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Week In Politics: Prayer Breakfast, Ukraine, Measles

AUDIE CORNISH, HOST:

For more on that, we turn to our regular Friday political commentators, E J Dionne of The Washington Post and Brookings Institution. Hey there, E J.

E J DIONNE, BYLINE: Good to be with you.

CORNISH: And David Brooks of the New York Times. Hey there, David.

DAVID BROOKS, BYLINE: How are you?

CORNISH: I want to pick up where Corey left off on this idea about lethal aid being sent to the Ukraine government. We're talking about the White House potentially considering it. But, really, the push is with think-tank scholars, including the Brookings Institution, E J , and others who are saying that this is something that the U.S. should consider.

David, I'll start with you. There is no plan B when people make this proposal. They just say let's give lethal aid, maybe, to Ukraine and hopefully Russia will back down. What are your thoughts on it?

BROOKS: Yeah, well, I'm for the Brookings Institution. You know, this is talked about a year or two ago. And my understanding was that many people within the administration wanted to do it and that President Obama was the one who was very forthright, saying it was a bad idea. And he was certainly wrong in that. He thought it was a bad idea because it would inflame Vladimir Putin, but Vladimir Putin comes pre-inflamed. There's nothing more to be done to inflame him. It's just a simple question. Is anybody willing to stand up to him? And, so far, nobody has. And so the troops under his control, or at least under his influence, have had a good run because the Ukrainians have nothing to fight them back with. And Strobe Talbott, who runs the Brookings think tank E J's affiliated with, mentioned some of the weapon systems we could be giving them. They're defensive systems. They're, like, radars so the Ukrainians know from which point they're getting shelled. They're things like that. So they're anti-tank missiles. They're things to help prevent - create a defensive barrier. It seems to me the case for arming them has, for a couple years now, been overwhelming.

CORNISH: At the same time, E J, one person who's against - Angela Merkel of Germany, right, a key ally and a strong voice in this discussion.

DIONNE: Right. Well, I mean, Merkel has had an interesting position because, on the one hand, she's been quite tough in what she's said publicly about Putin. And I think Putin has shaken her, bothered her in some of the ways he's dealt with her and some of the things he has said. But I think we will end up arming them. I think that is where the policy is going. I am not a hyper-interventionist person myself, sometimes less so than my colleagues at Brookings. But in this case, after watching what has happened over the last couple years, to see what Putin has done, he is not backing down.

CORNISH: But to stop you both here...

DIONNE: The Ukrainians are being pushed back and I think there's a feeling that the only way to force some kind of deal and to force Putin to stop is to arm them.

CORNISH: But we just heard from Corey - not a word from the vice president about this idea, right? I mean, there is mostly silence from the White House.

DIONNE: Well, I don't think they're there yet. I do wish they were meeting in a city other than Munich, but maybe that's just a historical fear I have.

BROOKS: Yeah. And the fear, also, is that it'll be like the Syrian - when we started bombing ISIS in Syria. This was also been an issue that had been debated for a long time and the president had said no, no, no, and then he finally changed his mind. But it was in many ways too late and in some ways too small. And so if we're going to arm them, Strobe - again, Strobe Talbott says a billion dollars a year for the Ukrainian military. That's a significant amount, and that would be the kind of amount that might be able to make a difference.

CORNISH: I want to move on to another international story this week - ISIS militants releasing a video showing the immolation of a Jordanian air force pilot. I bring it up because it was in the background and in the context - I'm sorry. It was in the background of some comments that President Obama made at the National Prayer Breakfast yesterday where he was talking about violent extremists.

(SOUNDBITE OF ARCHIVED RECORDING)

PRESIDENT BARACK OBAMA: And lest we get on our high horse and think this is unique to some other place, remember that during the Crusades and the Inquisition, people committed terrible deeds in the name of Christ. In our home country, slavery and Jim Crow all too often was justified in the name of Christ.

CORNISH: Swift reaction from social media - Bill Donahue, the president of the Catholic League, called these comparisons insulting and pernicious. E J?

DIONNE: I was really actually astonished by the speed with which parts of the right went after President Obama on this. He sounded very much - and David's our Augustine scholar here - but it was very Augustinian. It said that, look, we are all sinners. We have all, over periods of time, done wrong thing.

I thought it was especially good for him to bring up the fact that people used their scripture to justify slavery. And some people - many people used their scripture against slavery. But he was very clear about the Islamic State. He called it a brutal, vicious, death cult that, in the name of religion, carries out unspeakable acts of barbarism.

I think that people are much more effective in bearing moral witness when they acknowledge their own imperfections. So I guess I wasn't shocked, because people will go after President Obama on almost anything, particularly related to religion. But I thought he was in the very tradition - the Christian tradition - that he was talking about.

CORNISH: At the same time, David, conservatives point out this is a White House that doesn't even like using the term radical Islam, saying instead violent extremists.

BROOKS: Yeah. Well, that's true. They are certainly dishonest about the use of that word. Nonetheless, you know, I have to say, if it's Sam Harris, if it's a sort of a out-there atheist attacking religion this way, then it might have some political agenda. But Barack Obama, over the Prayer Breakfasts over the years, including yesterday, was extremely upfront about his faith and the faith he needs. He speaks as a believer. He speaks as a Christian. And what he said is completely normal for Christians to say - to say that we have to walk humbly in the path of the Lord, to say God's purposes are mysterious. That is the essence of Judaism - of Christianity.

CORNISH: But is this the right week for that?

BROOKS: It's always the right week to speak the truth. So if what he said had been untrue, if, you know - but if the Crusades didn't happen, if the holy wars, the religious wars of the 16th century didn't happen, if Jim Crow didn't happen, then he would be saying something wrong. But he spoke the truth, and it's hard for me to get upset about somebody who said something honest.

DIONNE: I say amen to that. And it's worth noting he didn't attack Christianity. He said we've seen professions of faith used both as an instrument of great good, but also twisted and misused in the name of evil, and that's true. Religion has done wonderful things for the world, and it has also been misused.

CORNISH: Well, we end on an unusually pious note for you two.

(LAUGHTER)

CORNISH: But I appreciate it.

DIONNE: God bless you.

BROOKS: Amen, brother.

CORNISH: David Brooks of The New York Times, thanks so much.

BROOKS: Thank you.

CORNISH: E J Dionne of the Washington Post and Brookings Institution. Have a good weekend.

DIONNE: And you too.

BROOKS: You too.

DIONNE: Thank you. Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.

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