May 23, 2022

The $40 billion Ukraine bill.

The $40 billion Ukraine bill.

Is this money the right call?

I’m Isaac Saul, and this is Tangle: an independent, ad-free, subscriber-supported politics newsletter that summarizes the best arguments from across the political spectrum on the news of the day — then “my take.”

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Today's read: 13 minutes.

The $40 billion package for Ukraine. Plus, a question about where traditional Republicans go from here.

Ukrainian President Volodymyr Zelensky. Photo: President of Ukraine office
Ukrainian President Volodymyr Zelensky. Photo: President of Ukraine office

ICYMI.

On Friday, we published a subscribers-only post on the state of third parties in the U.S. You can see a preview of the post (and decide to subscribe if you aren't) by clicking here.


Quick hits

  1. A shipment of 78,000 pounds of Nestlé baby formula was delivered to the U.S. by the Air Force from Germany on Sunday, enough for over a half million baby bottles. (The delivery)
  2. One case of monkeypox, a relative of smallpox, was confirmed in Massachusetts. It's the first known case in the U.S. since 2003. The virus causes fever, aches and a bumpy rash. (The warning)
  3. During a visit to Tokyo, President Biden said the U.S. would respond militarily if China invades Taiwan. The U.S. also announced 12 countries that joined the Indo-Pacific Economic trade pact. (The commitment)
  4. U.S. gas prices continue to rise, setting a record average price of $4.71 per gallon. (The numbers)
  5. A New York judge finalized a congressional map for the state, setting off a scramble for candidates to decide what districts to run in and handing a victory to Republicans who had challenged Democratic gerrymandering. (The map)

Our 'Quick Hits' section is created in partnership with Ground News, a website and app that rates the bias of news coverage and news outlets.


Today's topic.

Ukraine aid. On Thursday, the Senate approved $40 billion of additional military and humanitarian aid to Ukraine. President Biden initially requested a $33 billion package, which the House increased to $40 billion and then passed. The package passed the Senate by an 86-11 vote and was signed by President Joe Biden on Saturday. Including aid to Ukraine in March, the bill brings the total the U.S. has invested in Ukraine's defense to $54 billion.

The legislation includes around $9 billion to replenish stocks of U.S. weapons, $6 billion to train and supply the Ukrainian military, $3.9 billion to support intelligence and equipment for troops in the region, $8.8 billion in economic assistance for the Ukrainian government, $5 billion to address food scarcity caused by the war, and about $900 million for refugees.

The Justice Department will get $67 million to cover the costs of seizing and selling forfeited property like the Russian oligarchs’ yachts and artwork, the Wall Street Journal reported. And $5 million was included for oversight of the funds, including $4 million for the State Department inspector general and $1 million for the U.S. Agency for International Development inspector general.

The bill quickly moved through the House and Senate with little debate about how it would be spent or whether it should be sent at all. Compared to other legislation — like another round of $28 million pandemic response still stuck in Congress — this legislation ran into surprisingly little friction, with only 57 Republicans voting against the bill in the House.

“I applaud the Congress for sending a clear bipartisan message to the world that the people of the United States stand together with the brave people of Ukraine as they defend their democracy and freedom,” Biden said in a statement.

Senator Josh Hawley (R-MO), one of the senators who voted against the bill, said it was irresponsible to spend the money with so many needs at home and called on other countries to chip in more. The European Union has so far approved just $2.1 billion of assistance to Ukraine and has said it would spend another $9.5 billion in the coming months.

“Spending $40 billion on Ukraine aid — more than three times what all of Europe has spent combined — is not in America’s interests,” Hawley said on Twitter. “It neglects priorities at home (the border), allows Europe to freeload, short changes critical interests abroad and comes w/ no meaningful oversight.”

The battle in Ukraine for the eastern region known as the Donbas is fierce. On May 11, Ukrainian forces struck a pontoon attempting to cross the Seversky Donets River in the region and killed more than 400 soldiers. Ukraine claims it is now on a counteroffensive, working to push Russia out of areas it has taken control of. Many analysts have expressed cautious optimism that Ukraine has momentum in the war, as even the most loyal Russian propagandists are now openly questioning the competency of their military.

Below, we'll take a look at some reactions from the left and right to the recent aid package, then my take.


What the left is saying.

  • The left is divided on the bill, with some supporting it and others questioning what we are doing.
  • Some praise Biden for deftly handling Ukraine's defense and rallying our allies.
  • Others question if this is the end of the anti-war left.

The New York Times editorial board said American support won't be indefinite, and President Biden needs to communicate the goals clearly.

"In March, this board argued that the message from the United States and its allies to Ukrainians and Russians alike must be: No matter how long it takes, Ukraine will be free. Ukraine deserves support against Russia’s unprovoked aggression, and the United States must lead its NATO allies in demonstrating to Vladimir Putin that the Atlantic alliance is willing and able to resist his revanchist ambitions," the board wrote. "That goal cannot shift, but in the end, it is still not in America’s best interest to plunge into an all-out war with Russia, even if a negotiated peace may require Ukraine to make some hard decisions. And the U.S. aims and strategy in this war have become harder to discern, as the parameters of the mission appear to have changed.

"Is the United States, for example, trying to help bring an end to this conflict, through a settlement that would allow for a sovereign Ukraine and some kind of relationship between the United States and Russia?" it asked. "Or is the United States now trying to weaken Russia permanently? Has the administration’s goal shifted to destabilizing Vladimir Putin or having him removed? Does the United States intend to hold Mr. Putin accountable as a war criminal? Or is the goal to try to avoid a wider war — and if so, how does crowing about providing U.S. intelligence to kill Russians and sink one of their ships achieve this? Without clarity on these questions, the White House not only risks losing Americans’ interest in supporting Ukrainians — who continue to suffer the loss of lives and livelihoods —  but also jeopardizes long-term peace and security on the European continent."

In NBC News, Sébastien Roblin wrote about why our military aid is working.

"These numbers might seem staggering, but they pale in comparison to the amounts Washington spent on the wars in Iraq and Afghanistan, or in Vietnam for that matter. Yet the result has been vastly more effective," Roblin said. "Ukrainian society as a whole was willing to fight in defense of its country. The government wasn’t reliant on the U.S. military to prop it up and to cajole reluctant recruits to defend it. And despite political divisions, over time, the Ukrainian people grew to favor closer relations with Western Europe and the United States. In contrast, arms, money and the blood of thousands of U.S. troops couldn’t infuse Western-oriented governments in South Vietnam and Afghanistan with popular support. Ukraine’s spirit of national resistance has also meant that most of the U.S. arms transferred to local forces have been used for their intended purpose.

"In Ukraine, the U.S. and NATO are helping the country build on its existing strengths instead of reinventing the military top to bottom — as the U.S. had to do in Iraq when it foolishly disbanded the entire military after routing Iraqi leader Saddam Hussein. In Ukraine, beginning in 2014 when the war in eastern part of the country broke out, Washington instead enabled Kyiv to make better use of its huge inventory of Soviet artillery and armored vehicles through modernized training and tactics," Roblin said. "It also focused on delivering mostly nonlethal systems that allowed Ukrainian troops to use the firepower they already had more effectively, such as counter-battery radars that have helped Ukrainian forces detect artillery attacks, night-vision goggles that allow Ukrainian units to operate at times Russian units can’t and secure communication systems that protect their troop locations."

In his newsletter, Glenn Greenwald said the unanimous support from Democrats "killed whatever was left of the U.S. left-wing anti-war movement."

"While a small portion of these funds will go to humanitarian aid for Ukraine, the vast majority will go into the coffers of weapons manufacturers such as Raytheon, Lockheed Martin, Boeing and the usual suspects. Some of it will go to the CIA for unspecified reasons," Greenwald wrote. "To put this $54 billion amount in perspective, it is (a) larger than the average annual amount that the U.S. spent on its own war in Afghanistan ($46 billion), (b) close to the overall amount Russia spends on its entire military for the year ($69 billion), (c) close to 7% of the overall U.S. military budget, by far the largest in the world ($778 billion), and (d) certain to be far, far higher — easily into the hundreds of billions of dollars and likely the trillion dollar level — given that U.S. officials insist that this war will last not months but years, and that it will stand with Ukraine until the bitter end.

"What made this Democratic Party unanimity so bizarre, even surreal, is that many of these House Democrats who voted YES have spent years vehemently denouncing exactly these types of war expenditures," he said. "Some of them — very recently — even expressed specific opposition to pouring large amounts of U.S. money and weaponry into Ukraine on the grounds that doing so would be unprecedentedly dangerous, and that Americans are suffering far too severely at home to justify such massive amounts to weapons manufacturers and intelligence agencies... This vote, and their silence about it, is particularly confounding — one could, without hyperbole, even say chilling — given how rapidly Democrats’ rhetoric about Ukraine is escalating."


What the right is saying.

  • The right is also divided, with some arguing the money is in our best interest and others saying it is putting America last.
  • Some were critical of where the money was going and Biden's strategy.
  • Others said it is a good deal for the U.S. to support Ukraine in this way.

In Politico, Rich Lowry wrote about why even "America First" conservatives should support the aid.

"We would have saved tens of billions of dollars, at least initially, if we had never aided Ukraine and contented ourselves with letting it get overrun," Lowry wrote. "But a victorious Vladimir Putin would have posed a more direct threat to NATO, precipitating and necessitating an even bigger military buildup than we are seeing now, and one that we would have to participate in, unless we were to simply give up on our leadership of the world’s most important alliance," Lowry said. "If Putin were ever tempted into a direct confrontation with NATO, we would be faced with the dissolution of the alliance or the involvement of U.S. troops in an even more costly conflict.

"The Ukraine war might be expensive, but it is the Ukrainians who are doing the fighting. They are degrading the military of an adversary of the United States and trying to push it away from NATO’s borders without a single U.S. or Western soldier firing a shot or being put directly in harm’s way. All things considered, this is a deal," Lowry wrote. "GOP Sen. Josh Hawley of Missouri has said his 'biggest concern' with the bill is that it doesn’t represent 'a nationalist foreign policy.' What constitutes a nationalist foreign policy is open to debate, but the bill, and our broader support for Ukraine, falls comfortably within a common-sense definition. Assisting a sovereign country in defending its borders against a nation bent on regaining imperial glory, while ensuring other sovereign counties are better able to deter that would-be imperial power from further aggrandizement is a broadly nationalist project."

James Jay Carafano said this bill "puts America last."

"Continued support for Ukraine's self-defense against Russia is in U.S. interests. Russia’s use of military force to redraw sovereign borders in modern Europe has global consequences, including making President Biden’s self-inflicted economic crisis even worse back home. However, it is just as true that the $40 billion proposal is fiscally irresponsible and the epitome of everything that is wrong with how Washington works today," Carafano said. "First, House leaders gave members only a few hours to review the proposal before voting. This should be a red flag to everyone that there are problematic proposals buried in this spending package that leadership didn’t want Americans to have time to find.

“Second, even as inflation surges to record highs and Americans are suffering from higher prices on just about everything, Washington cannot seem to curb its addiction to reckless spending that isn’t offset. Third, while the bill contains important spending that will bolster Ukraine’s defenses, it also authorizes nearly a billion dollars in unlawful immigration benefits, and roughly $9 billion for things like funding Ukrainian government officials’ salaries and pensions. If we truly want to help Ukraine achieve victory in its immediate crisis—and we should—our response should be focused squarely on that effort, not helping pay foreign bureaucrats’ retirement bills.”

In The American Conservative, Peter Van Buren criticized the "hare-brained" diplomacy of President Biden.

"The goal is not just to have Russia leave Ukraine in defeat, but to attrit them to the last possible man in doing so," Van Buren said. "Among the many problems of this bleed-’em-dry strategy is that it sets the U.S. and Russia on a direct collision course; the only reason the U.S.’s provision of targeting data to sink flagships and kill generals in the field didn’t spark a war is because a Ukrainian finger was presumably on the trigger, not an American one. This strategy has provoked the first serious mention of the use of nuclear weapons of the 21st century.

"Suddenly, what could have faded into the distance as a semi-failed incursion into Ukraine became the first struggle of the New Cold War; Nancy Pelosi said the struggle is about defending 'democracy writ large for the world.' It’s Top Gun III, with everything from Russian pride to Putin’s regime’s survival on the line," Van Buren said. "And when everything is on the line, you invoke the 'everything' weapon: nukes. Putin is a cautious man, but accidents happen, and miscalculations with nukes sting. While Biden is talking up the bleeding strategy as a common-sense response to Russian aggression, the shift amounts to a significant escalation. By canning diplomatic efforts in favor of a more violent war, the United States greatly increased the danger of sparking an even larger conflict: the atomic threats from Moscow. The risk way outweighs any realistic reward."


My take.

Even from my perch in the U.S., the war in Ukraine has done a number on me. Vladimir Putin slaughtered 300 civilians sheltering in a theater in Mariupol. In Bucha, evidence of torture, rape, and mass graves were left behind when Russian forces were pushed out. Over 50 civilians were likely killed in Kramatorsk while waiting for a train to flee the city. These are just a few of the known atrocities that have happened in the most recent weeks of a war which has occluded getting reliable information to the outside world.

I have to concede that my emotions might be too close to the issue on this one.

One of my closest friends is a Ukrainian who spent time living in Kyiv working for the government. Distant relatives of mine have had to flee. The images of dead civilians and dead soldiers are in front of me during my work every day. In the most basic sense, I feel anger — real anger — toward the man I believe is responsible for this war: Vladimir Putin. And that anger turns to a moral clarity that we should do everything we can do to help Ukraine "win," which to me means maintaining its sovereignty with as few lives lost as possible.

Given that, I'll first make the most concise case I can that this bill is worth it (and was handled correctly). Then I'll explain what I fear.

Even from a non-interventionist perspective, there is a good argument for the money. The worse this goes for Putin's army, the less likely they are to look beyond Donbas, or Ukraine as a whole for that matter. There is a reason Sweden and Finland are joining NATO, and it is not that they think Putin is a rational actor whose vision for the world ends with only Ukraine in his grasp. If Ukraine had fallen in days or weeks, it's totally reasonable to believe Putin would have set his sights on the rest of Eastern Europe. The weaker his army is and the weaker Russia looks at the end of this war, the safer the rest of the region probably is from invasion.

Biden also deserves some credit. I have criticized many of his foreign policy blunders, but this isn't one of them. The administration was careful not to hand over jet fighters or Patriot missiles before the war because they knew it could be seen as a provocation, and they knew if Ukraine fell, the weapons would end up in Russia’s hands. Putin invaded anyway, and the administration gave Ukraine defensive weapons until the initial defense was solidified and can now more confidently hand over advanced weaponry to push Russia back. If you're going to arm a vulnerable ally to the teeth, this is probably the best way to do it.

There's also no reason to pretend this money was going to be spent elsewhere. Many Republicans in opposition decry $40 billion to Ukraine with a baby formula shortage, inflation, and a border crisis here at home. But if the baby formula crisis or inflation could be solved with $40 billion, the Biden administration would have done that long ago. And our border policies aren't our border policies because of money — they're the accumulated policies of President Biden and the result of decades of congressional inaction. This bill wouldn't change them one way or another. It appears, plainly and simply, to be about defending Ukraine and bleeding Russia, both militarily and economically.

Which brings me to my concerns. When we talk about “bleeding” Russia, what we are really talking about is more dead Russian soldiers, more dead Ukrainian soldiers, and more death and destruction for the innocent civilians inhabiting the battleground in Ukraine. This isn’t the same crude contradiction of “bombing for peace,” but it’s not far off either. A protracted war means protracted misery, not just for Putin and his forces but for Ukrainians, too. The only real way out is going to be a peace deal.

On top of the death and destruction in Ukraine, this war is already causing a food shortage that is starving the world. Fuel prices have skyrocketed. These impacts could multiply and worsen. The war’s extension with no diplomatic solutions even on the horizon is horrifying. While a failed incursion may humble Putin's plans for regional domination, it could just as easily turn him into a cornered, wounded animal. Given that his rational and calculated actions appear bloodthirsty and borderline suicidal, it's frightening to imagine what comes when the threat of failure is truly realized.

It's also hard not to see this simply as the war machine churning on. War often feels justified in the moment, and its hard to ignore that. Glenn Greenwald, Nan Levinson, all the "America First" pundits and left-wing writers have a point: The weapons manufacturers are about to get a whole lot richer. The dozen or more members of Congress with over $50,000 invested in those manufacturers should have a good year. The Squad and other far-left members who vowed not to blindly rubber stamp billions for war just did. Additions to the bill added money for inspectors general and some oversight, but the Pentagon and State Department are both missing permanent internal watchdogs to monitor this cash. Watchdog experts say decisively that's a huge problem.

As I've said before, it's important not to lose the plot. With no threat to his own people's safety or sovereignty, Putin invaded a free country of 40 million people and brought this horror on the world. While my heart supports every dollar to make him regret that decision, and my gut believes ensuring Russia loses this war (the sooner the better) will keep the rest of the West safe, my head knows the process of passing this aid and sheer size of the bill was not a responsible government in action. I just hope and pray it works.

Have thoughts about "my take?" You can reply to this email and write in or leave a comment if you're a subscriber.


Your questions, answered.

Q: Now, where do us no-longer-mainstream Republicans go? Seems the "party" has moved much more right than a lot of us like, but we can't stand the nanny-state left that is passing the mortgage on to our grandkids.

— Jim, Rogers, Arkansas

Tangle: I'm not sure I have a great answer for you. In Friday's subscribers-only post, I wrote about the state of third parties in the U.S. One of the things I noted was that many pundits have written about how we really have four political factions right now. We name them differently, but roughly speaking, they are Trump Republicans, moderate Republicans, establishment Democrats and progressive Democrats. I think this is a pretty fair and accurate portrayal of where we are, and all four factions are stuffed into two parties. This ends with Joe Manchin squabbling with Alexandria Ocasio-Cortez and Liz Cheney fighting with Donald Trump.

What I think is interesting is that progressive Democrats are probably the weakest of the four factions in terms of power. Given that Biden, Pelosi and Manchin seem to hold the White House and reins of Congress, I could argue that center-left Democrats are the most powerful. And I think we are currently witnessing the new Trump Republicans overwhelm the more moderate, traditional caucus. Trumpism is ascendant and he seems largely "in control" of the party's direction.

At the same time, I think this can also be overstated. Mitch McConnell is still the most powerful Republican in Congress. His allies in Congress are still incredibly loyal, and he still controls the Senate. This midterm season is going to be one of the biggest tests of Trump's influence yet, as well as our first look at the kinds of politicians Republican voters want to send to office in the post-Trump world. So far it looks like there are more Trump-type Republicans headed to Congress, but there are a lot of elections left on the board and Trump has actually taken a few dings along the way.

I'm not sure if the friction between these factions shakes something loose in our politics and ushers in a powerful third party, but it’s possible. What I do think is that, for now, there is still plenty of room for "no-longer-mainstream Republicans" in the tent, so long as a few of the traditional conservatives survive the next few years of elections.

Want to ask a question? You can reply to this email and write in (it goes straight to my inbox) or fill out this form.


A story that matters.  

The Supreme Court is nearing the end of its term, with 35 cases still awaiting opinions that will be handed down by the end of the summer. Among them is the Roe v. Wade decision that was leaked last month, a case on when someone can carry a concealed weapon in New York, one on the separation of church and state in school, two cases related to immigration, a challenge to the authority the EPA has to combat greenhouse gases, and a voter ID law in North Carolina. Many consider this one of the most consequential terms in Supreme Court history. The Wall Street Journal has a round-up of what's coming (subscription required).


Numbers.

  • 76%. The percentage of Americans who said the United States should provide more humanitarian support to Ukraine in early May.
  • 55%. The percentage of Americans who said the United States should provide more military support to Ukraine in early May.
  • 21%. The percentage of Americans who said the United States should take direct military action against Russian forces in Ukraine.
  • 69%. The percentage of Americans who say the economy is bad, according to a new CBS poll.
  • 74%. The percentage of Americans who say things in the U.S. are going badly, according to the same poll.
  • 53%. The percentage of Americans who say they are optimistic about the efforts against Covid-19.

Have a nice day.

Shahzeb Anwer is getting married in Pakistan this weekend — and the entire city of Birmingham, Alabama, is invited. A 31-year-old diagnosed with hyperparathyroidism, Anwer was unable to get surgery in Pakistan because of limited technology. So he began looking for help outside his home country, and eventually ended up in Alabama for the procedure. After spending some time there, and being embraced by the local community, he said he feels like Birmingham's "second son." When he found out he was getting married, he posted an invitation on Reddit to the entire town. Though he's unsure who will show up, the gesture went viral. CBS 42 has the story.


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