Talking Points

Congress wants to play WWII in Ukraine. The trouble is that could start WWIII.

Ukrainian President Volodymyr Zelensky's appearance before Congress Wednesday morning was a moving event. Using a combination of translated remarks, video montage of Russian attacks, and direct address in English, Zelensky made the case for increased American support of his country's self-defense, including the enforcement of a no-fly zone

The spectacle seemed to work on its immediate audience. Members of Congress were unusually attentive, applauded in unison, and even choked back tears during the montage. With his background in entertainment, though, Zelensky no doubt understands he wasn't only talking to people in the Capitol Visitor Center. The words and images, including Zelensky's appearance in a worn military T-shirt rather than the statesman's suit and tie, were intended to be disseminated around the world via social media, bolstering Ukraine's propaganda advantage.

A skillful communications strategy is not a reason to reject Zelensky's appeal. Yet the Ukrainian government has good reasons to think Congress might be especially receptive. Many members of Congress have conflicted relationships with the institution in which they serve. Fundraising, constituent service, and haggling over legislative details are exhausting and mostly thankless tasks. Taking a symbolic stand on the great issues of the day is much more appealing. Foreign policy can also offer a respite from polarization — even our increasingly partisan lawmakers like to feel they're serving the whole country, and indeed the world, not just their own party. 

There's more than symbolism at stake, though. While members of Congress are replaying World War II newsreels in their heads, the administration is thinking about the risk of getting into World War III. In literally cinematic form, Zelensky evoked the spirit of resistance to Nazi aggression. But reality doesn't always turn out like it does in movies, where Americans inevitably overcome their differences, confront evil, and emerge victorious. 

If comparisons to World War II are irresistible, we might take inspiration from the period before the Pearl Harbor attack drew the United States into direct combat with the Axis powers. Under Lend-Lease and other policies, America provided financial and military support to Britain without engaging in combat. Despite the best efforts of the British government — including lobbying efforts and media campaigns — the United States avoided war until we were actually attacked. That's a less exciting script than The Longest Day, Top Gun, or Independence Day.  But it's the best option we have.