Isolationist Republicans and progressive Democrats are having their shameful Munich moment
In 1938, British Prime Minister Neville Chamberlain met with German Chancellor Adolf Hitler in Munich and handed him one-third of Czechoslovakia. In return Hitler solemnly pledged not to invade what remained. Afterward, Chamberlain proclaimed that “I believe it is peace for our time.”
Winston Churchill, then out of office, privately said by some accounts, “The government had to choose between shame and war. They chose shame. They will get war too.” He was right. The following year, Germany invaded the rest of Czechoslovakia, then attacked Poland, and World War II began.
Isolationist Republicans and progressive Democrats, in this instance the Congressional Progressive Caucus, ignoring the lessons of Munich, chose shame. A substantial number of House Republicans, following former President Trump’s lead, voted against Ukraine aid. House Minority Leader Kevin McCarthy (R-Calif.), perhaps soon to be speaker of the House, recently warned that Republicans are unwilling to write a “blank check” to Ukraine. (The U.S. has never written a blank check to Ukraine.) Not exactly fulsome support for an American ally fighting for its life against a totalitarian regime that poses a serious threat to the United States. (More about that later.)
The Congressional Progressive Caucus’s shameful moment was to release a letter calling on President Biden to begin “direct engagement” with Russia to end the war, a phrasing that appears to leave Ukraine, which does the fighting and dying, on the diplomatic sidelines. Then, in the face of the ensuing storm of criticism, they withdrew the letter, at one point cravenly blaming staff aides for releasing it.
These members of Congress are misreading the threat that Russian President Vladimir Putin poses as badly as Chamberlain misread Hitler. The progressive Democrats seem to think that, if Putin is ceded part of Ukraine, he will stop there. But Putin, a nuclear saber-rattling, conquest-bent, irredentist megalomaniac, has no interest in compromise.
The Institute for the Study of War, which releases daily, granular analyses of the Ukraine War, recently assessed that “Putin is setting conditions for Russia to continue a protracted high-intensity conventional war in Ukraine, not a negotiated settlement or off-ramp.” All that the progressive Democrats and isolationist Republicans have done is to encourage Putin to believe that, if he keeps the pressure on, American and European support for Ukraine will eventually collapse.
The magical thinking of the isolationist Republicans is that a Russian victory will not damage American interests. They ignore or badly underestimate Putin’s barbarism — and his hatred of the United States. His army behaves as though it had stormed out of the Dark Ages, pillaging, raping, murdering, torturing and carrying off Ukrainian children. Its motto might be, “You may defeat us on the battlefield, but we will kill your pregnant women and destroy everything Ukrainians depend on for life.” Once Putin invaded Ukraine, neutral Sweden and Finland, fully grasping that he wouldn’t stop there, sought safety in NATO membership.
Putin is obsessed with restoring the Russian Empire, and with the demise of the United States, which he has predicted for years. He blames the United States for the ills of the world. He hates us for allegedly declaring ourselves, in his words, “the messenger of the Lord on Earth.” He hates us for our “radical denial of moral norms, religion, and family” (read recognition of gay and transgender rights). He hates us for our “outright ‘Satanism.’”
Spending whatever is needed to ensure Ukraine’s survival serves overriding American interests. Ukraine is a Western-oriented democracy, the post-war international system is at stake and a Russian takeover of Ukraine would present a direct, strategic threat to NATO.
A collateral benefit of the nightmare that Putin has unleashed, not to be underestimated, is that the Ukrainian armed forces are killing Russian soldiers whom American soldiers might otherwise have to fight if Russia attacks NATO. Given Putin’s ambitions, the Ukraine aid is money well spent.
Gregory J. Wallance, a writer in New York City, was a federal prosecutor in the Carter and Reagan administrations, where he was a member of the ABSCAM prosecution team that convicted a U.S. senator and six representatives of bribery. He is working on a book about a 19th century American journalist who investigated the Siberian exile system. Follow him on Twitter at @gregorywallance.