Prospects for World War III got a boost this week on Capitol Hill, where conformity reached new lockstep depths. A bill that was most conspicuous for ratcheting up sanctions on Russia sailed through the House of Representatives by a 419-3 margin.
To further grease the path toward thermonuclear annihilation, the White House announced on Friday night that President Trump will sign the sanctions bill.
Of course we’re supposed to be heartened by such developments. We’ll show those Russians they can’t push us around and so forth!
That’s how wars start ― and in this case, maybe a nuclear war.
As I wrote in USA Today after the sanctions bill passed, “The drive to put more sanctions on Russia might feel good. But fueling a new Cold War can only propel the United States in the wrong direction. It’s time to turn away from a collision course, not step on the gas.”
And I added:
“Whatever you think of Vladimir Putin ― or Donald Trump, for that matter ― they are the presidents of the world’s nuclear superpowers. Piling sanctions on Russia means escalating tensions. And that’s extremely dangerous.
“When this year began, the Bulletin of the Atomic Scientists moved its risk-estimate Doomsday Clock closer to apocalyptic midnight than at any time since 1953. ‘The probability of global catastrophe is very high, and the actions needed to reduce the risks of disaster must be taken very soon,’ the Bulletin’s expert panel warned.
“If new sanctions target Russia, the predictable results will include angry responses from the Kremlin and more polarized attitudes in both countries ― damaging the prospects for any détente while boosting a spiral of mutual hostility.
“Democratic lawmakers rightly deride Republicans for their ‘climate change denial,’ but both parties are locked into a kind of ‘nuclear war denial’ in relation to Russia. The latest sanctions bill is part of an obsession with denouncing Russia that leaves scant room for considering how to reduce the dangers of nuclear war between the two countries.”
But if you’re looking for saner heads to prevail, or at least show their faces, the terrain across Congress is bleak. The most discouraging aspect might be the rigorous conformity even among the legislators who have previously challenged the dangerous war fever in our midst.
For Americans who oppose perpetual war, no member of Congress has been more admired than Barbara Lee. Ever since she cast the only vote against a blank-check war resolution, three days after 9/11, the progressive Democrat from Oakland, California, has earned a reputation for bravely speaking antiwar truth to militarist power.
But now, the core wisdom of her eloquent speech on the House floor nearly 16 years ago is under threat ― from Congresswoman Lee herself.
When Lee beseeched her colleagues to “think through the implications of our actions today, so that this does not spiral out of control,” she was looking far beyond the politics and passions of the moment on September 14, 2001. In the case of the “war on terror” that Lee resisted from the start, what spiraled out of control was endless and boundless war.
These days, the escalating tensions with Russia could spiral out of control all the way to nuclear holocaust.
To find a member of Congress speaking much sense about Russia these days, you’ll need to locate one who has retired. A laudable case in point is former Sen. Sam Nunn, who joined with three seasoned ex-diplomats to co-sign an open letter in late June that urged Donald Trump and Vladimir Putin to discuss four specific proposals for reducing the dangers of nuclear war.
Nunn ― drawing on his experience as chair of the Senate Armed Services Committee ― knows that top-level talks between the Russian and U.S. governments are crucial to reduce the risk of the world blowing up.
But Congresswoman Lee addressed the Trump-Putin meeting in a very different way. Right after it was over, she sent out a tweet that denounced the very idea of the two presidents sitting down and talking: “Outraged by President Trump’s 2 hr meeting w/Putin, the man who orchestrated attacks on our democracy. Where do his loyalties lie?”
Yet real diplomacy often requires that leaders we don’t like ― at the top of a foreign government and maybe our own ― sit down together, talk and negotiate. In the case of the world’s two nuclear-weapons superpowers, that could turn out to mean the difference between coexistence or co-annihilation.
During her historic 2001 speech on the House floor, when she insisted that “some of us must urge the use of restraint,” Barbara Lee was refusing to be swept up in the easy and dangerous conformity of the times. She saw that militarized confrontation would be a tragically unwise alternative to diplomacy.
In the aftermath of 9/11, Congresswoman Lee offered profound insight and leadership instead of confusion and fear. But now, when Russia is involved, she has apparently become another conformist Democrat, beating the drum for confrontation in a parade heading off toward World War Three.
Right now, that’s the story of the Congress of the United States ― on an unhinged crusade against Russia, increasing the chances of nuclear holocaust.