President Joe Biden should deliver an Oval Office address. Here is a suggestion:
My fellow Americans, our country has been through several tough years. The pandemic was a severe blow. But even more serious than the disease was the fraying of our national spirit. We’ve been so polarized that we’ve forgotten our core identity as a country — that we stand for democracy and freedom.
In the past few years, some Americans have lost faith in those things. So this is a moment to refocus. When Russian tanks rolled into Ukrainian territory on the night of Feb. 24, the savage attack on a peaceful neighbor reminded the world of what autocracy looks like.
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This is what can happen when a strongman exerts his will unrestrained by free elections, the rule of law, public opinion, a free press or a loyal opposition. This horror — young men killed; civilians deprived of food, water and power; families separated — the entire heartbreaking story — is the face of autocracy.
But here’s another thing we’ve been reminded of: the war on truth. Through relentless lies and propaganda, and by suppressing all outlets that tell the truth, Vladimir Putin has been able to persuade millions of Russians of an alternate reality. His state media have said that the war is defensive. They’ve claimed that Ukraine was preparing to commit genocide against Russians, that it was ruled by a Nazi clique and that only military targets are being struck. All lies. Vicious, cynical lies.
Most people are peaceable and fair. They won’t support wars of aggression. No, the only way to get assent for evil acts is to propagandize people and convince them that up is down and black is white.
On the subject of righteousness, let’s not forget the brave Russians who have seen through Putin’s alternate reality and are risking everything to protest the atrocity that is being perpetrated in their name. Tens of thousands of ordinary Russians have taken to the streets to protest this war, and thousands have been detained — because speaking the truth is a crime in Russia. The regime calls it “fake news.” That has a familiar ring.
Putin believed that the world’s democracies were weak and decadent. He could not have been more wrong. He misjudged the Ukrainians. He misjudged his own military. He misjudged NATO. And he misjudged the United States.
Putin thought NATO was on its deathbed. Today, he is staring at an alliance that is rearming, reuniting and reconfirming its determination to defend freedom. And it may soon welcome new members.
Those supposedly weak and divided democracies have managed to resupply the Ukrainians with Stingers and Javelins and rifles and grenades and machine guns and moral support. Those putatively decadent Westerners have reduced the ruble’s value to a fraction of a penny. The Russian stock market has been closed for three weeks, fearing a complete collapse. The ostensibly feckless West has deprived the oligarchs of their yachts and their London mansions, and frozen half of the country’s foreign reserves.
Putin has clarified certain realities. He has reminded the NATO alliance and everyone who lives in freedom of how precious democracy is. What was Ukraine’s offense? Ukrainians wanted to be like Europe and the United States, free and democratic, not like Russia.
Putin’s war has already brutalized that brave nation. And we cannot ignore the additional harms this war will cause. A world just starting to recover from two years of a pandemic will now endure more disruptions and more shortages and more inflation. I have been so moved that Americans have responded to the prospect of higher prices with resolve. As many Americans have affirmed: “It’s a small price to pay for freedom.”
Let’s talk a bit more about energy: Putin believed that the democracies couldn’t get along without his oil and gas. The world is sending the opposite signal, but we must use all of the clean power available to us. There would be no more painful outcome for Putin and other autocrats around the globe than for us to embrace clean, safe nuclear energy. And the climate would thank us, too.
We’ve heard lots of cheap talk in the United States in recent years about strength. Some have even admired Putin’s brand of autocracy because he was supposedly a strong leader.
But here’s what Putin has reminded us of: strength alone is not a virtue. Only strength used for good is admirable. Volodymyr Zelenskyy is what true toughness looks like: strength in the service of good.
We Americans have made some mistakes, but all in all, we use our power to enhance freedom and human dignity. We use our power to keep the peace. We use our power to uphold the truth. And we will remain a beacon of liberty and democracy for the world.
Mona Charen is policy editor of The Bulwark and host of the “Beg to Differ” podcast.
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