About-turn at the top
While Democrats stampede to back the war, writes Daniel Lazare, it is the Republican right which is now anti-war
Remember when a handful of young congressional progressives calling themselves ‘the Squad’ were going to take over the US Democratic Party? The big news is that the Democratic Party has now taken over the Squad!
The capture occurred last week when the House of Representatives approved a $40 billion aid package for Ukraine. The vote was so quick and enthusiastic that even the gung-ho New York Times worried about whether Congress was rushing into war “with little public debate about the Biden administration’s strategy, whether the volume of military assistance could escalate the conflict, or whether domestic priorities are being pushed aside to accommodate the huge expenditures overseas”.1
The Times is right, since the appropriation, which comes on the heels of a $13.6 billion emergency aid package in March, will undoubtedly drive the conflict to new heights, while siphoning off funds that might otherwise go to social programmes.
But it is not just the rush to judgment that matters: there is also the numbers. The vote was overwhelming, with more than 150 Republicans voting for the aid package, along with 100% of Democrats. This includes the Squad, whose original four members - Alexandria Ocasio-Cortez (New York), Ilhan Omar (Minnesota), Rashida Tlaib (Michigan) and Ayanna Pressley (Massachusetts) - caused such a splash when they came together in 2018. Members of the Squad may have uttered a few mild complaints about the unfairness of anti-Russian sanctions during the first few days of the war. But, once the all-important funding package came up for a vote on May 10, they were all on board.
The results cannot help but summon up memories of the ‘spirit of 1914’, when all major parties in the German Reichstag, including the Social Democrats, voted to fund the Great War. It was a lemming-like march to the sea that led to roughly 10 million military deaths and perhaps eight million civilian fatalities as well.
But there is one big difference. Where the Reichstag vote was unanimous, the vote in the US House of Representatives was not, since 57 Republicans voted against. That was the other big news last week: while one anti-war movement is closing up shop on the liberal left, another is opening up on the radical right!
As far as war policy goes, the two parties are thus switching sides, with last year’s doves turning into this year’s hawks and last year’s hawks turning into … well, if not doves, then at least isolationists. The shift has been in the works for years, but the latest stage began only in March, when three Republicans voted against a ‘stand with Ukraine’ resolution expressing support for Ukrainian sovereignty.
The three representatives were Paul Gosar of Arizona, Thomas Massie of Kentucky and Matt Rosendale of Montana - all ultra-conservatives of the most ghoulish sort. Gosar, for instance, was so deeply implicated in the January 2021 Capitol Hill insurrection that six of his brothers and sisters took out a television ad calling for his expulsion from the House. Massie is a rural libertarian best known for tweeting a picture of himself, his wife and his kids fondling assault rifles and Uzis in front of a Christmas tree (“Santa, please bring ammo”, the caption reads.)2 Rosendale is a rancher who is anti-immigrant and anti-abortion, yet entirely ‘pro’, when it comes to Donald Trump’s ‘Stop the Steal’ movement aimed at cancelling the 2020 presidential election.
One Republican dismissed the trio as “unreal”, while Democrats called them “truly despicable.”3 But their numbers started to multiply when eight Republicans came out against suspending trade privileges for Russia a couple of weeks later, followed by 17 opposing a resolution supporting Moldova against alleged Russian threats, and 19 opposing a similar resolution on behalf of Georgia.4
On May 9, finally, Trump endorsed Massie in an upcoming Republican primary election after dismissing him a few years earlier as “a third-rate grandstander”. It was a sign that Trump was turning against the war and wanted other Republicans to follow suit. War-bashing was suddenly turning into the Republicans’ favourite indoor sport.
Indeed, on May 12 Republican Rand Paul, Massie’s fellow Kentucky isolationist, used his Senate privileges to stop the $40 billion bill when it reached the upper chamber. Rand’s reasons were those of a classic rightwing tight-wad: “This is the second spending bill for Ukraine in two months. And this bill is three times larger than the first. Congress just wants to keep on spending and spending.” Rand was happy to play Scrooge.
There is little question that the Senate will override the veto in the coming days. But, with Trump’s grip on the party strengthening by the week, the thunder on the right can only grow. It is as if an ultra-nationalist minority had voted against war credits in the old Reichstag, thereby getting a jump on events four years later, when anti-war sentiment turned explosive. The dynamics may be different second time round, but many of the issues are the same.
War weariness is one. As exhausted as Americans were after 20 years of ‘forever wars’ in the wake of 9/11, last summer’s Afghan debacle made it even worse. It was not just the chaotic scenes at Kabul airport or a disastrous drone strike on a supposed Islamic State cell that killed 10 civilians, seven of them children. Rather, it was the steady drumbeat of assurances that all was going according to plan and there would be no Saigon-style panicky escape - which, of course, proved to be untrue.
To be sure, the same intelligence agencies would correctly predict Putin’s entry into Ukraine six months later. But it is hardly enough to restore confidence in the conduct of the war as a whole. The longer the war drags on, the more impatience will grow; and the more TV analysts promise that victory is just around the corner, the hollower they will sound. The unrelenting war propaganda on the part of the corporate media is bound to backfire, while efforts to blame widespread Nazi influence in the Ukrainian military on Russian disinformation will make it even worse.
Then there is the economy, which, as even the Squad may have noticed, is not doing well. Inflation is mounting, stock markets are in turmoil and a major food crisis is gathering force in the developing world. As the ‘misery index’ grows, the upshot will be political instability not only in the global south, but in the US, where voters are likely to take their anger out on Democrats and their pro-war policies in November’s midterm elections.
So the anti-war movement will return - but not as far as the liberal left is concerned, since it has effectively taken itself out of the picture. Instead, it will return on the ultra-right, as Republicans use all that pent-up anger and resentment to torture poor Joe Biden and make the second half of his term pure hell. Whether it is impeachment or an investigation into the business activities of his crack-addled son, Hunter, the results will be painful and disorienting.
The process can be summarised as follows. As the Squad joins with other Democrats in closing ranks behind the war, it will be the ultra-right that reaps the benefits of rising dissatisfaction. Republicans will use such anger to shift politics in the direction of the rightwing authoritarianism that America caught a glimpse of in early 2021 - only this time on a broader scale and on a more effective basis to boot. For more than a year, Republicans have been using ‘Stop the Steal’ to pack state governments with election officials supposedly committed to undoing the grand theft of 2020 - but, in reality, rigging the machinery so as to insure a real theft in 2024.
Meanwhile, Republicans are raging against the war like student radicals in the 1960s. “We are sending so many weapons to Ukraine that we are depleting our own stockpiles,” Florida Republican Matt Gaetz said last week. “And these weapons aren’t just ending up in the hands of the Ukrainian military either,” he went on:
Many of these are ending up in the hands of the Azov battalion. Forty House Democrats called them a neo-Nazi foreign terrorist organisation just three years ago. Now that they’re killing Russians, are these avowed ethno-nationalists apparently not so bad? Democrats go on a daily snipe-hunt for white supremacy here in America, yet they’re fine giving rockets to actual white supremacists in Ukraine. Taking the position that we arm anyone to the teeth who will shoot at Russians has actually not worked for America. It’s Javelins to neo-Nazis today, Stinger missiles to the mujahideen in Afghanistan yesterday. In Syria - another conflict that Washington had consensus on - we supplied jihadist terrorists in their fight against Assad.5
Gaetz is still a far-right creep who tried to speed up executions in Florida state prisons, defended the state’s ‘stand your ground’ law that led to the death of black teenager Trayvon Martin, blamed the Capitol Hill insurrection on leftwing anti-fascists “masquerading as Trump supporters” - and also turns out to have significant neo-Nazis ties of his own.6 But his speech was better than anything Bernie Sanders had to say on the subject, which was basically to echo Biden by declaring that “the Russian people are not our enemies: it is their autocracy and the crooks and the evil people that run that country”.7
So, after a lifetime of criticising the Pentagon, Bernie is now pro-war, while Gaetz is anti - which makes the about-face in Congress all the more dizzying.
But that is the point: to confuse and disorient American voters, so that the rightward thrust intensifies. By hopping on the pro-war bandwagon and blasting Republicans for refusing to do likewise, Democrats are helping to speed the process along.