House Republicans’ debacle in being forced to dump their plan to reform the House’s ethics office surely is the top news of the day. Much less visible but maybe more important in the long run is the news that Sen. Rob Portman, R-Ohio — reelected in a landslide in November — will join the Senate Foreign Relations Committee. In a written announcement, Portman said:
“I have been a consistent voice in support of restoring America’s leadership role in the world, and I’m pleased to have this opportunity to play a larger role in that effort. With this new role, I look forward to representing the interests of Ohioans on issues ranging from Russia’s continued aggression in Eastern Europe, standing up for our friend and ally Israel, and the troubling developments in the South China Sea. After eight years of failed foreign policy that has left America weaker, we now have the opportunity to restore America’s leadership role in the world and I will work with my colleagues on both sides of the aisle and with the Trump Administration to do just that.”
We think it is not incidental that he listed “Russia’s continued aggression in Eastern Europe.” It is on this issue and on the confirmation hearing for secretary-of-state nominee Rex Tillerson that Portman could play a critical role. Portman is a grownup, a centrist Republican with substantial House, Senate and executive branch experience. He is not going to be intimidated by the White House or by Trumpkins’ attacks on social media. He has six years ahead of him, and will, we strongly suspect, use that period to exercise his independent, definitely hawkish judgment.
In response to President Barack Obama’s very limited sanctions against Russia for interference with our election, Portman said that “the problem of Russian influence operations is far greater than just the election hacking, and requires a stronger and more proactive U.S. strategy, something I have been calling for the past few years.” He continued, “Russia was waging an information war against the United States and its allies long before the Presidential election highlighted the danger these efforts pose to our democratic institutions and ideals.”
Last month Portman was one of 12 senators who sent a letter to Trump regarding support for Ukraine, which included this:
“Almost three years after Russia’s illegal annexation of Crimea and military aggression in eastern Ukraine, daily ceasefire violations along the line of contact make a mockery of the Minsk Agreement and demonstrate that this conflict in the heart of Europe is far from over. Russia has yet to withdraw its heavy weapons and continues its sabotage and subversion efforts. It has not halted its disinformation war against Ukraine and the West, nor stopped its economic and political pressure aimed at undermining the Ukrainian government. According to conservative estimates from the United Nations, approximately 10,000 people have been killed, over 20,000 wounded, and more than two million internally displaced since the conflict began. And, unfortunately, the Organization for Security and Co-operation in Europe (OSCE) observers still do not have full, unimpeded access to the Ukrainian-Russian border while Russia continues to supply weapons, equipment, and personnel to the separatists.
“Quite simply, Russia has launched a military land-grab in Ukraine that is unprecedented in modern European history. These actions in Crimea and other areas of eastern Ukraine dangerously upend well-established diplomatic, legal, and security norms that the United States and its NATO allies painstakingly built over decades – a historically bipartisan global security framework that has greatly served U.S. security and economic interests. We believe it is in our vital national security interest to uphold these norms and values, and prevent America’s commitment to its allies and ideals from being called into question.”
The letter insisted that the United States “increase political, economic, and military support for Ukraine.” It made clear: “This includes defensive lethal assistance as part of a broader effort to help Ukrainians better defend themselves, deter future aggression, and implement key structural reforms. Similarly, we believe that Russia’s illegal annexation of Crimea should never be accepted, nor should we lift sanctions imposed on Russia for its behavior in eastern Ukraine until key provisions of the Minsk Agreement are met. Accordingly, U.S. leadership on maintaining such transatlantic sanctions should remain a priority.”
Portman’s presence on the committee will please hawkish Republicans and offer reinforcement to Sens. Marco Rubio, R-Fla., and Cory Gardner, R-Colo., who already have voiced concerns about Trump’s Russia policy. The country will be well served by Portman’s presence on the committee — and Tillerson should be forewarned. If he tries regurgitating Trump’s pro-Putin propaganda and continues to deny Russia’s role in hacking into Democrats’ computers and then strategically leaking the information to embarrass Hillary Clinton, he’ll face an onslaught of criticism and opposition to his confirmation.