Progressive Democrats Don Helmets, Embrace US-Russia Proxy War

As the criminal Russian invasion of Ukraine enters its fourth month, the peace and progressive movement has some hard rethinking to do.

Congress has appropriated $54 billion for the Ukraine war – $13.6 billion in March and $40.1 billion on May 19 – of which $31.3 is for military purposes.  The May vote was 368-57 in the House and 86-11 in the Senate.  All Democrats and all Massachusetts Representatives and Senators voted for the war funding, while a substantial number of Trumpist Republicans voted no.

Previously antiwar Democrats like Reps. Ayanna Pressley, Jim McGovern, Barbara Lee, Pramila Jayapal, Ilhan Omar, and Alexandria Ocasio-Cortez, and Senators Bernie Sanders, Elizabeth Warren, and Ed Markey, have uncritically embraced the Administration’s escalating proxy war against Russia.  They have said little to explain their actions; only Cori Bush released a statement questioning the level of military aid, even while voting for it.

On Ukraine, there is no peace voice in Congress.

The Administration has been telegraphing since April that its aims go well beyond defending Ukraine.  President Biden said that President Putin “cannot remain in power”.  Secretary of Defense Austin said the U.S. seeks to weaken Russia.  And Speaker Nancy Pelosi said that we are fighting until “victory”.

The Biden Administration has not outlined a strategy for ending the war – only one for hitting back at Russia.  Secretary of State Blinken has not met with Russian Foreign Secretary Lavrov since the Russian invasion started more than two months ago.   There is no off-ramp.  There is no diplomacy.

Even the New York Times editors, who, like their news department, have generally been cheerleaders for the war, are now calling for caution, asking, “What is America’s Strategy in Ukraine?” in a May 19 editorial.  “The White House not only risks losing Americans’ interest in supporting Ukrainians — who continue to suffer the loss of lives and livelihoods — but also jeopardizes long-term peace and security on the European continent,” they wrote.

On June 13, Steven Erlanger in the Times made clear that French president Macron and German chancellor Scholz are not calling for Ukrainian victory, but for peace.

Robert KuttnerJoe CirincioneMatt Duss, and Bill Fletcher Jr. are among well-known progressive voices who have joined the call for the US to support Ukraine with military aid, while US peace voices such as Noam Chomsky, Codepink, and UNAC warn of the consequences of doing so and call for negotiations instead of arms.

Ukraine is the victim of aggression and has the right to defend itself, and other states have the right to aid it.  But it does not follow that the United States should provide arms to Ukraine.  The US risks being drawn into a wider war with Russia. It diverts funds needed for COVID relief, housing, combating climate change and more to a power struggle in Europe, and pours more into the coffers of the military-industrial complex.

So why have so many progressives fallen into line behind the Administration’s policy of defeating Russia?

First, many progressives, like Biden and the centrist Democrats, say that the primary struggle in the world today is between democracy and authoritarianism, with the United States as the leader of the democracies.   In this view, Donald Trump, Jair Bolsonaro, and Vladimir Putin exemplify an anti-democratic tendency that democracies must resist.  Bernie Sanders laid out his version of this perspective in Fulton, Missouri, in 2017.  Linking an anti-authoritarian foreign policy to his domestic agenda, Sanders connects authoritarianism to inequality, corruption, and oligarchy, saying they are part of the same system.

As Aaron Maté explains, support by Sanders and other progressive electeds for the Russiagate conspiracy theory starting in 2016 set the stage for them to embrace an anti-Russian consensus, which, when the war in Ukraine broke out, prepared them to support a US armed confrontation with Russia.

But the belief that the U.S. is the defender of democracy provides an ideological justification for US antagonism to Russia, China, and other countries that won’t follow US dictates.   Peace lovers must reject this view.

Yes, we should support democracy.  But the U.S. is hardly in a position to bring democracy to the world.  U.S. democracy has always been tilted in favor of the rich and is ever more so today.  The U.S. quest to impose its own model of “democracy” on other countries has led it to cause the disasters of Iraq and Afghanistan, and to unrelenting antagonism to Iran, Venezuela, Cuba, Russia, China, and more.

Rather, countries with different political systems need to respect each other and settle their differences peacefully.  Peace means opposing military alliances, opposing arms sales and transfers, and supporting a greatly strengthened United Nations.   It certainly doesn’t mean embracing a country that isn’t even a U.S. ally, flooding it with arms, and making its war our own.

In reality, the U.S. is an empire, not a democracy.  Its policy is not driven by the needs or opinions of its people, but by the needs of capitalism. Massachusetts Peace Action first laid out this perspective eight years ago in our discussion paper, A Foreign Policy for All.

Our understanding that the U.S. is an empire is not shared by Democratic progressives such as Sanders, Ocasio-Cortez, McGovern, Pressley, Warren, or others.  While they critique capitalist control of U.S. politics, they have not applied this critique to foreign policy.  In effect, their view is that the U.S. is an imperfect democracy and that we should use U.S. military power to check authoritarian states around the world.

Such a view is not far from the neoconservative line that the U.S. is the last best hope of freedom.  In this way, the progressive Democrats become leaders of the war party.

Second, progressives support human rights and international law.  When US adversaries trample on human rights or invade other countries, progressives sympathize with the victims. They’re right to do so.

But progressives are not skeptical enough. They are often manipulated by the war party to sign on to US wars and sanctions campaigns that are totally ineffective at supporting human rights and really undermine them.  We say they should sanction U.S. human rights offenses first before trying to teach other countries how to uphold rights.

Progressives also sign on too quickly to coercive or military means to attempt to redress human rights violations.

Human rights violations happen in all wars, including both those started by the United States and those started by Russia.  War itself is a violation of human rights.

As Yale law professor Samuel Moyn writes, the effort to make war more humane has contributed to making US wars “more acceptable to many and difficult to see for to others.”

Until they are ready to see that other countries’ political systems also deserve respect and engagement, progressives are not able to break out of the war party’s frame. They may at times oppose it on specific issues, but they are still buying into American exceptionalism.

Progressives seem to have forgotten the anti-interventionism that served them so well when they resisted the Iraq and Afghanistan wars and (to some extent) the Syria and Libya interventions of the past two decades.  They have suddenly forgotten their skepticism of propaganda and are grabbing for their helmets.

U.S. public opinion is already beginning to shift on Ukraine as the economic damage of sanctions sets in.  This was reflected in the 68 Republican votes against the Ukraine aid package.  So far, progressives are boxed in by their American exceptionalist and anti-Russian ideology and have declined to take up this issue.  As antiwar sentiment grows, as it is sure to, the progressive movement will pay a heavy price for the decision of its Congressional delegation to support the U.S. war effort.

Cole Harrison is the executive director of Massachusetts Peace Action.