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Putting America Before Ukraine

America First candidates believe U.S. involvement in Ukraine would be a distraction from the issues that plague everyday Americans.

Before he became the avatar of the so-called principled conservatives for his opposition to President Donald Trump, Representative Adam Kinzinger was known for his stirring defenses of endless wars in the Middle East.

“The easy thing to do is to stand up and say ‘Let’s just declare victory and let’s leave,’” Kinzinger said on the House floor in December 2011. “You know the America I grew up in and continue to grow up in and live in is not the country that always picks the easy thing. The thing about the American DNA is I believe we do, typically, the right thing.”

The right thing, as Kinzinger would have it, was the prolonging of the war in Afghanistan that claimed the lives of nearly a quarter of a million people, of whom 2,401 were U.S. servicemen and an estimated 71,000 were civilians, all to prop up a government that collapsed in a matter of days. Kinzinger was one of many GOP hopefuls elected to congress though the Bush II and Obama era who saw 9/11 and the subsequent War on Terror as a formative experience in their political development. 

Another cohort of Republicans perceive 9/11 and its consequences as foundational to their political perspectives, albeit for very different reasons. A number are seeking election in 2022. J.D. Vance, Joe Kent, and Anthony Sabatini each claim to embrace the “America First” vision of foreign policy popularized by President Trump. While the Washington establishment beats the war drums over Ukraine, these America First candidates have not only cautioned against the prospect of war with Russia but argued fervently that the potential for another war of choice by the current regime is a distraction from the issues that plague everyday Americans.

These candidates’ choice to use the ongoing situation in Ukraine as a platform to focus on domestic issues is a needed deviation from what has traditionally been expected of Republican hopefuls. For the first two decades of the 21st century, Republicans have camouflaged their inconsistencies, idleness, and general lack of vision on domestic policy by turning to foreign affairs, where Republicans believe their projection of American strength plays well with the average patriotic voter. This sentiment remains alive and well in Washington today, where many GOP Hill staffers think another Biden foreign policy conundrum will spell disaster for Biden in the midterms and may be the first ring of the death knell for his presidency.

Rather than pivoting away from the domestic for the foreign, America First Republicans are trying to flip the script.

Vance, who is running for Senate in Ohio, told TAC in a phone interview the day prior to Russia’s invasion of Ukraine that putting American interests first means “recognizing that American leaders have a constitutional obligation to serve American citizens, and that’s it.” This seems like an obvious, sensible notion, but this wasn’t the case for Middletown, Ohio, Vance’s hometown. From J.D.’s youth to early adulthood, the blue collar jobs that kept families and the local economy afloat largely vanished due to policies of globalization pursued by Washington and capitalized on by Wall Street. As the jobs moved out, the drugs moved in. Vance’s upbringing, popularized by his memoir Hillbilly Elegy, was defined by the very forces afflicting not only Middletown, but large swaths of Appalachia and the Rust Belt, two regions that acutely felt the effects of America’s policies of globalization and intervention. 

Even though Washington had failed Vance’s family, and so many like it, in the wake of 9/11 he was called to serve in the Marine Corps in April 2003. “I was a patriotic Young Conservative kid. I supported the Iraq war,” he said. “But for the next 20 years, I saw our country make a series of historic, catastrophic decisions and every single person who is involved in those decisions was rewarded for it—financially and with public public appreciation.

No one suffered any consequences for leading America in successive catastrophes, and that is sort of what has influenced my view of foreign policy. There’s no profession in the world where you can be catastrophically wrong and still collect a fat paycheck like you can in the D.C. defense policy establishment.

Anthony Sabatini, the 33-year-old Florida state representative running for Florida’s 7th Congressional seat, was just entering his teens when the war on terror began. At 19, he joined the National Guard, where he currently has the rank of captain. The War on Terror, Sabatini told TAC during a phone interview the day before Russia invaded Ukraine, was “the single most obvious example or event that formed my opinion of Americas it’s guided foreign policy and arguably corrupt foreign policy establishment.”

Of these America First candidates, 9/11 and the American regime’s subsequent wars in the Middle East had undoubtedly the most profound impact on Kent’s life. At 18 years old, Kent enlisted in the Army as an infantryman, and worked his way up into the Ranger Regiment before joining the Special Forces and became a chief warrant officer in the Green Berets. After 9/11, which Kent calls “the most formative experience in my life,” Kent served in 11 combat tours, from Iraq to Yemen and North Africa, earning six Bronze Stars in the process. 

“I saw firsthand what happens when all of our energies are focused overseas. The end goal or starting point wasn’t about what’s best for America,” Kent told TAC over the phone on the first day of the Russian invasion. “It was on these very lofty ideas like nation building or regime change that really only seems to benefit the military industrial complex and our ruling class.”

On January 16, 2019, Kent lost his wife, United States Navy Senior Chief Petty Officer and Cryptologic Technician Shannon Kent, in a suicide bombing while fighting ISIS in Syria, leaving Joe to care and provide for their two young sons. She was 35.

“As a guy who fought on the front lines, lost friends, lost my late wife, if we’re going to go and expend effort somewhere, I want to see a direct benefit for our people,” Kent told TAC. “I wish I could be at the end of my military career as a professional soldier or as a gold star husband and say it was all worth it and say we accomplished something here, but we didn’t.

Look at the state of our country. We are in a much worse position. That’s been my road to becoming America first, and not just as a political candidate. An America first mindset, I think, means everything starts domestically. If we are going to be constantly focused elsewhere, then we’re just going to be taken advantage of by bad actors or by the ruling class that is really quick to start a war that is going to benefit them.

While Kinzinger and other establishment Republicans are approaching the current conflict in Ukraine like every other war they’ve stumped for in the past two decades, these hopefuls and candidates like them believe the United States should largely stay out of the conflict, and return our focus to America’s domestic rot.

At the core of this pivot from the foreign to the domestic, Vance told TAC, “is the recognition of basically human psychology: that we can only focus on so many things at once, and we have very real problems that are going unsolved in our own country, but we have a leadership completely obsessed with a country 6000 miles away that has nothing to do with our security.”

To those who say the United States can do both, “the idea that we can walk and chew gum at the same time is contradicted by the past 30 years of American history, where our leadership has been good at one thing—if that. So if we’re focused on Ukraine, we’re not focusing on, for example, the border of our own country,” Vance said.

“I guess it’s such an unbelievable accident of history,” Vance went on to say, that “at the same time we’ve had this massive assault on our own territorial integrity, you have a foreign policy blob that’s more concerned with the territorial integrity of a country 6,000 miles away. I think that there’s a pretty stark contrast between what we are caring about in this country and what we should care about.”

Sabatini said what’s going on in Ukraine isn’t even “a top ten issue.” 

“The way I filter all foreign policy is how it affects the great swaths of actual Americans, like middle class and working class Americans, people who love this country that live here,” Sabatini said, adding that overreacting to a Russian invasion with broad sanctions could result in higher prices for American families.

In Sabatini’s view, Americans have experienced “a really serious breakdown of all of our institutions in this country. We have a regime that basically decided war on its own citizens, and we’re about to probably lose the republic if we don’t correct course.”

“So any conversations about regional conflicts between nations on the opposite side of the world put forward by the media are mostly a way of distracting people and pushing back on the critical mass Americans are reaching right now in terms of trying to change our own government,” Sabatini added.

“I’m running for office because I’m trying to stop this systematic destruction of the middle class and the working class, and that’s what’s happening everyday in America. Our middle class is going away and we’ll all basically be serfs to this global hegemonic managerial elite that runs every aspect of our lives.” America’s wars of choice, whether in the Middle East or potentially Ukraine, Sabatini said, is the political and economic elite’s attempt at capturing “more owned space.”

If elected in November, these candidates told TAC they’d pursue a vastly different foreign policy than the one currently espoused by both the Biden administration, who has pursued harsh sanctions against Russia, and the Republican establishment says sanctions did not come hard or swift enough.

Rather than ice Putin and Russia out of the global economy via sanctions and other retributive measures, which are unlikely to work given the Russian oligarchs atop the Russian economy have insulated themselves against U.S. sanctions, especially since 2014, Vance said, “the overarching goal here should be to make Russia an ally of ours or at least a partner of ours in the longer-term struggle against China.”

“If you are applying broad-based stations, and some of our idiot leaders are threatening nuclear warfare against the Russians, you’re going to be pushing Russia into the arms of the Chinese, not into the arms of America,” Vance claimed. “Everybody is so hung up on Vladimir Putin being a bad guy. We deal with bad people all the time when it’s in our national security interests.”

America’s foreign policy, Vance told TAC, must “re-inject a dose of realism and recognize [we’ve] got to work with bad people to get something done for [our] own citizens. The constant threat of military action, more than anything else, is pushing Vladimir Putin into the arms of the Chinese. We’ve got to stop that.”

While these candidates are skeptical of both Democrats and Republicans pushing hard sanctions on Russia, they do agree with the Republican establishment line that kneecapping the U.S. energy industry diminished the amount of leverage the U.S. had in its negotiations with Russia.

“Trump was criticized heavily by the mainstream media, obviously with the nonsensical, fake Russian collusion narrative, but also when he would go over and attempt to deal with Vladimir Putin,” Kent told TAC. “But when Trump, because he’s an experienced negotiator, went to go deal with Vladimir Putin, he started from a position of strength. He made sure America was not just energy independent, but was a net exporter. He leaned on the Europeans. He leaned on NATO. He leaned on the Germans about buying Russian oil and gas. He was taking a serious chip out of Vladimir Putin’s one commodity. Russia, at the end of the day, Russia is a gas station with nuclear weapons.”

The Biden administration’s decision to cancel the Keystone XL pipeline and lift sanctions on the construction of the Nord Stream II pipeline, Kent said, meant that Biden “went to the table with pretty much nothing in his back pocket.”

“An America First foreign policy starts at home,” Vance said. “If we had a still robust energy sector like we did two years ago, I think we would be in a much better position to deal with the current crisis.”

Over the past 20 years, the foreign policy blob has proven itself capable of getting its way over and over again when it comes to wars of choice. As we all wonder how the establishment will manage the current crisis, these America First candidates are looking to make sure that doesn’t happen again.