Impeachment should be about America first

Nov 16 2019

This week, as the public phase of the House impeachment inquiry got underway, Rep. Adam Schiff, who is leading it, began his opening statement with these two sentences: “In 2014, Russia invaded a United States ally, Ukraine, to reverse that nation's embrace of the West, and to fulfill Vladimir Putin's desire to rebuild a Russian empire. In the following years, thirteen thousand Ukrainians died as they battled superior Russian forces.”

The Washington Post’s editorial board, on the same day, struck a similar tone. “The heart of the case” for impeachment, the editors wrote, is that, in trying to get Ukrainian help for his 2020 re-election run, Trump “allied his administration with some of Ukraine’s most corrupt elements, and undercut its military defense at a time when its soldiers were fighting and dying.”

I don’t want to sound hard-hearted, but could we please leave the Ukrainian soldiers out of this? I think it’s a mistake for impeachment supporters to frame their case against Trump in terms of the geopolitics of Russia and Ukraine—bad for their case against Trump, bad for America, and bad for the world. 

Obviously, Russia and Ukraine are a big part of the context of the impeachment story and will in that sense loom large in the proceedings. But making their conflict the rhetorical engine of impeachment—or going further and putting it at the “heart” of the substantive argument for impeachment—has several bad consequences.  

For starters, it muddies the case for impeachment. The Constitution doesn’t say that presidents can be impeached for “high crimes and misdemeanors and failing to stand up for Ukraine.” 

Granted, most of the people invoking Ukrainian interests in making the case against Trump will also, if you give them enough time, say that in this case Ukrainian interests aligned with American interests. This week’s leadoff witnesses—Ambassador William Taylor and Deputy Assistant Secretary of State George Kent—said as much. And once you’re talking about subverting the national interest, you’re moving toward legitimate impeachment territory.  

But not everyone agrees that providing aid to Ukraine is in America’s interest. Or even that it’s in Ukraine’s interest. Giving arms to combatants sometimes escalates the carnage on both sides while delaying the eventual day of diplomatic resolution. Just ask the relatives of all the dead Syrians who were once grateful recipients of American arms. 

I’m not here to argue against (or for) arming Ukraine. I’m mainly just asking three things:

(1) Do impeachment supporters really want to send the implicit message that if you have doubts about the virtues of arming Ukraine, then maybe you should have doubts about impeachment? 

(2) Do impeachment supporters want their argument—that Trump subverted the national interest by toying with Ukraine’s military aid—to draw them into a bunch of arguments over whether a Ukraine with $390 million less in military aid would be a clear and present danger to America? 

(3) Isn’t it best for America in the long run to state the case for impeachment as a matter of principle that transcends the policies and politics of the day? Here’s how I’d take a stab at doing that: 

The policy of arming Ukraine grew out of a constitutionally ordained process for making policy: Congress authorized a big expenditure, and the president signed the bill. For the president to subordinate the implementation of that policy to a search for dirt on a political opponent—and threaten to abandon the policy altogether in that search—is a fundamental subversion of our system of democratic governance.

You can believe all that (as I do) without believing that the policymaking process that Trump subverted always yields good policies and without believing that the policy in this case was obviously a good one. 

I have one other reason for disliking the Cold War framing of impeachment: If you send the implicit message that supporting impeachment means being a staunch neo–Cold Warrior, some Trump opponents with unformed foreign policy views will become staunch neo–Cold Warriors.

I don’t mean they’ll consciously decide to undergo that change. The psychology works more subtly than that. And, actually, in this case it’s been at work a long time. Ever since the emergence of evidence that Russia helped Trump in the 2016 campaign, Trump opponents have naturally been inclined to take a dimmer view of Russia than they otherwise would have. For better or worse, that’s the way the human mind works: the ally of your enemy is your enemy. 

I believe—though there’s no way of knowing for sure—that this dynamic has already created a non-trivial number of #Resistance neo–Cold Warriors. And more may be on the way, thanks to the prevailing  impeachment narrative. 

So what’s wrong with a little more neo–Cold Warriorism? 

I think the American perception of menace from Russia is already exaggerated, and that this exaggeration can become a self-fulfilling prophecy. It leads us to menace Russia more, which leads Russia to menace us more, and so on—before you know it, the world is a super menacing place. 

This dynamic is already at work. Russian belligerence, including in Ukraine, has, more than we realize, resulted from Russian perceptions of American menace—including the not wholly unfounded perception that America abetted the extra-constitutional removal of Ukraine’s president in 2014. 

Another problem with neo–Cold Warriorism is that it can be a gateway drug. At first it feels harmless—just a mild buzz of Russophobia—but before you know it you’re waking up in the morning looking for a new regime to change. 

OK, maybe I exaggerate. But becoming a neo–Cold Warrior does tend to draw you into the sphere of influence of the Blob, whose knack for advocating disastrous foreign policy initiatives is well documented. 

So for the sake of lots of nations—maybe even including Ukraine—I say we make impeachment about America first.

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