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TIMES THAT TRY OUR SOULS

US administration must make the case for Ukrainian aid as Republicans insist on party fratricide

US administration must make the case for Ukrainian aid as Republicans insist on party fratricide
From left: US House Speaker Pro Tempore Patrick McHenry leaves the office of former US Speaker of the House Kevin McCarthy on Capitol Hill in Washington, DC, on 4 October 2023. (Photo: EPA-EFE / Michael Reynolds) | Former Republican Speaker Kevin McCarthy speaks to reporters after the House of Representatives voted to remove him from his leadership position in the US Capitol, in Washington, DC, on 3 October 2023. (Photo: EPA-EFE / Jim Lo Scalzo) | House Majority Leader Steve Scalise addresses a House Republican news conference on Capitol Hill on 10 January 2023. (Photo: EPA-EFE / Michael Reynolds)

Republican legislators in the US are fighting a civil war within their own party, holding the government budget and essential aid to Ukraine hostage to this struggle. It cannot be allowed to stand.

If one is not an American, it might be easy to watch the chaos and disarray in US politics, shrug one’s shoulders, smile and assume that what is happening in Congress and among Republican candidates for their presidential nomination is the US’s problem. In that sense, it might be like having a noisy, dysfunctional household next door to one’s home in an otherwise calm and quiet suburb. 

In that unruly home, its inhabitants quarrel and break dishes and furniture during their disagreements. There may be too much binge drinking, but, so far, nobody has been arrested or taken to a hospital emergency ward. So far at least, the children are still fed most of the time. They go to school and they have learnt to shrug off the chaos as something inevitable in their family.

Unfortunately, what is happening in the US house, if things continue on their current course, will not stay inside the walls of the building. The neighbourhood will be the worse for it.

Republicans in Congress — now in the midst of an internecine squabble — have been unable to keep their leader, the now former speaker of the House, Kevin McCarthy — in his position. Instead, a cabal of hard-right nihilists insisted on bringing McCarthy’s continuation in that position to a vote on the floor of the House, in retribution for McCarthy’s reluctant willingness to support a deal with Democrats to continue funding the government. 

This deal was instead of burning down the House via a shutdown of all government funding after 30 September. Ultimately, McCarthy could not rally sufficient Republicans to keep himself in office, especially since the Democrats all voted to remove him as well, since it had been so difficult to reach compromises with him in negotiations.

Congress distracted

The small right-wing gang of eight had previously exacted agreement that one Republican member could move to remove the Speaker and force a vote as one of the prices of McCarthy’s eventual accession to the speakership. As a result, the moment the speaker agreed to a continuing resolution on the budget he was in the crosshairs of those on the right-wing fringe.

Things were not helped when the likely Republican nominee for president, Donald Trump, kept chirping from the sidelines that it would be better for the government to be shut down than for rational Republicans to seek a compromise with Democrats. 

Read more in Daily Maverick: Shutdown averted after Congress passes stopgap funding bill at eleventh hour

At this point, the two leading candidates for speaker in their caucus are Ohio Congressman Jim Jordan, chair of the House Judiciary Committee, and Louisiana Congressman and Majority Leader Steve Scalise. Neither would be described as a moderate Republican or a supple negotiator by any of the usual yardsticks.

Congress — and particularly Republicans — will now spend the next weeks in a struggle to figure out who the next speaker of the House will be. Without a speaker, the actual work of the House of Representatives effectively grinds to a halt. But the two most consequential, current foreign policy issues confronting the Congress are on the way to becoming legislative roadkill as a result of the infighting.

These are, of course, Ukraine’s struggle against a Russian invasion and the effective control of the US’s southern border increasingly inundated by desperate migrants from Latin America — and coincidentally a major route for the illicit trafficking of fentanyl into the US.

While the border management crisis is a priority for both parties (and an increasing percentage of the population), precisely how to effectively achieve this and how much it will cost remains up for grabs. And, as a result, any new measures, any appropriations and any efforts to pin the growing mess firmly on the Biden administration will quickly make the border the subject of increasingly rancorous debates, even if truly bizarre ideas being floated, such as missile strikes on fentanyl labs in Mexico or sending US troops into Mexico, remain mad-hatter ideas from the far-right political fringe and part of talk-radio rantings.

‘Europe’s problem’

But new funding for weapons to help Ukraine resist and ultimately reverse the Russian invasion is a very different saga. (This comes even as a majority of Americans continue to support aid to Ukraine, albeit at a gradually declining level of agreement.)

Some opponents of funding for Ukraine are trying to argue these appropriations are an important driver of a ballooning budget deficit, despite their actually being a very small share of the overall government budget, along with the fact that not one US military member has been deployed (let alone become a fatality) in the beleaguered nation. 

Others, more confusingly, such as some of the Republican candidates for the presidential nomination, have been arguing the struggle is a simple border dispute, or that it is not a major concern for Americans.

This is a distant echo of Neville Chamberlain’s infamous remark about Czechoslovakia in 1938 — when he said it was a small country, far away from Britain. Yet other Republican candidates are arguing the Ukrainian war is Europe’s problem to solve and European nations must pony up the wherewithal to see it through, despite the fact the total of European aid — both economic and military — at least matches that of the US 

More sinisterly, however, there are also Republicans — such as Donald Trump — who are sufficiently enamoured with autocrats and wannabe dictators that they have expressed their understanding of Russian President Vladimir Putin’s efforts to restore the old Russian imperium. This, even if Ukrainian independence must be sacrificed — in whole or in part. 

The Washington Post’s Early 202 newsletter on Thursday, 5 October, discussed the growing split in the Republican congressional caucus: “Neither House Majority Leader Steve Scalise nor Rep Jim Jordan — the only Republicans running for speaker right now — mentioned Ukraine in the letters they circulated Wednesday to make their cases. Instead, they focused on the border, fighting crime and cutting spending. 

“But more and more House Republicans are reluctant to pass another Ukraine aid package as their voters also sour on doing so … Jordan was one of 70 House Republicans who voted for an amendment sponsored by Rep. Matt Gaetz — who triggered the vote that felled McCarthy — in July to cut off aid to Ukraine and he was one of 117 Republicans who voted against more Ukraine aid last week. Scalise voted the opposite way on both measures. 

“The split echoes the broad spectrum of views among House Republicans. House Foreign Affairs Committee Chairman Michael McCaul, for instance, has criticised the Biden Administration for not being aggressive enough in aiding Ukraine. Many hard-right Republicans [by contrast] have called for cutting off aid immediately.”

By contrast, most European nations (with the exception of Hungary and maybe Slovakia in the near future) have made their stand with Ukraine. This is especially true with countries such as Finland (a new Nato member) and the various Balkan EU and Nato nations whose leaders and populations have vivid understandings of what a Ukrainian defeat would mean for the Ukrainians — and, potentially, for themselves.

This is based on their respective histories of having faced Soviet invasions, as with Finland, or enduring subservience to the Soviet Union. Such nations realise this is a true hinge moment for Europe, and the West more generally. 

Building national consensus

We must compare this moment with another in history — one that proved to be a major reorientation for the West as a whole and for Republicans in the US. And that, of course, was the postwar response to yet further pressures by the then Soviet Union.

The increasingly perilous circumstances of Greece and Turkey, the exhausted economies of Britain, France and the others, and then the Soviet-sponsored coup d’état in Czechoslovakia finally pushed the US towards the formation of the North Atlantic Treaty Organization. That, in turn, was the backstopping that made the European Economic Community (later the EU) possible. 

While the US had emerged from the war largely unscathed and with a robust economy, there had been a long isolationist tradition towards Europe’s wars and an eschewing of any permanent alliances. Central to making the change was the Damascene conversion of Michigan Republican Senator Arthur Vandenberg, chairman of the Senate Foreign Relations Committee. 

As his Senate biography explains: “Senator Arthur Vandenberg of Michigan delivered a celebrated ‘speech heard round the world’ in the Senate Chamber on January 10, 1945, announcing his conversion from isolationism to internationalism. In 1947, at the start of the Cold War, Vandenberg became chairman of the Senate Foreign Relations Committee. Asserting that we must stop ‘partisan politics at the water’s edge’, he cooperated with the Truman administration in forging bipartisan support for the Truman Doctrine, the Marshall Plan, and Nato.”

The senator’s change of heart brought many Republican congressional colleagues along for a national consensus that largely held until the Vietnam conflict.

Given the arguments over Ukrainian aid, it’s crucial now for leadership — presidential or otherwise — to explain concretely the whys for the necessity of the US’s continued engagement with Ukraine. This must set out in convincing texture that aiding a people (and a nation) who want to be able to choose their future — and with whom they wish to associate, trade or work with — is crucial for the US’s own security and peace of mind.

Read more in Daily Maverick: Republicans’ very bad week distracts from real target: Joe Biden

Further, the case must be made why such aid is consistent with the ideals the US says it espouses. It must do so, just as Vandenberg did nearly 80 years ago when he explained that although he had once “believed in our own self-reliance”, the “gory science of mass murder” had transformed modern warfare into “an all-consuming juggernaut. I do not believe,” he explained, “that any nation hereafter can immunise itself by its own exclusive action.” 

But with today’s hyper-partisan attitudes coming from some Republican legislators and many of that party’s presidential candidates, as well as arguments being made that cutting off the aid lifeline is just unfortunate collateral damage for a US budget settlement, whoever it is must deliver the case convincingly that the aid is an extension of the US’s basic values. The argument must go further and explain why and how appropriations for Ukrainian aid are also crucial to keeping the Western alliance unified — and thus critically important for the US’s own security.

The speech writers must search history for real inspiration. In speaking to recalcitrant legislators (and their constituents), they should study how the radical pamphleteer Thomas Paine connected with the Continental Army’s heretofore demoralised soldiers via his famous essay The Crisis of December 1776. In an early, discouraging year in the Revolutionary War, Paine wrote:

“These are the times that try men’s souls. The summer soldier and the sunshine patriot will, in this crisis, shrink from the service of their country; but he that stands by it now, deserves the love and thanks of man and woman. Tyranny, like hell, is not easily conquered; yet we have this consolation with us, that the harder the conflict, the more glorious the triumph. What we obtain too cheap, we esteem too lightly…”

At a time when Russian missiles slam into funeral wakes in small towns, there must be someone in the current administration who can summon the words to make the case for Ukrainian aid, even if Republicans insist on fratricidal struggle in their own party. DM

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