You know those people who carry on all the time about how the United States looks weak to the world, and how we have to do everything we possibly can to help poor Ukraine stand up to the evil Vladimir Putin? Well, guess what they just did? They just made the United States look weak to the world—and they actually just reduced (yes, reduced) the amount of global aid that can flow to Ukraine to help it stand up to the evil Vladimir Putin.
The deal was this: The Obama administration’s aid package to Ukraine placed before the Senate included some long-sought International Monetary Fund reforms. These reforms, which the administration agreed to in 2010 with the leading nations of Europe, and which those nations have already signed off on, would have helped Ukraine get more money from the IMF after this quick tranche from the United States ran dry. It’s complicated, but in essence, the reforms shifted money from one narrow spending category to a broader one that could be tapped by countries for projects like building and sustaining democracy, of which Ukraine is in rather desperate need. So while there wasn’t a specific dollar figure on the table, the IMF reforms could potentially, a Senate Democratic aide explained to me, have led to several billion more in aid to the country.
What’s to object to? To Republicans, this: The reforms include an increase in the U.S. contribution quota to the IMF of $63 billion. They would also give more voice to emerging nations. Now, these two measures are offset by the facts that 1) the overall U.S. expenditure on the IMF wouldn’t go up, because the U.S. would be allowed to decrease other commitments by a like amount, and 2) the U.S. would still have enough voting shares at IMF meetings to retain the veto power it has currently.
But those points don’t matter on the right, of course. Over there, it all spells a diminution of American power, the hated global governance, like Pat Buchanan’s old warnings about sending our boys out to global hotspots donning light-blue (i.e. United Nations) helmets. John McCain and Bob Corker, to their credit, supported the aid with the IMF reform tacked on. But most Republicans didn’t, and even though the full package easily passed a procedural vote, Democrats were getting the strong sense that an aid deal with the IMF stuff included wasn’t going to make it.
And so, it emerged this week that the Obama administration and Senate Democrats apparently backed off their demand for the Ukraine aid bill on Capitol Hill to include the reforms. On Monday, John Kerry visited Congress and threw in the towel. Better to have whatever we can get now than fight over this and delay matters. Or worse, lose altogether, because there was no chance that the House would ever have passed the IMF-laden version.
Let’s take stock of this. The Crimea/Ukraine crisis broke. Republicans immediately were all over Obama for being weak. The whole thing was his fault. We are all Ukrainians now. We had to stand with Ukraine to send a strong message to the malefactor Putin.
So what happens when the bill reaches them? The Obama administration tries to live up to an agreement it made—with our friends, our closest allies—four years ago at an opportune moment to press the issue, thinking that the idea that the reform would be of use to Ukraine might help matters. But as with everything, opposition to Obama is more important than anything else. If he’s for it, they’re against it. If Ukraine gets less money because of that, well, tough cheese for them.
And so it happens that the people who caterwaul about America being weak in the world become the very people who make it weaker. What does the world think as it watches this? Maybe some think merely that Obama is weak. But I’d wager most don’t. I’d wager most Europeans and others reach the right and reasonable conclusion: That American partisan dysfunction, driven far more by Republicans than by Democrats, now weakens not just our ability to carry out domestic politics but our foreign-policy aims as well.
Nothing like this has happened in decades. Yes Democrats—and several moderate Republicans, let’s remember, like John Sherman Cooper and Jacob Javits—blocked funding for the Vietnam War. But at least they were acting in accord with their long-stated principles and goal of ending that war. Today, Republicans are opposing their own stated principle of helping Ukraine as much as possible. Sen. Ted Cruz even went so far as to say that the proposed IMF reforms weakened the U.S. and strengthened Russia (I asked his spokesman to explain why this was so, and he wrote me back but never delivered an answer). In fact, Russia, Reuters has reported, is on record urging the IMF to adopt the reforms without U.S. support, and small wonder: Doing so would mean the end of the U.S. veto. So the Obama administration position of buying into the reforms is clearly something Russia doesn’t want to see.
Except for the very early days of the Cold War, politics never really quite stopped at the water’s edge. But politics did soften at the water’s edge. Not anymore. The Republicans are dug in, and as a result they are causing the very decline in standing and prestige that they are blaming on Obama. This jumps the shark from hurting the president to hurting the country. Hope they’re proud.