The Biden administration continues to signal that it has no intention to involve United States forces in the Russia-Ukraine conflict. Yet, as the threat of a European war escalates rapidly, so too does the risk of a chaotic turn of events that could make the dispute into much more than a fight between Russia and its embattled neighbor. Now, more than ever, said Erik Sperling, the executive director of the anti-war group Just Foreign Policy, it is vital for Congress to reaffirm its authority over any decisions regarding military action in the region.
“While the Biden administration has ruled out sending additional troops, even allowing U.S. advisers and special forces to remain in harm’s way in Ukraine without authorization creates the potential for direct conflict between the world’s leading nuclear powers,” argued Sperling. “Regardless of one’s view on how the U.S. should respond to tensions over Ukraine, these are precisely the critical questions that the framers of our Constitution sought to entrust to the American people through their representatives in Congress.”
Sperling’s right. And a bipartisan group of more than 40 House members has written this week to the White House with an urgent reminder that the president needs to receive authorization from Congress before involving US armed forces in the conflict. Organized by Oregon Democrat Peter DeFazio, a founding member of the Congressional Progressive Caucus who currently chairs the House Transportation and Infrastructure Committee, and Ohio Republican Warren Davidson, a West Point graduate who is a leading member of the hardline-conservative House Freedom Caucus, the letter reads:
We strongly urge your administration to respect the separation of powers, U.S. law, and Congress’s constitutional war powers authority. Should your administration seek to introduce U.S. Armed Forces into hostilities or decline to remove any U.S. military personnel currently deployed inside Ukraine from unauthorized hostilities or imminent hostilities, Congress stands ready to deliberate over the potentially monumental implications of such scenarios. The American people, through their representatives in Congress, deserve to have a say before U.S. troops are placed in harm’s way or the U.S. becomes involved in yet another foreign conflict.
Although the list of 43 signers does not include top congressional leadership from the two parties, those involved represent a significant cross section of House members, including Congressional Progressive Caucus chair Pramila Jayapal (D-Wash.), former CPC cochairs Mark Pocan (D-Wisc.) and Raul Grijalva (D-Ariz.), and “Squad” members Alexandria Ocasio-Cortez (D-N.Y.), Ilhan Omar (D-Minn.), Rashida Tlaib (D-Mich.), Ayanna Pressley (D-Mass.), Jamaal Bowman (D-N.Y.), and Cori Bush (D-Mo.). Representative Barbara Lee, the California Democrat who has been a stalwart foe of US military adventurism for decades, is also a signer, as are several Republicans who have consistent records of joining bipartisan initiatives to constrain authorizations of the use of military force, including Kentuckian Thomas Massie and Freedom Caucus chair Andy Biggs of Arizona.
What united these ideologically diverse members was a concern that, while Biden has consistently rejected calls to steer additional US Armed Forces into Ukraine, a Russian invasion and heightened tensions associated with it could create pressure on US forces to provide tactical assistance, training, and more for the Ukrainians. The House members wrote to the president:
While your administration has reportedly relocated 160 Florida National Guardsmen out of Ukraine citing the “safety and security of our personnel [as your] paramount concern,” we underscore that an imminent or active attack by Russia would compel you, under Section 8(c) of the War Powers Resolution, to seek specific Congressional authorization if you aim to leave any remaining U.S. advisers, trainers, special forces, or other U.S. military personnel in areas of these imminent or active hostilities. You must also receive congressional approval before initiating any pre-emptive strike.
A number of the signers of the letter have been in the forefront of efforts to promote diplomatic solutions to the Ukraine crisis, including Jayapal and Lee, who last month urged the administration “to extend and deepen the dialogue, allowing for robust negotiations and compromise.” Earlier this month, Omar issued a statement opposing efforts by congressional Democratic leaders to increase US support for the Ukrainian military. While she expressed strong opposition to Russian aggression toward Ukraine, Omar warned that the legislation sponsored by Senate Foreign Relations Committee chair Bob Menendez (D-N.J.) and House Foreign Affairs Committee chair Gregory Meeks (D-N.Y.) “escalates the conflict without deterring it effectively.”
“With a very soft trigger, it vaults Ukraine overnight into the third-highest recipient of U.S. security assistance and weapons sales in the world,” explained Omar. “The consequences of flooding Ukraine with half a billion dollars in American weapons, likely not limited to just military-specific equipment but also including small arms and ammo, are unpredictable and likely disastrous.”
Asking the tough questions before a war begins is not always easy, or popular—but it is necessary. That’s one of the reasons the new letter from House members to Biden has drawn support from an array of groups spanning the ideological spectrum, including Just Foreign Policy, Demand Progress, Concerned Veterans for America, Common Defense, Peace Action, RootsAction, FreedomWorks, Heritage Action, Global Zero, Physicians for Social Responsibility, and the Quincy Institute for Responsible Statecraft.
They recognize, as the Quincy Institute’s Marcus Stanley has said, that
[a] direct military conflict between the two largest nuclear powers on Russia’s border would be incredibly risky and dangerous. The Biden Administration has wisely stated its intent to avoid U.S. military involvement in the Ukraine conflict, but the situation on the ground is chaotic. It is critical that the President get explicit and official Congressional authorization before taking any steps involving U.S. military personnel in Ukraine, as required by the Constitution and the War Powers Resolution.