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Calmes: Blocking Ukraine aid is no way to put America first

By Jackie Calmes
Published: February 23, 2024, 6:01am

For Presidents Day, the U.S. House is taking two weeks off. But first the Republicans who misrule the place honored their favorite president by blocking desperately needed aid for Ukraine — just as Donald Trump demanded.

Every president since Franklin D. Roosevelt would be appalled at the Republicans’ acquiescence to Russia’s aggression. Except Trump.

And President Joe Biden has to manage the mess that Trump and his “America First” disciples in Congress are making of U.S. reliability within the global alliances created after World War II. He’s the one who has to reassure NATO allies after Trump falsely and repeatedly — to disturbing applause at his political rallies — depicts those allies as deadbeats and invites Russia to attack them.

And Biden is the one who has to burnish the United States’ hard-earned reputation as the leader of the free world, dispatching his vice president and secretary of state to do so over the weekend as they met with fretful European officials at the annual Munich Security Conference.

“History is watching,” Biden repeated five times last week in a speech urging the House to follow the bipartisan lead of the Senate, which voted 70-29 for more assistance to Ukraine, along with aid to both Israel and Gaza, as well as Taiwan.

Biden was right to emphasize that phrase: History is watching. Not that it matters to MAGA Republicans.

After all, if Trump and his followers had any sense of history, they wouldn’t have revived the “America First” mantle, associated as it is with the isolationist, pre-World War II America First Committee. That Nazi-friendly organization opposed the United States coming to the aid of Britain and other allies besieged by Germany after 1939.

Nonetheless, seven years ago Trump proudly proclaimed in his inaugural address, “From this day forward, it’s going to be only America first.”

That rancid cry remains a prominent theme in Trump’s reelection repertoire, because it resonates not just with his MAGA minions but with other Americans justifiably disillusioned by two decades of costly misadventure and spilled blood in Iraq and Afghanistan and by the economic disruptions of globalization.

The slogan is now a central pillar of the Republican Party. A once-Grand Old Party that long defined itself by opposition to Russia/the Soviet Union now plays Putin’s patsy.

This swing away from global leadership is dangerously wrongheaded. If the United States steps back, Russia likely plows forward. So will China and Iran, two powers Republicans are quick to condemn. Can’t Republicans see that their words and actions embolden our adversaries? America first, indeed.

As Biden said last week, the United States “stands at an inflection point in history, where the decisions we make now are going to determine the course of our future for decades to come.” Deciding whether to aid or abandon Ukraine is hardly as dramatic an inflection point as, say, 9/11. Yet the response will be as consequential.

To allow a vote on the Senate’s foreign aid bill, Speaker “MAGA Mike” Johnson of Louisiana would have to be willing to forfeit the job he’s had for under four months. Republican extremists have said they’d move to dump him just as they did his predecessor if the House approves aid to Ukraine. Everyone knows the bill would pass, by a bipartisan margin, if it came to a vote.

Biden has tried shaming: “Are you going to stand with Ukraine or are you going to stand with Putin? Will we stand with America or — or with Trump?”

I fear we already have the House Republicans’ answer. What’s worse, many Republicans would like nothing better than to make a liar of Biden, who told Ukraine in his State of the Union address last year: “We will stand with you as long as it takes.”

If Republicans do kill Ukraine aid, they’ll be on the wrong side of history. The judgment will not be kind. Their Trumpian America First talk will get the same treatment as the original version: nearly universal damnation.

Jackie Calmes is an opinion columnist for the Los Angeles Times in Washington, D.C.

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