Today I think of three people whose behavior could have a significant impact on the world in the months and possibly years to come: a soldier without a name, a politician without shame, and a leader without a soul.
I admire the first, we should only have contempt for the second, and the third should forever remain a war criminal.
The nameless soldier is the thousands of Ukrainians—in uniform and civilian men and women—who are defending their country’s nascent democracy against Vladimir Putin’s barbaric attempt to wipe Ukraine off the face of the earth.
Whether they are professionally trained soldiers or “grandmothers” using their smartphones to call up the coordinates of Russian tanks hiding in the woods behind their farms, their willingness to fight and die anonymously to preserve Ukraine’s freedom and culture is the ultimate rebuttal. Putin’s claim that Ukraine is not a “real” country, but an integral part of Russia’s “own history, culture and spiritual space.” We don’t know their names—I can’t name a single Ukrainian general, despite all their successes so far—but their deeds have shown Putin that the country they are fighting for is very real, very individual, and ready to defend fiercely. .
If the leaders of Ukraine decide to make a peace deal with Russia, we must help them negotiate, but until they decide to fight, we must help them arm them. Because they are not just defending Ukraine, they are defending the possibility of a whole and free Europe, where one country cannot simply swallow another. This makes not only a better Europe, but a better world.
The second person I’m thinking of is Kevin McCarthy, the Republican leader in the House of Representatives – a man who, as we now know, didn’t have the guts to stick with his fleeting display of bravery.
We are indebted to my Times colleagues Jonathan Martin and Alexander Burns, who fully appreciate how much McCarthy’s behavior is a four-act profile of cowardice:
Act 1: Martin and Burns quote McCarthy as telling his GOP colleagues about his feelings for President Donald Trump immediately after the attack on the Capitol on January 6, 2021. “I had a problem with this guy,” McCarthy said and called Trump’s actions on January 6th “brutal and completely wrong.” McCarthy said that Trump would likely be impeached, so he intended to recommend to him “you should resign.”
Act. 2: After these revelations were published last Thursday morning, McCarthy questions a statement stating that “The New York Times report on me is completely false and incorrect.”
Act. 3. That night, thanks to a leaked audio recording published by The Times and aired on Rachel Maddow’s MSNBC show, the entire world heard McCarthy reveal at the House Republican leadership conference on Jan. 10 that his plan was to tell Trump that his impeachment “will pass and I would recommend that you resign” – exactly what McCarthy denied a few hours ago.
Act. 4. McCarthy – instead of apologizing to his constituents and the American people for lying – urges Trump to explain himself and explain why he should remain in Trump’s good graces. Trump generously forgives toady McCarthy for his sin of telling the truth.
Legendary UCLA basketball coach John Wooden loved to tell that “the real test of a man’s character is what he does when no one is watching.”
Most legislators would like the world to believe that when everything was at stake for America, they were telling the truth and supporting the Constitution against a president trying to undermine it. This is what McCarthy privately said to his GOP colleagues and was his position.
But then McCarthy revealed his true character. When he realized that doing the right thing for the country could cost him Trump’s support and his dreams of becoming Speaker of the House, McCarthy lied about telling the truth. And to make matters worse, when McCarthy’s lies and bad temper were exposed, many in his party supported him anyway.
This is the new “McCarthyism” – Kevin McCarthyism – where a politician can say anything, even lie about telling the truth, and get away with it.
This trend is as much of a threat to American democracy as anything Putin does. Because if a shameless and shameful hack like McCarthy is able to sell his soul to enough people to become Speaker of the House of Representatives, he becomes second in line for the presidency after the vice president.
And this is a threat, because everything McCarthy and his colleagues have done blurs the line between our system and the one run by a man without a soul – Vladimir Putin, who will also not hesitate to use any means to maintain power, whether it be imprisonment or supposedly poisoning their critics or poisoning democracies with misinformation.
However, Putin is not just obsessed with maintaining his power and is willing to break any norms to keep it. He is also obsessed with the loss of Russian power, dignity and respect that resulted from the collapse of the Soviet Union and the need to restore them.
His reckless decision to invade Ukraine was driven by a desire to stop NATO and the European Union from expanding closer to Russia’s borders. But he wanted to do it in a way that would show everyone how weak and divided the West is and how Ukraine is not a real country by beating the spot by a week. There were classes, and Putin was going to teach the West a lesson.
But Putin’s lesson plan went awry. Instead of teaching the West – and all those Ukrainians who want to be part of the West – a lesson and erase the humiliation of Russia, Putin has been subjected to even more humiliation.
Here you need to act carefully – there is nothing more dangerous than a twice humiliated leader with a nuclear weapon.
Putin is capable of anything: if you look at how this war devastated the economy and the army of both Russia and Ukraine, Putin’s place in history is already secure: he is a leader who destroyed two countries to save one face – his own. But he will do anything to save face.
So here’s my bottom line: A few years ago, a biography of Ariel Sharon was published in Hebrew called He Doesn’t Stop at a Red Light. This is an appropriate name for our time. What makes me so nervous about the state of the world today is the number of leaders who shamelessly, in broad daylight – and with a sense of complete impunity – run a red light. That is, to pass through the legal and regulatory gates that have maintained relatively peaceful peace for the past 70 years, during which we have had no great power wars, and have enabled more people to emerge from extreme poverty faster than in any other era in human history. . story.
We will miss this if it ends. However, to maintain it, it is necessary that we help to succeed all the nameless Ukrainians who are fighting for their freedom. And we need to make sure that Putin’s quest for dignity by crushing this Ukrainian freedom movement will fail.
But all this is not enough if all those politicians in America who also think they can run through any red light to get or keep power succeed. Who will follow our model?
I can’t think of another time in my life when I felt that the future of democracy in America and the future of democracy around the world were in great doubt. And don’t fool yourself; they are intertwined. And don’t fool yourself; they both can still go in either direction.