From 1984 to 2022, Maine’s legislature passed more than 40 resolutions featuring foreign nations. Ireland, Israel, Taiwan, Azerbaijan, Armenia, Greece, and Ukraine all make the list.
In 2023, we’ve added second one for Ukraine — just in case Vladimir Putin didn’t hear us the first time.
Amid the clamor of debate last week on the second symbolic resolution, more than one observer quietly asked: Why are Maine lawmakers giving Ukraine special attention when there is so much evil, oppression, and conflict in the world?
It’s not the first time since the start of Russia’s illegal and barbarous invasion of Ukraine that people have wondered why American liberals and many Republicans seem to have a special place in their hearts for the majority white European country.
The American media, both political parties, and large swaths of the American people have reacted to the events in Ukraine in a way they never reacted to equally devastating events in Syria and Yemen, and on the African continent.
Rep. Rebbecca Millett (D-Cape Elizabeth) has introduced both of the resolutions featuring Ukraine, but she hasn’t — despite being in office for more than a decade — introduced a single resolution supporting a non-majority white foreign country.
Why has she not introduced a resolution encouraging the federal government to support the brutalized populations of the Democratic Republic of Congo, Angola, Haiti, or Somalia?
After all, these crises have a much more proximate connection to Maine, considering Maine has become the premier destination for refugees fleeing conflict and oppression in those nations.
In her remarks, Millett said Russia’s actions meet the United Nations’ definition of genocide.
That’s precisely what refugees from the Democratic Republic of Congo say they’re fleeing.
They’ve said as much in the pages of the Portland Press Herald, Millett’s hometown paper.
Yet we see no impassioned speeches in Augusta for the present-day genocide of black people in central Africa. (We see no resolutions for suffering on the African continent at all in the entire history of the Maine legislature, with the exception of some Reagan Era support for sanctions against South Africa.)
And where are the symbolic bills for the people of Yemen? For eight years, Yemeni people have been devastated by a civil war, with involvement from North Korea, Iran, and Saudi Arabia on opposing sides of the conflict. Tens of millions of civilians lack access to sufficient food and clean water. Hundreds of thousands have died.
But Millett and other Maine lawmakers only have speeches for white Europeans in Ukraine.
Would Millett offer resolutions regarding African or Middle East conflicts if the victims were white, like her, as she has done with Ukraine? Is she guilty of implicit bias or perhaps something more overt? Why do white Ukrainians command the attention and support of the Maine legislature in a way that the black and brown people of Africa and the Middle East never have?
I’m not saying Millett is racist, I’m just noticing an odd pattern in the global events she and other lawmakers have deemed worthy of symbolic resolutions.
Here’s another odd pattern: white Europeans in Ukraine didn’t get this kind of support when Vladimir Putin illegally annexxed Crimea in 2014.
Less than 10 years ago, when Putin annexed Crimea, the very same characters now solemnly inveighing about the duty of Americans to stand with Ukraine were M.I.A. Liberals didn’t change their Facebook avatars or buy Ukrainian flags en masse. America didn’t open up our pocketbook to pour money into the conflict (at least, not to the present extent). Politicians didn’t run around accusing their opponents of secretly supporting the Kremlin. Instead, Obama exercised restraint, and Americans shrugged. Similarly, when Obama abandoned plans for a European missile shield to counter Russia in 2009, he was never labeled a Putin stooge. Indeed, liberals chortled gleefully when Obama told then-Republican candidate for president Mitt Romney that “the 1980s are now calling to ask for their foreign policy back” after Romney said Russia was a top geopolitical foe.
So what exactly has changed in American politics? Why is Obama’s 2014 realist policy now Republicans’ 2023 secret support for Putin? And why has Ukraine become a cause célèbre for Maine’s liberals in a way that Syria, Yemen, African nations — or Ukraine in 2014 — never did?
My suspicion is the cause is petty old politics.
The social divisions of the Trump Era, the virtue signalling, the caustic social media flame wars, the dialed-to-eleven screechy all encompassing crisis-mode cable news, the bitter personalization of politics — all of it has carried over to the Ukraine debate. In the same way that “Trump Bad, Hillary Good” became the dominant moral code on the left, “Ukraine Good, Russia Bad” has become the new orthodoxy. Supporting Ukraine — without limit or caveat — has become a litmus test for American liberalism, an unthinking in-group signal that you’re one of the smart, big-hearted people who really “gets” what’s happening in the world. Support for Ukraine is The Current Thing (TM), having now eclipsed masks and vaccinations. Hanging that Ukraine flag, which most wouldn’t have recognized 5 years ago, is a symbol to neighbors that you’re compassionate, that you’re not one of those yucky MAGA people.
It’s no longer enough to merely debate politics, because the politics you support are now a part of your personality, your morality. Good people support Ukraine, bad people support Russia.
Unfortunately, bringing this kind of moral absolutism to complex matters of international relations precludes our ability to have nuanced debate about the prudent course America ought to take. One consequence of this nuance-destroying moral absolutism was the the mindless groupthink on display last week in Augusta — and the invective hurled at anyone who strayed from the orthodox moral belief system. The entire debate boiled down to: Ukraine Good, Russia Bad. Any deviation from that, any search for nuance, was condemned in the harshest terms possible.
Lawmakers, and many in the media, displayed a lack of understanding of the distinction between supporting a tyrannical dictator, on the one hand, and questioning the wisdom of unrestrained U.S. involvement in what could become World War III, on the other. Republicans expressed skepticism of escalated U.S. involvement in the war. Some wondered how a nation $30 trillion in debt could justify writing Ukraine a blank check. Others urged a different resolution that called on U.S. leaders to seek a diplomatic end to the war. Not a single Republican elected official in Maine “supports Putin,” but more than a few share an aversion to foreign entanglements and a healthy skepticism in the United State’s ability to shape world events through military power.
In other words, more than a few Maine Republicans have taken the realist approach to Ukraine that Obama pursued in 2014 over Crimea.
Yet in response to Republicans emulating Obama’s foreign policy, supporters of the symbolic resolution seized on this deviation from the new moral code to call the heretics and unbelievers “Nazis” and “Putin stooges.” This puerile way of engaging in political debate isn’t helpful, but it does free those supporting the resolution from the burden of having to answer tough questions.
For example, not one person who voted in favor of the pro-war resolution last week articulated a limiting principle on U.S. involvement in the conflict. The considered opinion of Maine’s liberals — and a fair number of Republicans — seems to be that America should continue giving money and weapons to Ukrainian officials until Vladimir Putin is dead and Russia has lost the war.
So the obvious question is: How much money should the U.S. commit to those goals? Is it $200 billion? $500 billion? $1 trillion? I’ve never heard anyone waving a yellow and blue flag name a number. Likewise, how many more American troops should we deploy to Eastern Europe? How many Americans should die so Ukraine gets to decide what its border with Russia looks like? Should we, as Rep. Jared Golden has advocated, supply Ukraine with F-16 fighter jets? And what do we do if those American jets are used against civilian targets inside Russia?
For all his faults, President Obama was at least willing to reckon with these hard questions in 2014, and perhaps that’s why he chose restraint and prudence over bellicose virtue signaling.