Russia’s war on Ukraine has, among many other things, highlighted a consequential, indeed historic, shift taking place in American politics with regard to foreign policy.
A recent vote in the House of Representatives helps tell the tale. On April 28, Congress voted by an overwhelming majority of 417-10 to pass Republican Senator John Cornyn’s bill that would revive Lend Lease and apply it to Ukraine.
As is well known, Lend Lease was the brainchild of Franklin D Roosevelt as a way to get around the series of Neutrality Acts passed by Congress in the 1930s, in order to help supply the British war effort against Nazi Germany.
One might be forgiven for wondering if such legislation is really necessary today; after all, according to numbers released by the State Department, the US has provided more than $6.4 billion in “security assistance” to Ukraine since 2014. And last week President Joe Biden put forward a request for another $20.4 billion in “additional security and military assistance” as part of a $33 billion aid package to Ukraine.
So what was the actual point of reviving Lend Lease? Well, it was in part, as is the case with many things that happen on Capitol Hill, performative: a way to signal to US arms manufacturers that constitute much of the political donor class that the money spigot will remain wide open for the foreseeable future.
But the Cornyn bill also tells us that the center of gravity of the anti-war movement is shifting away from its traditional home on the progressive left.
In the century since the US embarked on its journey to global hegemony with the Spanish-American War of choice in 1898, it was most often progressive Democrats who rallied under the banner of peace.
Jeanette Rankin of Montana, the first woman elected to Congress, was one of 50 dissenting votes against American entering the First World War. Progressive magazines such as The Nation were a thorn in the side of proud American imperialists like Henry Cabot Lodge, Brooks Adams and Theodore Roosevelt.
The historian Barbara Tuchman noted that Roosevelt in particular “confused the desire for peace with physical cowardice.” Roosevelt took delight in targeting papers and magazines like the Evening Post and The Nation, which he wrote, “in all of whom there exists absolute physical dread of danger and hardship and who therefore tend to hysterical denunciation and fear of war.”
The Vietnam era marked perhaps the high point of progressive dissent against the American war machine. The anti-war movement was certainly well represented (especially by today’s standards) in the US Senate, where J William Fulbright, William Proxmire, Wayne Morse, Robert F Kennedy, George McGovern, Eugene McCarthy and Frank Church opposed president Lyndon B Johnson’s war.
Perhaps the most recent example of exemplary progressive bravery on Capitol Hill is that of Representative Barbara Lee, who cast the sole vote in the House against granting the George W Bush administration practically unrestricted power to wage war (via the Authorization for the Use of Military Force, or AUMF) in the wake of the attacks of September 11, 2001.
Now, it seems we have entered a new era.
The House’s overwhelming passage of the Cornyn bill will in effect cement Washington’s status as a co-belligerent in a war against a nuclear-armed and increasingly unpredictable Russia.
A look at the roll-call vote in the House shows that only 10 members voted against Cornyn’s bill, all of whom were Republicans.
Not a single Democratic progressive voted against the legislation. All the leaders of the progressive left in Congress, including Ro Khanna (D-CA), Jamie Raskin (D-MD) and Pramila Jaypal (D-MI), voted for Lend Lease – as did every member of the so-called “Squad,” including Alexandria Ocasio-Cortez (D-NY), Ayanna Pressley (D-MA), Ilhan Omar (D-MN), Jamaal Bowman (D-NY), Rashida Tlaib (D-MI), and Cori Bush (D-MO).
But perhaps most important of all was the vote cast by Representative Barbara Lee.
Not only did Lee vote for the Cornyn bill, she accompanied Speaker Nancy Pelosi and the House’s leading Russia hawk Adam Schiff on a trip to Kiev last weekend, where they paid homage to the Ukrainian president and promised US support “until victory is won.”
Lee’s vote takes on additional significance since she chairs the House Appropriations Subcommittee on State and Foreign Operations, which oversees foreign-aid programs such as those funneling billions of taxpayer dollars to Ukraine.
Still worse, progressive activists, journalists and thought leaders have likewise joined the American War Party. A longtime progressive hero and anti-poverty activist, the Reverend Dr William J Barber II, recently released a statement that attempted to leverage the tragedy of the war to drum up support for his grassroots campaign of poor people’s marches.
In a fundraising letter, Barber writes that “Russia’s assault on Ukraine has produced scenes that demand action from people who want to hold on to our humanity.”
“If Russia’s atrocities in Ukraine demand action,” said Barber, “then so too does the failure of the US Senate to pass Build Back Better’s provisions for affordable housing, green jobs, living wages for care workers, and a child tax credit that will immediately lift 4 million children out of poverty.”
After reading the statement, a Chicago-based labor activist wrote to me in disgust. “This [expletive] happens all the time in the left-wing non-profit industrial complex,” he wrote. “They have a really, really bad sense of history, and specious moral claims and comparisons like these are made all the time – usually done to raise money.”
The darling of the progressive foreign policy community, Bernie Sanders’ foreign-policy adviser Matt Duss, recently defended the policy that arguably brought us to this point, NATO expansion.
Brooklyn lefties were once so besotted by Duss that he landed on the cover of the The Nation magazine. His recent comments will no doubt keep him high in their esteem because, with few exceptions, progressive writers and activists have abandoned their commitment to peace: We are all Ukrainians now, or so we are told.
Some progressive commentators can barely conceal their enthusiasm for American involvement. Here is the chickenhawk founding editor of the progressive magazine American Prospect, Robert Kuttner:
“It is appalling that the West keeps lionizing Zelensky, giving him standing ovations after he addresses national parliaments, but denying him what he needs to save his country.
“What does he need? He needs warplanes.
“Sooner or later, NATO will have to give Ukraine planes powerful enough to annihilate Russia’s invading armies. It might as well be sooner.”
Quincy Institute non-resident fellow Joe Cirincione, a longtime nuclear-arms-control expert, has, like Kuttner, embraced his inner chickenhawk. He recently praised the US and North Atlantic Treaty Organization for supplying more arms to Ukraine, and hence prolonging the war in blithe disregard of the possible consequences, including Russia resorting to the use of tactical nuclear weapons, writing:
“Supplying Ukraine with artillery that can out-range Russian artillery can be a dramatic shift in the war. It may save cities now threatened by brutal Russian bombardment. Smart move by US/NATO.”
In the end, the unanimous Democratic support for the Ukrainian Lend Lease bill and the calls for more and more weapons by leading progressives shows they have abandoned their traditional and long-held opposition to American wars of choice.
What a shame.