Over the last two days, members of the Congressional Progressive Caucus issued and almost immediately retracted an open letter calling for a negotiated settlement to the conflict in Ukraine. The controversy over this statement reveals both the ferociousness of pro-war sentiment among elite politicians and media pundits, and the folly of backing down instead of standing strong in the face of the warmongers.
The letter, addressed to Joe Biden, was released on Monday. It was immediately met with condemnation from all corners of ruling-class politics, Democrats and Republicans alike. Virtually the entire political establishment has been in lock step in support for heavy U.S. involvement in the war, with the Pentagon and its junior partners taking responsibility for equipping Ukraine’s armed forces, sharing intelligence and providing direct guidance about how to conduct the fighting.
The Congressional Progressive Caucus surrendered right away. Representative Pramila Jayapal, head of the caucus, put out a statement explaining that, “The letter was drafted several months ago, but unfortunately was released by staff without vetting.” Media reports suggest that the letter was initially circulated in June, before the Ukrainian military’s summer counteroffensive began making major gains.
Aside from blaming staffers for not double checking that the letter still reflected their bosses’ opinion, the caucus’ retraction bizarrely attempted to position themselves as more pro-war than Republicans, lamenting that the release of their statement, “created the unfortunate appearance that Democrats, who have strongly and unanimously supported and voted for every package of military, strategic, and economic assistance to the Ukrainian people, are somehow aligned with Republicans who seek to pull the plug on American support for President Zelensky.”
How fierce the backlash against the Progressive Caucus letter was is especially remarkable considering how mild its contents were. The letter began with gushing support for Biden’s proxy war strategy thus far, “We write with appreciation for your commitment to Ukraine’s legitimate struggle against Russia’s war of aggression … Your administration’s policy was critical to enable the Ukrainian people, through their courageous fighting and heroic sacrifices, to deal a historic military defeat to Russia.”
They then go on to note that “the catastrophic possibilities of nuclear escalation and miscalculation” should be taken into account as a “national-security priority” (oh really!) and call for the Biden administration to “seriously explore all possible avenues, including direct engagement with Russia, to reduce harm and support Ukraine in achieving a peaceful settlement.” But even this is couched in language condemning Russian brutality and citing quotes from Ukrainian president Zelenskyy to support their point.
The drafters of this letter clearly did everything they could to adapt themselves to the ultra-aggressive ruling class consensus and frame their positions as essentially tactical advice to U.S. imperialism. And it was all for nothing. No deviation from the pro-war line, regardless of how minor, will be tolerated.
To hold a principled stand on the war under these circumstances, one has to be willing to take on the entire establishment — without regard for what this means for one’s standing in mainstream ruling class political circles. Conciliation and back tracking only makes the attacks worse and demoralizes potential supporters.
The only thing that can break the suffocating pro-war atmosphere prevailing in national politics is for people to stand up and boldly state their support for peace. This will take serious courage especially at first, since the attacks on those who defy the imperialist consensus will be considerable.
But the antiwar argument has the potential to resonate with a huge number of people. Why should tens of billions of dollars be funneled to the weapons manufacturers when people are struggling to afford the bare necessities? Isn’t a conflict between the countries with the two biggest nuclear arsenals something to be avoided at all costs, regardless of your opinion of the Russian government? Why shouldn’t NATO promise to stop expanding towards Russia’s borders if such a pledge ensures peace and stability? These are all completely legitimate questions to ask, and those who seek to shut down all consideration of them exposes the weakness of their own position.