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President George W. Bush speaks to a crowd of troops during a surprise visit to Bagram Airfield, Afghanistan, March 1, 2006.

President George W. Bush speaks to a crowd of troops during a surprise visit to Bagram Airfield, Afghanistan, March 1, 2006. (Brian Schroeder/U.S. Army)

Former President George W. Bush on Wednesday said the United States should continue providing military aid to Ukraine — warning a victory from Russian President Vladimir Putin in his nine-month war will affect the stability of democracy across the world for generations to come.

“If the United States does not lead, the world will not follow,” Bush said during a conference at his namesake presidential center on the campus of Southern Methodist University in Dallas. The event, titled “The Struggle for Freedom,” brought Bush, former members of his administration and several human-rights activists and dissidents together to discuss the rise of authoritarian rule across the world.

The event comes as members of both major political parties have raised questions about prolonged military support to Ukraine. Last month, 30 progressive congressional Democrats sent a letter to President Joe Biden urging his administration to combine economic and military support along with a “proactive diplomatic push” to bring the war to an end.

And with Republicans poised to retake the House by a slim majority, GOP leader Kevin McCarthy, who is poised to become house speaker, vowed Republicans were “not going to write a blank check” for military support to Ukraine. About $60 billion in military and humanitarian aid has already been approved.

Bush and his presidential center have focused sharply on combatting the spread authoritarianism worldwide in recent years, hosting several discussions and panels on those topics. Wednesday’s event comes about six months after the Bush Center hosted a separate panel on democracy and the importance of trust in election systems.

During that event, Bush compared Ukrainian President Volodymyr Zelenskyy’s leadership throughout the war to how British Prime Minister Winston Churchill led his country through the German bombing campaign against London during World War II. But his praise for the Ukrainian leader was later overshadowed by a gaffe he made during the same speech, in which he mistakenly referenced his own decision to launch an invasion as president while comparing Ukraine’s democratically elected government and Russia’s authoritarian leader.

“The result is an absence of checks and balances in Russia, and the decision of one man to launch a wholly unjustified and brutal invasion of Iraq,” Bush said during the May event, before wincing and correcting himself. “I mean, of Ukraine.”

Zelenskyy was originally slated to appear live via satellite and speak with Bush during Wednesday’s event, but backed out due to the deadly Russian missile attack on Tuesday that targeted several cities across the country. Bush and Zelesnkyy previously spoke privately several months ago.

“If he were here, I would ask him, ‘Do you think there’s a deal to be made?’” Bush said. “He’d say ‘no.’ ... the idea of saying, OK, now that Putin is destroying out country, let’s cut a deal with him, you can have a third of our country — that’s not going to happen. Either that, or he’s not the Winston Churchill of the modern era.”

Answering a question from Bush Center executive director David J. Kramer, Bush acknowledged factions of both parties are uncertain about the future of aid for Ukraine — comparing pushback against more military funding to pushback Bush received as president while committing to a global AIDS-relief plan in 2003.

“There’s kind of an isolationist tendency at times to say, you know, we’ve got our own problems, let others solve it. ... why would we want to spend our money on total strangers?” Bush said.

“And one answer is because that’s who we are,” he said. “We’re generous, decent people who care about the human condition elsewhere.”

Since leaving office in 2009, Bush has largely avoided commenting on contemporary political issues or criticizing his successors. But he’s taken a somewhat more forward approach recently, especially in the aftermath of the Jan. 6, 2021 insurrection at the U.S. Capitol. But while discussing his own refusal to meet autocrats during his presidential term, Bush appeared to make a veiled reference to former President Donald Trump.

“Like Hugo Chavez ... I wouldn’t meet with him because I didn’t want to lend our great status as a beacon of freedom to honoring an autocrat,” Bush said. “Some people disagree with that position.” Trump met North Korean dictator Kim Jong Un repeatedly during his term.

Bush acknowledged meeting with Putin during his time as president, but said the Russian leader has “changed.”

To conclude his remarks, Bush said he remains a steadfast Republican.

“I’m a loyal Republican and I’m going to keep my voice out there regardless of what other Republicans say,” he said.

©2022 The Dallas Morning News.

Visit dallasnews.com.

Distributed by Tribune Content Agency, LLC.

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