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There's opportunity amidst tragedy in Ukraine

Goldstone’s most recent book is "On Account of Race: The Supreme Court, White Supremacy, and the Ravaging of African American Voting Rights."

Out of the carnage and horror of Ukraine’s stunningly brave attempt to preserve its democracy may come the opportunity to help us regain ours.

Any complacency or relief that people or governments may have felt in emerging from the Covid pandemic — if it is in fact ending — was shattered when Russian troops crossed into Ukraine. Comparisons with August 1914 and September 1939 abounded and within days a new world crisis had replaced the old. Images of death from a dread disease were supplanted by images of death from nuclear weapons or an atmosphere poisoned by atomic fallout.

As a result, the blatant violation of a peaceful nation’s borders, coupled with the ineptitude of Russian ground forces and Vladimir Putin’s embrace of thuggish brutality have forced much of the world to reconsider not only foreign policy but the manner in which domestic affairs are conducted as well. If nothing else, as Russian troops were killed by the hundreds or perhaps thousands, sent to their deaths to stoke Putin’s bloated ego, autocracy lost much of its allure and democracy, which had been increasingly derided as weak and ineffective, has received a new birth of support.

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But the impact, especially for the United States, may well run deeper. As a result of a reevaluation of what constitutes the national interest, the extremes of both the left and the right have been put on the defensive and there is now a genuine opening for reasonable debate on the very real issues that face the nation. Many on the moderate right may be willing to rethink their attraction to the blustering, faux macho leadership style of Donald Trump, while many on the moderate left may be persuaded that security is not increased by removing the means of enforcement.

The security issue cuts both ways. On the far right, military alliances such as NATO were seen as “bad deals,” wherein America was footing the bill for protecting Europe while getting little in return. Some believe Putin delayed invading Ukraine to see if Trump would have pulled the United States out of NATO had he won a second term, leading to its collapse and leaving Russia an open field for expansion. The left, on the other hand, wanted to gut the military budget and spend the money on social programs. A domestic corollary was the “Defund the Police” movement, which would similarly redirect funds, especially in cities.

What Ukraine has made clear, however, is that the United States needs both military alliances and the means to back up the threat of force. One can — and should — decry the necessity of developing new methods to kill and training men and women to do it, but in a world where a Vladimir Putin can pop up at any moment, there is little alternative.

In addition, in the same way as underfunding the military leaves the most vulnerable nations at the mercy of murderers such as Putin, underfunding the police leaves the most vulnerable citizens at the mercy of murderers who may live down the street. Those who propose to do away with the police need to recognize that removing security forces removes security right along with it.

The woeful performance of Russian ground forces, however, points up the consequences of deploying a security force that is not up to the task, as well as demonstrating that the most likely tactic of the armed but ill-prepared is the indiscriminate use of force. This is true both on the battlefield and on city streets.

The solution, then, is not to eliminate security forces, but to do what is necessary to make them well-trained and professional. Ukraine will engender spirited debate in Congress on military preparedness and it is an opportunity for those on both sides to eschew facile, partisan solutions and instead focus on both ensuring an elite fighting force and eliminating unnecessary spending on outmoded weapons and training. One only need watch Russian troops sink into a morass to see the wisdom of, to the greatest degree possible, getting politics out of national defense. (To the greatest degree possible, of course, may not be to a great degree at all, but that should not deter our elected representatives from trying.)

What is true for the military is also true for the police. Both Congress and state legislatures can move to guarantee that police officers are well trained and well paid, with standards of behavior that will allow them to effectively serve those whom they are entrusted to protect. Upgrading police forces cannot be achieved by strokes of the pen, but a commitment to recognize the real problems with current law enforcement and beginning to move toward solutions will be a good start.

Another area of reevaluation is trade, and how reliant the United States will be on foreign goods, even if they are cheaper than those produced domestically. At first glance, it might appear that protection for the environment will be a casualty of the push for energy independence, with domestic fossil fuel exploration and extraction becoming a national security priority. In the short term that might be true, but energy independence need not preclude a national effort to promote and install clean energy technologies — in fact, it would seem a necessity, since fossil fuel sources are finite and wind, solar, and geothermal power is unlimited.

If the United States is to make progress in these and other areas, effective, responsible leadership is a prerequisite. War imposes unique responsibilities on national leaders and how they discharge those responsibilities quite correctly comes under extreme scrutiny. Less often scrutinized, however, are the responsibilities of those in opposition — but they may well determine whether a nation will weather the crisis successfully. In some cases, the opposition must sublimate its misgivings to the national interest, as during the Civil War or World War II, and in some cases must aggressively maintain them, as with Vietnam and Iraq. In either case, however, the motive should be what is best for the nation, not simply what is best for their party or faction.

In practical terms, of course, opposition leaders often sublimate national interest for opportunism. The far right’s insistence on portraying President Biden as weak or senile — charges for which there is no evidence — will hardly make the United States more effective in deterring Putin. But practicality can promote change. If, for example, Rep. Liz Cheney and Georgia Gov. Brian Kemp win big over their Trump-backed opponents in their respective primaries, Republicans might reconsider their refusal to compromise. Similarly, if “woke” candidates fair poorly, Democrats may find centrist solutions both workable and advisable.

The Ukrainians’ willingness to pay a terrible price to maintain their freedom clearly demonstrates the power of national will. Perhaps they can help us to rediscover ours.

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