WILTON — The 70 or so Wilton Kiwanis Club members and their guests that gathered at the Tompkins Pavilion at the Riverbrook Regional YMCA at noon on Wednesday to hear U.S. Sen. Chris Murphy, D, speak about foreign relations got a bonus when U.S. Rep. Jim Himes, D-4, dropped by to serve as a self-described "warm-up act."
"I sit on the Intelligence Committee in the House (of Representatives," Himes told the crowd as they finished their picnic-style lunch. "I am just back from Ukraine. It's a real heart-breaking problem for us. They have been badly dominated by the Soviets. Twenty years ago, the U.S., Brits and Russia agreed to give up nuclear weapons on Ukrainian soil with the Budapest Agreement -- then (Alexander) Putin invaded Crimea."
Himes called this development a huge challenge for the Ukrainians, as they had "seen it all before."
"Putin is a bully," Himes said. "He badly hurt the economy, and it was not much of an economy to begin with. (Sen. John) McCain (R-Ariz.) described (Ukraine) as a third-world gas station. It produces energy, and not much more."
The U.S. is in the process of training select Ukrainian troops and outfitting them with basic equipment, according to Himes.
"Islamic extremism is a problem for China, Russia and us -- even more for them," Himes said. "There is a brutal civil war going on in Syria. We want to hit (Putin) back, but we also want him to support us in keeping Iran from a nuclear build-up."
Himes warns that the U.S. must tread with caution in that volatile region of the world.
"With radical Islam, a lot of the time we're about Syria, and we find ourselves on both sides of a civil war in the Middle East," Himes said. "We're fighting (Syrian president Bashar al-) Assad, who's fighting ISIS, whom we are fighting -- and we should be. Where does our authority stop? We have to be careful in taking sides. We can't solve the Sunni-Shia split."
Himes said American interests are "two-fold," and include making sure nations everywhere do not support international terrorism, and countries do not get to attack the state of Israel, "our friend."
Murphy, in his third year as a senator, said he and Himes share a passion about keeping America safe."
"I ran for Congress in 2006, at the height of the Iraq war, as an opponent of the Iraq war," Murphy said. "That was a debacle that cost far too many American lives and far too much American treasure. We were suffering from hubris, and I don't think we are going to see that kind of nation-building again."
Murphy recounted U.S. efforts to train 5,000 Syrian rebels, and after a couple of years -- 18 months maybe -- there are only 50 trained fighters.
The leaders were then kidnapped, rendering the exercise useless, Murphy acknowledged.
"There is still a suggestion that there's an American solution to the Middle East," Murphy said. "When terrorists are organizing, we have to go after them, but there are limits to American military power."
American intervention carries a lot of weight -- both positive and negative, according to Murphy.
"We have to recognize that if we want to support governments, we have to walk the walk and talk the talk," Murphy said. "Relatively indiscriminate drone strikes and Guantanamo Bay have an effect on the world. If you want to press countries on democratic reform, we have to see what others see."
Murphy cited an unofficial study done by the new U.S. ambassador to Great Britain, who handed out two index cards to a number of high school-age students, asking them to write down what they like about America on one card, and on the other card to write down what frustrated them about this country.
The senator said on about 70 percent of the "frustrated" cards was one word: Guns.
"For these kids, guns was the reason to back away from foreign policy with the U.S.," Murphy said. "It affects how people view us."
In the 1950s, coming out of World War II, about 3 percent of the Gross Domestic Product was devoted to foreign aide, mostly to rebuilding countries devastated by the war.
"Now that number is now 0.6 percent," Murphy said. "We need to have a big, bad military to help in negotiations, like in Iran. The U.S. doesn't have the resources to compete with Russia in the Balkans. Maybe military and non-military spending need to be closer to square the issues facing us abroad."
While both men support the president's Iran deal, Murphy wants to move slowly in taking the American message around the globe.
"No two countries with a McDonald's have ever gone to war with each other," Murphy said. "As you build economic prosperity, you ratchet up stability and protect against ISIS and other terrorism. I don't have the hubris to know if the rest of the world wants democracy. If we hand western tools to the rest of the world they will grab on -- I don't think we should assume that. When we believe that it gets us into more trouble than not."
Murphy also is not afraid to change his mind.
"I actually love it when people challenge me with views different than mine," Murphy said. "Flip-flopping is seen as a sign of weakness. I see it as weakness if you don't change your mind when presented with new information."