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It is all about the Ukrainian people

Mar 14,2022 - Last updated at Mar 14,2022

Putin's Russia played "chicken" with the West and, and it appears that he has won. Unlike many on the Democratic left, I believed, early on, that NATO should have sent troops to Ukraine clearly demonstrating that they wouldn’t tolerate any threat to its sovereignty even if it were not a NATO member.

Putin read the West's hesitation to respond, beyond words and now sanctions, as weakness. The words mean nothing, and Russia and its oligarchs have long withstood sanctions. What they could not have faced down was a direct military challenge. Unfortunately, Russia has been able to invade Ukraine without any meaningful challenge. 

American political leaders and commentators have debated for weeks the appropriate US response to Russia's threat to Ukraine's sovereignty. Instead of the expected Republican hawks versus Democratic doves, debates raged within each party and focused on important but somewhat peripheral matters, not on the issues at stake in this Russian power-grab.

Former President Donald Trump weirdly praised Putin as a genius and savvy operator, with many Republicans in his camp arguing, "Why should we defend Ukrainians? Would they fight to defend us?" Some of Trump's congressional acolytes, ignoring their leader's praise for Putin, incongruously argued, "If Donald Trump were president, Putin wouldn't have dared do this." Fearful of alienating "the Trump base", mainstream Republicans simply criticised President Biden's weakness without offering an alternative.

Most mainstream Democrats, meanwhile, lined up behind Biden's hesitancy to commit military forces and the fallback position of sanctions on key Russian oligarchs and institutions. Some liberal Democrats and a few conservative Republicans demanded that Biden seek congressional approval before committing troops to defend Ukraine. More "left-leaning" Democrats engaged in perverse self-flagellation, arguing, "How dare we say or do anything, given our history of violating international law and invading sovereign countries?"

While this talk passing for serious policy debate continues, deeply troubling aspects of the Russian invasion and occupation of Ukraine receive short shrift, most significantly, the past, present and future of the Ukrainian people. The policy debate about Russia versus NATO or Putin versus Biden ignores them.

As chair of a Washington-based council, I work with Ukrainian Americans. I know their history, including the trauma of the 1930s Soviet-imposed Holodomor (forced starvation) and the Great Terror.

Ukrainian Americans are proud of their country, heritage and culture, and independence, and fearful of the consequences of the Russian invasion and Putin's faux history of all of these, especially Ukraine's hard-fought independence. 

Overlooked in the Ukraine policy discussions is how we got here, just three decades after the Cold War ended, when America appeared victorious over the Soviet Union, and policymakers and pundits proclaimed a "new world order" with the US as the world's sole superpower.

When Iraq's Saddam Hussein invaded and occupied Kuwait, then US President George H.W. Bush played by the rules seeking UN support to liberate Kuwait and built an international coalition to free that country. Succeeding US administrations have not been so respectful of the international order, most significantly in the US invasion and occupation of Iraq.

The Iraq war weakened the US militarily, making Americans wary and weary of foreign interventions, and damaged US prestige. More far-reaching was its impact on the "world order". Our reduced capacity and hubris ushered in a multipolar world where global and regional powers act unilaterally to project power where they feel they can get away with it. The "new world order", the role of the UN, and rule of law are gone, replaced, post Iraq, by the law of the jungle.

Finding fault with US’s past behavior that contributed to unraveling the rule of law in no way places me on the side of the "left isolationists". Our past sins do not absolve us from facing current responsibilities. The Ukrainian people deserve more than our prayers and guilty abstention. The better course of action would be to admit our past faults, commit to reestablish respect for the rule of law, and act to correct the immediate damage being done to a country and people who are more than Putin's pawns in his crude "game of nations".


The writer is president of the Washington-based Arab American Institute

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