Commentary

There are limits to the American Renaissance over Ukraine | Bruce Ledewitz

American public life remains as unhealthy as it was before Vladimir Putin’s brutal invasion

March 30, 2022 6:30 am
Ukrainian President Zelenskyy Virtually Addresses Congress On Current Russian Invasion Of Ukraine

WASHINGTON, DC – MARCH 16: Ukrainian President Volodymyr Zelenskyy speaks to the U.S. Congress by video to plead for support as his country is besieged by Russian forces at the U.S. Capitol on March 16, 2022 in Washington, DC. Zelenskyy addressed Congress as Ukraine continues to defend itself from an ongoing Russian invasion. (Photo by J. Scott Applewhite-Pool/Getty Images)

(*This post was updated at 9:35 a.m. on Monday, 4/4/22 to correct the spelling of George Kennan’s last name)

If all you read were the op-Ed pages of America’s newspapers, you could be forgiven for thinking that the bloody and tragic invasion of Ukraine by Russia was actually a good thing.

Bruce Ledewitz (Capital-Star file)

From David Brooks in the New York Times explaining that the war demonstrates the superiority of the Western, liberal form of government to Jill Lawrence in USA Today celebrating a golden moment of bipartisanship, there have been numerous reminders since the war began, that, for all our faults, America remains a bulwark of freedom and democracy in the world.

After a long period of gloom about American decline and pessimism about the state of the world, Americans have reason to be proud of our united world leadership in response to Putin’s aggression. A bit of national self-congratulation is certainly justified.

And there is even reason to believe there will be other benefits from the invasion. Maybe Donald Trump’s description of Vladimir Putin as a genius has finally ended his 2024 presidential campaign. Maybe cynical opportunists such as J.D. Vance, the Republican candidate for U.S. Senate in Ohio, who said just before the invasion the he didn’t “really care what happens to Ukraine,” will pay a political price.

Nevertheless, there are also reasons to temper these good feelings.

First, neither the sanctions imposed on Russia, nor the inspiring courage of the Ukrainian people in resisting the invasion have stopped Putin. The common assertion that Putin has “already lost” because the invasion has not been as easy as he expected, clashes with the reality that Russian military superiority and ruthlessness are gradually grinding down Ukraine’s defenses. If Putin is willing to pay the price, Russia will defeat Ukraine.

That is related to the second reason for caution. It’s a dangerous world and regimes that wish us harm are not going to be deterred by the Western response to Putin. Iran, for example, may draw the conclusion that if a country possesses nuclear weapons, it need not fear a military response to anything it does.

Third, without in any way justifying Putin’s attack on Ukraine, an interview of *George Kennan by Thomas Friedman in 1998, quoted in a recent New York Times column, reminds us that the eastward expansion of NATO following the breakup of the Soviet Union was probably a strategic blunder.

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Keenan told Friedman that Russia would inevitably react adversely to the presence of a hostile military alliance on its border. The goal in the 1990s should no longer have been containment of Russia, but integration of Russia into the European family of nations.

Nor, for all the references to freedom and democracy, has our response to the Ukrainian invasion really been about universal values. We have probably all heard by now the criticism that conflicts in Africa involving much more human suffering than is the case in Ukraine go almost without mention in the American media.

We can thank Putin for reintroducing a degree of realism to American public life. But the truth is, we have a long way to go before we return to rational politics.

Some of this difference is undoubtedly attributable to the kind of subliminal racism that often treats news about people of color with less attention than events involving white people. Partly the explanation for attention to Ukraine is historical—America has a long history of involvement in European affairs.

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But the fundamental reason for all the attention is that support for Ukraine is not really about freedom and democracy or even about human suffering. The American people are justifiably cautious about any such rhetoric, probably still feeling burned by the “Freedom Agenda” propounded by President George W. Bush in his second inaugural address in 2005.

American almost universally support stopping Putin, as opposed to involvement in other kinds of conflicts, because the invasion of Ukraine by Russia violates the very traditional international norm against military aggression by large countries against smaller ones. Everybody can see that without enforcement of that norm, the whole world will descend into chaos and war.

In contrast, many other conflicts in the world are more like civil wars.

Finally, the main reason to hesitate in our self-congratulation over our response to Ukraine is that American public life remains as unhealthy as it was before the invasion.

It’s not just that we will go back to our extreme partisanship as soon as the shooting stops, though that is true. Worse, we are just as irresponsible in our support of Ukraine as we are about everything else.

The best example of this irresponsibility was the debate in the House in early March over an omnibus spending bill that would keep the government running through September. Congress had to pass a bill by March 11 to keep the government from shutting down. To maintain government operations while the Senate voted on the spending bill, the House voted to continue interim funding for the government until Tuesday, March 15.

This wrangling highlighted the absurdity that the federal government has been running for years based on stopgap funding bills—in February, President Joe Biden signed a bill to keep the government open for three weeks. America is constantly on the verge of shutdown and default.

This is no way to conduct our national affairs.

The spending bill the House passed also contained an emergency authorization of nearly $14 billion for humanitarian and other aid for Ukraine. This spending had widespread support.

But at a time of large deficits and high inflation, there was no mention in the debate of the need to pay for this additional spending.

Granted, $14 billion is not a large amount in the overall scheme of things. The federal deficit in fiscal year 2021 was around $2.8 trillion.

But the point is, spending is not free. It is not much of a commitment to Ukraine if we are unwilling to pay for it. If it was too much to ask for a temporary tax increase to pay for this spending, why not a special no-interest bond issue for Ukraine—a war bond? The American people would have been happy to pay for aid to Ukraine.

In many ways, we continue to live in a fantasy world. Climate change is not a problem. Vaccines are dangerous impositions on freedom. We need to keep masks on forever to reduce the coronavirus threat to zero. Spending is free. Cutting taxes pays for itself.

All nonsense.

We can thank Putin for reintroducing a degree of realism to American public life. But the truth is, we have a long way to go before we return to rational politics.

Opinion contributor Bruce Ledewitz teaches constitutional law at Duquesne University Law School in Pittsburgh. His work appears biweekly on the Capital-Star’s Commentary Page. Listen to his podcast, “Bends Toward Justice” hereHis latest book, “The Universe Is On Our Side: Restoring Faith in American Public Life,” is out now. His opinions do not represent the position of Duquesne University Law School.

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