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I am thinking about three people today whose behavior could have a significant impact on the world in the coming months and possibly years: a soldier with no name, a politician with no shame and a leader with no soul.
The first I admire, the second we should have nothing but contempt for and the third must forever be known as a war criminal.
The unnamed soldier is the thousands of Ukrainians — those in uniform and those civilian men and women — who are defending their country’s nascent democracy against Vladimir Putin’s barbaric attempt to wipe Ukraine off the map.
Whether they are professionally trained soldiers or “babushkas” using their smartphones to call in coordinates of Russian tanks hiding in the forest behind their farms, their willingness to anonymously fight and die to preserve Ukraine’s freedom and culture is the ultimate refutation of Putin’s claim that Ukraine is not a “real” country but rather an integral part of Russia’s “own history, culture and spiritual space.” We don’t know their names — I can’t name a single Ukrainian general, despite all their success so far — but their deeds have shown Putin that the country they are fighting for is very real, very distinct and willing to ferociously defend itself.
If Ukraine’s leaders choose to cut a peace deal with Russia, we should help bolster them in negotiations, but as long as they choose to fight, we should help arm them. Because they are not just defending Ukraine, they are defending the possibility of a Europe whole and free — where one country cannot simply devour another. That doesn’t just make for a better Europe, it makes for a better world.
The second person I am thinking about is Kevin McCarthy, the Republican leader in the House — a man who, we now know, did not have the courage to stick with his own fleeting manifestation of courage.
We are indebted to the reporting by my Times colleagues Jonathan Martin and Alexander Burns to fully appreciate how much McCarthy’s behavior is a profile in cowardice in four acts:
Act 1: Martin and Burns quote McCarthy as having told his G.O.P. colleagues about his feelings about President Donald Trump in the immediate aftermath of the Jan. 6, 2021, attack on the Capitol. “I’ve had it with this guy,” McCarthy said, and described Trump’s actions on Jan. 6 as “atrocious and totally wrong.” Trump was likely to be impeached, McCarthy said, so he intended to recommend to him, “you should resign.”
Act. 2: After these revelations were published last Thursday morning, McCarthy issues a statement declaring that “The New York Times’ reporting on me is totally false and wrong.”
Act. 3. That night, thanks to a leaked audio recording posted by The Times and aired on Rachel Maddow’s MSNBC show, the whole world got to hear McCarthy telling a Jan. 10 House Republican leadership conference that his plan was to tell Trump that his impeachment “will pass and it would be my recommendation you should resign” — exactly what McCarthy hours earlier had denied saying.
Act. 4. McCarthy — instead of apologizing to his constituents and the American people for lying — calls Trump to explain himself and why he should remain in Trump’s good graces. Trump magnanimously pardons the bootlicking McCarthy for his sin of telling the truth.
The legendary U.C.L.A. basketball coach John Wooden liked to say that “the true test of a man’s character is what he does when no one is watching.”
Most lawmakers would want the world to believe that when everything was on the line for America, they told the truth and stood with the Constitution against a president trying to subvert it. That’s what McCarthy told his G.O.P. colleagues privately was his stance.
But McCarthy then revealed his true character. When he realized that doing the right thing for the country might cost him Trump’s support and his dream of becoming speaker of the House, McCarthy lied about telling the truth. And even worse, when McCarthy’s lying and bad character were exposed, many in his party backed him up anyway.
This is the new “McCarthyism” — Kevin McCarthyism — where a politician can say anything, even lie about telling the truth and get away with it.
This trend is as much a threat to American democracy as anything Putin is doing. Because if such a shameless and shameful hack like McCarthy is able to sell his soul to enough people to become speaker of the House, he becomes second in line for the presidency, after the vice president.
And it’s a threat because everything McCarthy and his colleagues did erodes the distinction between our system and the one led by the man with no soul — Vladimir Putin, who also will not hesitate to use any means to hold on to power, whether by jailing or allegedly poisoning his critics or by poisoning democracies with disinformation.
Putin, though, is not just obsessed with holding his own power and ready to violate any norm to retain it. He is also obsessed with the loss of Russian power, dignity and respect — which resulted from the fall of the Soviet Union — and the need to restore it.
His reckless decision to invade Ukraine was fueled by a desire to halt NATO’s and the European Union’s expansion closer to Russia’s borders. But he wanted to do it in a way that would show everyone how much the West is weak and divided and how much Ukraine is not a real country, by overrunning the place in a week. Class was in session and Putin was going to teach the West a lesson.
But Putin’s lesson plan has gone badly awry. Rather than teaching the West — and all of those Ukrainians who want to be part of the West — a lesson and erasing Russia’s humiliations, Putin has been further humiliated.
We need to tread carefully here — there is nothing more dangerous than a twice-humiliated leader with nuclear weapons.
Putin is capable of doing anything: When you look at how this war has ravaged both Russia’s and Ukraine’s economies and armies, Putin’s place in history is already secure: He’s the leader who destroyed two countries to save one face — his own. But he will do anything to keep trying to save his face.
So here’s my bottom line: Several years ago, a Hebrew biography of Ariel Sharon was published with the title “He Doesn’t Stop at Red Lights.” It is a fitting title for our times, too. What is so unnerving to me about the state of the world today are the number of leaders ready to shamelessly, in broad daylight — and with a sense of utter impunity — drive through red lights. That is, to drive through the legal and normative gates that have kept the world relatively peaceful over the last 70 years, during which we had no great power wars, and have enabled more people to emerge from extreme poverty faster than at any other era in history.
We will miss this if it ends. To maintain it, though, it’s necessary that we help all those unnamed Ukrainians fighting for their freedom to succeed. And it is necessary that we make sure that Putin’s quest to find dignity by crushing that Ukrainian freedom movement fails.
But none of that is sufficient if all those politicians in America who also think that they can run through any red light to gain or hold power succeed. Who will follow our model then?
I can’t think of another time in my life when I felt the future of America’s democracy and the future of democracy globally were more in doubt. And don’t kid yourself; they are intertwined. And don’t kid yourself; they both can still go either way.
Thomas L. Friedman is the foreign affairs Op-Ed columnist. He joined the paper in 1981, and has won three Pulitzer Prizes. He is the author of seven books, including “From Beirut to Jerusalem,” which won the National Book Award. @tomfriedman•Facebook