Robert Ford
Robert Ford is a former US ambassador to Syria and Algeria and a senior fellow at the Middle East Institute for Near East Policy in Washington

Not All Americans Want to Help Ukraine

Thirty-one years after the liberation of Kuwait, many people still think America undertook that operation because of oil. Richard Haas who was the top Middle East official at the White House in his memoirs recalled that President Bush the father threw Iraqi forces out of Kuwait not because of oil. After the collapse of the Soviet Union Bush wanted a new international order that would stop aggression against smaller nations.

Now in February 2022 the predominant view in Washington about the reason to help Ukraine is the same as what Bush the father was saying about Kuwait. There is rare unity among Democratic and Republican leaders in Washington. America should help defend Ukraine’s territorial sovereignty said Republican Senator Rob Portman because Ukrainians want to be free.

Senator James Risch, the Republican leader on the Senate Foreign Relations Committee, said American always stands by countries that are democracies. Ignoring the historical contradictions in such words, a Senate delegation visited Ukraine in the middle of January in order to deter Russian President Putin from invading and also to pressure President Biden to adopt strong sanctions before Russia invades.

Democratic Senator Robert Menendez, the chairman of the Senate Foreign Relations Committee, and his Republican party colleague Risch told CNN last Sunday that they expect to pass legislation this week that implements strong sanctions on Russia immediately. Russia hasn’t attacked Kyiv yet. What is their justification? They pointed to Russian cyber-attacks against Ukraine. And they warned that if Putin invades Ukraine, Washington would impose sanctions that would cripple the Russian economy. Risch even told American viewers that gasoline prices would rise because there would be no Russia oil in world markets. The senators did not explain why Putin would choose not to invade Ukraine if he faces new sanctions regardless of an invasion. Anti-Russian positions are popular in Washington now.

Washington is not America, however. A January 26 report from the Pew Research organization stated that a recent opinion survey showed only 26 percent of Americans think the Russian mobilization near Ukraine is a major threat to the United States; and 33 percent think it is a minor threat only. It was also notable that the report said that 41 percent of Americans think Russia is an enemy of the United States but 49 percent think it is a competitor, not an enemy. And remember that Americans will pay an economic price to defend Ukraine, but the vast majority cannot find Russia or Ukraine on a google map.

American leaders are trying to define America’s role in the world as we move towards the middle part of the 21st century. One side still argues for America to dominate everywhere in the name of freedom. In response, Republican Senator Rand Paul warns that the traditional Washington elite are pushing America into a war in Ukraine, as they did with Iraq in 2003. Paul’s language resembles Donald Trump’s 2016 campaign speeches. Other analysts, from a realist school of foreign policy, warn that America is no longer the only superpower and in view of the competition with China and the threat from Iran, Washington finds a compromise deal with Russia that accepts Ukraine will never join NATO. Along these lines, the influential commentator Tucker Carlson with Fox News, stresses that China is the big threat to American interests, not Russia.

We can easily see with Tucker Carlson and Rand Paul and others on one side, and James Risch and Robert Portman on the other that the issue of foreign intervention in countries like Ukraine is causing a division in the Republican Party. The party’s right wing asks why Republican leaders worry about Ukraine while they do not solve the issue of large immigration across America’s southern border. They reflect the December 2021 opinion survey from the YouGov-Charles Koch Institute that reported that 70 percent of Democrats and 76 percent of Republicans want Washington to focus on domestic issues, not foreign policy. A big part of this division comes from Donald Trump and his supporters who reject the traditional American foreign policy and foreign interventions.

Many Americans, both right-wing Republicans and left-wing Democrats whose focus is on America’s poor and middle class, will be angry if gasoline prices increase a lot. If intervention in Ukraine limits attention and funding in Washington for domestic problems, they will quickly criticize the Ukrainian intervention. The political arguments will grow sharper as the November congress elections approach. And as with Afghanistan and Iraq, most Americans know nothing about Ukraine. Bush the father lost the 1992 election despite liberating Kuwait because of domestic economic problems. Washington leaders risk the same with rising prices and interest rates. I won’t believe Americans are truly committed to Ukraine until they can find it on a map.