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Opinion Partisan attacks against Harris won’t help Ukraine

Vice President Harris delivers remarks on Feb. 19 with German Chancellor Olaf Scholz during the annual Munich Security Conference. (Sven Hoppe/Reuters)

Despite what you might have read in the right-wing press, Vice President Harris’s trip to Germany in the midst of the Ukraine crisis this past weekend was not a disaster. I was there. The truth is, she did a good job representing our country, despite having to front a flawed strategy. What’s needed right now is bipartisanship to deal with the Ukraine crisis, not petty partisan attacks that miss the mark.

Even before Harris got on the plane to the Munich Security Conference this past weekend, much of the coverage portrayed it as a crucial test for an inexperienced vice president trying to prove herself on the world stage. I’m embarrassed to admit I, too, indulged in this lazy analysis before I departed for Munich, calling the appearance “a diplomatic trial by fire” for Harris. Like most D.C. hacks, I was wondering whether she would commit a gaffe — such as she did in that Lester Holt interview in Guatemala last June.

But after spending three days in Munich observing her and the rest of the U.S. officials and lawmakers, I was disappointed to return to Washington to see so many conservative outlets portray Harris’s trip as a catastrophe. Some right-wing media reports pointed to her brief interactions with reporters in Munich as proof she was “perpetually unprepared” or that she responded to questions about Ukraine with a “word salad.” Some protested her comment that there had been “peace and security” in Europe for 70 years, as if she were unaware of the Yugoslav wars of the 1990s.

Harris tried several times, unsuccessfully, to try to focus people’s minds on the priority. “We are talking about the real possibility of war in Europe,” she said.

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Conservative pundits weren’t the only ones to take cheap shots at Harris in Munich. During the conference, an anonymous Biden administration official played down Harris’s role in quotes reported by my Post colleagues. “The Harris stop is about burnishing her political credentials as a leader in the middle of a crisis,” the anonymous official said, implying that Harris was trying to benefit personally from the crisis.

Neither of those narratives is true. First of all, the idea Harris is a foreign policy neophyte who can’t handle herself abroad ignores a lot of stubborn facts. She has completed five foreign trips so far, including stops in Singapore, Vietnam, France and Honduras. These trips didn’t get much media coverage, likely because there were no gaffes.

Secondly, Harris didn’t volunteer to go to Munich so she could grandstand. President Biden asked her to attend the conference because he wanted to send a signal by elevating the level of U.S. government representation. This is an event often attended by other countries’ prime ministers and heads of state, but for some reason, the United States usually only sends its secretary of state and defense secretary.

Having himself been the first U.S. vice president to address the Munich Security Conference in 2009, Biden surely understood that sending Harris to speak for him would be a big deal, to the Europeans at least.

European officials I spoke to in Munich were impressed by Harris herself, a unique figure among the mostly old, White, male contingent at the event. Several Europeans told me they appreciated that she showed up and took an active role in the transatlantic partnership, which was neglected and abused under the previous administration.

I couldn’t help recalling the reaction at the 2017 conference, when then-Vice President Mike Pence addressed the European crowd with a Trumpian speech that fell so flat you could hear a pin drop in the ballroom when he mentioned President Donald Trump’s name. When Harris finished speaking on Saturday, by contrast, the crowd gave her a standing ovation.

Over two days, Harris met with the leaders of NATO, the Baltic States, the European Union, Germany, Greece and Ukrainian President Volodymyr Zelensky. She also held a reception with the two congressional delegations who were in Munich. Lawmakers’ reviews of Harris’s performance largely fell along party lines. But even some Republicans were willing to admit that Harris displayed competence and command of the issues in her remarks.

“I spoke to Vice President Harris in Munich. I thought she gave a good speech,” Sen. Lindsey O. Graham (R-S.C.) said Tuesday. (Admittedly, he was less complimentary about her subsequent news conference.)

Evoking Sen. John McCain, who believed that domestic politics shouldn’t dominate the United States’ conduct of foreign policy, Graham said this was a moment for both parties to rally the nation to confront a dangerous threat. He suggested the administration work with Congress on an emergency supplemental bill to support Ukraine and our European allies and to impose “a sanctions regime from hell” on Putin.

“Nothing would please me more than to work with Joe Biden to end this invasion by Russia in a way that would make the world safer and stronger,” said Graham. Addressing Biden, he said, “I promise you there are a bunch of Republicans that will stand firmly with you to push back against this outrage by Putin and to reset the world order.”

Graham was quick to add — and I happen to agree — that the administration strategy for Ukraine so far leaves much to be desired. The sanctions are too little and too late. Deterrence has failed. Putin appears poised to kill thousands of innocent people for no good reason, while the United States and Europe focus on maintaining their own “unity,” rather than doing whatever possible now to prevent the coming slaughter.

But unfair partisan attacks on Harris’s performance do nothing to open space for both parties to cooperate — something that’s urgently needed if we want to help the Ukrainians, who are begging for more military aid, more sanctions, more economic assistance and more will from the West to stand up to Putin before it’s too late.

War in Ukraine: What you need to know

The latest: Russia claimed to have seized control of Soledar, a heavily contested salt-mining town in eastern Ukraine where fighting has raged recently, but a Ukrainian military official maintained that the battle was not yet over. The U.S. and Germany are sending tanks to Ukraine.

Russia’s Gamble: The Post examined the road to war in Ukraine, and Western efforts to unite to thwart the Kremlin’s plans, through extensive interviews with more than three dozen senior U.S., Ukrainian, European and NATO officials.

Photos: Washington Post photographers have been on the ground from the beginning of the war — here’s some of their most powerful work.

How you can help: Here are ways those in the U.S. can support the Ukrainian people as well as what people around the world have been donating.

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