Stand Up to Dictators and Demagogues
The life and work of Madeleine Albright is in stark contrast to Russia defenders like Sen. Rand Paul
The day before Vladimir Putin invaded Ukraine, former US Secretary of State Madeleine Albright wrote an essay in The New York Times titled, “Putin is Making a Historic Mistake.” In that essay, published on February 23, she described meeting Putin in the Kremlin in 2000. “Putin is small and pale, so cold as to be almost reptilian,” she recorded later while flying home. “Putin is embarrassed by what happened to his country and determined to restore its greatness.”
Albright, who served as the first female Secretary of State from 1997 to 2001, had a keen eye for the use and abuse of power. A refugee who was born in Prague, fled the Nazis and the Communists, and came to the US at the age of 11 with her family, she wrote Fascism: A Warning in 2018 while Donald Trump occupied the White House. In that book, she noted that both Hitler and Mussolini came to power constitutionally. Later, in the months before the 2020 US election, she called this from Mussolini the best quote in her book: “If you pluck a chicken one feather at a time, nobody notices.”
Albright died at the age of 84, a month after the Russian invasion of Ukraine. At a memorial service for her this week at the National Cathedral in Washington, D.C., another Secretary of State, Hillary Clinton, remembered what her friend stood for and spoke out about. She told the crowd, which included presidents Clinton, Obama and Biden:
“She warned us in her book on fascism that yes, it can happen here, and time and courage are of the essence. Once again, we must heed the wisdom of her life and the cause of her public service. Stand up to dictators and demagogues from the battlefields to the halls of our own Capitol. Defend democracy at home just as vigorously as we do abroad. Live up to the ideals of the country that welcomed an 11-year-old refugee, sailing into New York Harbor on a ship called SS American and made her secretary of state."
This week, an interaction between current Secretary of State Antony Blinken and Kentucky Sen. Rand Paul offered a stark contrast to Albright’s deep commitment to democracy and hostility to dictators and demagogues. At a Senate Foreign Relations Committee hearing, Paul contended that the US support for Ukraine to join NATO helps explain Putin’s invasion. “While there is no justification for Putin’s war on Ukraine, it does not follow that there is no explanation for the invasion,” Paul told Blinken. “You could also argue that the countries that it has attacked were…part of the Soviet Union.”
This was not the first time Paul pushed the Kremlin’s line. His effort to block Montenegro from joining NATO in 2017 caused Sen. John McCain to angrily assert that Paul is “working for Vladimir Putin.” Recall also that Paul was among the small contingent who defended Trump after he betrayed America during the Helsinki summit with Putin in July 2018. Less than a month later, Paul headed to Moscow to invite Russian legislators to come to Washington.
“That’s the sort of thing we should be doing,” Paul said about Trump’s cozying up to Putin, calling the critics of the Helsinki summit “people who hate the president.” And he justified Trump backing Putin’s denial of Russian election interference over the findings of US intelligence like this: “Any country that can spy does, and any country that can meddle in foreign elections does…It’s all about partisan politics now. This is truly the Trump derangement syndrome that motivates all of this.”
There are times to be absolutely clear what side you’re on. Russia’s war against Ukraine is one of those times. But there are Putin-admiring Republicans who think they are clever enough to play on both sides, offering tepid acknowledgement that the Russian invasion is wrong while offering up justifications that make it clear they’re standing by the Butcher of Moscow and his desire to destroy Ukraine, dismantle democracy and resurrect the Soviet Union.
While I always hesitate quoting anything from Georgia’s conspiracy-loving Rep. Marjorie Taylor Greene, it’s comments like hers several weeks after Russia’s invasion that illustrate the continuing spread of Russian disinformation. “If we truly care about suffering and death on our television screens, we cannot fund more of it by sending money and weaponry to Ukraine to fight a war they cannot possibly win,” she said, adding, “It’s not our responsibility to give Zelensky and the Ukrainian people false hope about a war they cannot win.”
In the last month of her life, struggling with cancer, Madeleine Albright still retained the clarity of mind to provide us her insight into the mentality of Putin.
“In the 20-odd years since we met, Mr. Putin has charted his course by ditching democratic development for Stalin’s playbook…Like other authoritarians, he equates his own well-being with that of the nation and opposition with treason. He is sure that Americans mirror both his cynicism and his lust for power and that in a world where everyone lies, he is under no obligation to tell the truth. Because he believes that the United States dominates its own region by force, he thinks Russia has the same right.”
She rightly articulated that this would be “a bloody and catastrophic war [that] will drain Russian resources,” create “an urgent incentive for Europe to slash its dangerous reliance on Russian energy” and “almost certainly drive NATO to significantly reinforce its eastern flank and to consider permanently stationing forces in the Baltic States, Poland and Romania.” While her death leaves a terrible gap for everyone who could benefit from her incisive observations and moral convictions, her life offers a continuing reminder of the need to speak out against the dangers of fascism and model responsible, democracy-loving leadership.
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