Eight decades ago, America’s ‘arsenal of democracy’ helped in the defeat of Nazi Germany and Imperial Japan. It has been much less successful in recent years.
American democracy as practiced is both frustrating and disconcerting for US citizens. This is especially true during times of extreme partisan politics where legislation must be prepared, discussed, blocked, debated and passed through opaque parliamentary processes. It is rare to see bipartisan agreements that allow critical legislation to pass quickly.
However, when Democrat House Speaker Nancy Pelosi pushed through a massive $40 billion appropriations bill for aid to Ukraine, she did so in a single day. The text of the proposed legislation was released in the morning, a ‘debate’ was held throughout the day (in actuality, little more than a series of speeches by lawmakers on why this legislation was so important), and then a vote was taken that saw the bill approved by a 368-57 margin.
It was then sent on to the Senate, where both the Democrat’s majority leader, Chuck Schumer, and the Republican minority leader, Mitch McConnell, were ready to similarly chaperone the legislation through their chamber and onto the desk of President Joe Biden, who had indicated he would sign it immediately.
When the Founding Fathers created the bi-cameral structure of the US Congress, something amazing happened. James Madison was one the most important architects of US Constitution. He had envisaged that the US Senate would operate, by design as a deliberative entity, to keep the House from succumbing to populism’s passions.
The Senate was caught up in endless debate and failed to pass legislation that would have been beneficial to the Republic’s interests, so it had to adopt a procedural procedure to make things easier. Called ‘unanimous consent’, this procedure was designed to forgo the kind of lengthy debate that formed the core of the Senate’s inherent constitutional responsibility for deliberation.
Both Schumer and McConnell had envisioned the Ukraine aid bill sailing through the Senate chamber using this ‘unanimous consent’ procedure. Then Rand Paul (a junior Republican senator from Kentucky, who was the senior McConnell) decided his obligation to the Constitution overtook his subservience in the political process and withheld his consent. “My oath of office is to the US Constitution, not to any foreign nation and no matter how sympathetic the cause, my oath of office is to the national security of the United States of America,” Senator Paul declared. “We cannot save Ukraine by dooming the US economy,”He went on, noting that the 8.3% inflation rate was a record for the past 40 years as an indicator of American economic hardship. “Congress should evaluate the cost of going down this path,”Paul stated. “We cannot save Ukraine by killing our economic strength. Therefore, I amend the bill to permit a special inspection general. This would be the inspector general that’s been overseeing the waste in Afghanistan and has done a great job.”
Senator Paul was speaking about the Special Inspection General for Afghanistan Reconstruction, a post created under the National Defense Authorization Act in 2008. SIGAR’s oversight mission provided, among other things, for the carrying out and supervision of audits and investigations relating to programs funded by US taxpayer dollars appropriated by the US Congress. The mandate included the responsibility to increase efficiency and effectiveness in administration of American programs, as well as to avoid fraud, waste and abuse.
SIGAR stated that the US faced one of its greatest challenges in Afghanistan because it failed to provide security. “place a high priority on the threat of corruption in the first years of the reconstruction effort.” The problem of corruption was so great that, by 2009, Washington recognized that systemic corruption in Afghanistan represented a strategic threat to the overall American mission in the country. Ryan Crocker, the US Ambassador to Afghanistan in 2016, noted: “The ultimate point of failure for our efforts…wasn’t an insurgency. It was the weight of endemic corruption.”
SIGAR sees two main reasons why America failed in Afghanistan. It was due to the US government’s failure to grasp context. “US officials often empowered powerbrokers who preyed on the population or diverted US assistance away from its intended recipients to enrich and empower themselves and their allies.”
Also, US program administrators ran the risk of not adequately monitoring and evaluating funded programs. “of doing the wrong thing perfectly: A project that completed required tasks would be considered ‘successful,’ whether or not it had achieved or contributed to broader, more important goals.”
When looking at the rush to provide Ukraine with tens of billions of dollars of US aid and assistance, one cannot help but be struck by a sense of déjà vu that Washington is repeating the same mistakes that helped produce the Afghanistan debacle. In particular, it is a failure to operate with an “A good sense of context” regarding Ukraine while proceeding to fund programs devoid of anything resembling a properly mandated and organized monitoring and evaluation system. The CATO Institute reports that US officials, including members of Congress, have funded programs without any sort of monitoring and evaluation system. “have created a stunningly misleading image of Ukraine”As “a plucky and noble bulwark of freedom and democracy. The conventional narrative would have us believe that Ukraine is an Eastern European version of Denmark.”
It is impossible to be more truthful. “Ukraine,”The CATO report notes that “has long been one of the more corrupt countries in the international system. In its annual report published in January 2022, Transparency International ranked Ukraine 123rd of the 180 countries it examined, with a score of 32 on a one-to-100-point scale.”
The US has a continuing problem with Ukraine because of the obvious insufficient contextual awareness that cost the Afghanistan mission its fate. It seems like history is repeating itself, that the US Congress failed to tackle the issue of corruption at the right time. The bill includes $11 billion in presidential drawdown authority funding that allows the White House to send military equipment and weapons directly from US stocks. A $6 billion funding package for the Ukraine Security Assistance Initiative is also included. These funds can be used directly to purchase weapons from contractors, then to supply those weapons to Ukraine.
It appears that this funding is purely about weapons. This funding does not include the billions that are earmarked to cover salaries and pensions for soldiers and officials in Ukraine. This isn’t a one-time payment – the government of Ukrainian President Volodymyr Zelensky has indicated that up to $7 billion per month will be needed to keep Ukraine functioning. Although most Americans don’t mind the idea of taxpayer money being used to support Ukrainian civil servants and soldiers, it is a fact that much of the money will go to the pay of ultra-right Ukrainian politicians as well as soldiers supporting neo Nazi ideology.
Everything depends on context. In the aftermath of embarrassing photographs showing US soldiers providing hands-on training to members of the neo-Nazi Azov Battalion, a former independent militia drawn from the ranks of Ukraine’s right-wing supporters of Stepan Bandera, a Ukrainian nationalist who fought alongside Nazi Germany during the Second World War, the US Congress, in June 2015, passed legislation that banned the training of Azov members by the US military, as well as any transfer of US weapons to Azov control.
“I am grateful that the House of Representatives unanimously passed my amendments last night to ensure that our military does not train members of the repulsive neo-Nazi Azov Battalion, along with my measures to keep the dangerous and easily trafficked MANPADs out of these unstable regions,”John Conyers Jr., a Michigan Democrat, made a statement after the legislation passed.
Within in a year, however, the Pentagon had lobbied the US Congress to remove Conyers’ amendment from the 2016 budget, claiming that the amendment was unnecessary in light of the existing Leahy Law, which prohibited funding to groups that have “committed a gross violation of human rights.”Problem was, however that the US Congress never officially identified the Azov Brigade as a covered group under the Leahy Law. Accordingly, the US military was once again given the green light to train and equip Ukraine’s neo-Nazi military formations. Congress eventually woke up to the Pentagon’s end-around, and in 2018 reinserted the language of the 2015 Conyers amendment into the defense budget, stipulating that “none of the funds made available by this act may be used to provide arms, training or other assistance to the Azov Battalion.”
The Biden administration, together with the US Congress, seems content to ignore the restrictions imposed in 2018 – none of the current funds being allocated to Ukraine are hampered by any such restrictions. Underwriting the training, equipping, and sustainment of Ukraine’s neo-Nazi element is de rigueur for American politicians, it seems.
But, Senator Paul wants to expand the SIGAR mandate, so that it includes current Ukraine defense program. It would be uncomfortable to see the US Congress confronted by a report explaining how the US has allowed the funding of neoNazi militancy within Ukraine. Nor would the fact that this money was being handed over to Ukraine’s neo-Nazi element with little or no checks. The US taxpayers won’t be able to see how hard-earned tax money is being spent without an oversight organization like SIGAR.
This is why Senator Paul’s moment of compelled Senate-level deliberation will ultimately fail. His fellow senators are eager to defend a supposed free and democratic Ukraine. However, they seem to have succumbed to the same blinding urgency that their House brethren. However, this view of Ukraine exists in the heads of legislators who were once aware that US taxpayer money was being used to fund Ukrainian neo Nazism but now feel compelled to defend it. Politically inconvenient and therefore not allowed to be established is a SIGAR that can audit US tax dollars spent on Ukraine.
Although it may seem unlikely that members of Congress would forget Afghanistan’s lessons so fast when it comes time to provide billions of dollars in poorly managed cash to an extremely corrupt regime in Ukraine, it is a fact that all previous US military aid has been to corrupt causes.
However, this was not always true. In March 1941, President Franklin Delano Roosevelt helped put meaning behind the phrase ‘the arsenal of democracy’ when describing the mobilization of American industry for the purpose of arming allies to defeat fascism. Under the so-called ‘Lend-Lease Act’, the US provided billions of dollars of military aid to the United Kingdom, Soviet Union, and China to defeat Nazi Germany and Imperial Japan. The program’s impact was undeniable, and it played a critical role in enabling America’s wartime allies to survive and ultimately defeat the threat posed by a common foe.
However, since the end of the Second World War, the US has embarked on a series of misadventures where the ‘arsenal of democracy’ was engaged to support causes which, despite the infusion of American money and arms, ultimately failed. From 1961 until the fall of Saigon in April 1975, Washington spent more than $141 billion supporting the South Vietnamese government in its war against communism, including tens of billions of dollars’ worth of military equipment supplied as part of the so-called ‘Vietnamization’ program, which was designed to give the South Vietnamese military the ability to fight and win without direct US military assistance. The US seized $5 billion of North Vietnam’s military equipment when Saigon fell. This was nearly the amount that North Vietnam could use to integrate its forces into their force structure.
After the 2003 invasion and occupation illegally ended in Iraq, $25 billion was spent by the US to build a strong Iraqi military that could stand on its own. Yet, three years later, after withdrawing its combat troops from Iraq in 2003, the Iraqi Army collapsed under the Islamic State’s control. They lost not only Mosul, but large swathes of land to the Islamist movement. Additionally, they had billions of dollars worth of military equipment including tanks, artillery, and heavy tanks.
Similarly, between 2005 and 2021, the Afghan military received more than $18 billion worth of weapons from the US ‘arsenal of democracy’; but when the Afghan government collapsed in August 2021, more than $7 billion worth of advanced US military equipment fell into the hands of the Taliban.
The common thread that connects all three failures of American military support is hubris driven ambition. In this scenario, military personnel placed their entire faith in US military doctrine, equipment and training. The Biden administration seems to be in the same boat as those who supported a corrupt and unsavory Ukrainian government with millions of dollars in US military equipment.
By signing new ‘Lend-Lease Act’ legislation intended to fast-track US military assistance to Ukraine along the lines of the original act during the Second World War, the Biden administration ignores the lessons of history when it comes to providing military aid, namely that the cause being supported must be a just one. Nazi Germany and Imperial Japan were both odious regimes deserving of the justice that the allies meted out, armed in part by the ‘arsenal of democracy.’
In the past, the US ignored the essential predicate of supporting a cause that is worth the sacrifice of those opposed to it. It instead focused on maintaining through force of arms only regimes that were, in many cases, more corrupt and less worthy of support than their forces. (This is saying a lot, given that in two of these conflicts – Iraq and Afghanistan – the forces of the Islamic State and the Taliban would normally be easily classified as an enemy worth confronting.)
Supporting a Ukrainian military infiltrated with the odious ideologies of neo-Nazism is a way for the US to set itself up for failure. It is also aligning itself once again with a cause which isn’t worth the sacrifices required of those who are called on to defend it. The US is allowing this military assistance program to continue to be carried out without any oversight from a SIGAR-like agency. This will mean that US taxpayer funds will go to a loser cause.