And New Mexico. And Arizona. And California. The Ukraine hugs the entire 2,000 miles of the border separating the United States from Mexico.
That proximity isn’t geographical; it’s much closer than that. For the Republicans in Congress have made military assistance to the Ukraine contingent on the solidity of the US southern frontier.
As it is, that border has always been porous, and now more than ever. During the three years of Biden’s tenure, some 6.5 million illegal migrants have seeped through the barely guided threshold.
During his presidency, Trump, doubtless inspired by the shining example of the Berlin Wall, began to build a similar structure along the Mexican border. Yet even had the project been completed, I doubt creating a physical barrier would have solved the problem.
The Berlin Wall did succeed on its own evil terms, but, at merely 96 miles, it was less than one-tenth the length. More important, its ‘success’ depended on the vigilant border guards, numbering 47,000 at their peak.
Pro rata, that would mean 500,000 for the US-Mexico border, and I have a nice bridge to sell to anyone who believes any American president would ever be able to put together a force that size. Unless, of course, Mexico sends an army across the Rio Grande to reclaim the aforementioned states that used to be hers.
(The very first article I ever wrote for a local Texas paper almost 50 years ago dealt with that very problem. I interviewed the head of the Immigration Service, who informed me mournfully that the entire force guarding the border numbered 200 men working in two shifts. I don’t know how large it is now, but I bet it’s nowhere near 500,000.)
Nor is it just the numbers. Those East German guards had orders to shoot on sight, and they complied with alacrity. Some 140 people were killed trying to scale the Wall, and the score would have been run up much higher had the people not got the message early on.
Again, I doubt, in fact hope, that no American president can ever issue similar instructions, effective though they might be. Yet our residually decent Western states are still unprepared to pay the moral cost of such efficacy. So the problem seems hard to solve.
Still, at least Trump tried. The Biden administration hasn’t, and it even stopped the construction of the border wall. That has been driving the Republicans, well, up the wall. Their core support sees, not unreasonably, the issue of uncontrolled illegal immigration as an existential threat, whereas the Democrats see it as an opportunity to beef up their own electoral base.
That’s where the Ukraine comes in. The Democrats have been assisting the Ukraine almost without demur. The support has fallen far short of what the Ukraine needs to roll back the fascist threat to Europe, but it has been sufficient to stop it in its tracks, at least for a while.
However, even keeping the military assistance at the same subsistence level requires new appropriations, and it’s the Republicans who hold a slender majority in the House. If the Democrats’ support for the Ukraine can be described as half-hearted, the Republicans have committed even less of their cardiac capacity to that cause.
The party traditionally has a strong isolationist element, and the idea of saving billions in Taxpayers’ Money (always implicitly capitalised in America) during the run-up to the presidential election sounds like a winner. Yet at the same time, the Democrats have a majority in the Senate, and they can block another potential vote-getter for the Republicans, tightening up the controls on the Mexican border.
Since modern politics is nothing if not transactional, the Republicans offered the Democrats a deal: you commit funds to our border defences, and we’ll vote for Ukrainian appropriations. Not high enough to enable the Ukrainians to reclaim their stolen territories, but enough to keep them bleeding white for years in a war of attrition.
Such horse-trading strikes me as both immoral and ill-advised.
If in the 19th century it was still possible for America to debate whether or not she wanted to be a world power, it now no longer is. Americans can echo Matteo Ricci’s intransigent stance: “Simus, ut sumus, aut non simus” (“We shall remain as we are or we shall not remain at all”). The status of the Leader of the Free World is like a merry-go-round spinning at full speed: jumping off may break your neck.
That leadership position entails confronting deadly threats to the existing world order wherever they arise. Such is the downside of that position, but there exist numerous benefits as well, both tangible economic and intangible moral. Sticking to the former, America’s losing that status may conceivably lead to the dollar no longer acting as the world’s reserve currency – with catastrophic consequences for the US (and generally Western) economy.
That the emergence of an emboldened, victorious fascist power in the middle of Europe would be detrimental to American interests is thus self-evident. If unprojected around the world, America’s power will begin to weaken and eventually atrophy.
Republican isolationists, going back to the America First Committee in the 1930s, have always had doubts on this, which saddens me. After all, I find such Republicans much more attractive than their antipodes, FDR’s New Dealers and their Democratic heirs. Yet, though it pains me to admit this, on that one issue Roosevelt showed the greater clarity of thought.
As to the morality involved, engaging in transactional toing and froing at a time when thousands of Ukrainians are dying to keep the fascist wolf away from NATO’s door strikes me as utterly decrepit. This is yet another instance when morality and pragmatism converge: if history teaches anything, it’s that stopping a juggernaut after it has gathered momentum is much costlier than preventing it from rolling in the first place.
If the Republicans persist, I’ll have to start hoping for a Democratic victory, and I thought such words would never cross my lips. At least the Democrats will be less likely to sell the Ukraine down the Rio Grande.