territory even if it prolonged the war. No wonder then that House Speaker Nancy Pelosi quickly promised even more aid for Ukraine in upcoming “must-pass” budget legislation, bluntly stating American support for Kyiv’s war effort would continue “until victory is won.”
Indeed, the most heartening aspect of this otherwise laughable episode has been the way mainstream Democrats decisively rejected the approach advocated by the Jayapal letter – so much so that Jayapal had to retract her letter and retreat dramatically from its core premises. It’s yet another reason to give the quixotic ideas put forward by these wishful foreign policy thinkers exactly the credence they deserve: next to none.
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