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Forget the high-fives — Congress just sold out Ukraine

There are no faraway countries in 2023

Ukrainian President Volodymyr Zelenskyy, center, is escorted by Senate Minority Leader Mitch McConnell, R-Ky., left, and Senate Majority Leader Charles E. Schumer, D-N.Y., to the Old Senate Chamber for a meeting with U.S. senators in the Capitol on Sept. 21.
Ukrainian President Volodymyr Zelenskyy, center, is escorted by Senate Minority Leader Mitch McConnell, R-Ky., left, and Senate Majority Leader Charles E. Schumer, D-N.Y., to the Old Senate Chamber for a meeting with U.S. senators in the Capitol on Sept. 21. (Bill Clark/CQ Roll Call)

Not since the heyday of Athens nearly 2,500 years ago has there been such a stirring triumph of democratic self-government. Over the weekend, the United States Congress, in a miraculous turnabout that would have even impressed Zeus, agreed to fund the government until mid-November.

Be still my beating heart.

So many exciting storylines have emerged from Saturday’s signed-and-sealed continuing resolution.

Kevin McCarthy alone is poised to have more adventures than a Marvel superhero. The potential narratives range from “McCarthy at the Gaetz of Hell” to the “Incredible Shrinking Speaker.”

There’s also the most baffling locked-door mystery since the death of Agatha Christie: “Jamal Bowman and the Ringing Fire Alarm.”

And, for those who prefer dramas that offer global sweep, you can always go with that hardy perennial: “The Surrender Monkeys Take Over Washington.”

In the end, the House incendiaries who were willing to shut down the government in their incoherent rebels-without-a-cause protest won just a single concession: $6 billion in military aid to Ukraine was stripped out.

In budgetary terms, $6 billion is the equivalent of finding forgotten dimes and nickels from under the sofa cushions. With the Pentagon alone slated to spend more than $800 billion in the coming fiscal year, targeting aid to Ukraine isn’t frugality. It’s irrationality.

This is, in part, Donald Trump’s handiwork. The oft-indicted former president has so convinced Republicans that the world is playing Americans for suckers that we are witnessing an alarming burst of isolationism. A CBS News poll last month found that 61 percent of Republicans now oppose sending weaponry to Ukraine.

Nineteen months after Americans thrilled to see stalled Russian tanks burning on the road to Kyiv, Congress has now officially grown bored with the conflict.

That’s the new geopolitical rule: Americans demand a fast victory or else we change the channel. By this impatient standard, Franklin Roosevelt would have canceled Lend Lease to Britain in the spring of 1941, more than six months before Pearl Harbor.

True, many in Congress, including almost all the Democrats, reluctantly went along with temporarily postponing aid to Ukraine because it was the only way to keep the government open. Senate Minority Leader Mitch McConnell tried and failed to hold the line on Ukraine in the Senate Republican Conference.

Now the hope is that a large funding bill for Ukraine will somehow navigate the shoals of a dysfunctional Congress sometime this fall. But the symbolic consequences of delay are already apparent.

Too many in Congress believe that it somehow remains a secret when they pander to the worst instincts of the electorate. But America’s influence on the world stage is sufficiently great that allies notice every twitch from Capitol Hill and the White House.

The print edition of Monday’s Wall Street Journal led with a story headlined, “Funding Fight Over Ukraine Rattles U.S. Allies.” A leading piece of commentary in the Sydney Morning Herald in Australia declared, “Washington looks like an unreliable ally. Just ask Ukraine.”

There is a school of thought among right-wing Republicans that any proxy conflict with Russia is a distraction from our real enemy, China. But, as the Sydney Morning Herald headline illustrates, nations on the front lines of any conflict with China see the links with the war in Ukraine.

The Biden administration has been largely successful in pressing Japan to dramatically expand its military budget in the face of threats from China and North Korea. But the Japanese have to wonder whether America would eventually abandon Taiwan since Congress is suddenly so reluctant to stay the course in Ukraine.

Since Russian leader Vladimir Putin has been unable to win a short war despite his initial military arrogance, his only hope is to outlast America and wavering NATO countries. Putin’s biggest hope is that a Trump restoration in 2025 not only would give him a free hand in Ukraine but also would undermine NATO itself.

Already, a new pro-Putin government in Slovakia raises the fear that a NATO member nation would repudiate Ukraine. And in a story on a new Russian disinformation campaign, The New York Times reported Monday, “Putin believes he can influence American politics to weaken support for Ukraine and potentially restore his battlefield advantage.”

The Republican cave-on-Kyiv brigade seems oblivious to the consequences of a military setback in Ukraine. In a different world, British Prime Minister Neville Chamberlain in 1938 referred to Hitler’s dismemberment of Czechoslovakia as a “quarrel in a faraway country, between people of whom we know nothing.”

In 2023, there are no faraway countries. Ukraine borders four NATO members: Hungary, Poland, Romania and Slovakia. If the Russians ever were to attack any of those countries or the tiny Baltic states of Estonia, Latvia and Lithuania, America would be obligated under the NATO treaty to dispatch soldiers and not just military aid.

America has sent more than $100 billion to Ukraine for two simple reasons — it is morally right, and it is also a wise investment to prevent an even more devastating war in Europe. Since we have the military budget of a superpower, we shouldn’t pretend that the biggest land war in Europe since 1945 isn’t our business.

No one on Capitol Hill should feel proud that a government shutdown was averted. Even if the national parks remain open and government employees and military personnel continue to be paid on time, the temporary budget deal was a setback for America and our credibility in the world.

Unless Congress provides ample funding for Ukraine soon, America will come across as a blundering, arrogant giant who can never be trusted to fulfill its promises.

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