Dennis Kucinich on the Congressional Progressive Caucus’ Ukraine letter debacle and how to revive the US peace movement at a time when elected progressives are afraid to take a stand against war.
Dennis Kucinich, who led Congressional opposition to the Iraq war, reacts to the Congressional Progressive Caucus retracting a letter calling for diplomacy with Russia. “If we don’t believe in diplomacy,” Kucinich asks, “then where do we go as a country?”.
Guest: Dennis Kucinich. Former Congressmember (D-Ohio) and former Mayor of Cleveland.
AARON MATÉ: Welcome to Pushback. I’m Aaron Maté. Joining me is Dennis Kucinich. He is a former Democratic member of Congress from Ohio and the former mayor of Cleveland. Dennis Kucinich, thanks so much for joining me.
DENNIS KUCINICH: Thank you very much, Aaron. It’s good to be on your show. I look forward to our discussion.
AARON MATÉ: You, in Congress, led the peace movement inside Congress when you were there over a decade, and led the opposition to the Iraq War. And when this debacle just happened with Congressional progressives, issuing a letter calling on Biden to pursue diplomacy with Russia—not threatening to stop approving military spending for Ukraine, just asking him politely to pursue diplomacy—they withdrew it after 24 hours. And I was just curious, having led the peace wing of Congress when you were there, your response to this debacle?
DENNIS KUCINICH: Well, it’s a new chapter in the cancel culture. The Congressional Progressive Caucus looks like it’s been canceled. And the efforts—which on their part were rather straightforward yet meek, to ask for diplomacy—were not just casually pushed aside, they were crushed. It’s really important for people to understand the significance of what happens when 30 members of Congress sign a letter to the president saying, ‘Look, we support you. At the same time, we really feel that we’re in a moment where diplomacy needs to be exercised in order to avoid a wider war.’ Now, when that kind of a very straightforward and mild request by members of Congress gets not just swept aside but crushed, we all need to reflect on where we’re going with this conflict, this war in Ukraine. Because if diplomacy is not even to be talked about or considered, that means we’re headed for an escalation—and all the consequences.
AARON MATÉ: Based on your time in Congress, what kind of insight do you have in the pressures lawmakers face when they try to take a stance, even a very mild one, as you say, as was the case here, in the direction of peace.
DENNIS KUCINICH: One’s susceptibility to pressure generally depends on one’s own life and political experience. The less experience you have, the pressure that can happen in Washington can be extraordinary, and it also has to do with one’s aspirations to keep moving up in the leadership of Congress. People are vulnerable. I mean, there’s no question about it, to the pressure that comes, but particularly when it is accompanied with characterizations of people being—of members of Congress—being less than American.
Really, we have to start asking questions about, who are these individuals who have set themselves in judgment upon their own colleagues in a way that not just stifles dissent but doesn’t even permit it? The very basis of the Democratic Party, it would seem to be, and historically, has been a wide, valuable, sometimes even wild exertion of an expression of dissent, but that’s not happening now.
So, moving along here because this, again, this event is worth exploring for its implications. So, diplomacy is not to be considered. You go back to 2014 in September, the Minsk agreement, that tri-party agreement which also the OSCE [Organization for Security and Co-operation in Europe] helped to produce, and then Minsk II a year later, was really aimed at ending the conflict in Donetsk and Lugansk, in what is eastern Ukraine, or was eastern Ukraine. And if you look at the agreement, it was really an exercise in diplomacy, but certain interests circling the White House had a different approach. They didn’t want diplomacy. They decided to overthrow the government of Ukraine, put in their own individual who they could influence.
And what happened from that point on was an escalation of the conflict, first of all, in the Donbas—and over ten thousand people were killed. And these are Russian-speaking people. And at the same time this debate arises about, is Ukraine going to be accepted into NATO? As we know later on, NATO didn’t want them and the US wasn’t going to push it, and so Ukraine was used as a chessboard in an international game of power—unfortunately at the expense of the lives of the Ukrainian people who have never really been given a fair chance to escape this tour of aggressive war that was catalyzed by partners outside their territory.
So, where does this go? If we don’t believe in diplomacy anymore, where do we go as a country? Think about this for a minute. It was 60 years ago to this time that President John F. Kennedy and the Soviet leader Nikita Khrushchev came together and resolved the conflicts that could have led to World War III, in what was historically referred to as the Cuban Missile Crisis. Kennedy’s inaugural speech is worth considering here. If you look at the words, he says, ‘Let us not negotiate out of fear. Let us never fear to negotiate.’ What does that mean? That means that as the United States of America, since we are major players in this conflict in Ukraine, we have given close to over $60 billion to the Ukrainian government in various forms; how much of it was delivered is anybody’s guess, but that’s the commitment the US has made.
Why would we believe that the force of our arms is somehow more significant than the force of our intellect, of our reason? Why do we rely more on arms than our brains? It really is a moment for reflection as to who we are as a country. And have we caught the advancing tide of geopolitical movement, which is away from a unipolar moment, which is more towards cooperation and a multipolar-type world where there’s not one center of power? We can no longer insist that it’s our way or the highway. It’s very dangerous and it’s very expensive.
And so, I’m speaking out because, yes, you’re right, I led the effort against the Iraq War, and there were 125 Democrats who voted against it, and there were many who voted against continuing Appropriations. And I led the effort against the Libyan war and a number of other conflicts because I just see the stupidity of it; also, excuse me, the lies that were told to the American people behind those efforts. So, we’re in a moment of danger right here, and the congressional members of Congress who were basically swept aside for their opinions really represent a lot of Americans who’ve been raising questions about where’s this whole thing going.
AARON MATÉ: And you mentioned you leading opposition to the war on Libya. That was a war carried out by a president from your own party, by President Obama who was a Democrat, and now you have a situation where Democrats seem, on Ukraine, unwilling to challenge Biden in any meaningful way. I mean, this is counterfactual, but do you think if we were under a President Trump right now overseeing a similar policy, do you think the Democratic stance in Congress would be the same, supporting it fully?
DENNIS KUCINICH: One cannot discount that partisan considerations attend any major political decision. You’re right that Democrats lined up primarily behind President Obama. But there were also a number of Democrats who lined up, including the leader, the Democratic [House Minority] Leader at the time, Richard Gephardt, who lined up with President Bush in the attack on Iraq. Yes, partisan politics can play a role. If President Trump was in right now, given the level of polarization that exists in this country, I think that you’d find that many Democrats would find a reason to oppose the action that a Trump presidency would take, even if it was similar of what we know now that the Biden presidency is taking.
There’s a larger question here, beyond where are we going with this war. What now is America’s role in the world? What is the appropriate role for the United States in the world? Is it to be the policeman of the world, is it to stand astride the events of our time like a Colossus, or worse than that, of the Cyclops who swings wildly and occasionally hits a mark that creates damage to oneself? See, this is the discussion we need to have. This goes way beyond discussions of war and peace. It’s about who we are as a nation, where do we see ourselves in the world community, and what can we do to start to find ways of demonstrating the understanding that the world is indeed interdependent, it is interconnected, and if we shut ourselves off as a nation from the rest of the world community, namely Russia, China, Brazil, India, South America…or excuse me, South Africa, Saudi Arabia. I mean, there’re affiliations being created right now which actually are not only against America’s interests but juxtaposed with our policies right now. We’re isolating ourselves from an emerging new world. And it’s old thinking, you know, we have to realize the world’s changing, and why should America be stuck with 19th century thinking in the 21st century?
AARON MATÉ: Well, that’s the thing. So many Democrats who are now voting in lockstep with Republicans to fund the proxy war in Ukraine were earlier critical of US policy in Ukraine. You had Congress overwhelmingly approving a measure in 2018 banning all assistance to the Azov Battalion, which is a neo-Nazi paramilitary force inside Ukraine. Now all that seems to be forgotten. [Congresswoman] Ilhan Omar put out a statement back in March saying that flooding Ukraine with billions of dollars’ worth of weapons could lead to terrible consequences, and now she’s denouncing people—protesters—who’ve said the same thing to her as spreading Russian talking points. So, what do you think has happened to these progressive members of Congress over such a short period of time?
DENNIS KUCINICH: I don’t think members of Congress, whatever caucus they’re in, are immune from the larger messaging that’s happening in our media culture. There’s been a tremendous amount of messaging that implies that somehow Russia needs to be…the government needs to be overthrown, that some people believe Russia needs to be destroyed as an entity, and when you sit in front of your TV and watch the carnage that comes from the battlefields across Ukraine, nobody’s going to have any warm and fuzzy feelings for Russia. I mean, frankly, it’s impossible to hear if you’re just deluged with that day in and day out.
But do you think Americans know how this started? No. Do they understand what happened in 2014 when the US engineered a coup and overthrew the Ukrainian government? Do they understand that it was the US that was helping to fund efforts, to that ending up with Russian-speaking Ukrainians in the eastern part of the country being killed? No. People don’t know that…
AARON MATÉ: But do members of Congress not know that?
DENNIS KUCINICH: So, members of Congress who may rely strictly on the media for their own information about what’s going on, although there’s many other sources, might just go along with it. It’s the same thing that happened to many during Iraq. Now, I’m not excusing it, but I’m saying you got to understand how this happens. And people who are in Congress, some of them, much like their constituents, are worried, but you have to go beyond that. You’re a leader, you have to think about where your actions, where your votes, take the country. And right now, that’s not being considered. Democrats are in lockstep for continuing a war which will lead to expansion of the war.
And my call for diplomacy is no different than what President Kennedy was talking about in 1961, what President Nixon was talking about in ‘72 with respect to China, what President Carter was talking about at the Camp David Accords, what was spoken about by leading diplomats in the Dayton Accords. I mean, you can go on and on. This is not like something that’s new to our experience, but what seems to have been forgotten, and you know, you only have to look at Gore Vidal’s work when he wrote this little pamphlet called The United States of Amnesia, is that we’re a player in the world in a way that isn’t always positive, and when that happens it’s up to Congress to correct the direction of the country. That’s not happening right now, except, yes, some Republicans have voted against funding. And let me just remind your viewers and listeners, Aaron: you cannot simultaneously say you were against a war and vote to fund it.
AARON MATÉ: Yeah. There was an article recently by Fiona Hill, a former White House expert under the Bush and Trump administrations, who wrote that, according to her sources speaking to US officials, that there was an outline of a peace agreement reached between Ukraine and Russia back in April. And she didn’t say what happened to that peace agreement, but we know from other reporting in the Ukrainian media, citing sources close to Zelenskyy, that Boris Johnson came over from the UK and told Zelenskyy that, ‘If you sign a deal with Putin, we will not back you up on it,’ and ‘It’s not the time to negotiate with Putin, it’s the time to press him.’ And I was surprised that this letter calling on Biden to negotiate with Russia didn’t mention that episode, because it did mention some public reporting and some statements from Biden favoring diplomacy. And I’m just wondering if you think there’s a fear right now in Congress of acknowledging facts that are in the public record that contradict the dominant line, that the US really wants to seek peace inside Ukraine and is doing this in the best interest of the Ukrainian people?
DENNIS KUCINICH: Well, you’ve just described an example of “he who pays the piper calls the tune.” And what we’re looking at is not just the discussions that happened in April, but you go back half a year earlier, almost a half year earlier, Russia started discussions. They wanted to meet and find a way to settlement, and this was in December of 2021.
Now, look, once the United States conjures an enemy—and I saw this firsthand in Iraq with Saddam Hussein, in Libya with Gaddafi, in Syria with Assad, and on and on and on—when you make that Enemies of the Month or the Enemies of the Year Club, all hell breaks loose, and the goal is then to wipe you out. Okay, now the blowback nobody thinks about. You could look at the US sanctions and how they have actually resulted in people in Europe freezing this winter, and you will find a direct relationship to the increased price of gas over the summer, which, of course has had a knock-on effect in fueling inflation. It’s like we haven’t really had a moment for reflection about how our actions are having an effect that’s reverse of what we thought it would be.
And that meeting that you talk about in April, the president of Ukraine is simply…he’s boxed in. He’s going to do what he’s told. And that’s why this idea that, ‘Well, let Ukraine decide,’ that the man in that position right now is going to do what he’s told by the US. And if the US tells him, ‘Don’t agree to anything,’ he’s going to do that. He won’t agree to anything, even if the carnage across the country continues.
And I have to tell you, when I was in Congress, I had a very large Ukrainian constituency and a smaller Russian constituency, and I had the opportunity to visit Ukraine and visit Russia. It’s heartbreaking, absolutely heartbreaking, to see the devastation that’s been wrought, and all of these civilians have been killed. It wasn’t necessary, could have been and should have been avoided, and it is just another sorry chapter in the failure of leadership and the failure of diplomacy, in twisted thinking that invites the virus of megalomania. We need to take a totally different direction in the world, and we really need to pay attention to that Biblical injunction about “blessed are the peacemakers.” We have an obligation to the world community to go with these rhythms of change and not to try to continue to insist on a unipolar world with an American Imperium. It doesn’t work anymore. We’re past that stage.
AARON MATÉ: The leader of the Congressional Progressive Caucus, Pramila Jayapal, blames some staffers for this debacle, saying that the letter was released without proper vetting. Do you buy that excuse?
DENNIS KUCINICH: I think that Congresswoman Jayapal has been put in an extraordinary position, and I’m not going to dispute her account. I don’t have any information of the contrary, but I do want to say, the fact that it would come to this kind of consideration where she would be put in this position takes us to the larger question about what is happening with the Democratic Party that it tries to squeeze out people of goodwill, people who want to see an end to a war which has killed over fifteen thousand Ukrainian civilians and tens of thousands of Ukrainian troops and Russian troops. What’s wrong with a simple request? And so, for that and her work, she is being chastised and even castigated by Democratic leaders. I want to say to her, ‘Thank you for trying. And it’s been an instructive moment when we see how you and 29 other members of Congress have been treated for your efforts on behalf of a peaceful resolution. Thank you, Congresswoman Jayapal, for at least making the effort.’
But look, as somebody who served in there, I understand totally what’s going on there and I’m opposed to the kind of pressure that’s being put on members of Congress not to speak their mind in the interest of their constituents and in the interest of America in the world.
AARON MATÉ: The pressure was, I guess, so strong that people like Jamie Raskin, who signed it, immediately put out a statement welcoming the fact that it was retracted and saying that retracting it was the right decision.
DENNIS KUCINICH: Well, here again, Congressman Raskin, who is a decent person and wants to do the right thing, he came up against this same onslaught, and he’s led various Democratic efforts over the last year. And I think it’s pretty clear that when one signs a letter, and you’re part of the group and you’re told you either take your name off that letter, issue another statement or we have the letter retracted, another statement’s going to be made.
But it’s really important to move away from a discussion about the individuals and go to the larger question. Where is this going? Who are we in the world? How can we find a way not just to settle this conflict, this war, to heal things in the region? You know, there have been many different suggestions about how to do that, and to move from that into a condition where we understand that the world’s changing and we’re no longer trying to muscle other nations like China, for example, over Taiwan. It can’t do any good for the United States and our own security, for us to continue to participate in that widening gyre of chaos which leads to war.
AARON MATÉ: Let me ask you about what Congress can do institutionally, in terms of restoring congressional oversight.
After the Iraq War, I think there was a recognition inside the halls of power in Washington that sending off tens of thousands of US troops, and then thousands come home in body bags, is just not sustainable—in order to sustain public support. So, there’s been a real acceleration in covert warfare. We saw that in Syria, the multi-billion-dollar program Timber Sycamore in support of the insurgency to overthrow the government there, and in Ukraine, too, you have tens of billions of dollars being spent without very much accountability. How difficult is it in Congress to manage to do some oversight of these covert programs like in Syria and now in Ukraine? And what can be done to restore some congressional oversight of these massive expenditures and these disastrous programs?
DENNIS KUCINICH: Well, first of all, congressional oversight begins with one congressperson and one vote. You can say no. You can vote against Continuing Appropriations to fuel a war.
There’re also mechanisms for oversight involving the [House Committee on Oversight and Reform], and I was a member of that committee for 16 years. I was chairman of the subcommittee investigating the meltdown on Wall Street. And Congress, I have a feeling—if the Republicans take Congress, which it appears that they will—I think they’ll be prompted if for no other reason than partisan reasons, to look into where the money has gone with respect to Ukraine. I’ve seen reports that suggest that perhaps as much as 70 percent of money [and] arms that goes over is somehow diverted.
Don’t be shocked. In my one of my first committee meetings in 1997, an inspector general gave a report that over a trillion dollars—trillion, T for trillion dollars—of Pentagon spending could not be accounted for. During Iraq, there was famously a $9-10 billion tranche of money that just disappeared. You start throwing that kind of money out after things, corruption is inevitable. And Ukraine, prior to this war, as a government did not have a reputation for integrity, to put it mildly. So, you have to consider that war ends up not only wasting lives but spectacular amounts of money.
And when the American people start to understand the waste that has been involved, beginning with the lives in this particular conflict in war, I think that’s going to be the opportunity to bring up the fact that in the Iraq War, which, depending on what study you looked at, cost between $3 and $6 trillion, at the expense of over about 4,600 US service persons’ lives, at the expense of over a million Iraqi deaths that were over and above what was expected during the period of time of the war. When people start looking at the waste that’s occurred from these endeavors, I think maybe they’ll be ready to take a new direction and to stop this waste.
And when you consider it back here in the United States, which is always kind of important for us to look at, how many people today are struggling? I’m hearing from people every day about how they go to the supermarket, and they get sticker shock whether they’re buying bread or milk or meat or whatever, that all of a sudden, things—ordinary staples of the American diet—are being priced out of their reach or made so dear that they can barely afford it! Why aren’t we taking care of things here at home? And we still have people sleeping in the streets, begging for food to feed themselves at freeway exits, kids who are attending substandard schools, people that can’t get the health care they need, people’s retirement is shaky, and the crime that exists in our cities. I’m in Cleveland. The crime that exists in our cities, which is horrific, the mass shootings that take place that tear at everyone’s hearts. And we want to go around the world telling other people how they should live, spending our money in pursuit of some kind of chimerical dream of global omnipotence—give me a break! I mean, really, this is a get-real moment in America; it’s a moment to start taking care of things here at home.
And we certainly have to do something to stop this conflict in Ukraine, to try to heal the Ukrainian people who have suffered so grievously, to stop the deaths of any more civilians and soldiers on either side, to stop the continued attacks on the Russian-speaking peoples in Donbas. So, we can do this. This is doable. That’s what Minsk II was about. It’s not like we’re going to recreate or that we have to create something anew. We can simply use a lot of the intelligence that’s out there, but there has to be a willingness to do it. And it’s not right now, for whatever reason. We need to find that out and maybe a new Congress will ask the questions that this Congress isn’t asking.
AARON MATÉ: I want to ask you a quick question about Syria. When you were in office you warned against Obama’s potential bombing of Syria back in 2013, after Syria was accused of using chemical weapons. And you famously said that the US was at risk of becoming al-Qaeda’s air force, and that was because the insurgency in Syria was dominated by al-Qaeda. And now we know from declassified US documents that have come out that the US administration was well aware that the insurgency was dominated by al-Qaeda. Jake Sullivan wrote to Hillary Clinton, “Al-Qaeda is on our side in Syria.” The Defense Intelligence Agency wrote up a memo in 2012 warning that al-Qaeda was dominating the insurgency.
So, you saw this back then. But I’m wondering, was there an awareness among your colleagues in the administration that the insurgency in Syria that the US was supporting was dominated by al-Qaeda? And did anybody aside from yourself raise concerns about this, about siding with the…
DENNIS KUCINICH: Tulsi Gabbard and I were the two who raised the concerns.
AARON MATÉ: And no one else cared.
DENNIS KUCINICH: No, it becomes…all of these things go into a black hole. There’s a black hole and then there’s a memory hole. What’s happening right now goes into a black hole, and then, if somebody brings it up, they throw it back into a memory hole.
We have a real problem with integrity in our governance. I mean, think again, people who are watching or listening to this, think about this. Al-Qaeda was involved in 9/11, okay. We blamed Iraq, and then we turned around and funded these terrorists to attack another country. I mean, there’s a dirty game being played here, and it’s being played by our own government—with our tax dollars, I might add! And yes, I knew. How did I know? Just have my eyes open. If you don’t take the Kool-Aid that’s passed out during breaks between votes, you can find out what’s happening. I’ll give you an example.
October 2002. Anyone who wants to go on the internet and type in ‘Kucinich Iraq Analysis October 2, 2002’ will see that months before, weeks before the US voted to go to war against Iraq, months before the war started, I put in the hands of over 200 members of Congress an analysis that said Iraq had nothing to do with 9/11, Iraq doesn’t have weapons of mass destruction, they have no intention or capability of using anything against the United States, and what is this all about? But that was the central thesis of George Bush’s war. And even when I presented Articles of Impeachment against him and Dick Cheney for pushing the war based on false pretenses, the Democratic leadership was involved in shunting the effort towards an impeachment. So, there’s never been any accountability.
So, how did I know about Syria? My eyes were open. Why did I vote against the Patriot Act? Because I read. So, you know, if you’re in Congress, if you’re in any position of leadership in the government, you have to pay attention and you can’t just take things at face value. You can’t sit at a table and have people come into the room with their letters, their ribbons, and everything else, and just because they appear to be smarter or have more experience and you don’t ask questions, like, ‘General, you showed us an image of a missile hitting a missile in the sky. General, was that one missile programmed to hit the other missile?’ I mean, people are swallowing schools of whales, or pods of whales, every day in DC. It’s just a sad occasion, and members get shoved aside in favor of this growing thing—these thought forms that keep pushing us towards war. We’re playing in the flash of World War III right now, and it’s totally unnecessary. Totally unnecessary.
AARON MATÉ: Did you see this news recently with Senator Patrick Leahy? He has a new memoir out, and he writes in it that during the lead-up to the Iraq War that he was approached by some people—he didn’t know who they were, but he suspects they’re intelligence operatives—and they told him to read, to go into a SCIF [Sensitive Compartmented Information Facility], a classified setting, and read some files that they said would contradict what Dick Cheney was saying publicly about the war. And he went and he read those files, and yes, he saw that Cheney was lying. He voted against the war, but he didn’t make any of this public until now. And I’m wondering if you had any reaction to that.
DENNIS KUCINICH: Well, I know Pat Leahy, great guy. And that’s an interesting story, and I’ve read of it, but I haven’t read the book yet. I’m sure it’d be interesting to read.
Here’s the game that’s played. You go into these secret briefings, and they give you information that you can’t discuss outside, or you violate the rules. You have to sign a paper at the beginning of every term, members have to sign a paper that they agree to secrecy, okay. I never went to those briefings, I never signed any of those papers, and I knew they’d bring [them] into these briefings so you feel important, but they’re lying to you. And Pat Leahy just proved that. And thank you, Senator Leahy.
They just lie. That’s what they do. If I wanted to find out what was happening, I’d just go to The New York Times. And what would happen—excuse me, no offense—but what would happen then is that intelligence would be leaked to The New York Times. So, you go into committee—check this out—and you read the same thing that was in The New York Times. But because you went into the committee and it was said in the committee, you can’t talk about it. This is the way they handcuff members of Congress. That’s why I never went to those meetings.
AARON MATÉ: As we wrap, you were vilified for taking very courageous stances in favor of peace and against war, and right now we’re in a country where the anti-war movement is feeling pretty decimated. They’re not at the level we were of the Iraq era, where hundreds of thousands of people were getting out on the streets. So, as we wrap, your thoughts on how we can revive the anti-war movement? And any other thoughts you want to leave us with.
DENNIS KUCINICH: First of all, can you hear my dogs barking?
AARON MATÉ: Yes, but that’s okay. It’s okay.
DENNIS KUCINICH: The first thing that we need to do is quit describing a stand for peace as “anti-war,” because that semantic construction carries with it the kind of polarity that we’re seeking to avoid. Because war really is an expression of polarized thinking, Us-Versus-Them, whoever they are.
We really need, as individuals and collectively, to begin to see the world as one, to see the world as interconnected and interdependent. And our goal should be human unity—not homogenized, not what we’re seeing the world emerge into, one econo-technic system—[but] to respect all cultures and the diversity of cultures. But we need to reformulate what this movement is about, to protect humanity, to create human and ecological security, because it’s about the planet on which we live, too, which war could destroy, because war is ecocide.
So, we are at an inflection point right now in the history of this country and in human history, where we have an opportunity to create anew of the world, to create the kind of world that we’d be proud to give to our children, our grandchildren, and their children. But we cannot do that through squelching dissent. We cannot do that by ignoring initiatives to encourage diplomacy, to bring about settlement of conflicts. We are enjoined by The Scriptures to make peace with our brothers and our sisters. It’s a good time to start thinking about that.
AARON MATÉ: Dennis Kucinich, former Democratic member of Congress from Ohio and former mayor of Cleveland, thank you so much.