With Progressive Congress Members Pulling Their Ukraine Letter, Diplomacy Is Now a Four-Letter Word

War fever in Washington has reached such a pitch that even mild calls for cease-fire talks, as House progressives articulated in a now-retracted letter, are now beyond the pale. That’s dangerous at any time, let alone when nuclear tensions are high.

Representative Pramila Jayapal speaks with reporters on Capitol Hill in Washington, DC. (Jabin Botsford / the Washington Post via Getty Images)

Even before Russia invaded Ukraine, liberal discourse about the issue had veered in a deeply unhealthy direction, with any suggestion that the US should exercise restraint in managing the antagonistic US-Russia relationship casually labeled treasonous, authoritarian — even covertly doing the work of the Kremlin. As earlier episodes of war fever remind us, a political climate like this makes it hard to for common sense break through the din of demands for military escalation — an especially dangerous thing for two massively nuclear-armed countries to engage in.

Need proof? Just look at the debacle that’s swallowed up the Congressional Progressive Caucus (CPC) this week.

On Tuesday, CPC chair Pramila Jayapal (D-WA) sent a letter to the White House about the Ukraine war signed by her and twenty-nine other House progressives, urging the Biden administration to make a “proactive diplomatic push, redoubling efforts to seek a realistic framework for a ceasefire.” The signatories include all the members of the “Squad,” as well as big progressive names in congress like Ro Khanna, Raúl Grijalva, and Barbara Lee, among others.

Within twenty-four hours, Jayapal retracted the letter.

The official explanation is that the letter had been mistakenly released by staff and was never meant to go out. Various signatories quickly explained they had signed the letter months ago, when the situation in the war had been different, and didn’t realize it was now being released.

“Timing is everything in public policy, letters are written to respond to a moment and in politics moments pass in the speed of light,” said Representative Ilhan Omar (D-MN), a Squad member and typically one of the Democrats’ most progressive voices on foreign policy. “In this particular case, the letter was a response to intel we were getting on the war and the pathway forward.”

This is, to put it politely, a flimsy attempt at spin. The truth, as a senior Congressional aide admitted to Vox, was that: “We floated the world’s softest trial balloon about diplomacy, got smacked by the Blob, and immediately withdrew under pressure.”

But you didn’t need the words of a staffer to grasp this, since the retraction followed an avalanche of attacks from a variety of prominent liberals. Longtime Democratic staffer and lobbyist Jim Manley called it “absolutely, positively disgraceful.” Daily Kos founder Markos Moulitsas charged it was “unbelievably naive and stupid” and that “only overwhelming force will now end” the war. “Why now?” asked the New Yorker’s Susan Glasser, having apparently forgotten that barely three weeks ago, the president had warned the world is dangerously close to nuclear Armageddon due to the war.

They were joined in these attacks, in a by now depressingly familiar pattern in the post-Trump era, by a parade of neoconservative voices. Bill Kristol, a leading propagandist for the US invasion of Iraq, called it — what else? — “appeasement.” Max Boot, who once urged Americans to think of US wars in the Middle East “in much the same way we thought of our Indian Wars,” deemed it “appalling.” Eliot “Iraq is the big prize” Cohen labeled the letter “disgrace and folly.”

The Diplomacy Taboo

All of this begs the question: What was actually in the letter to inspire such rage and vitriol?

The letter opens with effusive praise for the Biden administration’s military support for Ukraine and its role in “deal[ing] a historic military defeat to Russia,” as well for having successfully managed Biden’s goal of avoiding direct military conflict with the nuclear-armed country.

Pointing to the dangers for both Ukraine and the world from a prolonged conflict, it urges the president to “pair the military and economic support the United States has provided to Ukraine with a proactive diplomatic push” for a cease-fire — that is, to keep arming Ukraine while also doing this — and referenced Biden’s own public statements about the eventual need for a negotiated settlement and to find “a way out” for Vladimir Putin.

The signatories acknowledge how hard diplomatic engagement will be in light of Putin’s crimes and his annexations, but given the alternative, stress that the United States must “pursue every diplomatic alternative” to “end the war while preserving a free and independent Ukraine,” and finding “a solution that is acceptable to the people of Ukraine.” Besides the continuing harm to Ukrainians, they note the suffering the war’s economic ripple effects are causing in the poorest parts of the world as well as for working Americans. They stress that while “it is not America’s place to pressure Ukraine’s government regarding sovereign decisions,” the depth of US involvement in the war creates a responsibility to “explore all possible avenues” to reduce harm. To that end, it points to Ukrainian president Volodymyr Zelensky’s own statements stressing the war will only end and untold lives will be saved through diplomacy.

So to recap: the signatories unreservedly endorsed Biden’s existing policy on the war; urged the president to add a diplomatic push to what he’s already doing; affirmed that this must only be done if the cease-fire terms are acceptable to Ukraine; ruled out pressuring the Ukrainian government about the terms of negotiations; and all on the basis of the immense suffering that the war’s continuation is causing to both ordinary Ukrainians and working people all over the world. To top it off, they emphasized that what they were calling for was exactly what both Biden and Ukraine’s president had already called for in public.

In the warped political climate that’s enveloped the United States over the past year, this exceedingly mild request is considered “disgraceful,” “stupid,” “appalling,” and simply beyond the pale. Give the liberal and neoconservative hawks a hand: on the sixtieth anniversary of the Cuban missile crisis, they’ve successfully managed to flip the lessons of humanity’s lucky break in that episode, turning the foolish advice profered by John F. Kennedy and Nikita Khrushchev’s most unhinged military advisors into the reasonable, even progressive, position and insisting that, actually, the thing that saved the world in 1962 — high-level dialogue and diplomatic engagement — is the real dangerous, reckless course of action.

What this represents isn’t just the usual dishonest establishment pile on against the left-leaning faction they despise. It’s the wholesale stigmatization in Washington debate of any diplomatic avenue to war. Or as MSNBC host Mehdi Hasan put it:

You don’t have to agree with everything in the letter, or the timing of it, to see how dangerous it is that, on the one hand, the president is speaking about nuclear Armageddon, and on the other, any members of his party who mention “diplomacy” are smeared as Putin apologists.

Hence, now even Senator Bernie Sanders (I-VT), who once urged Ronald Reagan to “develop a major peace offensive” with the Soviet Union even as it was three years into invading Afghanistan, is denouncing progressives as if they had been calling for military aid to Ukraine to end. That Sanders clearly sees it as more politically risky to call for diplomacy today than in the “Evil Empire” days of the 1980s sums up how menacingly distorted American political culture has become these last few years.

One exception deserving of applause is Representative Ro Khanna (D-CA), who unlike other signatories now scrambling to distance themselves from the letter, has calmly and courageously stood by it, defending CPC staff and calling its provisions “common sense” on CNN. “Even at the height of the Cold War in this country . . . we had our leaders talk to the Russians,” he told the network.

Unfortunately, you’ll find this kind of impulse to stand by one’s convictions rare in any period of US war fever.

Escalation Rises

This couldn’t have come at a more dangerous time. The president’s own warning about nuclear apocalypse is understated compared to the alarm with which various experts, scientists, and analysts are looking at the current risks. The Biden administration itself acknowledges the “inescapable paradox” that its commitment to backing Ukraine until it recaptures even the contested territories of Crimea and Donbas raises the risk of nuclear conflict. Meanwhile, the United States is being drawn deeper and deeper into the conflict, with more US covert personnel on the ground in Ukraine than at the war’s start, and CBS recently reporting that US troops are now deployed for combat mere miles from the Ukrainian border, ready to cross over if the fighting escalates.

The attacks on the letter are particularly ironic because the CPC was only cautiously echoing what prominent establishment voices had already said in response to this spiraling escalation. No less than former chairman of the Joint Chiefs of Staff Mike Mullen, who had advised both George W. Bush and Barack Obama, has already urged the Biden administration to tamp down its rhetoric and start talks with Moscow. Multiple US government and military sources expressed frustration to Newsweek over the seeming absence of US efforts to find the de-escalatory “off-ramp” for Russian president Putin, which Biden himself has publicly said is needed to prevent disaster. (“Washington and NATO seem too focused on a public message, and not on a solution,” one Strategic Command officer complained).

Meanwhile, for all the claims floating around now that the Kremlin doesn’t want to talk, we have strong indications the opposite is true. Both former New Mexico governor Bill Richardson, currently engaged in prisoner swap negotiations with Russian officials, as well as the American special advisor to Ukraine’s military commander have said they believe Moscow is ready to negotiate, as multiple statements from Russian officials this month and earlier have suggested.

The trouble is that, as the furor over the CPC letter shows, the political space doesn’t exist in the United States to hold talks with Russia. This is why Biden just expressly ruled out speaking with Putin at the G20 summit and why Antony Blinken, the top-ranking US diplomat, has only spoken to his Russian counterpart once, in July about a prisoner swap. The Russian ambassador to the United States, meanwhile, has claimed there is no Cuban missile crisis–style back channel between the two countries, and the Financial Times’ Gideon Rachman has cautioned that contrary to assumptions of “secret diplomacy” happening behind the scenes, “there are few channels open with the Kremlin.”

The CPC’s intervention was meant to create the political cover for the Biden administration to pursue this pathway. Instead, the furious pushback to it seems to have firmly shut the door to it.

The Fruits of Russiagate

This is sadly the logical end point of the McCarthyite sickness that’s gripped the US establishment since 2016.

At that point, liberals, Democrats, and even some leftists decided Russia would be a politically convenient cudgel to use against Donald Trump and other political enemies. But predictably, this migrated well beyond, and accusations of being soft on Russia or even secretly in cahoots with the Kremlin quickly became a go-to political smear, usually in the direction of the preferred policy of the Washington establishment. So a leading scholar of Soviet history, Stephen F. Cohen, even upon his death, was casually smeared as a Putin apologist. Left-wing challengers to or critics of the Democratic establishment were baselessly tied to Putin by irresponsible commentators. Questioning the logic of expanding NATO to Montenegro meant you were doing the Kremlin’s bidding. So did pushing for US withdrawal from Afghanistan.

This trend has gone into overdrive with Russia’s invasion. A few months back, Amnesty International came under a barrage of attacks for putting out a report critical of both the Ukrainian military for setting up base in civilian areas, and of Russian forces for targeting civilian areas — a criticism it regularly levels in other countries, as with, say, the Israel-Palestine conflict, where the group has criticized Hamas for doing the same thing. Around the same time, under a similar hail of criticism, CBS retracted a report where a private arms supplier to Ukrainian forces admitted only 30 percent of military aid was reaching the front line, due to corruption and “power lords, oligarchs, political players.” The supplier said that the figure had “significantly improved” since the report was filmed, but gave no actual specifics.

Over in the UK, prominent broadcaster and commentator Paul Mason called for the Left to “fight Putin’s hybrid warfare tactics from within British society.” Leaked emails later showed what Mason meant: a covertly government-funded scheme that would take aim at a “pro-Putin Info Sphere,” which he mapped out in a Glenn Beck–style chart that included everyone from Jeremy Corbyn and various antiwar groups, to Novara Media, the Labour left, and, strangest of all, Muslim and black communities. A few months back, Louise Mensch ― a former British Tory MP and fabulist who became a minor US political celebrity over the Russiagate scandal — tagged the official Twitter handle of the Ukrainian special operations forces in a reply to a Canadian journalist on the ground in the Donbas, implying they should take her out.

Remember that this is all happening over a war that the United States and other NATO states are, nominally, not actually fighting in.

Made to Wave the Flag

Lost in all this is that the position briefly taken by the CPC is, despite the goings-on on Twitter, the far more mainstream position, from the perspective of public opinion. There are now multiple surveys showing majority US public support for pursuing diplomacy to bring the war to a close. And even as majorities tell pollsters they’re willing to weather higher costs to help Ukraine in the abstract, other polls show that matters of foreign policy are way down the list of voters’ priorities this November, which are instead topped by inflation and the economy ― the very issues Republicans have used to overtake the Democrats in polling leading up the election, and which are worsened by the war continuing to go on and on.

Speaking of a Republican midterm victory, the decision to effectively bar diplomacy as a political option comes in the middle of growing talk of a GOP-run Congress cutting off military aid to Ukraine. While this is far from guaranteed — most Republicans are just as hawkish on Russia as Democrats — it’s not out of the question. This measure is being pushed by powerful conservative groups like the Heritage Foundation, the driving force of the Trump transition, and Trump himself has signaled his lack of enthusiasm for the war, matching that of influential right-wing commentators like Tucker Carlson. Little thought is given to what will happen to Ukraine if it rejects talks now at a position of strength, only to lose its leading military patron a few months later, let alone the economically unsustainable nature of the country’s war effort.

Beyond the human costs, just as little thought is given to the long-term political consequences of liberals and progressives ceding the broadly popular pro-diplomacy terrain regarding this conflict to an increasingly radical right. But maybe Americans shouldn’t even concern themselves with all of these messy questions. After all, isn’t that exactly what Putin wants?