The Blob Delivers a Message: Shut Up About Ukraine

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Why the Democratic foreign policy establishment went ballistic over a letter from progressive lawmakers.

Amid the lingering freakout over the process by which 30 House progressives signed—and then quickly withdrew—a letter asking President Joe Biden to tweak his Ukraine policy, it is easy to miss the politics.

Since Russia’s invasion, what can loosely be called the Democratic foreign policy establishment—lawmakers, pundits, and analysts who favor a relatively assertive use of US military might and weaponry abroad—have worked to mute dovish critics of Biden’s policies, shrinking the range of foreign policy views deemed acceptable among mainstream Democrats. When the progressive lawmakers caved on Tuesday, relatively hawkish Democrats scored a big win that cemented an emerging rule about what their colleagues should be willing to say: Calling for diplomacy with Vladimir Putin right now is outside the range of permissible opinions.

The letter originally emerged from a process designed to have the opposite impact. According a person involved, the effort was part of an ongoing collaboration among left-leaning think tanks and progressive Hill staffers hoping to create space on Biden’s left to push “antiwar” policies. The groups say they want to reduce the chances of nuclear war with Russia, which Biden himself, including in remarks earlier this month, has conceded are worryingly high. More generally, they want to push Washington’s policy makers to rely less on the military power after two decades of costly wars.

The language in the ill-fated letter was ultimately determined by staffers working for Rep. Pramila Jayapal, the Washington Democrat who chairs the Congressional Progressive Caucus. But according to people involved in the effort, the document was also promoted and circulated on Capitol Hill by analysts at two think tanks. One of those analysts was Marcus Stanley, the advocacy director for the Quincy Institute for Responsible Statecraft, which urges “military restraint and diplomatic engagement.” The other was Erik Sperling a former of Hill staffer who now serves as executive director of Just Foreign Policy, a small think that is critical of mainstream Washington foreign policy.

When Jayapal’s office released the letter to the Washington Post on Monday, it was immediately met with a storm of criticism from the progressive lawmakers’ own party. DailyKos founder Markos Moulitsas called letter signers “unbelievably naive and stupid” and said they were “making common cause with Lauren Boebert, Marjorie Taylor Green, JD Vance, and the rest of the MAGA crowd.” Massachusetts Rep. Jake Auchincloss (D-Mass.) tweeted that the letter is “an olive branch to a war criminal who’s losing his war.” Signatories soon began distancing themselves. Jayapal issued a statement Monday “clarifying” the letter. She sent out yet another statement on Tuesday, fully withdrawing the letter and faulting “staff” for having released it “without vetting.” A Jayapal spokesperson did not respond to Mother Jones’ inquiries.

In a statement Wednesday, Sperling defended the letter and faulted the reaction to it. “The shrill response to this utterly moderate letter exposes that war proponents are scared of an open debate about the range of potential approaches to address this escalating conflict,” he said. “The issue here is simply that, as happened during the Iraq War and other wars, those who oppose diplomacy want to use bad faith attacks to intimidate people out of having substantive debates about U.S. policy.”

Stanley said in an interview that the letter aimed to encourage Americans to question whether the United States can indefinitely pursue its current course of supporting maximal Ukrainian war aims without more assertive diplomacy. The ensuing backlash, he argued, was part of an effort by the national security establishment to prevent serious questioning of US policy.

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