The cost of democracy for Ukraine — and for America

October 22, 2022 8:00 am

Six months ago, Ukrainian President Volodymyr Zelenskyy received a standing ovation when he spoke to Congress to ask for help. How would he be received today? (Photo by J. Scott Applewhite-Pool/Getty Images)

Iowa Writers 'Collaborative. Linking Iowa readers and writers.Back in March, we were all Ukrainians.

We flew Ukraine’s flag. We prayed for the country and its people – and we offered military and humanitarian support as we watched in horror as Russia indiscriminately bombed civilians.

We were inspired by Ukrainian resistance.

In the Quad-Cities, we lit up the new Interstate-74 bridge in blue and yellow, the colors of the Ukrainian flag. I still see Ukraine’s colors dot yard signs in my neighborhood.

In some quarters, Volodymyr Zelenskyy was declared the leader of the free world.

Remember his courageous words when he was offered help to evacuate his country: “I need ammunition, not a ride.”

In a single sentence, he stirred America’s imagination, and he reminded us that we have always thought of ourselves, though not always accurately, as a country eager to side with democracy-seeking peoples around the world.

There were limits, of course.

Most Americans weren’t ready to wage direct war with Russia. But back in March, Americans didn’t need much convincing to help Ukraine with aid. The only question was: How much, and what kind of, military support should the U.S. offer without risking a greater confrontation with nuclear-armed Russia?

At the time, Iowa Republicans like Sens. Joni Ernst and Chuck Grassley accused President Biden of not doing enough – of following, rather than leading, as Ernst put it.

They, along with some in the conservative media, pushed Biden to go further and bigger.

“Folks, Ukraine can win this war,” Ernst said.

“Now is not the time to be risk averse,” she said. “Defending freedom in Ukraine is defending freedom everywhere.”

Lately, though, the cost of defending freedom is getting to be too high for many in the Republican Party.

A Pew Research poll last month said 32% of Republicans and GOP-leaning independents thought the U.S. was providing too much aid to Ukraine, up from 17% in May. Only 11% of Democrats said the U.S. was doing too much; an increase from 8% in May.

Now, House Republican Leader Kevin McCarthy is signaling a change may come after the elections, if Republicans take control of Congress.

“I think people are gonna be sitting in a recession and they’re not going to write a blank check to Ukraine,” McCarthy told Punchbowl News the other day. “They just won’t do it … it’s not a free blank check.”

McCarthy has defended his remarks as simply demanding transparency. But that’s not the message that others, including Ukraine, heard from the man who will likely be the next speaker of the House.

“We were shocked to hear these comments of Mr. McCarthy, honestly,” said David Arakhamia, a top Ukrainian leader, according to the Financial Times.

He added, “just a few weeks ago, our delegation visited the U.S. and had a meeting with Mr. McCarthy. … We were assured that bipartisan support of Ukraine in its war with Russia will remain a top priority even if they win in the elections.”

However, as Axios reports, “there has been a noticeable shift away from what was once a broad bipartisan consensus.”

Rep. Don Bacon, a Nebraska Republican, told the outlet, “I’ve noticed it. You see it a little bit on social media, you see it with some of our members.”

Grassley and Ernst still are siding with the idea that the U.S. must support Ukraine.

“I hope that the American people will be patient to understand that helping Ukraine now will save us a lot of money later on if Putin is stopped right now,” Grassley said in a debate with Democratic challenger Mike Franken a few weeks ago.

Radio Iowa reported Oct. 20 that Ernst also said the U.S. must continue supporting Ukraine, though she echoed McCarthy’s transparency language.

Back in March, the Iowa Republicans were quite vocal claiming that President Biden wasn’t being aggressive enough. They even urged the White House to support providing Polish airplanes to Ukraine that U.S. military leaders said were unnecessary and could prompt Vladimir Putin to widen the war to NATO states.

Now, in the face of McCarthy’s comments, it’s been left to others to stand up.

Rep. Liz Cheney, formerly a leader in the House Republican caucus, immediately stepped up. She called it “disgraceful” that McCarthy was signaling support for slashing aid to Ukraine, National Review reported.

Former Vice President Mike Pence also warned against the “rising chorus in our party” that wants to disengage from the wider world.

Pushing back against a shift in opinion in your own party is difficult at any time of year, but it’s especially tough so close to an election. But aid to Ukraine carries significant long-term implications for the stability of the U.S. and the world.

Is there any doubt what John McCain would say? Or Ronald Reagan?

As a member of the Senate Armed Services Committee, Ernst has styled herself as a leading Republican voice on national security issues. And she doesn’t shrink from challenging the White House on these questions. Only a few days ago, the Iowa Republican was quick to take on the Biden administration for calling off a security meeting involving Saudi Arabia. The cancellation was the White House’s response to the Saudis limiting oil production, putting upward pressure on U.S. gas prices.

It’s clear there is a division within the conservative movement over whether Ukraine deserves continued U.S. support, just as there is among moderates and liberals in the Democratic Party on issues like policing.

Six months ago, Zelenskyy rated a standing ovation from Congress when he pleaded for their help.

How would he be received today?

The stakes haven’t changed. Russia is still a grave threat. If Putin wins in Ukraine, he could turn to a NATO country next, and that would obligate the U.S. to help on a different level.

Ukraine continues to need U.S. help. Congress has authorized about $60 billion in assistance, but only $16 billion has been delivered. That leaves a lot of assistance at risk.

Biden and the European coalition have ably walked a fine line between supporting Ukraine militarily while not provoking Russia into a wider war. But a central pillar of this strategy has been the idea that the coalition won’t back down as the war wears on.

Now, with an increasing number of Republicans in the public and in Congress going wobbly, it is all the more important that lawmakers like Grassley and Ernst regain their March voices.

This may entail some political risk, but consider this:

We all have been inspired by the courage that Zelenskyy and the Ukrainian people have exhibited in the face of the horrors unleashed by Russia. Compared to that, the risk that lawmakers in Washington, D.C., face is pretty small.

This column was originally published by Ed Tibbetts’ Along the Mississippi newsletter on Substack. It is republished here through the Iowa Writers’ Collaborative.

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Ed Tibbetts
Ed Tibbetts

Ed Tibbetts, of Davenport, has covered politics, government and trends for more than three decades in the Quad-Cities. A former reporter and editorial page editor for the Quad-City Times, he now is a freelance journalist who publishes the Along the Mississippi newsletter on Substack. He is a member of the Iowa Writers’ Collaborative.