Ukraine, Israel, and the incoherence of US foreign policy

The legislation that emerges from the U.S. Congress is often as ugly and unappetizing as the process that created it.

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SOURCEForeign Policy in Focus

The process of crafting congressional legislation is often likened to sausage-making. Best not to look behind the scenes at the mechanics of the process, which is a bloody mess.

But the analogy is not apt. Sure, sausage-making can be ugly. The end product, however, is presentable and usually quite tasty.

The legislation that emerges from the U.S. Congress, on the other hand, is often as ugly and unappetizing as the process that created it.

Consider the recent bill that bundled military assistance to Ukraine, Israel, and Taiwan along with a fourth provision covering more sanctions on Iran, the use of frozen Russian assets, and a potential ban on TikTok in the United States. The bill passed Congress by considerable margins. The vote was 79 to 18 in the Senate and—for the most controversial piece on Ukraine—311 to 112 in the House. The president then swiftly signed it into law.

But the margin of approval belies the months of political infighting that preceded the vote. First came the conflict over immigration provisions that the Dems originally included in the legislation to sweeten the pot for the Republicans only to discover that the Republicans were insisting on harsher measures. President Biden and the Democrats moved further to the right, yet it still wasn’t enough. In the end, the final legislation didn’t address immigration at all.

Meanwhile, Speaker of the House Mike Johnson (R-LA) delayed a vote in the House for months because of opposition from members further to his right who objected to providing additional funding to Ukraine. This determined minority threatened to remove Johnson over the issue, which ordinarily should not have discomfited the speaker, except that this same minority had ousted his predecessor. Moreover, Donald Trump had made his opposition to Ukrainian aid very clear, and Republicans, in this election year, have been tripping over themselves to show fealty to the Man. Even the one Ukrainian-born legislator, Victoria Spartz (R-IN), voted against the Ukraine bill in the House, largely because she is trying to get Trump’s endorsement in her primary race. Earlier, she’d called the Russian invasion a “genocide.”

Johnson managed to satisfy at least some of his critics by splitting the legislation into four distinct bills (Ukraine, Israel, Taiwan, kitchen sink). In this way, House members could, for instance, register their support for Israel and their opposition to more arms for Ukraine. Senators had no such luxury since they had to vote on a single bill, which prompted three progressives to oppose the legislation because it didn’t attach any conditions to the aid to Israel (while 15 Republican extremists joined their House compatriots in opposing the Ukrainian provisions).

Progressives were indeed in a quandary over the bill. Imagine a quite different measure that condemned aggressor countries for breaking international law (Russia, Israel) while aiding those forces pushing back against colonial interventions (Ukrainians, Palestinians). It would never have been brought to a floor vote. But who ever said that U.S. foreign policy was principled or coherent? U.S. politics is all about holding one’s nose, averting one’s eyes from the sausage-making, and voting for the lesser evil.

That said, what impact will the bill have? Will it save Ukraine from being overrun? And is there any chance that all the pro-Palestinian and pro-ceasefire protests taking place around the country will force greater coherence upon U.S. foreign policy?

Ukraine

The war has not really been going Ukraine’s way for some time. Even when Ukrainian forces were successfully holding the line against Russian occupiers last year, they were suffering a lot of casualties. As Ukraine’s military supplies began to wane, Russia began to push further westward, potentially threatening large population centers like Kharkiv in the northeast. Russia’s larger pool of recruits, combined with a five-to-one artillery advantage (more in certain spots along the line of fire), was creating great anxiety that a Russian counteroffensive in the late spring or early summer could overwhelm Ukrainian defenses altogether.

Meanwhile, Ukraine couldn’t completely defend its population centers and critical infrastructure further to the west. When Russia fired a barrage of 82 missiles and drones at the Trypilska power plant near Kyiv on April 11, Ukraine could only intercept 18 missiles and 39 drones. It had run out of interceptors. The remaining Russian weapons destroyed the plant.

The U.S. military package provides $61 billion in assistance, but the vast majority of the funding (80 percent) does not go to Ukraine. Rather, it allows the U.S. military-industrial complex to replenish the pipeline of supplies heading to Kyiv and fund ongoing Pentagon operations like training Ukrainian soldiers. It will take some weeks before those weapons begin to reach their destination, though the Pentagon, waiting for this moment, is shipping some existing supplies from bases in Germany and Poland. Meanwhile, Russia is trying to press its advantage.

Critics of this assistance to Ukraine—a bizarre alliance of the far left and the far right—argue that such shipments only prolong the war, causing needless suffering to Ukrainians. Others see an imperial motive, that the United States is just using Ukrainian bodies like meat puppets to draw the Russians into a quagmire and hamstring an adversary. The more isolationist critics maintain that this war has nothing to do with the United States, which should just stay out of it.

While I am no fan of the Pentagon, the U.S. military-industrial complex, or the obscene amount of money spent globally on what is euphemistically termed “defense”—$2.4 trillion in 2023, a new record—I view these arguments about Ukraine as dangerously naïve.

First, it is Russia that is prolonging this war, by continuing to occupy Ukraine illegally, pushing for more territory, and committing war crimes from torturing prisoners of war to bombing civilian sites. The Kremlin continues to claim that Ukraine is not a legitimate country, that it has always been part of the “Russian world,” that the government in Kyiv is “Nazi.” It is inaccurate to say that Ukraine is simply fighting for this or that scrap of land. Rather, Ukrainians are fighting to prevent the elimination of their country and their collective identity—in other words, against genocide. They know what happens to those who assert their Ukrainian identity in areas occupied by Russian forces (death, deportation, imprisonment). The vast majority of Ukrainians oppose giving up their land for a peace deal with Russia—around 80 percent—and a majority are against peace negotiations with Russia more generally.

Many hawkish voices in the United State would indeed like to see a weaker Russia. But the Biden administration has been clear that it would prefer some kind of settlement to this conflict so that it can focus on other foreign policy priorities. Ukraine is no proxy. It continues to fight not because it is being controlled like a marionette, but because it is exercising its own agency. It fights despite an American ambivalence that is expressed in so many ways—a reluctance to share the most advanced weaponry, a failure to deliver aid in a timely manner, and a large share of the Republican Party unwilling to provide any assistance at all.

Finally, there’s the question of U.S. interests. I generally prefer to avoid discussions of narrow U.S. national interests, which often boil down to maintaining military dominance, upholding dollar supremacy, and securing access to raw materials. I prefer to look at where U.S. interests can or should overlap with global concerns such as strengthening international law, addressing climate change and biodiversity loss, and reducing global economic inequality.

Viewed from this latter perspective, defending Ukraine is squarely in U.S. national interest. Russia’s seizure of Ukrainian territory (2014), the invasion of the country (2022), the maintenance of a military occupation (ongoing): these violations of international law are of such great enormity that a failure to punish the aggressor—preferably in court but on the ground if need be—threatens to overturn the very notion of an international community. Russia is paying for this war by pumping out as much oil and gas as the market can bear: In this way, the war is paid for by pollution. And the invasion has put an enormous burden on the world’s poor by reducing the capacity of Ukraine to produce grain. On the basis of these three criteria, the war in Ukraine is very much in the U.S. interest.

Will the recently passed aid package turn the tide of the war? That’s impossible to say. But a better armed Ukraine will have a fighting chance. And future generations will not blame the United States for standing idly by as Russia attempts to commit an act of ethnic cleansing of epic proportions.

Israel

And yet, in the same bill, the Biden administration is not only ignoring another act of ethnic cleansing but is abetting it. The military assistance bill that the president signed includes $26 billion designed to “help ensure that Israel has what it needs to defend itself against the very real threats it faces from Iran, as well as Iran’s proxy groups.”

This is an extraordinary misrepresentation of the military aid going to Israel. First of all, Iran was previously  urging restraint on its “proxy groups” after an exchange of incidents with the United States earlier in the year. And then Israel assassinated top Iranian military leaders in Syria in early April, which has set in motion another cycle of escalations.

Second, it’s not all about defense. Sure, there’s $5.2 billion for missile defense (Iron Dome, Iron Beam). But there’s also $4.4 billion for Israel to restock its military coffers and $3.5 billion for advanced weaponry—so that the Israeli government can continue to wage war in Gaza.

The Biden administration still believes that its military aid provides leverage over the Israeli government. Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu is determined to demonstrate the opposite. As soon as the aid package passed, he launched more air strikes on Palestinians in Gaza (again killing mostly women and children) and announced that plans were still on track to invade the southern city of Rafah (over U.S. objections).

Washington is now pushing Hamas to accept a 40-day ceasefire. The Palestinian organization has insisted on a permanent ceasefire, though it might be mollified by an Israeli promise of the “restoration of sustainable calm.” Also on the table, reportedly, is “a willingness for full return of displaced Palestinians to their homes in northern Gaza and the withdrawal of the IDF from the corridor that divides the enclave and prevents freedom of movement,” according to Axios.

The Biden administration, pushing this ceasefire proposal, is trying to prove that it’s listening to domestic critics—congressional opposition, voters in swing states, student protestors on campus—as well as the more numerous critics of U.S. policy throughout the world, especially in the Global South. The administration must also take into account the most recent report that the International Criminal Court is on the verge of issuing arrest warrants against top Israeli officials, including Netanyahu, for actions taken in Gaza.

But the aid package to Israel suggests a continuation of business as usual. None of that military aid was conditioned on the behavior of the Israeli military.

Unless and until a U.S. administration applies some real sticks in its relations with Israel, the gulf between evolving U.S. public opinion and stagnant U.S. policymaking will remain huge.

The rest of the sausage

The third element of the aid package provides $8 billion to U.S. allies in Asia to counter China, which includes some key military upgrades for countries like Taiwan.

Although China has indeed been more assertive in recent years, the Biden administration is doing little to repair relations with Beijing. As long as Washington and Beijing get along, Taiwan can prosper in the shadows of international non-recognition. So, this money might have been better spent on collaborative projects with China, which are a more sustainable hedge against war.

Finally, in the bill’s fourth basket, the Republicans assembled a hodgepodge of initiatives against China (to ban TikTok), Russia (to use frozen assets), and Iran (more sanctions). How long will it take the United States to figure out that punitive measures like these tend to push adversaries together? By all means, let’s isolate the one country that has invaded a neighboring democracy. But the United States should be much more strategic about how it can woo Iran and China to make Russia’s isolation more complete.

But that would require much smarter sausage-making. And so far, U.S. policymakers don’t seem up to the task.

FALL FUNDRAISER

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