The Washington PostDemocracy Dies in Darkness

House liberals make a mess out of Ukraine letter

Reps. Mark Pocan (D-Wis.) and Pramila Jayapal (D-Wash.), co-chairs of the Congressional Progressive Caucus (CPC), speak to reporters on Capitol Hill on Jan. 29, 2019. (Salwan Georges/The Washington Post)
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For the second time in a week, members of Congress have signaled a potential shift in America’s policy toward Russia’s invasion of Ukraine.

First, it was House Minority Leader Kevin McCarthy (R-Calif.) saying that a GOP-controlled Congress next year might withhold funding from Ukraine. Then, on Monday, 30 liberal House Democrats called on President Biden to engage in direct diplomacy with Russia.

One of these approaches has engendered significant pushback inside the party, some walk backs from the signatories and now, ultimately, a retraction. But it’s not the more drastic one.

Congressional Progressive Caucus Chair Rep. Pramila Jayapal (D-Wash.) announced Tuesday that she had retracted the letter which she had spearheaded, just 24 hours after it went out. She said that the letter was drafted “several months ago” and that it was not vetted before it was released Monday.

The move comes after multiple signatories had distanced themselves from the thrust of Monday’s letter and Jayapal herself had sought to clarify it.

Rep. Mark Takano (D-Calif.) said in a statement that, “Only Ukrainians have a right to determine the terms by which this war ends.”

Rep. Mark Pocan (D-Wis.) said that the letter wasn’t meant to criticize Biden’s approach and defended it in a series of tweets. But he also suggested that it was poorly handled. “First, this was written in July & I have no idea why it went out now. Bad timing,” he said. “Second, it was trying to get to a cease-fire & diplomacy as others were banging war drums, not criticizing Biden.”

Rep. Sara Jacobs (D-Calif.) echoed Pocan, saying she actually signed the letter in late June. But unlike Pocan, she offered perhaps the biggest break from its contents, saying that “a lot has changed since then. I wouldn’t sign it today.

A Jayapal spokesperson initially declined to comment Tuesday on the claims that the letter was months old. But Rep. Ilhan Omar (D-Minn.), the Progressive Caucus whip, seemed to confirm that it was and that signatories weren’t notified that it would go out Monday.

(The letter, for what it’s worth, cites Russia’s attempt to annex Ukrainian territory “last month,” which hadn’t happened in June or July.)

But setting that aside, these members were only pushing for diplomacy — something that under most circumstances would seem like an admirable goal to avoid bloodshed. So why the course correction?

The first thing to note is that, Jacobs aside, the signatories were engaged in more of a tonal walk back than a full-on reversal. The members said they do believe in the usefulness of diplomacy, but de-emphasized how much they’d been actually pushing for it.

The biggest problem with the letter was that it was seen as breaking with Biden’s strategy by calling for diplomacy at a moment in which the administration has argued that Russia hasn’t taken the necessary steps to engage.

The administration hasn’t exactly shied away from the prospect of diplomacy, but it has argued that it shouldn’t be so freely entered into — and that Russia shouldn’t be rewarded for its escalation.

Secretary of State Antony Blinken said Friday that the United States has “reaffirmed our commitment to meaningful diplomacy that can bring an end to the war, even as Moscow continues to demonstrate through its escalatory actions that its claim to be open to diplomacy is as hollow as it’s been since President Putin launched his invasion in February.”

State Department spokesman Ned Price added last week that Ukraine will lead any such process: “We have not heard any reciprocal statement or refrain from Moscow that they are ready in good faith to engage in that diplomacy and dialogue.”

The letter’s rhetoric was discordant, to say the least. The administration has emphasized that, before you enter into diplomacy, you want to be sure the other side is serious about it and has demonstrated good faith; otherwise your attempt to reach out is not only pointless but risks demonstrating weakness or even playing into your adversary’s hands. Diplomacy is a commendable goal, but has its pitfalls. (Think: Donald Trump giving Kim Jong Un a historic photo op.)

Sen. Chris Murphy (D-Conn.), who often finds himself in common cause with lawmakers like the letter’s signatories, responded: “There is moral and strategic peril in sitting down with Putin too early. It risks legitimizing his crimes and handing over parts of Ukraine to Russia in an agreement that Putin won’t even honor.”

Rep. Jake Auchincloss (D-Mass.) was more direct. “This letter is an olive branch to a war criminal who’s losing his war,” he said, speaking about Putin.

Jacobs added, of her reasons for no longer supporting the letter she signed: “Timing in diplomacy is everything.”

The same could be said of politics. Part of the reason for the pushback is that Democrats have sought to highlight McCarthy’s comments as demonstrating the GOP’s insufficient support of Ukraine. And it’s not just that Democrats see potential electoral benefit of differentiating themselves from Republicans; it’s that they worry the letter will be seen as demonstrating a bipartisan lack of resolve.

Rep. Jamie B. Raskin (D-Md.) said that the letter “led to the conflation of growing Republican opposition to support for Ukraine, as exemplified by recent statements of Minority Leader Kevin McCarthy, with the polar-opposite position of dozens of Democrats like me …”

As noted above, the call for diplomacy isn’t really on the same level as McCarthy suggesting that the money could soon dry up. But in pushing for their preferred path, the letter’s signatories did invoke their support for funding the war.

“We agree with the administration’s perspective that it is not America’s place to pressure Ukraine’s government regarding sovereign decisions,” the letter says. “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.”

Indeed, the letter sought to carefully strike a balance between pushing for diplomacy and seeming to break with Biden or suggest the United States should take any steps that Ukraine doesn’t approve of. But it went over like a lead balloon with much of the party, and the fact that even signatories felt the need to back away shows how this delicate matter wasn’t handled nearly delicately enough.

What seems evident is that there will be a significant accounting of just how this transpired. For now, though, the big takeaway is that a political party has successfully pulled one of its factions back from straying too far from the party line.

So far, only one party has.