Weapons for Ukraine, Now
by Former United States Senator Gordon Humphrey
A new Hitler has arisen in Europe, and Ukraine is his first victim. Tragically, the response of the Western powers is the same as in 1938: appeasement. Meanwhile, Vladimir Putin continues to bully and bleed a country whose only offense is to passionately desire freedom.
Ukraine deserves and desperately needs our help. In courageously fighting Putin’s invading forces, she has suffered a great many casualties and the loss of most of her heavy weapons. Yet, she struggles onward, bravely. A month ago, President Poroshenko delivered a moving address to a Joint Session of Congress, pleading for replacement weapons. President Obama refused and sent him home empty-handed and humiliated.
End of story? That depends on you and each of us who cares deeply about Ukraine, freedom and justice. It also depends on the Ukrainian American organizations in Washington. They must become much better organized, unified and coordinated. Hold them accountable. Ask each to tell you what it is doing.
A President is not a dictator in foreign policy. He takes an oath to faithfully execute the laws, like them or not. Because Congress makes those laws, it can change White House policy.
There are already forty-four United States Senators on record supporting defensive weapons for Ukraine. As a former U.S. Senator, I assure you, that’s a very high starting number for a measure so profound, especially in opposition to the President. No doubt it can be raised substantially higher.
Senators cannot prevail against the White House when acting in small numbers. They need to form a Task Force on Ukraine, with a robust staff, to bring to bear the full strength of their numbers and the very great combined powers of their offices. Their staffs need to work energetically every day discover and aggressively exploit opportunities to undermine and change White House policy.
First, in committees and on the Floor Senators must convincingly refute White House arguments against providing weapons. They must take testimony from experts, such Leon Panetta, Obama’s CIA Director and Secretary of Defense until 2013. Mr. Panetta recently called for going beyond economic sanctions to provide military aid. Yet, seven months after Putin annexed Crimea, there hasn’t been a single Senate hearing on the two bills that would authorize such weapons, S.2277 and S.2828. No hearings. No witnesses. No testimony. No serious, organized, team effort to refute Mr. Obama’s arguments. The White House is winning the policy debate by default.
Second, Senators must assertively advance legislation to overturn Obama’s policy. S.2828, the Menendez bill, would authorize weapons, including “including anti-tank and anti-armor weapons.” Senator Robert Menendez, the bill’s author and powerful Chair of the Senate Foreign Relations Committee, stated the case in a recent NPR interview, “If a tank is coming at you and you’re firing with a peashooter, you’re not going to be able to stop that tank”.
S.2828 awaits Floor action, which might or might not take place after the election. The White House will try to prevent the bill from being debated. When the Senate adjourns a few weeks later all bills not enacted die. If the Senate Task Force on Ukraine was already in being today, its members and staff could be working even now, pressuring the leadership to bring the bill up before Congress adjourns and even rounding up support for offering the bill as an amendment to must-pass legislation.
Even if enacted, S.2828 is not enough. It only says the President may provide weapons, it does not say he must. The Senate and House must pass an appropriation bill that provides funding for S.2828. The President will then be duty-bound to spend the funds as directed.
Third, Senators need to play hard ball. At present they’re not even in the game, because they haven’t organized a team. They can’t win with only one or two players on the field at a time. Nor can they win by being nice guys. Working together in a Senate Task Force on Ukraine, Senators can both advance S.2828, and, when necessary, engage in serious parliamentary combat, blocking legislation the White House wants as well as the confirmations of Presidential nominees. These and similar tactics are used frequently in Congress.
There is a precedent. In the 1980s, Democrat and Republican Senators formed a Task Force on Afghanistan, to overturn a White House ban on supplying weapons to those fighting the Soviet army in that country. The chair of the Senate Foreign Relations Committee at that time, Senator Claiborne Pell, was one of its active members, as was one of the Senate’s most senior current members, Senator Orrin Hatch.
Ultimately, Congress forced the Administration to provide greater levels of humanitarian assistance and, most importantly, lethal defensive weapons, including Stinger anti-aircraft weapons, that changed the war and persuaded the Soviets to withdraw. This very important lesson should not be lost.
In summary, Congress can change White House policy. But it can only do so when Senators are willing to use fully the great powers conferred on them by the Constitution. To sufficiently marshal those powers and to coordinate the efforts of many offices, the Senate needs to create a Task Force on Ukraine.
This noble cause needs a leader. One Senator among forty-four now supporting weapons for Ukraine should stand up, take charge and form the task force. Many others from the forty-four would surely join in with commensurate staff.
Where is the Winston Churchill, who will lead the fight in the Senate against the dangerous White House policy of appeasement. We must help Ukraine. Her battle is our battle.
Gordon Humphrey represented New Hampshire in the United States Senate in the 1980s and was Senate chair of the Congressional Task Force on Afghanistan. You can email him at firstname.lastname@example.org