GELFAND’S WORLD-I'll make this short and to the point. Please ask the Republican leadership to stop weakening the United States in its foreign affairs. Let's put it this way: If the situation in east Asia or the Arctic or the Ukraine region is of any interest to the United States, and if you really believe that strength is the best road to a favorable outcome, then why are you putting up with the babblings of Sen. Lindsey Graham or Sen. John McCain?
Each has made slighting remarks about the strength of our leadership, suggesting that it is weak and vacillating. One of them used the word naive. The rest of the world reads these remarks and wonders whether the United States is now capable of mounting a unified response, what with the lower house of congress doing its best to undermine the president in every way possible, and the Republicans in the upper house doing pretty much the same as a minority party.
In the current episode, the Republicans have been trying to make domestic political capital out of a foreign crisis involving Ukraine and the Crimean region. The West needs to look strong and unified if it is to gain the best outcome. Communicating to the foreign opposition that our own people -- well, one political party, anyway -- has nothing but contempt for our elected president is damaging to our national interest. It suggests a certain form of weakness, and that's because the Republicans, in behaving the way they do, not only claim that we are weak, they actually render us weaker.
History shows that the democracies prevailed in the Pacific war 70 years ago, but history also reveals that the enemy at first took our wide open debate as a sign of weakness and decadence. That's because our willingness not only to tolerate, but to embrace freedom of expression did not signify to our enemy the iron clad unanimity enforced by a dominant dictatorship. But when the war started, the American people learned how to act like a unified group fairly quickly. They understood the stakes and acted accordingly.
The modern Republican Party does not seem to have gotten that memo. Looking at their actions, it's obvious that they think one of two things. Either they don't believe that the current foreign crisis is really important to American interests, or they are willing to have the U.S. weakened in order to make political gains against the Democratic Party. It's really that simple.
You can see this playing out, as the Republican leadership goes off in two directions. At one level, they give stirring speeches about how we need to confront Putin. You would think that would imply a unified show of support for our president and our diplomats. At the other level, they do their best to signify to Putin and to all other countries that they are not willing to stand behind the president in a show of bipartisan unity. Instead, they do their best to belittle him and to undercut his decision making. We might contrast the current Republican attitude with the actions of the US Congress right after the September 11 attack on the World Trade Center. Republicans and Democrats alike came out on the steps of the capitol and stood together.
I'm not really comfortable with tossing the word treason around. It's too loaded a term, and should generally be limited to Americans who actively participate in warfare on behalf of our enemies. But there is definitely an element of giving aid and comfort to our opponents in the geopolitical struggle. Maybe it's not quite treason because we are not at war with the Russian Federation, but the U.S. and its European allies are on a prewar footing. Sane people would like to see the situation ease. It's preferable to World War Three. But that's where it's useful to look like you are strong and unified.
So why aren't the Republicans in the Senate and the House supporting the policies and actions of the United States of America during a critical period, rather than continuing in their sophomoric rooting for their political opponent to lose? In the international arena, the only way that the president loses is for the United States as a whole to lose.
Let's look back a bit to John McCain's pious pronouncement that Obama is naive. I have a little uninvited advice for Senator John and his political allies. You have to decide whether Putin is a complete strawman as a ruler, or whether he is at least somewhat dangerous. Most of us would, I think, consider him to be at least a little dangerous. That being the case, what is the advantage of raising the level of bluster in the attempt to back him into a corner? If we want Putin to back off from trying to take control of the eastern part of the Ukraine, then it is unwise to put him in such a difficult position that he has no face saving retreat available. The naivety, Senator McCain, is looking back at you in your own mirror.
This is an important point, and it seems to be unknown to the past couple of generations of Republicans. You can't do your best to humiliate a strong opponent and then expect him not to take it personally. The same argument holds with regard to whole nations. If you can allow the opponent a graceful way of retreating, then why not do it?
It's what diplomacy is about. We talk softly in public. We don't try to humiliate the adversary in the public setting. Then we take what we can get, short of escalating to a level that threatens nuclear annihilation. The Republicans could help us to achieve the best outcome by pretending to be good, loyal Americans for a few weeks. Somehow, they seem to be constitutionally immune to the kind of good sense that allows us as a nation to take the win without publicly crowing about it.
The old saying I learned when I was growing up was, "Politics stops at the water's edge." It's shorthand for the principle written into the U.S. Constitution that the president is in charge of foreign affairs. In practice, the executive branch does its best to involve the congress when it seems appropriate, but the congress is not supposed to place itself above the president or to actively undermine him. That's not the way it's supposed to be done. Democrats gave George W. Bush a pretty long leash and in particular, tried to support the overall best interests of the United States. With a president as intellectually weak as Bush, it would have been a disaster for the congress to openly belittle his leadership. But the Republicans don't seem to have this level of self control when it comes to a president who is not in their own party.
Addendum: A few days ago I wrote another column regarding the crisis in the Ukraine taken from a more distanced perspective. One old friend tried to help me by pointing out that the name of the country is Ukraine, not the Ukraine. This is so, but it is acceptable to refer to the region itself and its land mass as "the Ukraine," as I was advised by my colleague from the State Department prior to writing the column. The country itself and its government are referred to as Ukraine. In a slightly different vein, the Constitution explicitly gives congress the right to declare war, and nothing said here should be construed to be in opposition to that point. It's in the day to day operations of the State Department and the military overseas that this country could use a little help from the Republican Party.
(Bob Gelfand writes on politics and culture for City Watch. He can be reached at [email protected])
Vol 12 Issue 20
Pub: Mar 7, 2014