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Saturday, December 3, 2016

WASHINGTON — Vladimir Putin’s grab of Crimea has exposed the paradoxes in American attitudes toward foreign policy.

Congress has been unusually united in condemning the Russian leader’s aggression and calling for his isolation. His belligerent offensive has been denounced by such liberals as Senators Chris Murphy (D-CT) and Dick Durbin (D-IL), and by many conservatives, including Senators John McCain (R-AZ) and Ron Johnson (R-WI).

On the other hand, a Pew Research Center poll found that by a margin of 56 percent to 29 percent, Americans said it was more important that the United States “not get too involved” in the Ukrainian situation than to “take a firm stand against Russian actions.”

Support for minimizing involvement spanned party lines: 50 percent of Republicans took this view, as did 55 percent of Democrats and 62 percent of independents. The survey ran March 6-9, before Russia annexed Crimea, but it nonetheless underscored the nation’s allergy to foreign entanglement, even as Americans also clearly and deeply mistrust Putin.

Annexing territory by force is as unacceptable to advocates of multilateralism as it is to those who believe in go-it-alone assertiveness. The Russian leader’s open mourning over the collapse of the Soviet Union horrifies liberals, who saw the end of the Cold War as an opportunity for a freer, less bellicose world, as well as conservatives, who always said that Putin’s KGB past was the truest indicator of his worldview and intentions.

But the nearly universal antipathy to Putinism cannot hide our divisions, and they are especially pronounced in the Republican Party. Most of the GOP’s prominent voices preach a hard line against Putin, but a broad anti-interventionist constituency within the conservative movement continues to grow.

Former Rep. Ron Paul spoke for this tendency in a blunt USA Today op-ed article this week. “Why,” Paul asked, “does the U.S. care which flag will be hoisted on a small piece of land thousands of miles away?”

Senator Rand Paul (R-KY) shares his father’s libertarianism, but his efforts to navigate among competing Republican foreign policy factions during the Ukrainian crisis have led the younger Paul in several directions at once.

Senator Paul sounded like his dad on Feb. 25 when he told The Washington Post’s Robert Costa: “The Ukraine has a long history of either being part of the Soviet Union or within that sphere.” He chastised “some on our side … stuck in the Cold War era” who “want to tweak Russia all the time.” In a March 10 piece for the Breitbart website, he mocked “politicians who have never seen war talking tough for the sake of their political careers.”

But in a March 9 Time magazine essay, Senator Paul himself took a tougher line. “It is America’s duty to condemn these actions in no uncertain terms,” he said, and to be “the strongest nation in opposing Russia’s latest aggression.”