WASHINGTON — Vladimir Putin’s grab of Crimea has exposed the paradoxes in American attitudes toward foreign policy.
Congress has been unusually united in condemning the Russian leader’s aggression and calling for his isolation. His belligerent offensive has been denounced by such liberals as Sens. Chris Murphy, D-Conn., and Dick Durbin, D-Ill., and by many conservatives, including Sens. John McCain, R-Ariz., and Ron Johnson, R-Wis.
On the other hand, a Pew Research Center poll found that by a margin of 56 percent to 29 percent, Americans said it was more important that the United States “not get too involved” in the Ukrainian situation than to “take a firm stand against Russian actions.”
Support for minimizing involvement spanned party lines: 50 percent of Republicans took this view, as did 55 percent of Democrats and 62 percent of independents. The survey ran March 6 to 9, before Russia annexed Crimea, but it nonetheless underscored the nation’s allergy to foreign entanglement, even as Americans also clearly and deeply mistrust Putin.
Annexing territory by force is as unacceptable to advocates of multilateralism as it is to those who believe in go-it-alone assertiveness. The Russian leader’s open mourning over the collapse of the Soviet Union horrifies liberals, who saw the end of the Cold War as an opportunity for a freer, less bellicose world, as well as conservatives, who always said that Putin’s KGB past was the truest indicator of his worldview and intentions.
But the nearly universal antipathy to Putinism cannot hide our divisions, and they are especially pronounced in the Republican Party. Most of the GOP’s prominent voices preach a hard line against Putin, but a broad anti-interventionist constituency within the conservative movement continues to grow.
Former Rep. Ron Paul spoke for this tendency in a blunt USA Today op-ed article this week. “Why,” Paul asked, “does the U.S. care which flag will be hoisted on a small piece of land thousands of miles away?”
Sen. Rand Paul, R-Ky., shares his father’s libertarianism, but his efforts to navigate among competing Republican foreign policy factions during the Ukrainian crisis have led the younger Paul in several directions at once.
Sen. Paul sounded like his dad on Feb. 25 when he told The Washington Post’s Robert Costa: “The Ukraine has a long history of either being part of the Soviet Union or within that sphere.” He chastised “some on our side … stuck in the Cold War era” who “want to tweak Russia all the time.” In a March 10 piece for the Breitbart website, he mocked “politicians who have never seen war talking tough for the sake of their political careers.”
But in a March 9 Time magazine essay, Sen. Paul himself took a tougher line. “It is America’s duty to condemn these actions in no uncertain terms,” he said, and to be “the strongest nation in opposing Russia’s latest aggression.”
Rand Paul’s delicate dance is a reminder that when President Obama decided to go to Congress last fall to win approval for airstrikes against Syria for its use of chemical weapons, he faced resistance from doves in his own party but also from anti-interventionist Republicans. Obama has faced criticism for inconstancy in abandoning military action in favor of a partnership with Russia to remove the Syrian regime’s chemical arsenal. But it’s important to remember that many in the GOP were skeptical of using force from the start.
Those who hope the United States and its allies will take what Durbin on Wednesday called “a good, hard, tough stand” against Putin thus need to consider not only European worries about the impact of sanctions on Western economies but also the sustained backlash against Iraq and Afghanistan. Some who supported those wars now see a chance to challenge “the idol of war-weariness,” as neoconservative commentator William Kristol put it in arguing that a “war-weary public can be awakened and rallied.”
But Kristol’s proposition faces hostility within, as well as outside, his own party. Americans, particularly those bearing the greatest ongoing costs from the economic downturn, will not have much of a taste for activism in foreign policy until their burdens are eased.
We must confront Putin, but this will require a foreign policy consensus that has vanished. A new one will have to be based on principles that predate the Iraq engagement and involve a more measured use of American power.
Thus the final paradox: Putin has given Obama the opportunity to begin rebuilding this consensus — if the president decides to try, and if his critics are willing to help him do it.
E.J. Dionne’s email address is firstname.lastname@example.org. Twitter: EJDionne.