The Washington Post

GOP split on Ukraine shows Reagan’s fading allure

Leaders, voters growing sour on Cold War tenet of foreign interventi­on


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.

At a dinner named after the former president at the annual Conservati­ve Political Action Conference (CPAC) gathering earlier this month, failed Arizona gubernator­ial candidate Kari Lake pushed a very different message to the party’s activists.

“We are living on planet crazy where we have hundreds of billions of dollars of our hardearned American money being sent overseas to start World War III,” Lake said in her keynote address, inflating the amount of U.S. aid that’s been sent to Ukraine since Russia’s invasion. “This is not our fight. We are ‘America First!’”

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


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. Likely and declared GOP presidenti­al candidates, including Florida Gov. Ron Desantis and former president Donald Trump, as well as a growing faction of Republican lawmakers in the House, are promoting that skepticism as well, with potentiall­y seismic consequenc­es for the conflict and the party itself.

Desantis recently told Fox News host Tucker Carlson that helping Ukraine fend off Putin’s invasion is not a “vital” security interest for the United States, dismissing it as a “territoria­l dispute” in a written answer to Carlson’s Ukraine-related survey for 2024 candidates. (That marks a reversal from Desantis’s earlier support for arming Ukraine in 2015 after Russia annexed Crimea.) Trump agreed, urged President Biden to negotiate a peace deal and said Europe should pay back the United States for some of the funds it provided Ukraine.

More than a year after Russia invaded, the war in Ukraine has reached a bloody stalemate, with troops on both sides fighting over mere yards of territory along a 600-mile front line in the country’s south and east. The United States and Western partners have donated tens of billions of dollars in ammunition and weapons systems, hoping to break the deadlock on the battlefiel­d. But the prospect of a decisive victory, by either side, seems less likely than a grinding war of attrition with the possibilit­y of a dangerous nuclear confrontat­ion lurking just over the horizon.

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.”

‘America First’ migrates from the fringes

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 as 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.

“The answer to the question is two words: Donald Trump,” Bill Kristol, the anti-trump ex-republican, said of the GOP’S foreign policy shift. “Maybe some of this would have happened anyway after Iraq, but it’s Trump’s party.”

When he was in office, Trump’s foreign policy proved difficult to categorize, swinging between bellicose and adoring remarks toward North Korean dictator Kim Jong Un, pushing to withdraw U.S. forces from Afghanista­n and northern Syria, and taking a more aggressive posture toward Iran — including ordering the assassinat­ion of a top Iranian general.

Ukraine and Russia played an outsize role in Trump’s presidency, from the investigat­ion into Putin’s interferen­ce in the 2016 election to Trump’s efforts to pressure Ukrainian President Volodymyr Zelensky into investigat­ing Biden, leading to Trump’s first impeachmen­t. Both scandals primed Trump’s most devoted supporters to distrust Ukraine as corrupt and unreliable, while aligning with Trump’s apparent affinities for Putin, whom he avoided criticizin­g and frequently praised. 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-fla.), 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 nationbuil­ding.’ 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 are 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 A. 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.”

‘ There’s a giant disconnect’

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 their 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-S.D.) 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 attimes 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 (Ohio). “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 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 that 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 (R- Calif.), who would likely struggle to wrangle his harderrigh­t 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 standalone 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 Kochbacked 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 (RAriz.) described receiving “crazy text messages and emails” with untrue claims about Ukraine forwarded by constituen­ts, including doctored photos purporting to show ne0-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.

“It turns out members of Congress are — believe it or not — human beings,” Schweikert said. “Sometimes you regurgitat­e the very informatio­n you have.”

Rep. Gary Palmer (R-ala.) said there’s a “tremendous distrust” in Biden’s ability to handle Ukraine among Republican­s who doubt his leadership, and “massive disinforma­tion” campaigns being waged that also contribute to the skepticism in the base.

“I don’t think I’ve ever seen anything quite as convoluted as this with so many factors that lead people to all kinds of conclusion­s,” Palmer said of Republican­s’ views on aid to Ukraine.

Palmer stressed that in his view, pulling support would be “unbelievab­ly damaging” to the United States, especially in the eyes of China, which would view that as weakness and be emboldened to take more aggressive actions in Taiwan.

He said he believes most Republican lawmakers still agree with him.

Indeed, 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-ala.) said. “This conflict must end, and the president must be willing to do what it takes to end it.”

 ?? JABIN Botsford/the Washington POST ?? Former president Donald Trump, addressing conservati­ves this month near Washington, is a top promoter of skepticism on Ukraine aid.
JABIN Botsford/the Washington POST Former president Donald Trump, addressing conservati­ves this month near Washington, is a top promoter of skepticism on Ukraine aid.
 ?? Thomas Simonetti for The Washington POST ?? Florida Gov. Ron Desantis recently said that helping Ukraine fend off Russia’s invasion is not a “vital” U.S. security interest.
Thomas Simonetti for The Washington POST Florida Gov. Ron Desantis recently said that helping Ukraine fend off Russia’s invasion is not a “vital” U.S. security interest.
 ?? Richard A. Lipski/the Washington POST ?? In 1986, President Ronald Reagan greets Soviet leader Mikhail Gorbachev at the start of their summit in Reykjavik, Iceland.
Richard A. Lipski/the Washington POST In 1986, President Ronald Reagan greets Soviet leader Mikhail Gorbachev at the start of their summit in Reykjavik, Iceland.

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