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Budowsky: Kerry, the warrior diplomat

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With the winds of Cold War blowing across Ukraine, time running short for peace in the Middle East, high-wire diplomacy seeking to avoid military options with Iran, China flexing its military muscle aggressively in the South China Sea, voices of militarism and nationalism being heard whispered in Japan, and a nuclear North Korea acting bellicose, the alliance of democracies is fortunate that President Obama had the wisdom to choose John Kerry as secretary of State.

As the danger of conflagration rises with the belligerence of Russian strongman Vladimir Putin against Ukraine, what makes Kerry so valuable in diplomacy today is that, like Gen. George Marshall, who served as secretary of State for former President Truman, Kerry is a student of history who has long played a part of history and applies the lessons of history to crises today.

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The aggression by Putin against Ukraine during Obama’s presidency, like his aggression against Georgia during the presidency of Bush 43, combines the crude strength of the bully seeking to dominate a smaller neighbor and the weakness of the autocrat who fears he is swimming against tides of history.

Putin destroys freedom of the press in Russia because he fears the will of his people if they are exposed to a free exchange of ideas. He orders, or at least condones, the beating and whipping of the courageous young women of a Russian punk rock group in front of the Sochi Olympics, which he can no longer merchandise as evidence of his statesmanship because he dreads the power of their ideas. This is not strength. It is fear.

Putin mourns and yearns to reverse the event in history that believers in freedom celebrate and emulate: the fall of the Soviet Empire. When Putin sees Ukrainians in Independence Square, he remembers Lech Walesa at the Gdansk shipyard. When Putin sees Ukrainians tear down statues of Lenin, he remembers the fall of the Berlin Wall.

Putin is not delusional. He is a coldly calculating autocrat. He has a problem but does not yet know how to respond without reverting to the brutal tactics of his former Soviet bosses.

Kerry the warrior diplomat draws from his valor in combat and service in the Senate during the years the Cold War ended. He has lived, learned and applied lessons of military and diplomatic history from Vietnam to the fall of the Berlin Wall.

Putin faces a momentous choice. He can look backward, initiate a new Cold War and become a global pariah. Or he can look forward, reset his Ukraine policy and achieve worldwide prestige as a statesman.

Kerry understands this. In Kiev he denounced the lies Putin told as a pretext for bullying Ukraine, while working with Obama to construct an off-ramp for Putin to prosper by changing course.

Kerry applies what Winston Churchill, John F. Kennedy and Ronald Reagan taught: Unshakable allied unity and a strong allied response can deter Putin from making the wrong choice and encourage him to make the right one.

Putin is watching and calculating. Germany and Britain should support the strongest economic sanctions. The Group of Seven should meet without Russia if necessary. A massive economic program should be extended to Ukraine. Enhanced security assistance should be offered to Eastern Europe and former Soviet republics. Foreign-held assets of Russian oligarchs, generals and Putin himself could be frozen. Neutral observers could protect ethnic Russians in Ukraine as an alternative to Russian occupation.

Congressional Republicans should work closely with Obama. Disunity and division rewards Putin and hurts America, NATO and Ukraine.

Kerry pursues bold diplomacy when he urges Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu to move strongly for Mideast peace, urges Iran to accept diplomatic solutions to the nuclear issue and warns that alternatives are grim.

Kerry is the warrior diplomat because he is willing to support force and aggressive sanctions when necessary, while he champions dramatic diplomacy when the stakes are high and time is short. 

Budowsky was an aide to former Sen. Lloyd Bentsen and Bill Alexander, then chief deputy majority whip of the House. He holds an LL.M. degree in international financial law from the London School of Economics. He can be read on The Hill’s Pundits Blog and reached at brentbbi@webtv.net.