Terry H. Schwadron
March 20, 2022
From all the talk, there’s a distinct underlying odor from Congress that its members know better than President Joe Biden what we should be doing about the Russian invasion of Ukraine.
Among many Republicans and Democrats alike, for example, there is restlessness about why Biden has resisted a swap for older Polish-owned, Russian-made jets or enforcing a no-fly zone over Ukraine despite the idea that this is a direct step towards military engagement with Russia.
Among those Republicans, including those posturing as possible presidential candidates, the argument necessarily asserts that Biden is “weak,” not that the situation is more complicated than any slogan might suggest. They note that Congress was more aggressive than Biden to ban Russian oil sales, for example, again skipping over coordination issues with allies.
Of course, the most vocal members of Congress proposing to ”close the sky,” in the words of Ukrainian President Volodymyr Zelensky, are more interested in what America alone does than in coordinating with allies who need wrangling to end up on the same page. That’s how the proponents identify “leadership.” Nor are members of Congress stepping up publicly with diplomatic proposals to end the conflict or to speed Ukrainian refugee entry to the U.S. Only war talk.
With differing specifics regarding each tactic, proponents for establishing air supremacy are overlooking or dismissing any predicable Russian response, or the need to eliminate the threat of antiaircraft batteries hundreds of miles away inside Belarus or Russia itself, or even recognizing that many of the images we see of civilian damage in Ukraine are the result of rockets or artillery shelling rather than literal bombs from planes.
OK, that’s the stuff of military tactical debate. It also undercuts the judgment of military and national security folks weighing whether we are on the brink of nuclear war.
My question is this: Will this Congress follow its arguments and pass a bill — however symbolic, since we have a NATO treaty that commits us — specifically authorizing Biden to enact war powers with Russia — either based on what already has happened or upon determination of a trigger like the use of a weapon whose effects crosses beyond the Ukraine border? Simply put, is this Congress ready to go to war?
If American involvement in World War III is all as inevitable as some are suggesting, let’s put it on the table. It’s not that I want war, it’s that I want to stop the dissembling about what’s happening.
The evidence is anything but clear.
We want “toughness” from armchairs in Washington without committing American troops to the fight. It’s a read of the American public appetite for war and casualties; it is also a replay of American attitudes back to 1939 standing off from another war.
Sen. Chris Murphy (D-Conn,) called out the hypocrisy of some of his Republican Senate colleagues for voting against the omnibus spending bill last week that included billions of dollars in military aid for Ukraine. Sen. Ben Sasse (R-Neb.) replied that he liked the aid to Ukraine, but disliked the other aspects of the bill, so he opposed it despite being among the most vocal proponents of sending jets to defend Ukraine.
Even Sen. Lindsey Graham (R-SC), whose repeated public solution to the war is assassinating Russian President Vladimir Putin, voted for the funds to continue arming Ukraine.
In all, 31 Republican senators who demand that Biden do more to aid Ukraine opposed the bill granting $13.6 billion in military and humanitarian assistance.
What exactly is the role of Congress in setting expectations here, in contributing to a unified international front, in pursuing real questions about tactics with the appropriate military and national security agencies? Are we waiting for a Pearl Harbor equivalent?
Change in Tone
If you’re in Ukraine, you’re already deep in war, and want everyone else in the same situation for your protection. The Ukrainian position is that World War III may be under way already, and that strategic delays basically are ridiculous. Russia and Putin will do whatever it is that they will do without regard to deployment of jets.
Zelensky’s impassioned pleas this week appeared to rekindled congressional talk of supporting a no-fly zone over Ukraine, said Axios. While most members of Congress still maintain having the U.S. and NATO enforce such a zone would drag Americans into a superpower conflict with Russia, the openness of a few members to consider various options for air involvement represented a shift in tone, the news outlet said.
There is wide congressional support for Biden’s already announced plans for tons more antiaircraft weapons, anti-tank missiles and humanitarian aid. But there is this continuing second-guessing going on, suggesting a broader debate about how decisions are being made by the White House. It is unclear whether those most vocal in Congress are working with lawmakers in Europe to help in the effort to coordinate strategic decisions.
Sen. Rick Scott (R-Fla) offers a good snapshot. Here’s his statement: “President Biden needs to make a decision TODAY: either give Ukraine access to the planes and anti-aircraft defense systems it needs to defend itself, or enforce a no-fly zone to close Ukrainian skies to Russian attacks. If President Biden does not do this NOW, President Biden will show himself to be absolutely heartless and ignorant of the deaths of innocent Ukrainian children and families.”
Is it unfair to ask whether Senator Scott is ready to vote for war or is this all political posturing?