Why the U.S. Response in Ukraine Matters to AIPAC

March 3, 2014

Even at the AIPAC’s policy conference this week, where the focus of discussion is, by design, all but exclusively Israel-related, the speakers and attendees could not help but bring up the still-developing situation in Eastern Ukraine, where Russian troops took over the Crimean Peninsula over the weekend. 

“Why do we care?” Sen. John McCain (R-Ariz.) asked about the Ukrainian crisis as he addressed AIPAC’s crowd of thousands the morning of March 3.  “Because this is the ultimate result of a feckless foreign policy where nobody believes in American strength anymore.” 

To be sure, the conference’s speakers and attendees strayed only rarely into matters unrelated to Israel. But as a group that focuses on understanding and influencing U.S. foreign policy, it’s not surprising that some addressed the situation in Ukraine, interpreting the happenings there in the context of America’s changing place in the world. 

Throughout his remarks, McCain took clear shots at President Barack Obama’s administration and described what he sees as the latest in a string of hesitations by the executive branch to involve itself in foreign conflicts. Though he acknowledged there is no military option for the United States to exercise in Ukraine, McCain urged the administration to consider imposing economic sanctions and taking other nonmilitary actions against Russia.

The Administration is considering doing just that. Treasury Secretary Jack Lew said at AIPAC on Sunday that the administration was “closely monitoring the situation in Ukraine with grave concern,” and pledged U.S. economic assistance to Ukraine as part of an international package of aid to Ukraine, predicated on that country’s implementing key economic reforms. Secretary of State John Kerry, who told ABC on Sunday that the President “has all options on the table” when it comes to Ukraine and is set to be in Kiev on Tuesday in a show of support, may mention the crisis in his address to AIPAC this evening.

But lawmakers from both sides of the aisle, who have been urging the president to take swift and decisive action to pressure Russia, continued the drumbeat in the halls at AIPAC. 

[How you can help the Jews of Ukraine
(The Jewish Federation of Greater Los Angeles)

“The United States needs to be thoughtful — less rhetoric and more action,” Sen. Chris Coons (D-Del.) told the AIPAC delegates at the plenary. 

The President, Coons said, has to overcome the “perceived weakness” of his response to the crisis in Syria this past summer, when the administration briefly mooted — and then abandoned — a military response against President Bashar Al Assad, who has killed more than 140,000 Syrians by one count, using both conventional and chemical weapons.

Coons isn’t the only one at AIPAC who feels that way. Speakers in side sessions expressed concern about a perception that the United States has been taking a hands-off approach to foreign crises in general, largely driven by the wishes of a war-weary American public.

“People who now look at what’s happening, especially in the Middle East, throw up their hands and say ‘It’s confusing, I don’t know what we’re doing – and by the way we lost 4,500 American soldiers in Iraq and another 2,300 in Afghanistan,” Rep. Ted Deutsch (D – Fla.) said in a session focused on America’s role in a changing world.

Americans have, in myriad recent polls, expressed reluctance to get involved militarily in overseas conflicts or crises, and Deutsch said that the calls this past summer from constituents were “100 to 1” in favor of the United States not acting in Syria.

“It’s hard to be the face of an unpopular policy response,” Deutsch said.

Americans have long been reluctant to get involved in foreign conflicts; what some analysts see as new today is reluctance on the part of political leaders to push their constituents in that direction.

“My worry about global engagement is more on the conservative side of things,” said Brian Katulis, a senior fellow at the Center for American Progress who appeared on the panel at AIPAC with Deutsch. “What we see in the Republican Party are very worrisome divisions about what are we willing to spend to invest in US leadership in the world.”

But, speaking elsewhere at the convention center a few hours earlier on Sunday, Robert Satloff, executive director of the Washington Institute for Near East Policy, put the responsibility for the increased hold isolationism has taken on Americans squarely on the White House.

“When a President so clearly wants not to use the instruments of power, it filters back, and so in September, when you asked all those people, should we [take military action against Syria], they say no,” Satloff said.

But had Obama taken action, Satloff said, instead of deciding to pass the question to Congress, polls show that Americans would have supported the decision.

“The answers are overwhelmingly yes,” Satloff said. “That’s what we do in America; we recognize that leaders should lead.”

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