Friday, April 18, 2014

Standing Up to the Bullies

During this Passover week, Jews leaving their temple in the eastern Ukrainian city of Donetsk were handed a leaflet ordering them to register with the (unrecognized pro-Russian) government, declare their assets, and pay a registration fee or face loss of citizenship and deportation.

Exactly who distributed the leaflets, and why, is uncertain. They might have originated with a pro-Russian separatist group, or they might, as Denis Pushilin, the self-proclaimed leader whose name appears on them, have been distributed to discredit his group. It could be the work of pro-Russia provocateurs, including those backed by the Russian government itself, or those seeking to discredit them, such as the American CIA or NSA. Or they could be the product of a hate-filled individual or group with no political agenda.  The fact that these leaflets went out is dangerous. Articles like Julia Joffe's in the liberal The New Republic magazine are also dangerous because they are ignorant, insultingly dismissive, and display a failure to comprehend the lessons of history. Joffe's full public display of her impressive ignorance ends with her flippant self-aggrandizing comment: "If that changes, I'll be all over it, but so far, you can breathe easy. No Holocaust 2.0 just yet.") has the most accurate account, but whether the leaflet came from the government or a provocateur is irrelevant. It serves to fan the flames of anti-Semitism and to make the unthinkable thinkable. History shows this is how it begins. It also shows each time there are complacent, ignorant, or misguided individuals who proclaim "Relax, it could never happen." – as it is already beginning.

History is the most important subject you will ever study because, as George Santayana said, “Those who cannot remember the past are condemned to repeat it.” History has taught us that when America foolishly involves itself in the wrong wars, the American public grows war weary and loses its enthusiasm for participation in future wars. Would-be conquerors know this. After World War I – started over the assassination of an insignificant archduke, with its death toll of 17 million, and another 20 million military and civilian wounded, making it among the deadliest conflicts in human history– war weary Americans turned isolationist and merely watched for two years, as England led the battle against Germany while France fell beneath Nazi jackboots. Americans are easily led into wars by jingoistic and patriotic propaganda, but when they go on for too long and the bodies start coming home in coffins, public sentiment not only turns against the current war but against all future foreign entanglements. We saw it with Vietnam, and we are seeing it again in the post Iraq-Afghanistan era.

Vladimir Putin sees it too. The opportunistic, ex-KGB, Russian president is a master of timing. He has waited 16 years since coming to power for an opportunity like this. He acted boldly and with impunity by annexing Crimea because he knew war weary America had lost its bluster and swagger of the Bush era and eschewed further conflict. Emboldened, Putin has initiated not-so-covert attempts to destabilize the Ukrainian government through local incitement by pro-Russia provocateurs. He saw the reluctance of the American populace and its Congress to follow President Obama’s expressed desire to intervene militarily in Syria, where the civilian death toll has now passed 150,000 men, women, and children.

Putin, like most political observers, has concluded America has entered an isolationist phase, allowing them free reign to do as he pleases, including possibly reconstructing the Soviet Empire from the ashes of history. And that is why, if America truly wishes to be and remain the world’s superpower, it must grit its teeth, suck in its stomach, and do what it finds distasteful and unwelcome. It must stand up to Putin and put all prospective would-be conquerors on notice that America, in the words of President John F. Kennedy, is “unwilling to witness or permit the slow undoing of those human rights to which this nation has always been committed, and to which we are committed today at home and around the world.”

Being a superpower isn't about having the biggest battleships or the most nuclear weapons. It’s about being the kid in the schoolyard who stands up to the playground bully. Only now, the bullies have grown up. They still pick on those who are smaller and weaker, but now their aim is to conquer countries or to commit genocide. We don’t have to be a superpower. We could be like Canada or Switzerland and use our great wealth, not for arms, but for domestic improvement. I've often argued we should. But I've lost that argument. For better or worse, like it or not, we have chosen to be a superpower among nations and thus we must live up to that responsibility.

As JFK said, “In the long history of the world, only a few generations have been granted the role of defending freedom in its hour of maximum danger. I do not shrink from this responsibility—I welcome it.”

The American Congress, its president, and its people, must unite in principle and challenge Vladimir Putin’s ongoing incursion into Ukraine. If challenged, Putin, like Khrushchev before him, will back down. Unchallenged, his voracious geopolitical hunger will be unchecked, and others will feel free to engage in anti-Semitism, pogroms, and so-called racial cleansing.

President Obama must develop a backbone and echo JFK’s words: “Let every nation know, whether it wishes us well or ill, that we shall pay any price, bear any burden, meet any hardship, support any friend, oppose any foe, in order to assure the survival and the success of liberty.”

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