It isn’t very often that we, the average observer of political events, get the chance to see a world-class cock-up (in two acts, no less) by a singularly odious politician. It is even more rare when we are left feeling that there is much, much more going on behind the scenes that we don’t understand.
Monday morning, the Congressional Progressive Caucus (CPC) sent a letter to the White House demanding that Joe Biden conduct bilateral negotiations with Vladimir Putin to end the war in Ukraine. This was rather extraordinary in two respects. First, all of the signatories have agreed without dissent to the US funding Ukraine’s defense of its territory and independence. While I think the signers of this letter are probably the most loathsome grouping of people ever to rise to power in a republican system of government, I have to give them their due for supporting what is the epitome of a just war.
The letter first appeared in the Washington Post in a story headlined Liberals urge Biden to rethink Ukraine strategy: Democratic lawmakers’ letter calls for direct U.S. talks with Russia. The reporter was Yasmeen Abutaleb, the Post’s national health reporter.
The letter reads, in part:
Given the destruction created by this war for Ukraine and the world, as well as the risk of catastrophic escalation, we also believe it is in the interests of Ukraine, the United States, and the world to avoid a prolonged conflict. For this reason, we urge you to pair the military and economic support the United States has provided to Ukraine with a proactive diplomatic push, redoubling efforts to seek a realistic framework for a ceasefire. This is consistent with your recognition that “there’s going to have to be a negotiated settlement here,” and your concern that Vladimir Putin “doesn’t have a way out right now, and I’m trying to figure out what we do about that.”
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. 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. The alternative to diplomacy is protracted war, with both its attendant certainties and catastrophic and unknowable risks.
Russia’s invasion has caused incalculable harm for the people of Ukraine, leading to the deaths of countless thousands of civilians, Ukrainian soldiers , and displacement of 13 million people, while Russia’s recent seizure of cities in Ukraine’s east have led to the most pivotal moment in the conflict and the consolidation of Russian control over roughly 20 percent of Ukraine’s territory. The conflict threatens an additional tens of millions more worldwide, as skyrocketing prices in wheat, fertilizer and fuel spark acute crises in global hunger and poverty. A war that is allowed to grind on for years—potentially escalating in intensity and geographic scope— threatens to displace, kill, and immiserate far more Ukrainians while causing hunger, poverty, Page 2 and death around the world. The conflict has also contributed to elevated gas and food prices at home, fueling inflation and high oil prices for Americans in recent months. Economists believe that if the situation in Ukraine is stabilized, some of the speculative concerns driving higher fuel costs will subside and likely lead to a drop in world oil prices.
We agree with the Administration’s perspective that it is not America’s place to pressure Ukraine’s government regarding sovereign decisions, and with the principle you have enunciated that there should be “nothing about Ukraine without Ukraine.” But as legislators responsible for the expenditure of tens of billions of U.S. 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, including direct engagement with Russia, to reduce harm and support Ukraine in achieving a peaceful settlement.
In May, President Zelensky, despite deadlocked negotiations, reiterated definitively end through diplomacy,” and had previously explained that the war “will only that “any mentally healthy person always chooses the diplomatic path, because he or she knows: even if it is difficult, it can prevent the loss of thousands, tens of thousands…and maybe even millions of lives.”
In conclusion, we urge you to make vigorous diplomatic efforts in support of a negotiated settlement and ceasefire, engage in direct talks with Russia, explore prospects for a new European security arrangement acceptable to all parties that will allow for a sovereign and independent Ukraine, and, in coordination with our Ukrainian partners, seek a rapid end to the conflict and reiterate this goal as America’s chief priority.
Whatever the merits of this approach, two things are blatantly obvious. The CPC has been one of the loudest voices in supporting Ukraine. I’ve often felt they are doing it less out of sympathy for Ukraine or even the Westphalian System than because OrangeManBad=> Russia-elected-Trump=> OrangeManBad=> Russia-invaded-Ukraine=> OrangeManBad=> Support Ukraine=> OrangeManBad. To be fair, I think that a lot of folks on the right rooting for Putin are doing so for the mirror image of that reasoning. So there has to be some catalyst for the letter that is not apparent in the public positions taken by the CPC. The second thing is that no matter how it is tarted up in language about war, devastation, and death, it is asking Joe Biden to negotiate a separate peace with Putin and leave Ukraine and most of our NATO allies hanging. This, of course, is the precise strategy to use given the success of Biden’s exit from Afghanistan.
The support for the letter began unraveling as soon as it became public. The CPC’s fan club among Ukraine supporters went ballistic. So did some of the CPC members who signed the letter.
The way to end a war? Win it quickly.
How is it won quickly? By giving Ukraine the weapons to defeat Russia. https://t.co/EJEwif3VJj
— Ruben Gallego (@RepRubenGallego) October 24, 2022
My statement regarding my continued support for President Biden’s policies towards Ukraine: pic.twitter.com/P5kHbjVJ1X
— Mark Takano (@RepMarkTakano) October 25, 2022
By 7 p.m. Monday, the CPC was in full retreat.
— Progressive Caucus (@USProgressives) October 24, 2022
By today, retreat had turned into ignominious rout with the CPC leadership blaming staff for everything.
Timing in diplomacy is everything.
I signed this letter on June 30, but a lot has changed since then. I wouldn’t sign it today.
We have to continue supporting Ukraine economically and militarily to give them the leverage they need to end this war. https://t.co/jEJlTK1hJI
— Congresswoman Sara Jacobs (@RepSaraJacobs) October 25, 2022
Jayapal throws staff under the bus for the gentle suggestion of diplomacy to end a war, then pleads guilty to the greatest crime in Washington today: giving the appearance of agreeing with the other party.
Letter suggesting diplomacy is “withdrawn.” pic.twitter.com/gaYEbSZV4X
— Ryan Grim (@ryangrim) October 25, 2022
“[R]eleased by staff without vetting.”
Keep that last paragraph in mind; I’ll return to it.
Here is former CPC chairman, Wisconsin Democrat Mark Pocan explaining himself to the mob.
Hear you. First, this was written in July & I have no idea why it went out now. Bad timing. Second, it was trying to get to a cease-fire & diplomacy as others were banging war drums, not criticizing Biden. Third, I’ve supported the efforts & will continue. Over analyzed by some.
— Mark Pocan (@MarkPocan) October 25, 2022
“It was written in July & I have no idea why it went out now. Bad timing.”
The problem with this excuse is that no one believes it, least of all the CPC members.
“I would be shocked if they hit send on that release without her knowing,” the former staffer wrote, adding he doesn’t know Jayapal’s current communications team. “Everyone who has worked with her office knows that she keeps a tight grip on media relations. She has held up press releases over small edits and delayed letting staff hit send while she reworks language – though delaying a release by three months would be a new record.”
A current senior Democratic aide familiar with her office operations also told Insider, “There is no way that Pramila Jayapal doesn’t know every word that leaves her office.”
Some members of Congress give their communications staff leeway and others “micromanage their press operation and scrutinize every word of a tweet and press release. Rep. Jayapal is the latter,” the former Hill staffer said.
“You can’t blame the staff and then accept responsibility in the next line of your statement,” the former staffer wrote in an email. “That’s not how that works. And I doubt it was released by staff without vetting. That’s just not how she runs her office.”
Other insiders offer a more nuanced explanation for what happened. It involves a left-wing non-profit, Quincy Institute for Responsible Statecraft. This has long been a locus of blame-America-first foreign policy opinion. What follows is based on a Tweet thread by Josh Marshall of Talking Points Memo.
Here’s my hunch abt what happened here. Look at the Quincy Institute. They were apparently the organizers of the effort. That’s not secret. A lot of members signed it and then nothing happened. Kind of odd in itself. I suspect Quincy and other allied groups were really hots …
Indeed, one of the experts employed by Quincy is controversial University of Chicago Professor John Mearsheimer. By controversial, I mean that in the past, Mearsheimer has dabbled in Holocaust revisionism/anti-Semitism (here | here) — it isn’t often that an academic author has a book praised by David Duke as “a modern Declaration of American Independence.” Another expert is Mearsheimer’s long-time collaborator Stephen Walt who became embroiled with Mearsheimer in an anti-semitism kerfuffle. Since the invasion of Ukraine, Mearsheimer has provided the intellectual heft, such as it is, behind the argument that a) Ukraine’s skirt was just so short that she had it coming and b) Putin has the right to control foreign and domestic affairs of any nation he considers necessary to Russia’s security.
Putin’s War in Ukraine has caused some of Quincy’s staff to leave over the perception that Quincy’s raison d’etre, opposing a foreign policy that recognizes the US has interests abroad, has led to some angst on the left about the future of this think tank, see America’s Top Anti-War Think Tank Is Fracturing Over Ukraine and Can the Quincy Institute Survive Putin’s War?
2/ to push this out before the election. They probably had some staffers at the Prog caucus who were on board with that. Perhaps even ex-colleagues if theirs. Somehow they came up with a way to push it public. It’s clear that most of the reps, I think actually all of …
Why do we think they want this letter to come out before the election? My guess is that they realize, too late, the folly of having a vital national interest (I consider Ukraine’s victory to be a vital national interest, YMMV) tied to a party that is about to have its collective ass kicked in an election. They also realized that the overwhelming majority of Americans care a lot more about inflation and gas prices than they do about Ukraine, and seeming to focus on that subject to the exclusion of pocketbook issues is not a great move.
3/ the reps who’ve spoken publicly have said they didn’t even know it was coming out. Jayapal is no fool. She wouldn’t knowingly blindside her colleagues like that. I suspect that someone got her to nominally sign off while she wasn’t really focused and then ran with it.
4/ Perhaps it was presented to her as well, everybody’s already signed it and we’ve just been waiting to release it. My point isnt to defend Jayapal. This reflects very badly on her. But she’s a sharp person and she didn’t react like someone who was really clear or prepped for …
5/ this. I think some outside groups and perhaps some staffers who were more invested in their own views than being straight with their employers pulled a fast one (though perhaps with a notional sign off) and figured once it was out the reps couldn’t walk away from it.
6/ I’ll note that the Quincy folks were pretty pumped when the letter came out and seemed to have their own write up pretty much right when the Post broke the story.
Progressives are taking the lead for Democrats in calling on the Biden Administration to pair support for Ukraine’s self-defense with a diplomatic effort to pursue a negotiated cease-fire in the war in Ukraine, reports @MarcusMStanley. https://t.co/SgIYP3xukZ
— Eli Clifton (@EliClifton) October 24, 2022
7/ Sometimes to make an omelette you have to break some eggs, as they say. In this case, I think folks figured they already had the signatures and once it was out the signers hands would be tied. If there were hard feelings, well, broken eggs. But lots of the signers …
8/ moved pretty quickly into the okay fuck this camp and it all spiraled from there. The end.
9/ And there’s more. More than a few people reacted to this like a whole lot of work went into it and people supposedly behind it just went and ruined everything.
10/ Some are defending the staffers.
Let me just say something about Mike Darner & CPC staff. They are extraordinary. They have helped shape the biggest goals for progressives and have been very effective in our wins. They are committed also to human rights and diplomacy. Progressives owe them a debt of gratitude.
— Ro Khanna (@RoKhanna) October 25, 2022
11/ The Post appears to confirm what seemed clear: that no one alerted House Democrats, including the people who signed the letter last summer, that it was being released.
Marshall uses this quote from the Washington Post story headlined Liberal Democrats withdraw letter to Biden that urged him to rethink Ukraine strategy.
Democrats were not made aware that the letter would be issued Monday, including those who had signed the letter over the summer, according to three congressional aides who spoke on the condition of anonymity to speak frankly about private discussions.
The first name in this byline is national politics reporter Amy Wang, the health beat reporter who wrote the original is second.
12/ This really STRONGLY supports the idea that this was someone or several someones pulling a fast one, to force peoples hands. The end (I think).
So this story ends with us possibly knowing less than we did at the beginning. I think Marshall’s explanation of the sequence of events makes a lot of sense. It makes much more sense than Jayapal screwing over her colleagues for fun and games.