The Washington PostDemocracy Dies in Darkness

Opinion Pompeo’s lame comment on Ukraine shows the rot at the heart of Trump’s foreign policy

During a ceremony on Jan. 20 in Kyiv, Ukraine, a relative holds a photo of a soldier killed defending the airport in Donetsk, Ukraine, in a 2014-15 conflict with Russia-backed separatists. (Ukrainian Presidential Press Office via AP) (AP)

Mike Pompeo apparently believes that Americans don’t care about Ukraine. In her account of a recent encounter with Pompeo, NPR reporter Marie Louise Kelly said, “He asked, do you think Americans care about Ukraine? He used the F-word in that sentence and many others.”

Pompeo may be right — perhaps they don’t. But if that’s true, they’re making a big mistake — and the secretary of state certainly shouldn’t be abetting it.

You can believe that the United States has no reason to stand up for countries that are facing aggression by their neighbors. You can believe that the United States has no interest in supporting freedom and democracy where it has good opportunities to do so. You can even believe that the United States doesn’t have a vital national interest in Ukraine.

But if you believe those things, you should be clear about what you want: essentially the abandonment of the principles that have guided 75 years of U.S. foreign policy. And if you share those beliefs, you shouldn’t be secretary of state.

Interestingly, Pompeo has not denied making the comment — which makes sense, since the thinking fits seamlessly into everything we know about the Trump administration’s foreign policy. We’ve accumulated a considerable body of evidence showing that the White House and the State Department regard Ukraine (population 43 million) primarily as a political plaything, an object of manipulation and intrigue, rather than as a sovereign nation whose freedom and independence are worth defending. That President Trump would even consider withholding desperately needed military assistance from Ukraine in return for help in getting him reelected tells you everything you need to know. (He has also called Ukrainians “terrible people” and accused the country of trying “to take me down.”)

But maybe Pompeo has a point. Perhaps Americans are fine with all this. Maybe they really don’t care about Ukraine or its problems with Russian President Vladimir Putin. After all, why should they care — as British Prime Minister Neville Chamberlain once so memorably put it — about a “quarrel in a far-away country, between people of whom we know nothing”?

The first reason for caring is a moral one. Ukrainians have shown that they share our values. They’ve repeatedly demonstrated their desire to live in a democracy governed by the rule of law. They’ve expressed their aspirations through free elections. They’ve repeatedly taken to the streets. They have toppled an authoritarian leader in a revolution that took dozens of lives. And in return they’ve had to endure two — not one, but two — Russian invasions that have left 14,000 people dead. Ukraine has never sent troops into Russia. But thousands of Russian troops are in Ukrainian territory.

We’ve supported Ukrainians’ aspirations for democracy — and we’ve helped them to fight corruption, their biggest problem, aside from Russian aggression. And so far we’ve managed to do it — if I may be so blunt — on the cheap. We’ve given the Ukrainians political and economic support; the Europeans have actually given more money than the United States. As far as the war goes, we’ve sent the Ukrainians weapons and advice. We haven’t sent troops to fight at their side. That seems like a pretty modest price to pay.

At a time when democracy seems to be losing its appeal in many parts of the world, it makes sense to be offering help to a country that is actively embracing it.

There is also a sound strategic reason for helping Ukraine. Six years ago, Putin’s Russia occupied and annexed Crimea. That marked the first occasion since World War II that a European country had seized territory from one of its neighbors. The United States and its European allies responded by doing everything they could to bolster Ukraine’s sovereignty and independence.

That’s a clear national interest of the United States. We can’t allow the world to become a Hobbesian doomscape where the powerful countries go around snapping off pieces of their weaker neighbors. Indeed, our experience since 1945 has shown that it is entirely in our own interest — not an exercise in rampant altruism — to promote stability by furthering the creation of democratic governments that rely on mutual trade and cooperation rather than conquest.

Do “Americans” care about any of this? I don’t know. Our support for Ukraine is entirely of a piece with the policies that have created the global system of alliances that has kept us safe and prosperous all these years. I can imagine, in fact, that there are many Americans who don’t careabout Germany or France or South Korea or Taiwan — and don’t understand why we go on putting resources into defending them.

It’s not just the current administration’s carelessness toward Ukraine that makes me wonder whether the people in charge understand any of this. Trump’s nakedly transactional view of foreign policy, his contempt for our allies and his toadying to dictators all show where his priorities lie. Pompeo is merely carrying out the policies his boss wants.

Do Americans care about Ukraine? They should. And the secretary of state should be showing leadership on the issue — rather than cooking up lame excuses for taking the path of least resistance.

Read more:

Max Boot: Every day that Pompeo stays in office, he makes Tillerson look better by comparison

The Post’s View: The Senate must not ignore the new evidence on Ukraine

The Post’s View: Pompeo berates an NPR reporter. Then Trump menaces NPR.

Greg Sargent: Pompeo just flirted with Trump’s Ukraine conspiracy theory. This isn’t normal, folks.

Jackson Diehl: The surprising news from Ukraine: Zelensky is succeeding despite Trump’s abuse