Tuesday— Trump screeching and whining that he’s “copying him’— Meatball Ron broke with the Old GOP Establishment which has seen him as the best alternative to Trump, and called the Russian invasion of Ukraine a territorial dispute. Murdoch has a lot more control over the NY Post editorial board than he does over Tucker Carlson. Carlson is the impetus for Meatball’s declaration. But the Post editors wrote that DeSantis is dodging the leadership challenge when it comes to the war in Ukraine. “In a written response to questions from Fox News’ Tucker Carlson, DeSantis hedged: ‘While the U.S. has many vital national interests … becoming further entangled in a territorial dispute between Ukraine and Russia is not one of them.’ Fine: America faces no direct threat from Russia. But this is far more than ‘a territorial dispute.’ Vladimir Putin claims that all of Ukraine properly belongs to Moscow, refusing to acknowledge Kyiv’s sovereignty. This is a naked attack on the entire world order— and thus on a vital US interest. And ‘territorial dispute’ is a pretty lame way to describe an unprovoked invasion that’s included savage attacks on civilians and a host of other war crimes. If Putin succeeds in Ukraine, it’ll show other regimes (China, Iran, etc.) that aggression works. And Russia itself will look to move on other nations, including NATO allies America’s obliged to defend. Beating Putin, or even just crippling his war machine, is defending America. DeSantis must know that, but he’s hedging rather than risk losing voters who don’t get it. (Understandably enough, since President Joe Biden also refuses to make the case.) Nor does supporting Ukraine ‘entangle’ America in any way. It’s not making Putin any more our enemy than he already was, and nothing (except good sense) can stop Washington from ‘getting out’ tomorrow… At least DeSantis didn’t go full Trump and declare himself firmly isolationist on Ukraine, much as left-wing media may pretend… DeSantis hasn’t even launched his campaign yet, so he has room to fix this mistake. But he won’t win the GOP nomination by dodging the tough questions.”
Old guard war-party Republicans started grumbling and rumbling immediately. John Cornyn (R-TX): “I'm disturbed by it. I think he's a smart guy. I want to find out more about it, but I hope he feels like he doesn't need to take that Tucker Carlson line to be competitive in the primary… It's important for us to continue to support Ukrainians for our own security.”
Fellow Floridians Marco Rubio (on Hugh Hewitt’s radio show): “Well, I don’t know what he’s trying to do or what the goal is. Obviously, he doesn’t deal with foreign policy every day as governor. So I’m not sure... I mean, I can’t compare that to something else he did or has said over the last few years, because he doesn’t deal with it every day. But I will say to you that in terms of my view of the overall issue is I think there’s nuance, because foreign policy is about nuance."
Thom Tillis (R-NC) also weighed in against DeSantis’ “territorial dispute” blunder and said to Andrew Desiderio and John Bresnahan that "I understand that among the Republican base it’s unpopular. I think it’s up to us to educate people." Lindsey Graham, a Trump ally-- but not regarding Russia-- told them that he thinks much of the anti-Ukraine narrative in the GOP is driven by a desire to create a contrast with Biden.
The Washington Post’s Liz Goodwin, Isaac Arnsdorf and Marianna Sotomayor already termed it A Republican ‘Civil War’ On Ukraine yesterday, pointing out that “When Ronald Reagan addressed a brand new organization of upstart conservatives nearly five decades ago, he cast U.S. entanglements abroad as part of the nation’s destiny to take on ‘leadership of the free world’ and to serve as a shining ‘city on the hill’ that inspired other countries, sparking thunderous applause.” The MAGAts have a very different vision. Crackpot Trumpist Kari Lake: “We are living on planet crazy where we have hundreds of billions of dollars of our hard-earned American money being sent overseas to start World War III. This is not our fight. We are ‘America First!”
When he was in Congress, DeSantis was a hawk on Russia and advocated arming Ukraine. Now that the wind inside the far right of the GOP is shifting, so has he. Goodwin, Arnsdorf and Sotomayor wrote that “Lake’s strident aversion to deepening American involvement in Ukraine, echoed by many speakers at CPAC, has been dismissed by some Republicans in Congress as a fringe viewpoint held by a handful of conservatives that does not meaningfully threaten NATO unity against Vladimir Putin’s invasion. Congress has appropriated more than $113 billion since the war started in multiple bipartisan votes. But Republican voters are increasingly adopting those same skeptical views, with surveys showing them becoming colder to continued U.S. aid as the conflict drags into its second year.”
Beneath the shift from Reagan to Lake is a story of the Republican Party’s own transformation on foreign policy in the past few decades, as a segment of notable conservative figures— most influentially, Trump— began to overtly reject the Cold War-era Reagan posture of leading the “free world” to push a very different view of America’s role in the world.
“This is an ongoing civil war, and I think that the realists and those of us who believe in a more restrained foreign policy have momentum,” said Dan Caldwell, vice president at the Center for Renewing America, the policy shop led by former Trump White House budget director Russ Vought. “You are seeing more Republicans at the grass-roots level, at the policymaker level, and even at the institutional and donor level embracing a foreign policy of realism and restraint.”
In recent memory, the Republican Party has often been aligned with a muscular foreign policy summed up by Reagan’s “peace through strength.” Long before Reagan, however, there had been a tradition on the American right of nationalism and skepticism toward foreign intervention (sometimes called isolationism, though today’s conservatives reject that term). The motto of “America First” originated with a group of influential conservatives who opposed aiding the Allies at the outbreak of World War II.
After the war, the threat of the Soviet Union and international communism served to unite Republicans behind a more aggressive foreign policy, temporarily papering over ideological differences over America’s role in the world, according to Nicole Hemmer, a historian at Vanderbilt University.
“As soon as the Cold War comes to an end, that kind of nationalistic, noninterventionist strain of the conservative movement comes roaring back,” Hemmer said. Most prominently, failed presidential candidate Pat Buchanan revived the “America First” slogan to advocate for withdrawing from overseas military entanglements in the 1990s. Republicans criticized President Bill Clinton’s interventions in Somalia and Kosovo, and George W. Bush campaigned for president in 2000 by opposing the concept of nation-building abroad.
The terrorist attacks of Sept. 11, 2001, changed Bush’s plans, and his presidency became dominated by a doctrine of preemptive strikes and interventionism premised on promoting democracy. For a time, the anti-interventionist strain of conservative thought appeared extinct, summed up by Wall Street Journal editorial page editor Paul Gigot as “four or five people in a phone booth.”
But by the time Bush left office, the costly and drawn-out conflicts in Iraq and Afghanistan became a drain on his approval rating, including among Republicans. A resurgence of antiwar sentiment fueled Rep. Ron Paul’s long-shot, but attention-grabbing, presidential bid in 2008 and the tea party wave of 2010. In 2014, the network of conservative groups led by billionaire industrialist Charles Koch expanded investments in foreign policy, setting up think tanks, advocacy groups and activist organizations that built an intellectual case for a more restrained approach to foreign affairs.
“Being more hawkish isn’t necessarily a real political winner in 2012, and by the time that Trump comes around in 2016, he sees an opening with key parts of that Republican base that are done with the Bush wars and this idea of remaking large parts of the world in America’s image,” said Douglas Kriner, a professor of government at Cornell University.
Kriner’s research with Harvard professor Francis X. Shen found that places that suffered more casualties in Iraq and Afghanistan tended to turn away from Republicans starting in 2006 and gravitate toward Trump in 2016, even controlling for other factors.
“Trump very skillfully tapped into something that was there, a real softening in that support,” Kriner said.
The breakthrough moment for this new era of Republican attitudes toward foreign policy came in the February 2016 debate ahead of the South Carolina Republican presidential primary. Despite having said he supported invading Iraq at the time, Trump now called the Iraq War “a big fat mistake” and criticized the Bush administration for lying about Saddam Hussein’s having weapons of mass destruction. Jeb Bush cut in to defend his brother’s record, saying the former president “was building a security apparatus to keep us safe and I’m proud of what he did.” Trump shot back, “The World Trade Center came down during your brother’s reign, remember that. That’s not keeping us safe.”
The crowd booed, and pundits widely predicted that the moment would tank Trump’s candidacy, especially in a state with a large military presence. Instead, a week later, Trump won 44 out of 46 counties.
…Putin, in turn, has worked to strengthen Russia’s image with American conservatives by portraying himself as a champion of traditional values and Ukraine as a tragedy of liberal decadence. A YouGov poll last year, before Russia invaded Ukraine, found more Republicans had a favorable view of Putin than of Biden and other top Democrats— though that still represented a fraction of them, at 15 percent.
“He talks the language of gender issues and respect for the church,” Robert Kagan, a senior fellow at the Brookings Institution who is a longtime advocate for foreign intervention, said of Putin. “He is clearly making a play for these conservatives and successfully.”
Kagan, Kristol and some of their allies— a group known to detractors as “neoconservatives,” though they reject the term— have quit the GOP in the Trump years. Other Republican hawks have adapted to the shifting center of gravity.
Sen. Marco Rubio (R-FL), seen as a young voice of traditional Republican foreign policy who still supports continued aid to Ukraine, has recently started advocating for reorienting U.S. priorities from Europe to China. The Heritage Foundation, once styled as Reagan’s think tank, has come out against approving additional aid to Ukraine and even started advocating cuts to defense spending— positions that Heritage president Kevin Roberts said were driven by a combination of fiscal concerns and fatigue from the wars in Iraq and Afghanistan.
“If you called me 20 years ago I would have been one of the main advocates for invading Afghanistan and Iraq,” Roberts said. “But the lessons of that are conservative Americans have said: ‘Oh my gosh, we can’t continue to be engaged in anything that looks or sounds or smells like nation-building.' And frankly, that’s what Ukraine is starting to look like.”
The reluctance to counter Russia, however, is not always paired with a noninterventionist stance on other regions of the world. Many of the new voices on foreign policy in the Republican Party arguing for a far more aggressive posture against China.
Roberts hosted Sen. Josh Hawley (R-MO) for a foreign policy speech at the Heritage Foundation in February, where the senator called for America to tell Europe they must defend themselves against the threat of Russia while the United States focuses instead on preparing for potential war with China.
“Let’s tell the truth, China is on the march and we are not prepared to stop them,” Hawley said.
Kagan, the Brookings fellow, called Hawley’s vision “crazy” for proposing to abandon European allies in the middle of a conflict. But Elbridge Colby, who led the Pentagon’s National Defense Strategy during the Trump administration, argued that the United States simply does not have the power to pursue the global hegemony that Kagan and his cohort have long advocated for.
“The real sweet spot for the Republican coalition is a kind of conservative realism,” Colby said. “This would avoid the hyper-interventionism of the old guard that was disastrous before but would be catastrophic in the face of the overriding threat posed by China that Republican voters viscerally understand. I think that will ultimately be a natural equilibrium for the GOP.”
The Republican civil war on foreign policy has spilled over from think tank conference rooms to the 2024 campaign trail, GOP primary voters and Capitol Hill.
Trump and his allies have begun attacking 2024 rivals for more hawkish positions. Former U.N. Ambassador Nikki Haley, who served under Trump, was heckled and booed at CPAC earlier this month by Trump supporters. Former vice president Mike Pence, another supporter of the Ukraine effort, is also a frequent target of their scorn. DeSantis, who polling suggests would be a front-runner for the nomination, has shed the former traditional Republican hawk posture he held as a House member to dismiss the importance of defending Ukraine.
Several Republican senators pushed back on DeSantis’s and Trump’s comments on Ukraine on Tuesday, saying they believe empowering Russia would be bad for U.S. and global security even as they acknowledged the split in the party on the issue.
“He’s not alone in that, there are other people who are probably going to be candidates in 2024 on our side who may share that view,” Sen. John Thune (R-SD) said of DeSantis’s contention that Ukraine is not a U.S. national security interest. “But I would argue, and I think a majority of people in this country recognize, how important it is that Ukraine repel Russia and stop this aggression.”
But that new tone on the conflict caters to a growing number of Republican voters. Public opinion surveys have repeatedly found that Republicans, who initially supported aiding Ukraine in large majorities, have since become split on the assistance. In February, 50 percent of Republicans said the United States was doing “too much” to support Ukraine, up from 18 percent last April, according to a Washington Post-ABC News poll.
As some of the party’s largest national figures denigrate helping Ukraine fend off an invasion, Republican lawmakers who have supported Ukraine aid in the past say this growing grass-roots distrust has led to pressure from constituents who believe in at-times conspiratorial arguments against the war.
“The average grass-roots Republican is a lot more noninterventionist than the average Republican senator,” said Andy Surabian, a Republican strategist and adviser to Ukraine-skeptical Republicans including Donald Trump Jr. and Sen. J.D. Vance (R-OH). “There’s a giant disconnect between our party’s voters and our party’s elected leaders on that issue.”
That could threaten future funding streams for the war, which so far have enjoyed bipartisan support. Senate Minority Leader Mitch McConnell (R-KY) is one of the loudest defenders in Congress of continued aid to Ukraine, frequently making the case for helping the invaded nation repel Russia in floor speeches and statements.
“Republicans know that the safest America is a strong and engaged America,” McConnell said earlier this month, adding that China would be emboldened by a Russian victory. He told The Post in February that Republicans are united behind the aid and too much attention has been paid to “a very few people who seem not to be invested in Ukraine’s success.”
But House Speaker Kevin McCarthy, who would likely struggle to wrangle his harder-right members to back more Ukraine aid in his slim majority, has said he does not support a “blank check” for the nation’s defenses and recently rejected an offer to visit Ukraine from Zelensky. Rep. Thomas Massie (R-KY) called Zelensky a “Ukrainian lobbyist” when he addressed Congress in December— a speech most House Republicans skipped.
Congress has funded the war effort through the end of September, but dozens of Republicans in the House and 11 in the Senate voted against the last stand-alone bill to provide more funds in May, suggesting trouble ahead now that the House is Republican-controlled.
“What went underestimated for a long time is there are different political inclinations at play than saying ‘peace through strength’ zombie Reaganism,” said Reid Smith, vice president for foreign policy at the Koch-backed group Stand Together. “That was a knee-jerk political instinct for a lot of Republicans and still holds for some leadership factions within the House and Senate. But I don’t know if that’s attuned to the preferences and priorities of a political base that seems to be demanding additional restraint.”
Some Republican lawmakers have said they are open to arguments from constituents who want clearer objectives for and transparency over the United States’ support for Ukraine. But instead, they are often inundated with conspiratorial objections that have no basis in reality.
Rep. David Schweikert (R-AZ) described receiving “crazy text messages and emails” with untrue claims about Ukraine forwarded by constituents, including doctored photos purporting to show Neo Nazis fighting against Russians. He used to spend his time fact checking the claims one by one, but has largely given up.
“My fear is the whole debate particularly among our communities has been distorted by a very aggressive propaganda misinformation campaign,” he said.
But Schweikert, who did not say whether he would vote for more Ukraine aid in the future, blamed supporters of Ukraine for not mounting a more aggressive effort to counter the propaganda, rather than members of his party who have at times spread it.
…Senior GOP defense hawks at a recent House Armed Services Committee’s hearing sharply questioned Biden administration officials over why they have yet to fulfill Zelensky’s ask of sending F-16 fighter jets— arguing that Biden has not been aggressive enough in the fight.
“Since the beginning, the president has been overly worried that giving Ukraine what it needs to win would be too escalatory. This hesitation has only prolonged the war and driven up costs in terms of dollars and lives,” chairman Mike D. Rogers (R-AL) said. “This conflict must end, and the president must be willing to do what it takes to end it.”
Writing for the same paper, Ishaan Tharoor, noted that the Know Nothing wing of the party, run by ignorant crackpots and conspiracy theorists in thrall to Kremlin propaganda, like Marjorie Traitor Greene, are now steering the GOP ship. The craven DeSantis is along for the ride. “While broad bipartisan agreement may exist on Ukraine among Republican and Democratic lawmakers in Washington,” he wrote, “opinion polls show a growing number of U.S. Republicans are skeptical of Ukraine’s importance to the United States, believe the United States has done enough or should do less to back Kyiv, and are open to a scenario where Ukraine concedes further territory to Russia if it means bringing about peace sooner.”
In response to Carlson’s questionnaire, Trump said it was time for a negotiated truce between Ukraine and Russia and that he would be willing to let Russia take over parts of Ukraine in any settlement.
This cuts against the standard line from President Biden and his European allies, who have all vowed to maintain military aid to Ukraine against the invasion and insist that they aren’t going to determine for Ukraine what the conditions for peace should be. Biden, moreover, has linked the cause of Ukraine repelling Russian forces to a global struggle between democracy and autocracy. Last month, in speeches in Kyiv and Warsaw, he spoke rhapsodically about backing Ukraine on the front lines of a just battle for freedom and the integrity of the international order.
…In a rejection of his former boss, former vice president Mike Pence has cast the Ukrainian fight in almost messianic terms. “We will not forget your struggle for freedom and I believe the American people will stand with you until the light dawns on a victory for freedom in Ukraine and in Europe and for all the world,” he said during a speech in Texas last month.
Such rhetoric is welcomed by Ukrainians and their European backers, as well as a critical mass of the foreign policy establishment in Washington. But it arguably obscures the tougher and more pragmatic conversations that need to be had about the longevity the war, the capability of a depleted Ukrainian military to secure a maximalist victory and the risk of broader escalation with nuclear-armed Russia. In his statement, DeSantis warned against taking any steps that would further entangle the United States in the conflict and trigger a clash with the Kremlin, including giving Ukraine fighter jets and long-range missiles. He also dismissed the prospect of “regime change” in Moscow.
DeSantis’s general skepticism of the Western trajectory on the war puts him in company with a group of far-right politicians in Europe. Some, like former Italian prime minister Silvio Berlusconi, whose party is in the ruling coalition in Rome, blame Kyiv and Ukrainian President Volodymyr Zelensky for provoking the Russian invasion. Others like French far-right leader Marine Le Pen and Hungarian Prime Minister Viktor Orban want to see a halt in weapons deliveries and an immediate cease-fire, calling for a “peace” that critics say plays solely into Russian hands.
Not long ago, DeSantis was striking a rather different tune. In a 2016 Fox interview that came in the wake of Putin’s annexation of Crimea, then-congressman DeSantis said Putin would have made “different calculations” had the Obama administration provided Kyiv with more defensive and offensive weapons.
And though DeSantis is now positioning himself directly at odds with Biden, there may not be as great a gap between his position and that of the Biden administration as it seems, suggested Stephen Wertheim, senior fellow at the Carnegie Endowment for International Peace.
Though Biden said Putin “cannot remain in power” in a speech last year, the White House has since backtracked and is not pursuing a regime change policy and has taken the direct use of U.S. force in the conflict off the table. The Biden administration has also avoided giving Ukraine a whole slate of long-range weaponry that could risk deeper confrontation with Russia and has made clear to Kyiv that the United States may have trouble sustaining its military assistance indefinitely.
“There are real differences between DeSantis and Biden,” Wertheim told me. “DeSantis speaks of the stakes in Ukraine as being considerably lower than Biden does. He seems more open to reducing military aid and supporting a cease-fire” that could theoretically be imposed on Ukraine. But, he added, we should also “bear in mind the limits of Biden’s commitment to the war, limits that Biden’s sometimes maximalist rhetoric can obscure.”
Philip Bump wrote that Carlson "has distinguished himself both for his insistences that the United States is approaching the conflict in the wrong way and for the extent to which Russian state television has embraced his rhetoric. Even before the expanded Russian invasion of Ukraine a year ago, Carlson disputed the administration’s rhetoric and amplified claims supporting Russia’s position. Within Fox News itself, tension emerged between Carlson and news-side reporters whose understanding of the war differed from the presentation Carlson wanted to make. Carlson has at least two motivations here. One is that he’s clearly sympathetic to Russia geopolitically, a sentiment he’s expressed overtly in the past. Another is that his default position is that anyone else with power is suspect and that those on the left— or, really, not on the far right— are untrustworthy elites."
Republicans responding to Carlson’s leading questions about the conflict, then, had three choices. They could answer Carlson’s questions in a way that catered to him and his audience. They could answer in a way that reflected their actual positions even if it conflicted with Carlson and hope for the best. Or they could not answer at all.
Christie chose the second option— and serves as a good example of how Carlson reshaped the responses he received to fit his agenda.
“Chris Christie is still around and still full of bombast and still a sporty character. In fact, if anything, Christie seemed to become even more orthodox as a neocon,” Carlson said as he presented the former New Jersey governor’s answers. What were those answers? Well, Carlson said, “he calls on the U.S. military to fight and win a war against both Russia and China simultaneously. Otherwise, he warns, Iran and North Korea could take over the world.”
…Carlson had much more luck with DeSantis. Trump’s answers were in keeping with Trump’s past stated positions on the conflict— he could end the war tomorrow using some special “Art of the Deal”-style magic— but DeSantis offered him something new. To Carlson’s glee.
“DeSantis is adamantly opposed to the position that most Republicans in Washington have taken on Ukraine,” he gushed. “DeSantis is not a neocon. Who knew!” He quoted DeSantis’s positions at length, highlighting places where the Florida governor, like him, objected to what Carlson sees as unacceptable orthodoxy. (“DeSantis goes on to oppose the policy of regime change in Moscow, which is very popular in Washington,” Carlson said at one point.)
DeSantis is very familiar with this game of telling potential voters what they want to hear. His most newsworthy statement to Carlson— as Carlson noted in conveying it— was that the invasion was, at heart, a “territorial dispute.” This is very similar language to the description used by Carlson in December 2021, before the war began: “Russia is currently involved in a border dispute with neighboring Ukraine.” No wonder Carlson was so excited.