The State Department continues to signal that the United States is searching for a diplomatic solution to mounting tensions between Russia and Ukraine—with a senior official announcing last week, “The United States does not want conflict. We want peace.” Yet, in recent days, as media reports have amplified concerns about the threat of a Russian invasion, the United States has dispatched another $200 million in weaponry to Ukraine, and the Biden administration has entered into discussions with NATO allies about the deployment of thousands of additional US troops to Eastern European counties. At the same time, on Capitol Hill, Republicans and Democrats are fast-tracking proposals for devastating sanctions against Moscow and talking about dramatically increasing funding for US assistance to the Ukrainian military.
That’s got Congressional Progressive Caucus chair Pramila Jayapal (D-Wash.) and Representative Barbara Lee (D-Calif.), who chairs the CPC’s Peace and Security Taskforce, worried that US officials are sending messages that could undermine prospects for a peaceful resolution to the crisis. “We have significant concerns that new troop deployments, sweeping and indiscriminate sanctions, and a flood of hundreds of millions of dollars in lethal weapons will only raise tensions and increase the chance of miscalculation. Russia’s strategy is to inflame tensions; the United States and NATO must not play into this strategy,” said Jayapal and Lee in a statement issued Wednesday.
While the CPC leaders acknowledged that they “continue to watch Russia’s threatening behavior towards Ukraine with alarm,” they declared, “There is no military solution out of this crisis — diplomacy needs to be the focus.”
The message from Jayapal and Lee, savvy members of the House with significant experience on foreign policy issues, was an important intervention at a time when too many members of Congress are pressuring the Biden administration to adopt a more bellicose approach.
The CPC leaders encouraged Biden administration efforts “to extend and deepen the dialogue, allowing for robust negotiations and compromise.” They also warned that ill-thought congressional pressure on the administration could make prospects for a diplomatic resolution more difficult. “In past crises,” they explained, “where events are moving quickly and intelligence is unclear, vigorous, delicate diplomacy (has been) essential to de-escalation.” With that in mind, Jayapal and Lee said, “We call upon our colleagues to allow the administration to find a diplomatic way out of this crisis.”
I talked with Representative Jayapal Wednesday afternoon about why she and Representative Lee decided to speak up at this point.
“Because things are moving so quickly, we felt it was important to make sure that members of Congress remained focused on diplomacy,” explained Jayapal, who—along with leaders of groups such as Peace Action, Code Pink, Friends Committee on National Legislation, and Win Without War—is worried that posturing by members of Congress could narrow nonmilitary options and accelerate tensions. “Sometimes, when these sorts of challenges are developing, members of Congress feel they have to do something very quickly, that they have to sign onto something that sends a message. We wanted to help people to think this through, and to understand that we don’t want to do anything that undermines the efforts of the diplomats.”
That’s a legitimate concern. And it is no surprise that these key leaders in the House are raising it.
Jayapal, the first South Asian American woman elected to the US House of Representatives and one of only two dozen naturalized citizens currently serving in the United States Congress, and Lee, who for decades has been the chamber’s leading advocate for peace and diplomacy, have in recent months been stepping up their advocacy for a deeper focus on diplomacy and global cooperation by US officials. Earlier this month, they introduced a Foreign Policy for the 21st Century Resolution that proposes “cutting waste, fraud, and abuse in defense spending and security assistance while returning the power of war-making to elected officials, implementing arms controls and nuclear nonproliferation, and ending the use of broad-based, sectoral sanctions.”
Cosponsored by Democratic Representatives Alexandria Ocasio-Cortez (N.Y.), Ilhan Omar (Minn.), Rashida Tlaib (Mich.), Ayanna Pressley (Mass.), Jamaal Bowman (N.Y.), Andre Carson (Ind.), Raúl Grijalva (Ariz.), Sara Jacobs (Calif.), Henry C. “Hank” Johnson Jr. (Ga.), Alan Lowenthal (Calif.), James McGovern (Mass.), Eleanor Holmes Norton (D.C.), Donald Payne Jr. (N.J.), Jan Schakowsky (Ill.), Mark Takano (Calif.), Nydia Velazquez (N.Y.), and Bonnie Watson Coleman (N.J.), the resolution frames out a vision for a new approach to foreign policy. It “calls for investing in diplomacy, international justice and cooperation, peacebuilding, and green development while cutting security assistance and weapons sales to human rights abusers.”
That emphasis on diplomacy and peacebuilding, while always necessary, is especially resonant today as the Ukraine crisis highlights the need for employing nonmilitary tools of statecraft for conflict resolution, says Jayapal.
“We had been working on that resolution for some time. We put a lot of thought into it because we were aware of the need for a new direction,” explained the CPC chair. “Suddenly, it is even more urgent to say that negotiating is not a sign of weakness. It is a sign of strength.”