Early Thursday Moscow time, Russian President Vladimir Putin began what could become the biggest ground conflict in Europe since World War II. With sirens sounding in Ukraine’s capital, Kyiv, and reports of explosions in multiple cities, it’s more important than ever to put politics aside here at home and present a unified front abroad. Yet while some leading Republicans have rightly put country over party, too many, led by the former president (and the party’s current leader), are trying to use this moment to score cheap political points by siding with our adversaries.
Republicans have become masters of the hypocritical art of politicizing national security in recent decades, dating back to at least 9/11.
This week, we’ve watched former President Donald Trump openly root for Putin, Fox News host Tucker Carlson feed his viewers daily diatribes apologizing for Russia’s autocratic strongman and the House GOP leadership turn a mundane presidential snapshot into a preposterous symbol of purported weakness for America’s president.
Sadly, this is nothing new. Republicans have become masters of the hypocritical art of politicizing national security in recent decades, dating back to at least 9/11.
I know a thing or two about how dangerous politicization of American national security can be. I was a young civil servant in the Bush administration’s State Department when the World Trade Center was attacked. This moment of national unity was sullied somewhat by President George W. Bush and his partisan allies, who used war as a political issue throughout the 2002 midterms.
“We can go to the country on this issue because they trust the Republican Party to do a better job of protecting and strengthening America's military might and thereby protecting America," Bush adviser Karl Rove said at the time. This despite the fact that these very Democrats opposed Bush’s misbegotten military strategy to begin with.
Calling Democrats weak on terrorism may have helped Republicans win the elections that year, but positioning themselves as brawny avengers would cost America dearly. In March 2003, America invaded Iraq in what would become one of the country’s gravest strategic mistakes in decades. Thousands of soldiers died, and trillions of U.S. dollars were wasted.
Later, when President Barack Obama took the reins in the White House, in no small part because of his opposition to the Iraq War, Republicans lambasted him for seeking a diplomatic arrangement to withdraw U.S. troops.
For Trump and Carlson, Putin is not just a political role model. He is a symbol they can use to troll their “true” adversaries.
The disingenuousness has continued. If Democrats push for diplomacy, they are liable to be labeled enablers of terrorism and corrupt regimes, even if, in reality, unprovoked U.S. aggression has arguably hurt our global standing and created more national security problems than it has solved. But now, we are seeing the opposite dynamic play out, as a Democratic president is being criticized for standing up to a demonstrably despotic autocrat.
As tanks roll through Ukrainian streets, we are once again watching GOP leaders divide instead of unify. For Trump and Carlson, Putin isn’t just a political role model. He is a symbol they can use to troll their “true” adversaries — the current American president and his supporters.
This is almost as reprehensible as it is dangerous. Statements of support for Putin’s “genius” only make sense if the speaker of those words values despots over democrats. Meanwhile, America is fighting to maintain our democracy at home.
Not all Republicans support Putin, of course. GOP leaders like Sen. Mitch McConnell of Kentucky forcefully condemn Russia’s actions. But rather than unite with President Joe Biden, even the most hawkish Republicans have decided partisanship is the priority.
“Vladimir Putin’s decision to launch a renewed invasion of Ukraine is reprehensible. Sadly, President Biden consistently chose appeasement and his tough talk on Russia was never followed by strong action,” said House Minority Leader Kevin McCarthy, R-Calif and other GOP lawmakers.
Such predictable hypocrisy isn’t surprising, given that only a few years ago, many Republicans were defending Trump for making nice with Putin in Helsinki in 2018, just as many protected Trump during his first impeachment — an impeachment that hinged on his allegedly trying to extort Ukraine’s democratically elected president by withholding the military hardware he needed to defend his country from Russia.
Personally, I like living in a democracy. So do, I think, powerful, wealthy and fabulously “elite” men like Trump and Carlson. Both greatly benefit from a country with a free market and a free press. And both apparently would rather coddle dictators and create false equivalencies than admit a Democratic president is right about something. But the year is 2022, when political wins are paramount. National security and global democracy are afterthoughts.
Now, Biden is in a very tough position. He must balance politics at home with principles abroad, and he must do it without many allies across the political aisle. Perhaps nothing sums up the GOP position better than this tweet from the House GOP account Tuesday, as millions of Ukrainians braced for possible catastrophe. It’s a photo of Biden walking away from the lectern, with the caption: “This is what weakness on the world stage looks like.” Of course, this is just what walking away from a lectern looks like. But who cares about facts when you can own the libs?