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Politics & Government

Week In Politics: Ukraine, Ariz. Veto And Obama's Task Force


From NPR News, this is ALL THINGS CONSIDERED. I'm Melissa Block. Late today, President Obama addressed the ongoing turmoil in Ukraine. He said his administration is deeply concerned by reports of Russian military movement inside Ukraine, and he sent this message to Russia.

PRESIDENT BARACK OBAMA: The United States will stand with the international community in affirming that there will be costs for any military intervention in Ukraine.

BLOCK: And that's where we begin our Friday political conversation with columnists E.J. Dionne of The Washington Post and David Brooks of The New York Times. Welcome back to you both.

DAVID BROOKS: Good to be here.

BLOCK: David Brooks, how do you see this playing out?

BROOKS: You know, we've ended the inspiring people in the square part of this thing, and now we're in the money and fear part of this thing, where there's going to be a struggle. Putin is not going to let Ukraine go. He's probably not going to let it split up. He's certainly not going to let Crimea go. And so he's going to interfere in the electoral law, and now he's going to start intimidating people.

And then that'll be followed in the months ahead by an attempt to just bribe Ukraine back into the Russian orbit. Ukraine is basically an economic basket case of a country headed for bankruptcy. And so for the U.S., there's going to have to be two strong prongs. The first prong is going to have to be some reasonably tough confrontation with Putin about just the thuggery that's about to go on, and the second, there's going to have to be an IMF offer, a significant offer, far more than we've done in the past, to match the $15 billion that Putin pledged a couple months ago. And so it's going to take some reasonably strong U.S. and Western action to counter what Putin is already in the middle of doing.

BLOCK: And E.J., when David talks about a strong confrontation toward President Putin by the U.S. government, the president and secretary of state, think about that reset that we had been hearing about with the Russian authorities. Do you think that the United States is in a position to have that confrontation?

E.J. DIONNE: Well, I don't know what kind of confrontation we can have because the U.S. and the Europeans do not seem willing to send troops into Ukraine, and there are good reasons for that, and the question is will President Putin. I mean, it's clear that the Europeans and the U.S. through the IMF should be willing to put up some real money to create an economic option for Ukraine to face West, as so many Ukrainians, particularly in the western part of the country, want to do.

But this is a very divided country. The Crimea was traditionally Russian. It's dominated by people who are Russian. And that's why all this is going on probably with some help from Putin. And when you looked at election returns in the Ukraine, it was again deeply divided with the east voting for more Russian-oriented politicians, the west voting for more Western-oriented politicians.

And it's a kleptocracy. It's a - there's enormous corruption that's holding down that economy. So this is not going to be easy, but I do hope that we do not sort of shy away from trying at least to create this economic option for them.

BLOCK: But David, do you think the U.S. has that political leverage with Putin that you were alluding to?

BROOKS: Well, it depends. He's got a lot of leverage on us, frankly, because he can say, well, if you're tough to me on Ukraine, then I'm not going to be very helpful on Syria and Iran and maybe other parts of the world you care a little more about right now.

But we do have - there's a lot of economic sanctions. Russia is basically a failed state run by a narcissistic autocrat and exploiting the failure of that state should be something that's possible to do. Let's face it, the Russians take most of their money, and they send it abroad, as the Ukrainian oligarchs do. The Ukrainian oligarchs create 80 percent of that economy, roughly. And so because their money is here, presumably we have some leverage over them.

DIONNE: Although the difficulty is I think Putin in the long run is in trouble because that regime and that economy is in trouble. But I'm not sure how quickly that long run is going to get here.

BLOCK: Let's move closer to home and talk about the event that President Obama held yesterday at the White House. He was announcing a new program. It's aimed at helping young black men. It's called My Brother's Keeper. And the president talked in very personal terms about his own experience growing up. Let's take a listen.

OBAMA: I didn't have a dad in the house. And I was angry about it, even though I didn't necessarily realize it at the time. I made bad choices. I got high without always thinking about the harm that it could do.

BLOCK: And David, the president went on to say I sold myself short, made excuses. The idea is this is a five-year program, that he issued a challenge to business leaders and religious figures and athletes and also to young, black men to help themselves, to help them beat the odds. Is it clear to you how this will work? What's the plan here?

BROOKS: Well, the first thing is he's talking about it. You know, how - when are we going to have a president again who can talk with such credibility on this issue? So I'm very relieved, very glad that he's talking about it in person terms. As for the amount of money, there's very little public money. He doesn't have much public power.

But I do think it's not insignificant. It's easy to write it off as a bunch of foundations, but it's not insignificant. I think it's going to do two things. One, it's going to create a coalition of voters for some future president to take advantage of to pass legislation on poverty, on issues having to do with black men. And secondly, it's going to do a lot of accountability. They're going to do a lot of research to test what works, to keep black men out of prison, out from (unintelligible) jails, from graduating high school. And so I do think it's not an insignificant thing that he's doing and not to be sneezed at.

BLOCK: E.J., the president has been criticized in the past by some in the black community for not doing enough for that community. He has said look, I'm the president for all Americans, not just black Americans. Do you see a shift here?

DIONNE: Well, I think he's partly looking for what he's going to do after he gets out of office. And he's signaled that the cause of young black men, particularly low-income young black men, is going to be central to what he does after he's president. Secondly, I think he deserves some credit for gutsiness here because some people won't like it that he emphasizes race and how much racism these young men have suffered from.

Some African-Americans say it sounds like blaming the victim when he does this tough love thing and says you have to pull yourselves together even though that racism exists. And I would like to think it's the beginning of a call to action. He talked about the terrible statistics about the encounters with the criminal justice system, grades in school and the like. And he said these statistics should break our hearts, and they should compel us to act. We should be doing a lot more for poor African-American men.

BLOCK: Briefly one last topic. In Arizona this week we saw Republican Governor Jan Brewer veto a bill that was passed by the Arizona Legislature. It would've allowed businesses to cite their religious faith in denying service to gays and lesbians. David, were you surprised by that decision?

BROOKS: No, capitalism is a powerful thing.

BLOCK: Because businesses had said we're going to leave Arizona.

BROOKS: Yeah, so business (unintelligible), the local convention business was greatly upset. The local country club establishment was upset. The entire political establishment was upset. Mitt Romney got in, John McCain. Everyone who cares about the economy of Arizona was involved. And so for people who don't like country club Republicans, this was a rare victory for the country club set. So they should tip their martinis.


DIONNE: I think this is a huge deal because for both the reasons that David said and because people have been using religious liberty as a slogan to justify almost anything. And we do need religious accommodations to protect religious freedom in the country. But when you use it to say, well, a caterer should be able to discriminate against gay people or a florist, that cheapens the whole concept. And I think that came through here, and I think that's why a lot of conservatives, and not just liberals, said Governor Brewer had to veto this.

BLOCK: OK, if I had a martini, I'd be tipping it to you guys. Thanks again.

BROOKS: I'd be doing a double.

DIONNE: Thank you.


BLOCK: David Brooks of The New York Times, E.J. Dionne of The Washington Post.

BROOKS: Thank you.


BLOCK: You are listening to ALL THINGS CONSIDERED. Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.