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House Liberals mess with Ukraine letter

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For the second time in a week, members of Congress have signaled a potential shift in US policy on the Russian invasion of Ukraine.

First, it was House Minority Leader Kevin McCarthy (R-California) who said a GOP-controlled Congress next year could withhold funding for Ukraine. Then on Monday, 30 Liberal Democrats in the House called on President Biden to engage in direct diplomacy with Russia.

One of these approaches has resulted in significant pushback within the party, pushbacks by signatories and now, ultimately, retraction. But it’s not the most radical.

Representative for Congressional Progressive Caucus Chair Pramila Jayapal (D-Wash.) announced Tuesday that she had retracted the letter she led, just 24 hours after it came out. She said the letter was written “several months ago” and was not checked before it was published on Monday.

The move comes after several signatories strayed from the thrust of Monday’s letter and Jayapal herself sought to clarify it.

Rep. Mark Takano (D-California) said in a statement that “only the Ukrainians have the right to determine the conditions under which this war ends”.

Rep. Mark Pocan (D-Wis.) said the letter was not intended to criticize Biden’s approach and defended him in a series of tweets. But he also hinted that it was mishandled. “First of all, this was written in July and I have no idea why it came out now. Bad timing,” he said. “Second, he was trying to achieve a ceasefire. fire and diplomacy as others banged war drums, without criticizing Biden.”

Rep. Sara Jacobs (D-California) echoed Pocan, saying she actually signed the letter in late June. But unlike Pocan, she offered perhaps the biggest break from her content, saying that “Many things have changed since then. I wouldn’t sign it today.

A spokesperson for Jayapal initially declined to comment on Tuesday on claims that the letter was months old. But Rep. Ilhan Omar (D-Minn.), the Progressive Caucus whip, appeared to confirm that was the case and the signatories were not told he would be out Monday.

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

But other than that, these members were just pushing for diplomacy – something that, under most circumstances, would seem like an admirable goal to avoid bloodshed. So why course correction?

The first thing to note is that, Jacobs aside, the signers were more committed to a tonal reverse than a full reversal. The members said they believed in the usefulness of diplomacy, but downplayed how much they actually insisted on it.

The biggest problem with the letter was that it was seen as a departure from Biden’s strategy of calling for diplomacy at a time when the administration argued that Russia had failed to take the necessary steps to engage.

The administration did not really hesitate to perspective of diplomacy, but he argued that it should not be so freely concluded – and that Russia should not be rewarded for its escalation.

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

State Department spokesman Ned Price added last week that Ukraine will lead such a process: “We have heard no reciprocal statements or abstentions from Moscow that they are willing to faith in engaging in this diplomacy and dialogue”.

The rhetoric of the letter was divisive, to say the least. The administration has stressed that before you get into diplomacy, you want to be sure the other side is serious about it and has shown good faith; otherwise your attempt to reach out is not only useless but risks showing your weakness or even playing into your opponent’s hands. Diplomacy is a laudable goal, but has its pitfalls. (Think: Donald Trump gives Kim Jong Un a historic photoshoot.)

Sen. Chris Murphy (D-Conn.), who often finds himself in common cause with lawmakers like the signatories of the letter, replied, “There is moral and strategic peril in sitting down with Putin too soon. It risks legitimizing his crimes and handing over parts of Ukraine to Russia in a deal that Putin won’t even keep.

Rep. Jake Auchincloss (D-Mass.) was more direct. “This letter is an olive branch to a war criminal who is losing his warhe said of 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 sought to highlight McCarthy’s comments as demonstrating insufficient GOP support for Ukraine. And it’s not just that Democrats see a potential electoral advantage in differentiating themselves from Republicans; it’s that they fear the letter will be seen as demonstrating a lack of bipartisan resolve.

Rep. Jamie B. Raskin (D-Md.) said the letter “has led to confusion from growing Republican opposition to support for Ukraine, as evidenced by Minority Leader Kevin McCarthy’s recent statements, with the opposing polar stance of dozens of Democrats like me…”

As noted above, the call for diplomacy isn’t quite on the same level as McCarthy suggesting the money may soon dry up. But in pushing for their preferred path, the signatories of the letter invoked their support to finance the war.

“We agree with the administration’s view that it is not for the United States to pressure the Ukrainian government regarding sovereign decisions,” the letter said. “But as lawmakers responsible for spending tens of billions of American taxpayer dollars on military assistance in the conflict, we believe that such involvement in this war also creates a responsibility for the United States to seriously explore all possible ways.”

Indeed, the letter sought to carefully strike a balance between pushing for diplomacy and appearing to break with Biden or suggesting the United States take any action that Ukraine does not approve of. But it went like a lead balloon with much of the party, and the fact that even the signatories felt the need to back down shows how this sensitive issue has not been handled tactfully enough.

What seems obvious is that there will be a meaningful account of how it happened. For now, however, the big takeaway is that one political party has successfully prevented one of its factions from straying too far from the party line.

So far, only one party has done so.