Commentary Magazine


Posts For: February 26, 2014

“The Philosopher Deals with Truth; the Statesman Addresses Contingencies.”

In his foreword to Raymond Aron’s book Memoirs: Fifty Years of Political Reflection, Henry Kissinger wrote:

For a man like myself, involved for many years in the mundane tasks of diplomacy, Aron’s book is not always comfortable reading. Clearly, his judgment of my efforts as a statesman is less admiring than mine of his contributions to Western thought. This is as it should be. The philosopher deals with truth; the statesman addresses contingencies. The thinker has a duty to define what is right; the policymaker must deal with what is attainable. The professor focuses on ultimate goals; the diplomat knows that his is a meandering path on which there are few ultimate solutions and whatever “solutions” there are, more often than not turn into a threshold for a new set of problems.

I thought about this passage while reflecting on the tension that often takes place between activists, academics, and commentators on the one hand and lawmakers and policy makers on the other. They inhabit, if not different worlds, then different continents in the same world.

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In his foreword to Raymond Aron’s book Memoirs: Fifty Years of Political Reflection, Henry Kissinger wrote:

For a man like myself, involved for many years in the mundane tasks of diplomacy, Aron’s book is not always comfortable reading. Clearly, his judgment of my efforts as a statesman is less admiring than mine of his contributions to Western thought. This is as it should be. The philosopher deals with truth; the statesman addresses contingencies. The thinker has a duty to define what is right; the policymaker must deal with what is attainable. The professor focuses on ultimate goals; the diplomat knows that his is a meandering path on which there are few ultimate solutions and whatever “solutions” there are, more often than not turn into a threshold for a new set of problems.

I thought about this passage while reflecting on the tension that often takes place between activists, academics, and commentators on the one hand and lawmakers and policy makers on the other. They inhabit, if not different worlds, then different continents in the same world.

Writers, intellectuals, and those commenting on daily events have the luxury of judging those in power against the standard of perfection, often forgetting that those in authority have to make difficult judgments in imperfect conditions, where opposing parties exist and one’s will cannot be imposed.

Those in positions of political power, on the other hand, need to be held accountable by those who are not. When you work in the highest reaches of government the dangers of insulation and self-justification are enormous, and it’s perfectly legitimate for commentators to offer critical critiques. But in doing so analysts should admit that it’s not all that difficult to offer up harsh judgments about public officials when you’re sitting behind a camera, a microphone, or a keyboard. It’s harder to run a campaign than to comment on one; it’s more difficult to govern than to eviscerate those who do.

Near the end of Memoirs, Aron, in a chapter that is both sympathetic and critical of Secretary Kissinger’s tenure, writes, “For a half century, I have limited my freedom of criticism by asking the question; in his place, what would I do?”

This didn’t keep Aron, a philosopher and journalist of great insight and intellectual courage, from offering powerful and necessary criticisms over the course of his life. (When Marxism and anti-Americanism were in vogue in France, Aron refused to be swept up into those powerful currents.) Yet his assessments were tempered by his appreciation of the different roles played by public intellectuals and those who are in the arena. Here, like in many ways, the qualities Aron possessed are worth emulating.

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Why the Tea Party and GOP Just Can’t Quit Each Other

The Washington Examiner’s David Drucker has a piece on the dilemma confronting Tea Party groups working to oust Mitch McConnell in the Kentucky Senate primary, and it should serve as a cautionary tale. The enthusiasm for primary challenges, as we’ve noted time and again, has its dramatic success stories (Marco Rubio, Mike Lee) and its less vaunted adventures (Joe Miller, Christine O’Donnell). There is no blanket rule: incumbents don’t own their seats, but sometimes attention and resources can be more strategically deployed in election years.

Additionally, primary challengers should have to earn their support just as incumbents should: calling yourself a Tea Party candidate–especially since Democrats have long since figured out how to game that system and divide the right–shouldn’t be all it takes to get votes and donations. The worst-case scenario is generally considered to be a primary challenger knocking off an “electable” (no, I’m not fond of that word either, but sometimes it does apply) candidate and then losing in the general election. It’s unclear how far Matt Bevin, the Kentuckian challenging McConnell, will get, but so far he’s been underwhelming. Last week Politico revealed that Bevin was something of a hypocrite:

Matt Bevin, who is challenging Sen. Mitch McConnell in a Republican primary, calls the 2008 federal bailout of banks and Wall Street giants “irresponsible” and says he would have opposed it as a senator.

Yet back in 2008, as an investment fund president, Bevin backed the $700 billion Troubled Asset Relief Program, as well as the government takeover of troubled mortgage giants Fannie Mae and Freddie Mac. McConnell supported TARP, and the Bevin campaign repeatedly reminds voters that the Senate minority leader calls that vote “one of the finest moments in the history of the Senate.”

Politico also explained that conservative groups backing Bevin seemed unshaken by the revelations. Drucker follows up with those groups, and finds they’re still in Bevin’s corner:

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The Washington Examiner’s David Drucker has a piece on the dilemma confronting Tea Party groups working to oust Mitch McConnell in the Kentucky Senate primary, and it should serve as a cautionary tale. The enthusiasm for primary challenges, as we’ve noted time and again, has its dramatic success stories (Marco Rubio, Mike Lee) and its less vaunted adventures (Joe Miller, Christine O’Donnell). There is no blanket rule: incumbents don’t own their seats, but sometimes attention and resources can be more strategically deployed in election years.

Additionally, primary challengers should have to earn their support just as incumbents should: calling yourself a Tea Party candidate–especially since Democrats have long since figured out how to game that system and divide the right–shouldn’t be all it takes to get votes and donations. The worst-case scenario is generally considered to be a primary challenger knocking off an “electable” (no, I’m not fond of that word either, but sometimes it does apply) candidate and then losing in the general election. It’s unclear how far Matt Bevin, the Kentuckian challenging McConnell, will get, but so far he’s been underwhelming. Last week Politico revealed that Bevin was something of a hypocrite:

Matt Bevin, who is challenging Sen. Mitch McConnell in a Republican primary, calls the 2008 federal bailout of banks and Wall Street giants “irresponsible” and says he would have opposed it as a senator.

Yet back in 2008, as an investment fund president, Bevin backed the $700 billion Troubled Asset Relief Program, as well as the government takeover of troubled mortgage giants Fannie Mae and Freddie Mac. McConnell supported TARP, and the Bevin campaign repeatedly reminds voters that the Senate minority leader calls that vote “one of the finest moments in the history of the Senate.”

Politico also explained that conservative groups backing Bevin seemed unshaken by the revelations. Drucker follows up with those groups, and finds they’re still in Bevin’s corner:

In email exchanges with the Washington Examiner, the Senate Conservatives Fund and the Madison Project vigorously defended Bevin’s personal integrity and conservative credentials. They denied accusations that they targeted McConnell, and continue to invest in Bevin, in an attempt to garner political power, gain attention or raise money.

“Between McConnell and Bevin, McConnell was the only one with the opportunity to prevent TARP from becoming a reality, and he enthusiastically voted for it and convinced others to follow,” Madison Project spokesman Daniel Horowitz said.

One GOP operative even tells Drucker that the groups backing Bevin are destroying their credibility the way they think the party establishment has by supporting the wrong candidates: “That stain does not come out … It’s like the NRSC endorsing Charlie Crist. It leaves a lasting impression whether that’s fair or not.”

The Crist insult is particularly timely, as the former Florida governor is now running for office as a Democrat. Regardless of the virtues of either candidate, however, it’s important that neither side lose perspective. That the Tea Party and the establishment would continue to clash was inevitable. The idea that they can’t, or shouldn’t, coexist within the same party structure is bunk.

In his 1968 book Political Order in Changing Societies, Samuel Huntington noted that the political party was–despite some of the Founders’ distaste for it–the “distinctive institution of the modern polity.” The other political institutions were in some way “adaptations” or “carry-overs” from earlier systems. Bureaucracies weren’t new, nor were parliaments, elections, courts, or even constitutional frameworks. Huntington allows for one possible competitor to parties as the distinctive modern political institution: federalism, though he dismisses it as not unique the way parties were. Either way, the American system had created something new.

It’s worth quoting what he says next to fully understand why the Tea Party is such an important component of American politics:

Cliques and factions exist in all political systems. So also do parties in the sense of informal groups competing with each other for power and influence. But parties in the sense of organizations are a product of modern politics. Political parties exist in the modern polity because only modern political systems require institutions to organize mass participation in politics. The political party as an organization had its forerunners in the revolutions of the sixteenth and seventeenth centuries. The first appearance of organized political parties, however, comes in the eighteenth century in those countries where political participation was first expanded, in America and then in France. The shift, in Rudolph’s terms, from the politics of status to the politics of opinion, led to the creation of the political party as a political institution.

I am particularly fond of that phrase: “the shift … from the politics of status to the politics of opinion.” The left’s major electoral vehicle today is the Democratic Party, which has shifted from the politics of opinion back to the politics of status. If you’re related to a Kennedy, a Clinton, or a Dingell, you’re still being handed power the moment you ask for it. The Tea Party, to its great credit, does not want that replicated on the right. It isn’t just against the politics of status but it’s also representative of the politics of opinion.

But those opinions are fulfilled through the right’s manifestation of what Huntington called the distinctive institution of modern politics: the party. And the two are compatible not despite their penchant for clashing but precisely because of it. Matt Bevin has every right to challenge Mitch McConnell, and Tea Party groups have every right to support Bevin. But this particular election is shaping up to be a primary for its own sake. And the idea that a politician should be elected merely because of the Tea Party label–well, that’s the politics of status.

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The Oil and Gas Boom Booms On

The domestic oil and gas boom is rolling on, with no end of positive effects for the American economy. At the official end of the recession, in June 2009, we pumped 158.266 million barrels of oil that month. In November 2013, we pumped 233.051 million barrels, a 47.2 percent increase. This has led directly to much less imported oil, a much improved balance of trade, and a less influential OPEC.

But as Investor’s Business Daily points out, the economic benefits of the energy boom spread far beyond the oil industry into the economy as a whole. Jobs in the oil and gas fields are up about 40 percent since the end of the recession, and the ten states that are seeing substantially rising hydrocarbon production all have had job growth above the national average. And as IBD explains, “These jobs, moreover, are ‘sticky’ — anchored in the local economy and ranging from information services to training, health care, housing, education and related manufacturing.” North Dakota, battening on the rich oil resources of the Bakken Shield, has the lowest unemployment rate in the country.

And low-cost energy is attracting foreign investment. “The boom has also attracted a similar scale of new foreign direct investment,” IBD reports. “Because of low-cost energy abundance, 100 factories are set to come on line by 2017. When all are up and running, another $300 billion will be pumped into GDP and 1 million more jobs created.”

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The domestic oil and gas boom is rolling on, with no end of positive effects for the American economy. At the official end of the recession, in June 2009, we pumped 158.266 million barrels of oil that month. In November 2013, we pumped 233.051 million barrels, a 47.2 percent increase. This has led directly to much less imported oil, a much improved balance of trade, and a less influential OPEC.

But as Investor’s Business Daily points out, the economic benefits of the energy boom spread far beyond the oil industry into the economy as a whole. Jobs in the oil and gas fields are up about 40 percent since the end of the recession, and the ten states that are seeing substantially rising hydrocarbon production all have had job growth above the national average. And as IBD explains, “These jobs, moreover, are ‘sticky’ — anchored in the local economy and ranging from information services to training, health care, housing, education and related manufacturing.” North Dakota, battening on the rich oil resources of the Bakken Shield, has the lowest unemployment rate in the country.

And low-cost energy is attracting foreign investment. “The boom has also attracted a similar scale of new foreign direct investment,” IBD reports. “Because of low-cost energy abundance, 100 factories are set to come on line by 2017. When all are up and running, another $300 billion will be pumped into GDP and 1 million more jobs created.”

The Obama administration, naturally, is taking entirely undeserved credit for this, for its policies have slowed the oil and gas boom to the extent possible. Other Democrats, with the president’s blessing, have also been impeding oil and gas drilling. While Pennsylvania has been exploiting the vast gas reserves of the Marcellus shale, Governor Andrew Cuomo in neighboring New York has decided to let deeply depressed upstate go on being deeply depressed rather than drill into the Marcellus shale and, Cuomo proclaims, risk ground water contamination. This is, of course, nonsense. Fracking began in 1947 and hundreds of thousands of wells have been drilled in the last 67 years using the technique. There has not been a single case of documented ground water contamination from any of those wells.

Domestically, President Obama has, at best, slow walked the best and most obvious means of increasing American economic prosperity and employment. Internationally, he has worked to limit his country’s influence and prestige. I can think of no other example in all human history of a head of state whose policies were designed to weaken the country he headed.

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“The New War on Israel”–Our E-Book

Just out from COMMENTARY is our first topical e-book, The New War on Israel—and How to Fight Back. Over the past year especially, efforts to delegitimate the Jewish state have taken on a new urgency and force, much of it from liberals and leftists who are using their own Jewishness as a weapon. We have assembled several of our best articles and blog posts in a coherent whole to expose the hollowness and injustice of the arguments and the highly problematic nature of the way in which they are conducted. The ebook features pieces by me, Joshua Muravchik, Jonathan Tobin, Rick Richman, Ben Cohen, Adam Kredo, and others. It is essential reading. You can purchase it here.

Just out from COMMENTARY is our first topical e-book, The New War on Israel—and How to Fight Back. Over the past year especially, efforts to delegitimate the Jewish state have taken on a new urgency and force, much of it from liberals and leftists who are using their own Jewishness as a weapon. We have assembled several of our best articles and blog posts in a coherent whole to expose the hollowness and injustice of the arguments and the highly problematic nature of the way in which they are conducted. The ebook features pieces by me, Joshua Muravchik, Jonathan Tobin, Rick Richman, Ben Cohen, Adam Kredo, and others. It is essential reading. You can purchase it here.

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Will the 2016 GOP Nomination Turn on Foreign Policy?

The “trading places” theme of the 2016 presidential election continues, with the latest indication that the Republicans have become the party of internal discord and dissent powered by a younger generation of politicians and voters while the Democrats have become the party of entrenched cliqueocracy. The New York Times reports today on its latest poll, conducted jointly with CBS News, on the political figures each party’s voters want to see run for president.

More than 80 percent of Democrats said they wanted Hillary Clinton to run, with only 13 percent saying they’d rather she not. That is, as the Times notes, “a level of interest in her that no other potential candidates – Democrat or Republican – come close to matching among their party’s voters.” More intriguing are the post-Bridgegate levels of interest in Republican candidates. The support for a Chris Christie candidacy is now ten points underwater. The candidates with the most voter interest on the right–surely having something to do with name recognition–are Jeb Bush and Rand Paul, each at about 40 percent.

The Times continues:

Thirty-two percent of Republicans say they want Senator Marco Rubio of Florida to run, although Mr. Rubio also seems to have fewer detractors than Mr. Bush or Mr. Paul (more do not know enough about him to say). Only 15 percent of Republicans said they did not want Mr. Rubio to run, compared with 21 percent for Mr. Paul and 27 percent for Mr. Bush. Twenty-four percent said they hoped Senator Ted Cruz of Texas would run, compared with 15 percent who said they did not want him to. Fifty-nine percent do not know enough about Mr. Cruz to say.

The poll did not ask about several other potential Republican candidates, including Gov. John Kasich of Ohio, Gov. Susana Martinez of New Mexico, Representative Paul D. Ryan of Wisconsin and Gov. Scott Walker of Wisconsin. No major candidates in either party have yet declared their candidacy, but several have taken steps indicating that they are seriously considering a run.

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The “trading places” theme of the 2016 presidential election continues, with the latest indication that the Republicans have become the party of internal discord and dissent powered by a younger generation of politicians and voters while the Democrats have become the party of entrenched cliqueocracy. The New York Times reports today on its latest poll, conducted jointly with CBS News, on the political figures each party’s voters want to see run for president.

More than 80 percent of Democrats said they wanted Hillary Clinton to run, with only 13 percent saying they’d rather she not. That is, as the Times notes, “a level of interest in her that no other potential candidates – Democrat or Republican – come close to matching among their party’s voters.” More intriguing are the post-Bridgegate levels of interest in Republican candidates. The support for a Chris Christie candidacy is now ten points underwater. The candidates with the most voter interest on the right–surely having something to do with name recognition–are Jeb Bush and Rand Paul, each at about 40 percent.

The Times continues:

Thirty-two percent of Republicans say they want Senator Marco Rubio of Florida to run, although Mr. Rubio also seems to have fewer detractors than Mr. Bush or Mr. Paul (more do not know enough about him to say). Only 15 percent of Republicans said they did not want Mr. Rubio to run, compared with 21 percent for Mr. Paul and 27 percent for Mr. Bush. Twenty-four percent said they hoped Senator Ted Cruz of Texas would run, compared with 15 percent who said they did not want him to. Fifty-nine percent do not know enough about Mr. Cruz to say.

The poll did not ask about several other potential Republican candidates, including Gov. John Kasich of Ohio, Gov. Susana Martinez of New Mexico, Representative Paul D. Ryan of Wisconsin and Gov. Scott Walker of Wisconsin. No major candidates in either party have yet declared their candidacy, but several have taken steps indicating that they are seriously considering a run.

It’s certainly true that a complete 2016 preview would include voter opinions on Scott Walker and probably Paul Ryan as well–even though the latter does not appear to be gearing up for a presidential run, he was on the ticket last time and has been a leader of the “reform conservatism” caucus in Congress. But this poll isn’t a zero-sum “who would you vote for” survey, so the results still tell us a lot.

There is more opposition to a Paul candidacy and a Jeb Bush candidacy than to either Rubio or Cruz. In the case of Bush, his last name–as he recently acknowledged–probably has much to do with it. The opposition to Paul is noteworthy. The Kentucky libertarian is far from the divisive figure his father was as a candidate and congressman. Paul’s brand of conservatism has even hinted at a bipartisan appeal, especially on privacy and criminal-justice reform, without earning him the dreaded RINO label.

In fact, the area of Paul’s ideology that would breed concern among the party faithful is his outlook on foreign policy. If that’s the case, it’s significant. Paul’s admirers have always thought the most potent threat within the GOP to Paul’s anti-interventionist foreign policy came from the party elites. That’s one way his supporters have dismissed opposition to his views on foreign affairs: as neoconservative holdovers from the Bush administration.

That’s never really been the case, though. Indeed, if Paul has establishment support in the GOP it’s among the Bakerite realists. There is something ironic about treating a younger generation of conservatives–the George W. Bush team, largely–as has-beens whose old road is rapidly aging while drawing conceptual support and guidance from the prior generation–the George H.W. Bush team, largely. That doesn’t mean Paul’s views are unpopular. They have plenty of support, as evidenced by the fact that while more voters want Christie to sit out this election than run, that’s not even close to true of Paul.

But this does get at one possible obstacle to Paul’s run for the nomination. He is unlikely to have the big-government opponent he’d prefer to contrast himself with. His popularity is due in part to the fact that libertarian economic policy has become more accepted in the GOP in recent years, but that same popularity deprives him of his opposite. Instead, he’s likely to run against a range of candidates who mostly agree with him–and the base–on economic matters but not on foreign policy. It would be a fairly unexpected twist if the post-Iraq and Afghanistan GOP primary turned on foreign policy, but it might just be heading in that direction.

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Afghanistan After Karzai

It’s hard to blame President Obama for telling Hamid Karzai that the U.S. is planning to withdraw all its forces from Afghanistan unless Karzai’s successor as president finally signs the Bilateral Security Agreement that Karzai himself negotiated with the U.S. Obama did show a commendable willingness to extend the U.S. troop presence, only to be blindsided by Karzai’s maddening refusal to sign the accord–and by the president’s equally infuriating decision to release dozens of dangerous terrorists from prison.

The good news is that pretty much all of the major candidates running to succeed Karzai have indicated their support for the accord–as has the Loya Jirga that Karzai called to ratify the pact. Ordinary Afghans and especially those serving in the security forces know they need continued U.S. assistance to hold off the Taliban.

And if they needed any reminder of why outside aid is so important, the Taliban’s recent attack on an Afghan army base in volatile Kunar Province provides it. The attackers killed 21 soldiers, who are now being celebrated as “martyrs” across the country. Without a substantial American presence, expect such attacks to become more widespread and deadly, potentially leading to the fracturing of the Afghan security forces and an all-out civil war.

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It’s hard to blame President Obama for telling Hamid Karzai that the U.S. is planning to withdraw all its forces from Afghanistan unless Karzai’s successor as president finally signs the Bilateral Security Agreement that Karzai himself negotiated with the U.S. Obama did show a commendable willingness to extend the U.S. troop presence, only to be blindsided by Karzai’s maddening refusal to sign the accord–and by the president’s equally infuriating decision to release dozens of dangerous terrorists from prison.

The good news is that pretty much all of the major candidates running to succeed Karzai have indicated their support for the accord–as has the Loya Jirga that Karzai called to ratify the pact. Ordinary Afghans and especially those serving in the security forces know they need continued U.S. assistance to hold off the Taliban.

And if they needed any reminder of why outside aid is so important, the Taliban’s recent attack on an Afghan army base in volatile Kunar Province provides it. The attackers killed 21 soldiers, who are now being celebrated as “martyrs” across the country. Without a substantial American presence, expect such attacks to become more widespread and deadly, potentially leading to the fracturing of the Afghan security forces and an all-out civil war.

But that presence needs to be more than token or symbolic. Sending just 3,000 troops–one of the four options the White House is reportedly considering–will do little to stabilize Afghanistan. If the U.S. offers only such a puny force, the odds go up that the next president of Afghanistan will take a pass–just as Prime Minister Maliki in Iraq took a pass in 2011 when White House leakers were suggesting the U.S. could keep fewer than 5,000 troops in his country.

To be enticing to the Afghans, a U.S. troop presence has to be large enough–at least 10,000 troops–to make a difference. Obama needs to be careful to get off on the right foot with Karzai’s successor by not making a troop offer that is insultingly and unrealistically small. Indeed, Obama would be well advised to dispel such suspicion now–and to make clear that America will not abandon Afghanistan–by announcing what size force he would like to keep post-2014, assuming the government of Afghanistan agrees.

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The Kremlin Responds

It didn’t take the (Russian) empire long to strike back. Having won a passel of medals at Sochi, but lost a country at the same time, Vladimir Putin is predictably perturbed. And when the tsar is angry, his own people and his neighbors feel his wrath.

With Ukrainians having overthrown Putin’s ally, Viktor Yanukovych, Putin has ordered a riposte: Russian army units in western Russia and air forces across the country have been scrambled for an unscheduled “exercise.” At the same time, the pro-Russian population of the Crimea, home to an important Russian naval base, has been talking about secession from the rest of Ukraine–no doubt with the Kremlin’s encouragement.

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It didn’t take the (Russian) empire long to strike back. Having won a passel of medals at Sochi, but lost a country at the same time, Vladimir Putin is predictably perturbed. And when the tsar is angry, his own people and his neighbors feel his wrath.

With Ukrainians having overthrown Putin’s ally, Viktor Yanukovych, Putin has ordered a riposte: Russian army units in western Russia and air forces across the country have been scrambled for an unscheduled “exercise.” At the same time, the pro-Russian population of the Crimea, home to an important Russian naval base, has been talking about secession from the rest of Ukraine–no doubt with the Kremlin’s encouragement.

It is by no means inconceivable that the two events could be linked–that Putin could send his troops into part of eastern and southern Ukraine on the pretext of “protecting” the Russian minority, much as Hitler did with Czechoslovakia.

This is muscle-flexing or saber-rattling–choose your metaphor–of a very old-fashioned kind seldom seen in Europe since 1945. But then Putin does not play by the rules that have governed much of the continent since World War II–witness his invasion of Georgia in 2008.

This is hardly a 1930s-style test for the West: Putin is no Hitler, and Russia is no Nazi Germany, bent on endless conquest. But it is a test nevertheless, and an important one. Putin is very much a tsar in temperament and action, and he seems bent on trying to resurrect as much of the Russian Empire as possible–if not as a formal state then as a Russian sphere of influence.

The West failed Georgia, but at least there the argument can be made it is a small country far away from the center of Europe and there was not much that could be done. Not so Ukraine: It is a large country (45 million people) located on the border with NATO members Poland, Hungary, and Romania.

The stakes are large, and the West must be prepared to send a clear signal that Russia has to back down. The clearest way to send such a signal would be (a) to finally offer a large financial package to Ukraine to prevent its economic spiral from getting out of control and (b) to offer, or at least talk about offering, Ukraine membership in NATO.

So far Europe and the U.S. prefer to talk about what to do rather than doing something. Putin is not bound by such scruples, and he is acting in ways that require a counter, lest Ukraine once again fall under the Kremlin’s control.

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