WASHINGTON – Tragedies concentrate the mind.
American politics was trundling along on its usual unserious and trivial trajectory when news of the crash of Malaysia Airlines Flight 17 in Ukraine shook the world. Suddenly, the stakes in public life and foreign policy were very high.
Vladimir Putin’s recklessness in Ukraine was no longer just an exercise in regional hegemony and throwing his weight around. Miscalculation and thoughtless error have often sown chaos in the relationships among nations. The deaths of 298 innocent people transformed the battle for Ukraine into a global issue, as President Barack Obama noted Friday.
Western Europe has been trying to have it both ways with Putin. The reluctance of its politicians to go all in against the Russian strongman is understandable enough. The European economy depends on Russian energy; ours doesn’t. And all of us are still emerging from the Great Recession. Pragmatists, in business and in politics, worry that more forceful sanctions could endanger the comeback.
But when Flight 17 was shot down, pragmatism took on a new meaning. It is not in any way practical to have pro-Russian rebels in Eastern Ukraine armed with missiles that can take down civilian airliners. It’s not sensible to let the insurgents run loose with weapons that they seem ready to use in a shoot-first-ask-questions-later way. Europe cannot hang back anymore.
The question for Americans is different. There is no need to mince words: Our political debate is just plain stupid. It’s dysfunctional, foolishly partisan and petty.
I say “foolishly partisan” because the adverb is intended to signal that there is a place for partisanship. We are having a national argument over the role of government in solving problems and the challenges of growing economic inequality and declining opportunity for Americans stuck at the bottom. There’s nothing wrong about feeling strongly about these matters.
We’re divided on foreign policy, too, although our splits do not fall neatly along partisan lines. The recent GOP op-ed brawl between Gov. Rick Perry of Texas and Sen. Rand Paul of Kentucky over Iraq and American intervention is a sign of things to come. The 2016 campaign will be the staging ground for a great democratic debate over the United States’ role in the world. That’s good.
What’s not good is the habit of Obama’s foes to make every foreign policy issue about him and his alleged failures – even when Republicans actually agree with his policies. Recall the beginning of the Ukraine crisis when Rudy Giuliani praised Putin for acting boldly and compared Obama unfavorably to the Russian dictator.
Recall the obsession with Benghazi, which is about campaign ads and tweets, not about foreign policy choices. Recall, as Paul pointed out in his article in Politico, that Republicans who in practice support what Obama is now doing in Iraq nonetheless feel obligated to trash him. I have plenty of differences with Paul, but it was good to see him say that “when bombast becomes policy it can have long and disastrous consequences.” Let’s have an anti-bombast coalition.
Here’s a hope, and perhaps it’s naive.
There is, in fact, relatively little disagreement among our politicians about Putin and his overreach in Ukraine, as Obama’s forceful remarks suggested. We might start over with this episode and see what constructive engagement on foreign policy across partisan lines might look like. We could send a message to the world that not everything in our political discourse is about point scoring or how a sound bite will play with the Fox News audience.
Obama has to help. I wrote sympathetically about Obama’s foreign policy speech at West Point in May because I think he’s right that there are limits to what the United States can achieve in the world through direct military intervention. It’s a view, by the way, that Ronald Reagan shared. The Gipper – to the dismay of some of his hawkish supporters at the time – was wary of committing American troops.
But Obama now needs to offer the other side of his doctrine. The notion that the United States is retreating from the world is simply wrong. Obama has made this clear with his sanctions policies toward Russia. He has told us about the mistakes he will avoid. Now he has to describe, with toughness and clarity, the initiatives he will take to make the world more just, and at least a little less dangerous.