Whose Side Are We On?

A great confusion has set in about what American political figures should and should not say when confronted with violent political events in other countries. Exemplifying the confusion, as he does on so many issues, is President Obama.

Kiev is in crisis. Protesters have taken up arms to fight the government, whose security forces fire into the crowds. The government says dozens have been killed; unconfirmed reports suggest the number is more than a hundred, with many hundreds wounded. At issue is whether Ukraine will tug West or East. The protesters, with broad public support, want to align their country more closely with Europe. They don’t want Russian economic and political dominance, Russian corruption, Vladimir Putin’s authoritarianism. They want to push away from all that. Which of course is their right.

Mr. Putin sets himself as the strongman, the Last Czar. What he wants to do is hold on to what he sees as his asset base, and keep Ukraine, with all its economic potential, within Russia’s sphere of influence.It’s all very dramatic and nobody knows what will happen. If the protests continue, spread and intensify, President Viktor Yanukovych may well fall. He’s already bleeding political support. He may declare a state of emergency and formally call in the military, which could trigger civil war. What would civil war in a modern, technologized, militarized, quasi-Western state look like? No one knows. Mr. Putin could send Russian troops. He’d pay a heck of a price in world opinion, which he’s courted so assiduously with the costly Sochi games. But he sent troops to Georgia in 2008.

Europe and America can do little beyond considering, threatening and imposing economic and political sanctions against the Ukrainian government. But it’s all very high stakes and carries big implications for the future. So shouldn’t we be making it clear where we as a nation stand? Shouldn’t we make clear where our sympathies are?

The world is watching. Part of the story in Ukraine is that the people are rebelling against their elites, which have cozied up to Russia for their own purposes. We won’t be seeing less of this kind of thing in the future but more. Don’t we want to be understood to be on the right side of that battle?

I think our leaders are now so anxious about appearing to support entangling America in another conflict that they’ve become afraid to voice full-throated support for those who fight for principles completely in line with our own—the right of people to choose their own economic and governmental arrangements, and their right to resist any illegitimate limiting of their freedoms.

We have always stood for those things. Isn’t this a good time to make it clear again?

Ukraine's Independence Square
Protesters clash with police in Ukraine’s Independence Square on Feb. 20.

The Higher Reticence is, I suppose, intended to show how sophisticated and peaceable we are. But it doesn’t look peaceable, it looks weak. It is one thing to be militarily prudent, it is another to be, in expressing our sentiments, timorous and detached.Here is what Mr. Obama said Wednesday, as the moment approached crisis in Kiev: The U.S. holds the Ukrainian government “primarily responsible” for restoring peace. “We expect peaceful protesters to remain peaceful.” The U.S. is “monitoring very closely the situation.” The Ukrainian military should “not step into what should be a set of issues that can be resolved by civilians.” The U.S. will continue to “engage with all sides.”

With all due respect, this was not so much calibrated as meaningless, crouching and process-driven. Which side are we on?

The president then warned there will be “consequences” if people “step over the line.” This sounded like a man who is peripheral to the drama insisting he is very, very relevant. Is this like the “red line” in Syria that Mr. Obama warned Bashar Assad he’d best not cross, and he crossed it, and nothing happened?

It is embarrassing when the president makes statements like this. He is like the father who poses on the bottom of the stairs and says in a deep voice, “Don’t make me come up there!” And for a moment there’s silence and then the kids erupt in giggles. Because there’s no price to pay if he comes up there, and because he doesn’t come up.

I thought, as he spoke, that he is destroying the American brand in the world.

It is particularly important now for us to show the people of Ukraine, and of Europe, that America is not some exhausted shell of itself with no adherence to anything larger than the daily concerns of its welfare state, but still a nation with meaning. That it still stands with those who risk all for greater freedom, that it cares. That it is not left mute by fantasies of a “reset” with Russia that Moscow itself derides. “You got it wrong,” the Russian foreign minister told an embarrassed Secretary of State Hillary Clinton when she gave him the famous button that incorrectly translated the word “reset.” He seemed to enjoy her discomfort. Last June, Mr. Putin was theatrically rude to Mr. Obama at a joint press conference, turning from him like a bored student who knows his professor isn’t marginally capable of operating in the real world. It reminded me of something a diplomat who has dealt with him said. What Mr. Putin longs for is a Nixon with whom he can do business. Instead he has Mr. Obama, for whom he appears to have little respect.

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Part of leading—just part, but a true part—is talking.

America circa 1945-89 did not send in troops to liberate the Warsaw Pact countries and lift the Iron Curtain. But it consistently made clear whose side it was on and what it stood for, and its insistent clarity on these points, especially in the 1980s, ultimately helped liberate those nations.

Democrats seem essentially uninterested in the drama in Kiev. Maybe they think it’s just another distraction from the minimum wage. But Republicans have gotten all bollixed up in the past 12 years of wars, and they’re still concussed by the telephone uprising in which their constituents overwhelmed the Capitol switchboard to say they didn’t want a war in Syria. It has left some of them feeling whiplashed, defensive and fearful of being misunderstood.

But you can’t lead when your greatest fear is that you’ll be misunderstood. Conservatives who understandably and legitimately want no more military interventions have forgotten the power of articulated encouragement. That means saying what side you’re on and why, and what principles you back.

In this case they should stand with the people in Independence Square in Kiev just as much as their predecessors stood with the people of the Warsaw Pact.

Just because it doesn’t seem there’s much you can do doesn’t mean there isn’t a lot you can say—and in the saying, show to the world that your country, for all its woes, limits and distractions, still has a beating heart.

Sen. Rob Portman said the other day: “I think we need to stand with people who are supporting democracy and freedom.” That, he said, is our tradition, our history.

It is. We should stick with it. And not only for the world but for ourselves, to remember who we are.