DeSantis Against the Ukraine War Machine
The Florida governor’s recent comments about the war in Ukraine sent the establishment into a tailspin.
In the early days of every presidential primary season, foreign policy observers scrutinize every public comment made by governors with presidential aspirations about foreign affairs, seeking to cobble together the candidates' potential doctrines. Once these observers have a feel for a governor's potential foreign policy approach, they rush to offer their services out of pure selflessness (and for a small recurring consulting sum). Unsurprisingly, the most anticipated governor-turned-potential-presidential-candidate is Ron DeSantis, who has become a household name due to his success as the governor of Florida and seems to be the only Republican that could pose a real primary challenge to former President Donald Trump.
Though DeSantis previously served on the House Foreign Affairs Committee during his five-year stint in Congress, he is quick to remind the public he’s focused on Florida. And while there’s still much to learn about DeSantis’s current views on foreign policy, his recent comments about the war in Ukraine sent the establishment, which surely has machinations to co-opt a DeSantis presidential campaign, into a tailspin.
Fox News host Tucker Carlson had sent a questionnaire to declared and suspected candidates for the 2024 Republican presidential nomination about the war in Ukraine. The questions were simple enough. Among them: Is opposing Russia in Ukraine a vital American national strategic interest? What specifically is our objective in Ukraine, and how will we know when we’ve achieved it? What is the limit of funding and materiel you would be willing to send to the government of Ukraine? Should the United States support regime change in Russia?
The clear front-runner among the declared candidates, former President Donald Trump, gave answers that were provocative yet expected. Regarding regime change in Russia, Trump replied, “No. We should support regime change in the United States, that's far more important. The Biden administration are the ones who got us into this mess.” The former president’s pointed answers weren’t received with consternation from the pro-war establishment because Trump has long been supportive of a diplomatic solution to the conflict in Ukraine.
DeSantis hinted that his foreign policy views, at least when it comes to Ukraine, are very much in line with Trump’s, though his answers were not so punchy.
“Becoming further entangled in a territorial dispute between Ukraine and Russia is not one of [the United States’ vital national interests]. The Biden administration’s virtual ‘blank check’ funding of this conflict for ‘as long as it takes,’ without any defined objectives or accountability, distracts from our country’s most pressing challenges,” DeSantis wrote to Carlson.
“Without question, peace should be the objective,” DeSantis added. “The U.S. should not provide assistance that could require the deployment of American troops or enable Ukraine to engage in offensive operations beyond its borders. F-16s and long-range missiles should therefore be off the table. These moves would risk explicitly drawing the United States into the conflict and drawing us closer to a hot war between the world’s two largest nuclear powers. That risk is unacceptable.”
DeSantis also understands that the establishment’s false narratives of “defending democracy” and fairytales of regime change are intended to distract from our domestic woes: “We cannot prioritize intervention in an escalating foreign war over the defense of our own homeland, especially as tens of thousands of Americans are dying every year from narcotics smuggled across our open border and our weapons arsenals critical for our own security are rapidly being depleted."
DeSantis’s written replies kicked the uniparty outrage machine into overdrive.
Over at Bill Kristol’s current doomed outlet, the Bulwark, William Saletan wrote, “[DeSantis] has adopted a series of cynical, deceptive, anti-American talking points,” of which he proceeds to list six. Saletan especially takes issue with DeSantis’s characterization of the conflict as a “territorial dispute,” which, well, it is—the Donbas wants to become part of Russia, and the Ukrainians don’t want to give it up. “This is rubbish. The war is an unprovoked invasion and occupation of Ukraine,” Saletan said, just days before the twentieth anniversary of Iraq.
National Review editor Ramesh Ponnuru also took issue with DeSantis’s characterization of the conflict as a “territorial dispute” in his column for the Washington Post. Such a phrase “euphemizes Vladimir Putin’s quest to destroy a nation,” Ponnuru said, though in rhetoric and strategy, it is clear Putin does not have such ambitions.
“DeSantis implied that he might be willing to exert pressure on Ukraine to settle with Russia,” Ponnuru said, adding that “at no point did DeSantis either express the hope that Ukraine would prevail or offer sympathy for its people.”
Ponnuru deserves credit for giving restraint-oriented realists a somewhat-fair shake, hinting that “accusations of repeating 1938” is just another silly example of Godwin’s law. He nevertheless ends his piece saying, “Ukraine’s resistance to Russian aggression deserves continued U.S. support, but that support could use more realism.”
Finally, the Wall Street Journal editorial board called DeSantis’s comments his “First Big Mistake.” “He may regret describing the war in Ukraine as a mere ‘territorial dispute,’” the board wrote. Is this conjecture or a threat? “This is flirting with GOP isolationism that has emerged from time to time in history,” they add.
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This history they speak of? The 1930s, of course. The history they forget? The 1910s.
The piece trundles on, reminding DeSantis of Ronald Reagan’s “evil empire” speech and “peace through strength” maxim. The Journal’s editorial board almost makes one regret that Reagan ever uttered those words.
The establishment’s pearl-clutching and moralizing over DeSantis’s comments is about more than just the war in Ukraine. It’s a pressure campaign designed to force DeSantis into choosing the political elite class over the voting public.