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Current Affairs

A Magazine of Politics and Culture

Congressional Progressives Need To Do Better on Foreign Policy—But That Doesn’t Mean Republicans Are Doves

If we care as much about anti-imperialism as we do about domestic policy, we can’t ignore the gap between where Left-aligned members of Congress are and where we need them to be.

When Congress voted to spend tens of billions of dollars on military aid to Ukraine, all six members of “the Squad” voted “yes.” So did the rest of the Progressive Caucus. Bernie Sanders voted for it in the Senate.

That was a serious mistake. The conflict in Ukraine is looking more and more like a proxy war between Russia and the United States—in fact, Seth Moulton of the House Armed Services Committee openly called it a proxy war—and the consequences of deepening American involvement could be catastrophic. A particularly troubling portion of the $54 billion aid package is earmarked to the CIA for unspecified reasons.

Some Republicans did vote “no” on the aid. Does this mean, then, that Republicans are now the real anti-war voices in Congress, as some have suggested? That idea doesn’t stand up to scrutiny. After all, those Republicans who voted “no” told us their reasons for voting that way in public statements—and for the most part those reasons don’t seem to have much to do with promoting peace.

Instead, most cited “cost” as their main objection. Some said European nations should be picking up more of the tab since the conflict is taking place in Europe. A common theme was that the money would be better spent on militarizing “the southern border.”

Rather than being horrified at the prospect of escalating a conflict that could blow up into a wider war, some of the Republicans who voted “no” expressed enthusiasm about the Ukrainian cause (while saying that someone else should pick up the tab) and some expressed frank indifference to the whole thing—a posture typified by Marjorie Taylor Greene’s recent tweet about having sworn an oath of allegiance to “the United States of AMERICA” not “the United States of Ukraine.”

To give one of the strangest devils in the Congressional GOP her due, Greene has actually expressed support for the United States seeking peace in Ukraine in the past, although it’s worth noting that she wrapped even that call in the language of anti-China hawkery and the danger of “pushing Russia into China’s hands.” And she’s an outlier within the Republican “no” votes for having ever having talked about peace when she’s talked about Ukraine.

As disappointing as it is that the progressives didn’t stick to their principles in this vote, almost none of the Republicans who voted against the aid package have ever even pretended to have such principles in the first place. Indeed, many have a recent record of extreme hawkishness and several of them seem pretty enthusiastic about escalating tensions with China. This could easily lead to an even more destructive conflict than the one in Ukraine, given that “boots on the ground” seem to be very much on the table in discussions of a U.S. response to a possible war in Taiwan.

These “anti-war” Republicans seem to be all about anti-China brinksmanship. Why exactly are we supposed to believe they have principled objections to anti-Russia brinksmanship?

In their public statements they said they were voting against more funding for Ukraine because we’re spending too much money on European freeloaders and Ukrainians should figure out another way to pay for their war because they would prefer that we spend the money making the United States a fortress. It’s a little much to say that their reasons really have something to do with a desire to de-escalate the conflict.

Outside of Congress, there actually is a faction in American politics that does want to bring about peace in Ukraine—the socialist Left. Jacobin, for example, has run numerous articles denouncing Russian imperialism and expressing solidarity with Russia’s heroic anti-war movement but also warning of the dangers of ever-more-direct U.S. involvement and calling for a negotiated settlement. So has this magazine. So has The Nation. So has In These Times.

Noam Chomsky was widely slandered as a “Putin apologist” for his advocacy of peace negotiations. The Democratic Socialists of America (DSA) was pilloried by the mainstream media (very much including Fox News) and even denounced by the White House Rapid Response Director for the same reason.

The sad fact, though, is that no one in Congress fully shares the socialist Left’s positions on this issue. None of the Republicans or mainstream Democrats do, and even the most left-wing members of Congress have been unreliable allies on this and related foreign policy debates. Even Bernie Sanders’ advisor Matt Duss, the closest thing in Washington to a left-wing foreing policy thinker, has suggested that those in favor of a diplomatic settlement are advocating that “Ukraine surrenders.”

The Left has had some success in recent years in inserting some of our big domestic policy issues like Medicare for All into mainstream political discussion. On foreign policy, though, we’re still a long way from hearing anyone in the halls of power advocate for our positions.

What The Squad Should Have Done

Congressional progressives should be focusing their energies on pushing for a negotiated de-escalation of the conflict, with the United States having a direct seat at the table—something that Matt Duss seems to have forgotten that Bernie Sanders called for in an op-ed in the Guardian back in February. Ukrainian interests aren’t being served by prolonging the war with the professed goal of “weakening” Russia to the point where it’s no longer capable of waging war—which, taken literally, would mean turning one of the world’s major nuclear powers into a failed state. Every day that peace talks don’t happen, more Ukrainians die, and the world gets a little closer to a truly disastrous direct war between the United States and Russia.

As Anatol Lieven has pointed out, Russia has already suffered a massive defeat in Ukraine. There’s at least some grounds for hoping that this will make Putin more amenable to a settlement that can save him from humiliation and get the sanctions lifted–if he’s presented with that off-ramp. Right now, far from offering to sit down and talk, Biden keeps dropping ominous hints about regime change and war crimes tribunals that send the message that the Russians’ only option is to keep fighting to the bitter end.

We constantly hear from hawks that Putin has no interest in negotiating. Somehow, though, no one who says this ever seems to want to test their hypothesis by having Biden directly participate in peace talks—even though the United States is sending tens of billions in lethal aid, helping assassinate Russian generals and sink Russian ships, and taking the lead in imposing sweeping sanctions on the Russian economy. No serious person could deny that the United States would have far more leverage with Russia in such negotiations than any other country. And the idea that it would be meddling in the sovereign prerogatives of Ukraine for the United States to involve itself in negotiations to settle the conflict—but it’s not meddling to do everything I just described—is brain-meltingly ridiculous.

Back in March, Ilhan Omar raised a number of concerns about the possible bad consequences of flooding Ukraine with weapons that will in some cases end up in the hands of extreme right-wing paramilitaries or make their way to the global black market.

These remain extremely legitimate concerns. You can argue that Omar’s point is outweighed by the legitimate need of a nation facing imperial invasion to defend itself. Fine. But even so, Omar and the other progressives should have at least made their votes for further lethal aid conditional on the United States immediately entering peace talks to at least try to de-escalate the conflict.

Where Are the Consistent Anti-Imperialists?

This is hardly the first time that the informal social democratic caucus in Congress (the Squad in the House and Bernie in the Senate) has been a disappointment on issues of war and peace. Jamaal Bowman, for example, voted to fund Israel’s Iron Dome missile defense system, while AOC shamefully backed down under last minute pressure and changed her Iron Dome vote from “no” to “present.”

While Bernie Sanders is (thank God) “not friends with Henry Kissinger” and was clearly better on foreign policy than Hillary Clinton in 2016 (or anyone in the clown car of centrists he faced off against in 2020), his foreign policy voting record is far from perfect. For example, he joined the stampede of Democrats who, aside from a few honorable exceptions like Dennis Kucinich, voted to authorize the U.S. intervention in Serbia in 1999. His record on Palestine has been mixed, though he’s moved to a more full-throated criticism of Israel in recent years. He, too, voted for Iron Dome funding, but at least demanded something in exchange—increased aid for the victims of Israeli occupation in Gaza.

While it’s not exactly a secret that Bernie and the Squad are, in practice, often far more moderate and mainstream on any number of issues than we would like them to be, thoughtful leftists have often been understandably reluctant to focus much of our fire on the tiny handful of politicians who are closest to our views relative to the rest of Congress. It can smack of a self-destructive “circular firing squad” mentality, especially when approached in a flamboyant and click-bait-y way. (See: Dore, Jimmy.) But when left-wing politicians get it wrong on issues this important (or start out getting them right and waver in the face of jingoistic pressure), they deserve criticism. If we care as much about anti-imperialism as we do about Medicare for All and other domestic policy issues, we can’t ignore the gap between where Left-aligned members of Congress are and where we need them to be.

Honesty about these issues cuts in multiple directions, though, and we need to acknowledge that allegedly “anti-war” Republicans like Josh Hawley actually stand much farther from our overall position on questions of war and peace than anyone in the Squad. Crumbling to public pressure and voting to pour more guns and money into a proxy war is bad, but you know what’s worse? A foreign policy record like Hawley’s. Just in the last few years, Hawley has:

  • Backed Donald Trump’s decisions to withdraw from Obama’s nuclear treaty with Iran and assassinate Iranian general Qasem Soleimani
  • Ranted about a “clear and present” danger from China
  • Introduced multiple bills aimed at a massive military buildup in Taiwan
  • Supported airstrikes in Syria (and faulted “Obama & Hillary” for failing to “stand up” to Assad in the past)
  • Described the withdrawal from Afghanistan after twenty years of war as Biden shamefully “losing” a country
  • Assailed Biden for not being tough enough on Iran

The idea that Hawley, or any of the Republican ”no” voters on the Ukraine bill who were calling for Biden to be impeached over the withdrawal from Afghanistan, is the “real” critic of militarism in Congress is a bad joke.

The “America First” element of the GOP sometimes uses rhetoric about how people are suffering at home as wars are waged abroad, but the truth is that they aren’t that anti-war. They also don’t want to do much of anything to help those people suffering at home. For example, all of the most hardcore MAGA “populists” in Congress voted against capping the price of insulin. Even that was too much of them—never mind doing something truly crazy and socialist like just giving diabetics insulin for free. That’s the Right’s alleged “populists” for  you.

It is outrageous that the United States is fighting direct and proxy wars around the world instead of redirecting those resources to helping people meet their basic needs. And we do need to get more members of Congress elected who have better positions on both halves of that equation. The Squad are sometimes inconsistent and unreliable allies, especially on the foreign policy half. They’re much better than the nothing that the Left had in Congress before they were elected, but still well short of what we need. We should recognize the complexities here with open eyes—and apply that same clarity to outright enemies like Josh Hawley.

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