The Brutal Comedy of the Withdrawn Peace Letter

It doesn’t happen often, but sometimes, one wishes something wasn’t quite so funny. The world this week needed a political maneuver pulled off with no laughs, and an influential group of American politicians (with one admirable exception) proved unable to accommodate.

The Congressional Progressive Caucus took about 36 hours to pull off a circular firing squad stunt that would have made the Keystone Kops stand and applaud:

On June 27th, analyst Christopher Mott at The Institute for Peace and Democracy published a white paper called, “Woke Imperium: The Coming Confluence Between Social Justice and Neoconservatism.” You might remember it. It was featured here in a TK article called “The Great Military Rebrand,” and Chris and I did a Callin show about his thesis.

One of Mott’s central ideas was that Americans imagine they don’t fight wars for crass reasons of conquest or regional self-interest. They prefer grand battles of good and evil, part of a worldview that places “universalist narratives at the center of the human story.” Enemies are therefore cast not as mere competitors for resources or territory, but agents of Satanic influence:

Foreign rivals… can be painted as being “on the wrong side of history”, “against Progress”, “diabolical”, and so on… At the same time, these very causes are likely to be systematically de-emphasized in the cases of nations allied to the U.S—such as Saudi Arabia…

Three days after that paper was published, the Congressional Progressive Caucus, led by chair Pramila Jayapal of Washington, began circulating an anodyne letter calling for diplomacy in Ukraine. Addressed to President Joe Biden, the signatories urged a “proactive diplomatic push, redoubling efforts to seek a realistic framework for a ceasefire.” They were not calling for a cessation of military support. Instead, they wrote that because “the risk of nuclear weapons being used has been estimated to be higher now than at any time since the height of the Cold War,” and “nuclear escalation and miscalculation… only increase the longer this war continues,” Biden and the Democratic Party should at least explore a diplomatic solution.

The signatory list read like a Who’s Who of the House’s most Twitter-adored progressives, including New York’s Alexandria Ocasio-Cortez, Missouri’s Cori Bush, California’s Ro Khanna, Minnesota’s Ilhan Omar, and (please take note) Maryland’s Jamie Raskin. Several members, including Ocasio-Cortez, would eventually come under pressure from some leftist/antiwar constituents for appearing to support the expansion of the war effort.

The letter circulated for months, but wasn’t released until this Monday, October 24th. Though the press release on the CPC website opened with a line about the increased threat of nuclear war, it went on to frame the call for diplomacy in pragmatic political terms, citing a poll from the liberal Data for Progress outfit from September 27:

The majority of voters also support this call for diplomacy. Recent polling shows that 57 percent of Americans approve of U.S. negotiations to end the war in Ukraine as soon as possible, even if it means making some compromises with Russia. 57 percent believe that Russia’s war in Ukraine will end in a negotiated peace, not a total military victory for either side, and 59 percent largely agree that the U.S. has a leading role to play in negotiating an end to the war.

There’s no time when the letter wouldn’t have been politically complicated, but the timing was a little more painful for the signers for a few reasons. Speaker Nancy Pelosi was due to speak the next day in Zagreb, Croatia, where she’d promise at an international summit “our support is here to stay.” Meaning: if Democrats retain control of Congress after midterms, they will continue weapons shipments.

Moreover, House Minority Leader Kevin McCarthy the week before said the opposite, that “people are gonna be sitting in a recession and they’re not going to write a blank check to Ukraine.” Leading House progressives laying hands on the same political Twister squares as hated Republicans must have been deemed an unacceptably awkward visual.

With the kind of speed only possible in the Twitter age, the 30 signatories found themselves right away bot-bombed and fighting off accusations of collaborationism and fascist sympathy. So they did what nearly all intellectuals do when confronted with fleeting unpleasantness: they turned their faces completely inside out and renounced their own statements en masse.

The story critical of the “Jayapal 30” first came out via a Washington Post article appearing at 1:34 p.m. Monday and hit Twitter two minutes later. By 2:16 p.m. another prominent Democrat, Arizona’s Ruben Gallego, triangulated fellow members, castigating, “The way to end a war? Win it quickly.”

brutal comedy

By 10:53 p.m., one of the letter’s signatories, Wisconsin’s Mark Pocan, went on Twitter and wrote, “This was written in July & I have no idea why it went out now. Bad timing.” By that same time late Monday, several who’d signed the document were telling reporters they’d been blindsided, not informed when the letter was to be released.

This would come out in multiple publications, where for example an unnamed signatory told Politico it was “amateur hour on part of the CPC,” while another whispered it was time to “clean house” there. These were people who signed the letter! As midnight neared, random citizens seemed to flock to social media just to dump on Jayapal, with rock legend Stevie Van Zandt tweeting:

Dear Ms. Jayapal. I hope you and the other fucking asshole “Progressives” are proud of yourselves. Because you just cost more Ukrainians their lives.

Jayapal’s response was astonishing. Not only did she retract the letter, she issued a statement blaming her own staff for the error. “The letter was drafted months ago, but unfortunately, was released by staff without vetting,” she said. To complete the merry-go-round of political self-harm, a source “familiar with the situation” then told Politico that “Jayapal personally approved the letter’s release on Monday.”

If you’re trying to follow this finger-pointing sequence: first, politicians who signed the letter anonymously blamed Jayapal, then Jayapal blamed unnamed “staff” for the letter, then unnamed staff blamed Jayapal.

The real comedy only just started. Some members who’d signed the letter urging diplomacy now not only backtracked for “timing” or optics reasons, but reaffirmed commitments framing the necessity of continued war in more or less exactly the terms predicted by Mott. The most incredible was Maryland’s Jamie Raskin, who issued a press release that someday ought to get its own wing in a Why We Fight! museum. First, he contradicted the letter he’d signed arguing it was necessary to reduce the threat of “World War III” and “direct military conflict.” He now wrote, “We should unite around this just struggle and stay focused on it.”

More incredible was Raskin’s new theory of the war’s justification:

Moscow right now is a hub of corrupt tyranny, censorship, authoritarian repression, police violence, propaganda, government lies and disinformation, and planning for war crimes. It is a world center of antifeminist, antigay, anti-trans hatred, as well as the homeland of replacement theory for export. In supporting Ukraine, we are opposing these fascist views, and supporting the urgent principles of democratic pluralism.

This was wild stuff. We’re not supplying gazillions in weaponry to Ukraine, and accelerating deliveries of the B61-12 air-dropped gravity bomb nukes to Eastern Europe, and moving “more ships, planes and troops to NATO’s eastern flank” because Ukraine happens to be at the center of an energy-based battle between Russia and America over political and economic primacy in Europe.

No, Raskin insisted, we’re there because Moscow is exporting replacement theory to Tucker Carlson, and war is an indispensable part of the global fight against MAGA-or-whatever! Not since the Bush administration’s promise to end “tyranny in the world” have we seen something so close to an outright declaration of religious war from an American politician.

When Mott saw Raskin’s letter, he thought it might be satire, maybe even based on his own work. “Raskin’s statement was almost a point by point recreation of how I predicted foreign policy establishment politicians of progressive inclination would talk about diplomacy,” he says. “I had to check to see that the statement was not some kind of ironic critique. But it was totally serious.”

Mott’s paper similarly predicted that the United States as it continued its rebrand of the neoconservative project would frame foreign conflicts as religious confrontations, doing so using a “holy lexicon” of elite middle management. The Raskin release, Mott says, was “basically a verbatim litany of progressive-style declaration of holy war,” that matched up “exactly with how I predicted discourse would go.”

Meanwhile, Carlson wasn’t sure if Raskin was talking about him exactly, but got the feeling that he might have been. “It’s definitely about a domestic religious war,” he says. “The guy’s a fucking jihadi. From Bethesda. It’s amazing.”

The irony of what ought to be a bastion of antiwar thinking in Congress cowering and/or being pushed around so that progressive terminology could be used as escalation rhetoric wasn’t lost on former Ohio Congressman Dennis Kucinich. He watched the retraction fiasco with horror. “It’s time for the Party to rethink Democratic opposition to diplomacy,” he said, adding that Democrats shouldn’t “make support for the war, and its expansion, a test of party loyalty.”

Reached by phone, Kucinich stressed the extraordinary nature of a retracted letter and underscored the episode went beyond the usual Queensberry-rules hazing that’s long been standard in Congress. Members being pressured to change votes has never been uncommon, or even always considered shameful. (When Republicans in the Tom Delay Congress were struggling to scrounge votes to pass the Central American Free Trade Agreement, Arizona’s Jim Kolbe bragged, “We will twist their arms until they break.”) But such a dramatic turnaround not just by one member but 30 is unprecedented, as is the reason.

“Most of this would just be an interesting case of inside baseball, except for one thing,” says Kucinich. “You’re talking about a war.”

The Russia-Ukraine conflict has become global must-see TV, with most of the world watching in helplessness. The fear of any country on the sidelines (to say nothing of large numbers of American voters) is that both of the great powers involved will overplay their hands. The United States hopes to stop Russia by playing chicken with nuclear conflict — by filling the region with weapons and “helping” with CIA and special forces ops in amounts our leaders apparently feel certain will keep falling short of provoking apocalyptic response. This strategy assumes confidence in Russian restraint the rest of the world will be forced to share, for as long as this continues.

The significance of “progressive holy war” language from Raskin is that it’s designed to divert attention from this central question of just exactly how much chicken voters might want us to be playing over there. If you asked Americans a year ago if they’d be willing to risk their kids’ lives for dairy farms in the Kherson Oblast, 99% would say “Where?” and then no. But frame the project as a war to halt the “export” of bigotry by conquering the “world center” of political regression, and you might just get a plurality of voters casting votes to roll the dice.

Commentators are having fun ripping on the spectacle of the CPC plunging knives in each other’s backs, but there’s a level beyond comedy here. The swift reversals suggest a strong desire for discipline within Democratic Party ranks, heading into midterm elections that appear destined to end with significant losses in both houses. With control of the White House but not Congress — and with Republican leaders sounding anxious to turn off the money faucet for Kyiv — the obvious endgame for the Democrats is total commitment to being the War Party through 2024.

Worse: the Jayapal 30 went from trying to open the door to negotiation to articulating the reasons for keeping it slammed shut, a job they’ll perform over and over from now on, when these would-be antiwar voices in Congressional Progressive Caucus – who just proved they’ll do it – will be asked to be lead cheerleaders for escalation. Which brings us back to Kucinich’s point: this would just be a funny inside-baseball crackup, if it didn’t look destined to end in years more escalation.

It’s worth taking a moment to give kudos to California’s Ro Khanna, who did not hide behind prepared statements or use fourth-rate Game of Thrones tactics to evade social media outrage. He went on live TV and stuck to his principles, defending his original decision to sign the letter, which he called “common sense”:brutal comedy

Why can’t more members do this? The last time Congress enjoyed widespread public confidence was after 9/11, when the institution scored an 84% approval rating. That number dropped as low as 9% in 2013, and had been on the relative upswing lately, reaching 23% in a recent Gallup survey. Numbers are low for a reason, and a big one is trust — Congress hasn’t inched above double-digits in the “great deal” of trust category since 2000, and it’s at 3% now. Irrespective of politics, the public expects members in both parties to backstab and sell each other out at the first opportunity.

In this context, could anything look worse than this week’s scurrying-roach routine? If you were actively trying to convince the public you didn’t stand for anything, you couldn’t dream up something more devastating than what the CPC members just did to themselves, and their institution. Sometimes, it almost seems like our government is bent on self-sabotage.

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