Friday afternoon, the House narrowly passed a defense bill full of Republican culture war priorities. Hopeful efforts earlier in the week to rein in U.S. foreign policy fizzled out by week’s end, including an amendment to block the transfer of cluster munitions to Ukraine and other countries. On this week’s Deconstructed, Ryan Grim is joined by Erik Sperling, executive director of Just Foreign Policy, and The Intercept’s Deputy Editor Nausicaa Renner to discuss how a bipartisan bill to prevent the Biden administration from sending cluster bombs to Ukraine went from gaining momentum to being undermined by another bill introduced by Rep. Marjorie Taylor Greene, R-Ga.
[Deconstructed intro theme music.]
Ryan Grim: Welcome to Deconstructed. I’m Ryan Grim.
The House spent this week debating military and foreign policy through amendments to what’s known as the National Defense Authorization Act. That’s an annual bill that sets policy for the Pentagon, and the process for passing it produces one of the few moments that rank-and-file lawmakers can actually influence the legislative process in Congress; or, at least theoretically, they can. The bill passed out of the Armed Services Committee nearly unanimously, saving the real fight for the Rules Committee and the House floor.
The way it works is that a lawmaker writes an amendment that is related to the military somehow, and then the Rules Committee votes on whether it’s in order. If it’s in order, it goes to the House floor, where everybody votes on it, but there’s no pretense that there are really any rules in the Rules Committee, other than that the amendment has to have some connection to the Pentagon. What else makes an amendment in order? If the rules committee says it’s in order, then it’s in order. If they say it’s not, then it’s not.
Now, some 1,500 amendments were submitted, so there were some very late nights this week. In fact, one of our guests called me after midnight earlier this week to let me know about developments underway in that Rules Committee. That guest is the sleep-deprived Erik Sperling, executive director of Just Foreign Policy, who’s been lobbying all week on the NDAA.
Erik, thanks for waking up from your nap to join us.
Erik Sperling: Yeah. Great to be here. It’s been quite a week.
RG: It has been, and not quite over yet. We’ll have an update on that fairly shortly, I suspect.
We’re also joined this week by my editor Nausicaa Renner, who’s going to be handling most of the questioning today.
Nausicaa, how are you doing?
Nausicaa Renner: Doing fine. So, I just wanted to start out by saying, at the beginning of the week in our weekly Intercept politics meeting, we were talking about this week as a real week of possibility for forcing a conversation about U.S. involvement abroad, and that Freedom Caucus Republicans like Matt Gaetz would be teaming up with progressives to consider a whole bunch of amendments that would really change the conversation in Washington around foreign policy.
Now we’re at the end of that week, and things look very different than they did at the beginning, so I wanted to start just by going through and talking about what played out in the Rules Committee and on the House floor. And then, I want to reflect a little bit on whether our prediction that the conversation in Washington would really be forced by this, actually happened.
Ryan, this week you and another Intercept Politics reporter — Daniel Boguslaw — reported on an amendment that would block the transfer of cluster munitions to Ukraine, as well as everywhere else in the world. It was introduced by Democratic representatives Sara Jacobs and Ilhan Omar, and it looked like it was gaining some bipartisan support, including from Representative Gaetz.
So, here’s a clip of Matt Gaetz talking about supporting the bill on his podcast.
Matt Gaetz: Democrat congresswoman Sara Jacobs, who we’ve criticized a great deal on the show for some of her views, she’s probably criticized me a great deal for some of mine. But she has introduced an amendment to the National Defense Authorization Act that reads, “…notwithstanding any other provision of law, no military assistance shall be furnished for cluster munitions. No defense export license for cluster munitions may be issued, and no cluster munitions or cluster munitions technology shall be sold or transferred.”
And what I’m here to tell you is that I’m going to be the Republican cosponsor of the Jacobs Amendment before the House Rules Committee. We have an opportunity with bipartisanship to stand against the warmongering Bidens, and these cluster bombs will not end the war in Ukraine.
Let’s look at the countries where cluster bombs have been used: Laos, Lebanon, Afghanistan, Yemen, Syria. Cluster bombs are features of the world’s bloodiest and most inhumane wars. Some of the longest. It’s hardly the cornerstone of a path to peace.
NR: So, Ryan, can you give us a little background into Omar and Jacobs Amendment, and why the transfer of cluster munitions is a progressive priority?
RG: Yeah. This sprang from the Biden administration’s announcement that they were going to start shipping munitions, which they seem to be suggesting on background was happening because they were running out of regular munitions, which, you know, doesn’t really make those any less harmful to civilians in the future.
The problem with cluster munitions — well, (A) more than a hundred countries have banned them. Now, among those who have not banned them is China, Russia, Turkey — which appears to be shipping them to Ukraine — and the United States. And so, while it is against international law for most countries, it’s not against international law for us to do it.
The problem with these cluster munitions is that, when they blow up and they spread out, they need a pretty hard surface to explode. And so, they get tested out in this very hard Southwest desert, and the ones that we’re sending over there have something like a six percent dud rate, which means that if you drop several hundred thousand of them, or you drop several million clusters, you’re going to wind up with several hundred thousand unexploded cluster munitions sitting around in the ground for decades, waiting for somebody to come along and to have their legs blown off by them.
And those are under conditions with a pretty tough ground. If you’re dropping them in mud, you might be lucky to get a six percent dud rate. You might actually be looking at a much, much higher rate, which means that you’d have many more people.
Now, the Biden administration made a kind of macabre argument, which is that, well, there’s already a lot of clustered munitions and landmines flying all over Ukraine, you know, so what’s a few more million of them? Once that’s your argument, you’ve taken a wrong turn somewhere.
Erik, am I missing anything there?
ES: No, I think that’s exactly right. And I think one of the fundamental issues in Washington —really relates to a whole range of U.S. interventions and policies abroad — is that there isn’t an understanding that it actually matters. Our primary duty as Americans is to not do harm ourselves. Of course, we all really want to help, also, as many good, well intentioned, progressive people, and compassionate people, that we want to stop harm being done by others.
But, in this case, unfortunately, we’re going to hear, for probably a very long time, reports of children and innocent civilians being hurt, and those who supported this action will have that on their conscience. That’s directly attributable to this decision. So, I think that’s what’s often missing, is saying, well, Russia does it, then it’s OK if we do it — except for that we don’t support Russia doing it, we’ve actually criticized Russia for doing it. It’s one thing that they just kind of skip over in debates.
RG: Right. And so, the way that these things work in the Rules Committee, Nausicaa, to answer your other question, is that you, typically, if you’re going to get to the House floor, you’re going to want bipartisan support. If you’re a Republican, and you have a Republican amendment, and you’re in the majority, you’re probably OK, but it helps to have Democratic support. But if you are trying to get a cluster munitions ban onto the floor for a vote, you’re going to need Republican support, because there’s nine Republicans on the Rules Committee, and just four Democrats. Three of those Republicans are Tea Party folks who were added because of that McCarthy revolt.
And so, getting Gaetz was a big step forward, to say that, OK, maybe you’re going to get some Freedom Caucus support because it’s just enough that, if you add up the four Democrats and three Tea Party folks, you can win seven-six and get onto the House floor. And so, advocates were encouraged that it was going to make it at that point. And then, I think we’ll talk about some of the shenanigans that went on after that.
I think this is actually a really good opportunity to play a brief interview that my colleague Daniel Boguslaw did with Gaetz outside of the Rules Committee that gets into some of his thinking around this issue. Do we have that handy?
Daniel Boguslaw: Last time we spoke you said you were going Mr. Worldwide, you were looking to reduce military transfers all over the world. There’s amendments looking at reducing military transfers to Ecuador, Guatemala, Central American countries, in addition to Yemen, which you said you were interested in. Do you think that there’s any consensus in the Freedom Caucus around some of these other issues outside of Yemen?
Matt Gaetz: I think about our hemisphere considerably different than I think about Syria and Yemen. I think that we do have equities at play in Latin America. I support a reinvigorated Monroe Doctrine. And so, I wouldn’t lump Guatemala and El Salvador in with Yemen and Syria.
RG: So, kind of like a half-isolationism. What does that tell us, Erik, about this kind of new right Republican foreign policy?
ES: Yeah, well, it is a more traditional America-first approach. I think it’s focused on protecting the border, protecting what they see as core American interests. Just like with so many other politicians, but particularly with these folks, there’s limited areas of overlap, and you can look for those where you can, to the extent they’re helpful. And then, oftentimes, it can be unhelpful as well, depending on which member, as happened with the cluster bombs amendment, which we’ll probably discuss more shortly.
RG: Yeah. And to Nausicaa’s question, what do you make of this new right, kind of new approach to foreign policy? Like where is it coming from? Why do we have people like Gaetz, people like Massie, Chip Roy, some of these others on the Rules Committee who are willing to line up sometimes with Democrats on these issues? When, when did you see that really developing?
ES: Yeah, there’s actually a long history of this style of America-first constitutional focus on U.S. foreign policy, defensive war powers, and a focus on the immediate region rather than interventions far from the homeland.
My very first internship on the Hill back in 2013 happened to be when there was a major debate going on about U.S. intervention in Syria. President Obama was pressured to seek authorization from Congress for that intervention, and it ended up being that Republicans led that push against him.
So, sometimes it can be politically expedient to push back on the president. In other cases, it’s some true belief, some genuine belief about what U.S. national security interests really are, and really should be. It’s very hard to get in the head of these folks. You do, and it’s probably unpleasant, I think, in many cases, to do that, but, I think what really matters is, from our perspective, is not necessarily what’s in their head, but how it can be used. How progressives and people with good intentions can work with that to achieve better results that reduce harm for people who are victims, or would be victims, of U.S. foreign policy abroad.
But you do see a lot of speculation, as we’ll discuss, I’m sure, on the cluster bombs issue. You hear many members saying: this right-wing anti-war person is not doing it for the right reason. Well, yeah, that may be true, but if somehow their support can lead to a reduction in harm abroad, I think many people abroad would prefer that, rather than taking a principled stand against their bad faith reasons for reducing that harm.
And so, I think that’s another core issue that we have in Washington, is a focus on the personalities, rather than a focus on the impact on the victims that being strategic and working with folks can have.
NR: So, to go back to the Jacobs/Omar amendment: Erik, can you give us a little background into how that even materialized?
ES: Yeah. So, over the last, I’d say, at least ten years that I’ve been working, both as a staffer in Congress for progressive members, and as an advocate focused on congressional work, there’s always very serious debates about whether or not it’s strategic to call a vote. I think, [for] some folks, there’s been a general tendency — I’d say the more mainstream tendency — has been, well, don’t call a vote unless you are sure you’re going to win. It’s embarrassing to lose a vote.
A lot of people in Congress, and people who are engaged in these policies, would prefer it to be quietly handled by the White House, and bringing attention to it by having a vote on the floor of Congress can really drive media, can drive attention, and also can put members on the record in a way that forces them to think about the issue. I mean, as a staffer, former staffer, I could say, many of these foreign policy issues, the members, and even their staff, have maybe thought about them once in their life, or never in their life. So, when you force that vote, you really get that process where the legislative director, the foreign policy staffer has to talk with the boss, and they have to decide, hey, where do you want to be on this issue?
I mean, that’s what happened, that same debate happened here, early on, when the amendment process was announced, and the Biden Administration announced that they were sending the cluster bombs, and the same debate happened. And, essentially, you had one side saying, well, we can’t take this vote. If we lose the vote, it’s going to be a signal of support to the Biden administration. And the other side saying, if we just ask people to put out statements, you’ll only get a handful of people criticizing it. But if we take a vote, we’ll get at least a hundred, and maybe 200 or more voting against it.
So, that same debate played out and, I think, as the intensity of the media debate happened over the cluster bombs, and as the media reaction was very strong, it really empowered advocates and members of Congress who were passionate about this to say, you know, I think this is really worth it to call the question. And Jacobs and Omar stepped up pretty late in the process.
RG: I think it also — and we’re going to get into this more — it matters who’s behind these things, and Ilhan Omar is so consistent on some of these issues that it helped to have somebody who’s considered a bit more of a rank-and-file lawmaker, Sara Jacobs, to say, oh, maybe this has a little bit more potential to push all the way across the Democratic caucus.
She’s quietly become a pretty strong voice on foreign policy, but she’s not the kind of polarizing figure that somebody like Ilhan Omar or, on the other side, Matt Gaetz is. So, I think once you saw Jacobs get involved, it gave people permission in some ways to get behind it. Shortly after they put out their amendment, I think you had Jayapal organize a letter; Erik was probably involved in helping with that. I think 19 Democrats signed on to telling the White House, we’re very concerned about this, and each one of those little steps builds confidence in people to then say, well, maybe we have a shot of getting to triple digits here.
ES: No, that’s absolutely right. Sarah Jacobs is a member who is very much… she’s progressive in many ways, but is also very much, you know, she’s a top Dem on the Africa Subcommittee of House Foreign Affairs and a very credible member. And so, it was fantastic that she wanted to lead, and I think that definitely contributed to the momentum.
And then, what really transformed it was their willingness to work with someone who, you know, is very unpleasant for many people, in a very … people can very reasonably feel that way: Matt Gaetz. But for Sarah Jacobs to put those other issues aside and accept him as a cosponsor, accept Anna Paulina Luna as a cosponsor. I mean, these are people, if you listen to most of their discourse, most of their policy issues are just, and even their style, can be really painful for a lot of people, but it’s great to see them putting that aside.
And then that, I think, put a lot of pressure on the Rules Committee and others to make something in order, and that kind of led to some of the processes that we can continue to talk about what ended up happening.
NR: So, yeah, this amendment seemed, it was truly bipartisan, seemed poised to sort of fly through the Rules Committee, which —as Ryan was mentioning earlier — relies on bipartisanship. Then, what happened next? Ryan, do you want to walk us through?
RG: So, once it gets to the Rules Committee, you have to kind of run a gauntlet of people behind the scenes, and that’s members of leadership, and also heads of the committee. And so Mike Rogers and Adam Smith testified before the Rules Committee; these are the top Republican and Democrat on the House Armed Services Committee.
And so, what you do there is, oftentimes you’ll say, hey, what do you guys think? And if both of them are OK with it, you’re often going to have an amendment get waved through.
And so, we actually have a clip here from a Rules Committee hearing. This is Jim McGovern, who’s the top Democrat on the committee, asking Mike Rogers and Adam Smith what they think of this cluster munitions amendment from Jacobs and Omar. Can we cue that up?
Jim McGovern: Either you have an opinion of whether or not the House should be able to debate the issue of cluster munitions or not. But, if you have an opinion, I’d love to hear it.
Mike Rogers: It’s fine with me.
Adam Smith: Fine with me, too.
JM: Good, then I hope it’s made in order, and we’ll be able to have that debate and that vote.
RG: So, both of them are fine with it. I mean, like, oh, wow, OK, guess we might be heading to the floor. And then you’ve got some extraordinary maneuvering behind the scenes, that resulted in quite a wild outcome, which actually goes back to the point I was making earlier, that it matters who the authors of these amendments are.
Erik, can you talk about how this unfolded, what you know about it?
ES: You know, very late at night, after there was an initial rules package of noncontroversial amendments, and that everyone was waiting to hear about all of the major hot button issues, and the Rules Committee announced it would be coming back in to session, and to do their consideration of these amendments, at midnight, and they ended up coming in at 1 a.m. And what was happening at that [moment] just before they came in was that they were negotiating a new amendment text, because they said that they had an issue with it being too broad. And we’ve seen some of that conversation in their public hearings, where they said, it’s too broad, it has to be only focused on Ukraine.
And that criticism, that complaint doesn’t really make any sense, there’s no real reason for doing that.
RG: Right. Where are we sending cluster munitions?
ES: Yeah, exactly. And I think that cuts both ways, in a sense. I mean, on one hand, we can ban them generally. because they’re not sending them anywhere else but Ukraine. On the other hand, if you’re only sending it to one place, and you remove that one place as an option, you’re down to zero. So, this isn’t an important distinction.
But what it did give them the opportunity to do is two things. Most importantly, in this instance, they were able to draft a new amendment, which then they were able to decide who to place it with. And, of course, they placed it with the member that, unfortunately, makes Gaetz, at this point, look relatively bipartisan and collaborative. Not only because Marjorie Taylor Greene has been, just in the recent week, insulting progressive Squad members using Ukraine. She had a tweet exchange with Cori Bush attacking her, even though Cori Bush is one of our most progressive members on foreign policy, and certainly is not a diehard militarist when it comes to Ukraine, at all. But Marjorie Taylor Greene attacked her viciously, and mixed a racial… with kind of a racial focus.
And so, it’s not just that she alienates progressives even more than Matt Gaetz, it’s that she also just got kicked out of the House Freedom Caucus for vulgar insults against Lauren Boebert.
So, this is the single most toxic member who they could possibly have chosen to have this amendment. And, of course, I think it’s pretty transparent why they did that; it’s because the Jacobs amendment, with Gaetz cosponsoring it, and many other reasonable moderate Democrats cosponsoring it, was on track to do very, very well, and we think that it was very likely that it would pass.
Yeah, so, essentially what happened, we got word that they were going to be writing a new amendment, giving it to Marjorie Taylor Greene, and that would be the amendment that would go on the floor, would not be a bipartisan amendment, and that’s the vote that they were going to give us.
NR: You know, sometimes I feel like it’s pointless to ask, why, about things that happen in Congress, but I still don’t totally get whose interests were at stake here. Like, who really wanted to sabotage this?
ES: Well, I would say pretty much anyone who is a strong supporter of the Ukraine military support, and wanting it to be unimpacted, because this was a very critical vote for a number of reasons. It’s the first opportunity for members to, essentially, definitely since what we call the “diplomacygate” progressive caucus letter scandal, where a very mild letter was… which, in hindsight, it looks very, very mild, and the whole situation is very strange, and history will see it that way, of course.
Since then, there’s been no opportunity, really, for members to challenge the official policy and push back on that. And so, this would have been an opportunity where you have Ukrainian advocates, you have Hawks accusing members of, well, you’re being pro-Putin if you won’t send these cluster bombs. And members would be able to break free from that through this vote. So it’s very consequential, because it would be an opportunity for a caucus to form, of members who say: Hey, we support Ukraine, but we’re not going to do everything Ukraine says just because you’re saying that we’re pro-Putin if we don’t.
And so, it’s a really significant thing, and there’s a lot of precedent for this. For example, in the Yemen war advocacy struggle, which has been over eight years now, one of the major turning points was a 2016 vote on cluster bombs. I actually worked on that vote with my former boss John Conyers, and we said, no transferring cluster bombs to Saudi Arabia over their use in Yemen. Kind of a triple impact there of three terrible situations and things, and we almost passed it. Out of nowhere, we had 40 Republicans join, and almost every Democrat and, notably, one of the Democrats that, that didn’t vote for it was HFAC, House Foreign Affairs Chair, Elliot Engel, and Jamal Bowman later cited his support for cluster bombs in that primary as one of the main foreign policy critiques.
So, this is very consequential, because it puts members in a very tough place. It’s a difficult vote if you have a sensible member that’s leading it, and framing it in a good way, and that’s what they were afraid of, is that you had a very reasonable, kind of establishment-friendly leadership on this amendment, and we were going to get a very, very good result. And with Gaetz and Anna Paulina Luna already supporting it, we were also going to do quite well on the Right, and I think we were looking at a very strong win on that vote. And so, they were desperate to block that, absolutely.
RG: And I think it lays bare to answer, directly, the question, the double game that Kevin McCarthy has been playing. He’s been telling the Right that he is just as skeptical of U.S. support for the war effort as they are. You remember, he said something like, there’s going to be strings attached if Republicans take over. And then he was pressed by the right wing of the Republican Party, to make sure that during the lame duck, Congress was not able to send tens or hundreds of billions of dollars more, so that they wouldn’t need Republican support, because they would already have banked a lot of that money. And he didn’t do that, because the understanding in Washington has always been that he’s basically with McConnell on this question.
He is aligned with the Biden Administration, but he wants to sort of tell the Freedom Caucus that he’s with them on this. This was an opportunity where he could have pushed back against sending cluster munitions. He didn’t even have to express support for it; if he just acted neutrally, and didn’t allow it to be stripped from Jacobs and moved over to Marjorie Taylor Greene, you get a much better outcome. The fact that that happened, I think, shows where McCarthy is on this, and answers your question about who is behind this, and why they would be behind it.
But Erik, real quick, just to clear up for people who weren’t paying attention earlier, can you just describe briefly that controversial letter that you talked about?
ES: Yeah. The Progressive Caucus letter from last year said, we support providing arms to Ukraine, we support president Biden, his measured approach of not escalating, or seeking to be escalatory, and avoiding that. But, at the same time, urged a slightly higher, greater prioritization of diplomatic talks, and exploring ways to end the war.
NR: And that letter was released, and then quickly, Pramila Jayapal backtracked on it.
ES: Yeah. And then, shortly, just weeks later, you saw members like Ro Khanna, and you had AOC, and many other members that actually stood by the letter. And the letter was essentially vindicated in short order, as Defense Department officials, and Biden administration officials, and senior mainstream commentators, all essentially expressed the same sentiment of the letter. And, in fact, the Biden administration had said that that letter was, they didn’t see anything controversial with it, they said it actually squared with their current approach. So, it was always a very interesting dynamic.
So, this vote is the first opportunity, essentially, since then, for members to have a chance to say a similar concept, which is, we do support Ukraine, but that doesn’t mean we’re going to allow any type of escalation or any type of action to achieve that end. And with these very mainstream House Foreign Affairs members leading, it was going to do very well. And so, you can see why those who are very staunchly behind the war, and support even escalatory actions in Ukraine, would be very worried about an outcome that could actually pass the House.
There’s an Axios piece that discussed senators that were already preparing what would happen if it passed the House? So, you could see there [were] a lot of contingencies in place, there was a lot of concern about the pressure that could build if this passed the House.
And so, that’s what certainly led the more hawkish members of, at least, House Republican leadership, but possibly others as well, to act to make the vote the most difficult that this vote could possibly be. Which is to give it to the single most, let’s say, challenging member of Congress: Marjorie Taylor Greene. And so, then that changed the dynamic of the fight, and we can talk about how that played out as well.
[Deconstructed mid-show theme music.]
NR: So, yesterday on Thursday, the Marjorie Taylor Greene measure went to the floor, there were a lot of speeches about whether or not we’re in a proxy war with Russia. And what ended up happening?
ES: It’s a very similar dynamic to some recent votes, where you do have these members like Matt Gaetz, who people on the left have no ability to even barely communicate with this person, much less guide them or reason with them on what the strategy should be. And you’re just forced to essentially respond, and make the best of a very stressful situation.
I mean, in this case, Marjorie Taylor Greene — again, I won’t, can’t get in her head, or what her intentions are. But the intentions of the people that placed the amendment with her was clearly to use it to essentially support the war effort, but she doesn’t even realize that that is their intent. And so, she’s allowing herself, or ends up being used, for essentially pro-war purposes, which is a huge challenge for us.
But I think it was a really great opportunity for progressive groups. You had progressive organizations, antiwar organizations on the left, and also on the right. And then you have members of Congress who have been doing this Left-Right work for years. Going back, like I said, in my career, to the 2013 Syria fight. You had similar activity in Libya, and then, of course, the Yemen work, and then a bunch of Syria work more recently as well, going back several years with Jamal Bowman leading multiple amendments, and Matt Gaetz then leading a war powers resolution on Syria this year.
So, members are starting to see that what really matters here is the policy, not the personality. That doesn’t mean members who are on the fence are certainly swayed by that, but we do have an increasingly strong group of members who are able to look past these really difficult personalities, and look at the substance.
And so, essentially, I think, between advocacy groups that are saying, let’s vote on this policy here, you don’t want to be… and I think the key message for this one is just the historical lasting impact of these weapons. You know, members shouldn’t want to be on the record as having voted for this but, much like Elliot Engel was in 2016 sending cluster bombs to Saudi Arabia for use in Yemen, because this is something that’s going to continue to cause harm, and it’s something that could reflect on them in a primary, or even in their conscience.
And so, I think by just essentially organizing, reflecting, understanding people’s frustrations about these really difficult members, and just how unbelievably unfortunate is that they are leading, but keeping it focused on the substance, and by doing that, we were able to get, again, this very core group of the most progressive members, the entire Squad. You’re able to be able to keep all of those members and bring a ton of other members along as well. And then get the Republicans that come along as well. Which, in this case, given Marjorie Taylor Greene’s leadership, is the bigger number.
NR: I think, ultimately, 147 representatives voted in favor of Greene’s measure. Was that more than you were expecting based on her leadership of it? And did you ultimately see it as a success?
ES: Yeah, well, it’s a success in the sense that it limited the harm that could have come from this. For example, if groups had said, well, Marjorie Taylor Greene is supporting this, we’re not going to vote for something that she’s doing, or we’re going to protest it, that would kind of reintroduce a more partisan character to the foreign policy, which is the exact opposite of what we need to really end these wars and these interventions.
And so, I think it’s really important. I wouldn’t say it’s a success, of course, because it was a very shrewd move by leadership to have her do it, and to be able to manage her psychology so that you can have her lead it, and she doesn’t even realize she’s leading it to undermine it. It’s just a remarkable move that they did.
So, in a sense it was successful that there wasn’t really devastating harm. That we have a group of many of our favorite progressive members, and a ton of other, even more moderate members that said, I’m going to vote on the principle. And the good news is, there’s no member more toxic than her.
So, little by little, as we go through this process, we’re learning about the tricks that Hawks in leadership have, and that’s sort of the same story of the Yemen war fight over eight years. Little by little, at each stage of the process, you’re learning the different tricks that they have. Here, I think, both advocacy groups and members of Congress saw this trick, and it’s going to be less potent next time, and I think we’ll be able to continue to convince members to vote on the impact of the policy and what’s on the paper, rather than on the personality of the member, because, otherwise, it’s just going to be very difficult in this current climate where you have these right wingers that are getting a little bit more engaged on foreign policy.
NR: And, presumably, the White House also saw how it unfolded, and got the message.
ES: The White House, I think, is very aware that this support for the Ukraine War, and especially the huge amounts of funding for it. Support for that war, it’s solid in a sense, but there’s definitely a potential for it to weaken, depending on how things are approached and depending on how developments happen. I think the White House is very aware of that, and I wouldn’t be surprised if they were pretty engaged with Congress on this. Because it was certainly a worry, if you read some of the reporting from the Axios piece, you had senators already preparing what they were going to do if it passed the House.
And so, this was certainly a major topic, and I think this amazing Marjorie Taylor Greene play spared them some of that, but they know that there is an increasingly growing group of principled members that are pretty consistently standing up for reasonable human rights-focused and restraint-focused foreign policy.
RG: And, Erik, because this, like you said, the war is still fairly strongly supported among Democrats, and that support, I suspect, extends to a lot of people listening to this podcast now, who would say, look, this is a just war. Ukraine was criminally invaded by a maniac. And if they believe that they need cluster munitions to fight back, then we should just do whatever it is that they are asking to support their effort, because they’re the ones whose lives and sovereignty are on the line.
What do you tell people when you hear that argument?
ES: Well, that argument is very complex, there’s a number of responses there. I think, first of all, again, it comes back to, you want to support Ukraine. And I think everyone, especially now, that they are in this war. I don’t think reasonable people should say we should cut off Ukraine, because they have already been encouraged to continue a path, and support it in a particular path. Cutting them off now would lead Russia to just march forward, and be an absolute nightmare.
And so, that’s why you saw most Democrats, all Democrats, a hundred percent of Democrats voting against Marjorie Taylor Greene and Matt Gaetz amendments to cut support entirely. Those were other amendments that were allowed to see a vote, because they were so unstrategic, and so unhelpful to promoting a more nuanced point of view.
But on the cluster bombs, I think it comes back to a few things. I think, first of all, the concern is, and it’s already happening, that it can split the alliance. Most NATO countries do not support these weapons, there’s been a number of countries that are outspoken about it. And I think that the big argument they’re relying on is, well, it’s Ukrainian territory, Ukraine should make the decision about whether or not to litter its country with at least hundreds of thousands, possibly millions, of unexploded bomblets.
But what that’s missing is that Ukraine is going to be firing these across the front line. And so, they’re actually firing them into areas that, it’s not, a lot of experts have doubts about — even including General Milley — have doubts about whether they’re going to be able to retake that. So, it’s a little bit of a disingenuous argument that it’s their own people because, reality is, they may be littering the Russian-held side of that contact line.
I think the real concern, too, is that it plays into Russian propaganda. When the U.S. is supporting Ukraine in using these indiscriminate weapons that are essentially like, it’s like a carpet bombing in a single bomb. And then you have the long lasting impacts as well.
So, I think that’s the concern. I mean, Ukraine would also like any number of weapons. They would love, obviously, full provision of jets, and they would even accept, if you could sneak it in there, they would accept a nuclear weapon if you could get it to them. And so, I think that’s not really the right question to ask. I think, again, it comes down to the responsibility, as the United States. for our actions. I think, once you transfer those bombs, it’s not just Ukraine’s decision; we also enabled that decision, and [it’s] something that, then, we’re responsible for helping to remedy in the future. And we will be.
NR: Before we let you go, Erik, I just want to take a moment to think about the fallen amendments of this week. You mentioned a whole host of amendments that The Intercept was closely watching; we did a piece earlier this week that people should take a look at.
Eril, I know that you are watching one in particular very closely, Jamal Bowman’s amendment about getting U.S. presence out of Syria. Do you want to tell us a little bit about that?
ES: Yeah. I would say this was another side of the kind of Left-Right collaboration that needs to be explored a bit, and was a little bit of a disappointment for many of us. This amendment had gotten votes for the past two years, it would simply give the president a year to either get authorization from Congress, or else the mission would have to end. So, it doesn’t require the mission in Syria to end, but it does require that the President come to Congress, as required by the War Powers Resolution, the Constitution, and get authorization.
And it’s gotten votes the past two years, and it was growing in support on both sides of the aisle; we had 60 percent of Democrats vote for it last year and 25 Republicans. And after Gaetz did a similar, bolder Syria War Powers Resolution earlier in the year with a six-month timeline, we had a chance to pass it. And, of course, unfortunately, Republican leadership again blocked that, and we were really disappointed that some of the folks who hadn’t in the past voted for it and have supported that on the right in the Rules Committee didn’t vote for it. And so, that was really, really troubling.
That is the history of this Left-Right collaboration, is saying that the Congress should decide on these questions of war, as the constitution indicates. And so, to see that amendment be struck down was really disappointing. Even though Republican leadership was incredibly, almost unprecedentedly restrictive in what they allowed to get a vote this year, there’s a lot of reason to be hopeful, and I think it’s really exciting for many of us to continue to see the Squad members taking a lot of leadership, and also seeing new members that are sort of Squad-adjacent getting involved in foreign policy on this bill.
Alexandria Ocasio Cortez, for example, is often criticized by the Left, but she’s been really pretty strong on a range of Latin America policy issues over many years. It’s often overlooked by some of the Twitter commentators. For example, she stood up against the coup in Bolivia, introduced an amendment, and she did the same this year, with an important amendment that would limit U.S. military aid to Peru, it got a lot of attention in Peru. So, even though it was rejected, it was really encouraging to the protest movement in Peru that’s fighting, essentially, a regime of elites in the capital city, Lima.
So, that’s just one example, but there’s many other great amendments that were done. For example, Robert Garcia and Becca Balint led an amendment to cut security aid to Uganda over its horrible anti-LGBTQ law. That’s got a lot of attention in the media, but no one mentions — The Intercept covered it, though — but no one mentions the huge amount of support that the U.S. provides in military aid. So, that was really exciting to see that, and see members like Robert Garcia [and] Becca Balint, two freshman members, getting involved right off the bat. And you saw a whole range of other amendments, too, from progressive members.
RG: Yeah, Greg Casar — I’ll mention this one, because it’s relevant to a recent show that we had — he’s the member from Austin… I can’t remember if we’ve had, I think we’ve had him on here before, but he’s a freshman, kind of squad-adjacent member from Texas who introduced a measure requiring, basically, the State Department to look into democratic backsliding in Pakistan. And it’s very unusual in Congress to have any pushback against the military establishment in Pakistan. And, basically, that’s organized around what’s going on with the repression of Imran Khan and his political party.
ES: Yeah. And what we noted about that, too, this is a rare example of democracy in action, in the sense that there are a lot of Pakistani Americans in Texas. And so, that’s a natural focus for Congressman Casar to have. There’s another amendment that Casar did as well that’s really interesting, focused on the way that Congress continues to fund all these weapons systems that the Pentagon isn’t even asking for. And, at the same time, service member families are really struggling with basic needs such as childcare. So, he proposed an amendment with Joaquin Castro to take the money from these weapon systems that the Pentagon doesn’t want, and put it towards supporting service member childcare, which is really an urgent need for many of these families.
And, of course, Republican leadership blocked it, but we think that’s another really important way to start to go at some of this military industrial complex, and get a better balance there between supporting the actual people that are involved in the Pentagon, many of whom are really mistreated, versus these lobbyists that are getting all these contracts for hundreds of billions of contracts for these weapons manufacturers.
RG: And there were a lot of interesting transparency amendments that didn’t make it through. Ayanna Pressley had a really good one, ordering the military to look closer at the assassination of Haitian President Jovenel Moise, and what role or what knowledge the U.S. might have had about that. AOC had a couple of fascinating ones, one about looking into the U.S. declassifying information about the U.S. role in the coup that brought Pinochet to power in Chile, one about the Brazilian coup in 1964, what was the U. S. role in that. One about the death squads and repression in Colombia from 1980 on, well into the 2000s, declassifying information around that.
So, you know, some interesting and fun things to push around, but still, the rock is just too heavy to push up the hill.
ES: I think the real significance of all this is, we are seeing this new generation of members and staffers. It is a generation that came up with the Bernie movement. It’s the most diverse generation of staffers by far, and there have been a lot of positive impacts. You’re seeing members, these younger members, who don’t necessarily have a political incentive. They’re not going to get huge donations for standing up for some of these issues, but you’re seeing them start to pick issues. And so, it’s great. You see Ayana Pressley working on Haiti, and you see Cori Bush introduce an amendment on security aid to Cameroon, and you have AOC handling a number of countries in Latin America, and other members.
And so, you are seeing this new generation of staffers, and while it didn’t necessarily pay dividends directly this time, it will be harder with all of this momentum, and all of this history, if the Democrats managed to take power again. It’s a lot harder for the Democrats to block these things because, ostensibly, they support human rights and these types of things abroad.
So, I do think it’s sort of a long game, but it’s very encouraging. People should feel encouraged that there is a generation in Congress that’s coming up that cares about these issues, and is willing to fight, basically, completely independent from the mainstream foreign policy thinking, and they are willing to act even when the traditional forces in Washington would really, and often do, put a lot of pressure on them not to.
RG: And one piece of breaking news: while we were recording this, the House did pass the final measure; 219 to 210, I believe, was the final. We didn’t actually get into why it became so controversial on the floor in the final moments, we can talk about that in the future but, essentially, Republicans brought their culture war and jammed it into the NDAA. They put some anti-trans stuff in there, they barred service members from, barred the Pentagon from allowing service members, or paying for service members to travel to get abortions, if they happen to have been kind of located in a state that has banned abortion. And they did some stuff about DEI — diversity, equity, inclusion — Republicans threw in there.
And so, they basically got close to zero, or maybe zero support from Democrats. From there, it’s going to have to go and be married up with the Senate version. Senate Democrats are not going to go for these culture war issues being thrown into the NDAA, which is going to create a logjam.
I guess, the last question for you, Erik: this is unprecedented territory for the NDAA, which is always described as must-pass legislation, and always moves through with these bipartisan votes. My guess is that they strip this culture stuff out, and you end up passing it back through the House with a bipartisan vote, and the culture warriors throw a temper tantrum.
Am I wrong? Are they going to shut down the military over this? How do you think this ends?
ES: No, I think that’s exactly right, and this is often what happens with our key foreign policy issues too is, the bill goes to conference, they try to reconcile the House bill and the Senate bill. And the White House basically does behind-the-scenes negotiations to make sure they have the votes, and they find the right provisions to make sure they have the votes. And when you put that up for a vote, even these, I think many of these far-right members are not going to want to vote down the Pentagon budget, and cut support to our troops for these issues.
So, the White House will have the leverage when it goes, when they send the final bill back for approval, after conference.
RG: Alright. Well, Erik, thank you very much for joining us. Really appreciate it. Nausicaa, thanks so much.
ES: Great to be here, thanks.
NR: Thank you.
[Deconstructed end-show theme music.]
RG: That was Nausicaa Renner and Erik Sperling, and that’s our show.
Deconstructed is a production of The Intercept. Our producer is José Olivares. Our supervising producer is Laura Flynn. The show is mixed by William Stanton. This episode was transcribed by Leonardo Faierman. Our theme music was composed by Bart Warshaw. Roger Hodge is The Intercept’s editor in chief, and I’m Ryan Grimm, D.C. Bureau Chief of The Intercept.
If you’d like to support our work, go to theintercept.com/give. If you haven’t already, please subscribe to the show so you can hear it every week. And please go and leave us a rating or review. It helps people find the show. Go ahead and rate any episode that you want, even if you rated one already.
If you want to give us additional feedback, email us at firstname.lastname@example.org, or at Ryan.Grim@theintercept.com. Put “Deconstructed” in the subject line, otherwise, I might miss your message.
Thanks so much, and I’ll see you soon.