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Parini: Moral High Ground

In the late sixties, I spent time in Ukraine and Crimea. Back then, the region was still part of the Soviet Empire, and I vividly remember my talks with local students, who were eager to define themselves as a separate entity in a kind of familial relationship with the Russians. This family relationship, even then, was strained. Things are much worse now.

The crisis, of course, is very complex. And there seem good arguments, as well as bad ones, on every side. But when politicians begin to ramp up their rhetoric, the irony in all of this becomes too much to ignore.

Secretary of State Kerry recently denounced Vladimir Putin by calling his actions “stunning” and “willful.” So far so good, but then on Face the Nation, he said: “You just don’t in the 21st century behave in a 19th century fashion, by invading another country on a completely trumped up pretext.”

That sounds reasonable until you remember that this is precisely what George W. Bush and Tony Blair did in 2003 when they invaded Iraq on the pretext of weapons of mass destruction - which were never found.

Then there are President Obama’s pronouncements about the violation of international laws. It’s illegal to attack foreign countries without U.N. authorization. Yet we’ve attacked half a dozen countries in recent years, arguably breaking international laws in the process. And in a related matter, the U.S refuses to join the International Criminal Court - some say because we’d be in the dock in a minute.

Another point that’s hard to reconcile is that the rebels in Kiev overthrew a legitimately elected government. Yes, Viktor Yanukovych was a greedy and egomaniacal fellow. But they elected him. We’ve made some poor election choices too, but the democratic process calls for waiting patiently until the elected official’s term expires, and when it does, either we throw the bum out or we don’t. It doesn’t surprise me that the pro-Russian population of eastern Ukraine and Crimea feel betrayed by Ukrainians in the west. The rule of law should have prevailed, and an orderly change of government should have transpired.

Don’t get me wrong here. I think it’s just as wrong for Putin to invade the Crimean peninsula as I thought it was for the U.S. to invade Iraq. But I’m worried that our foreign policy statements in this matter lack credibility in the face of such apparent hypocrisy.

Kerry is right to a point: this is not the 19th century, thank goodness, and nation states will find it increasingly difficult in years to come to behave as if it were. The potential economic isolation of Russia from Europe and the U.S. - perhaps even from China - will hopefully be enough to keep it within its legal boundaries. And we should certainly do everything we can to discourage aggressive and illegal behavior.

But we should also model correct behavior – because it’s easier to take the moral high ground when, in fact, you occupy it.

Jay Parini is a poet and novelist, and the D. E. Axinn Professor of English & Creative Writing at Middlebury College.
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