A collective meltdown has ensued among the foreign policy establishment after Florida Gov. Ron DeSantis (R) espoused views on the Ukraine conflict that echoed former President Donald Trump.
Their views were stated in response to a questionnaire sent by Fox News host Tucker Carlson that included six questions on Ukraine.
Trump’s views were not a surprise, since he has called for a diplomatic solution in the past. In response to whether Ukraine was a “vital interest,” he responded, “No, but it is for Europe,” and said Europe should be paying more than the U.S., or equal.
He also reiterated his desire for negotiations that he would lead himself, and said aid to Ukraine would depend on those negotiations, while adding Europe needed to do more.
However, it was DeSantis’s response that sent the foreign policy establishment reeling.
As to whether Ukraine was a vital national interest, DeSantis said:
While the U.S. has many vital national interests — securing our border, addressing the crisis of readiness within our military, achieving energy security and independence, checking the economic, cultural, and military power of the Chinese Communist Party — becoming further entangled in a territorial dispute between Ukraine and Russia is not one of them.
The Washington Post summarized the collective panic coming from Republican establishment figures in Washington:
To many in the Republican Party, the Florida governor has emerged as a more serious and electable 2024 replacement for Trump. But DeSantis’s dismissal of Russia’s invasion of Ukraine as a mere “territorial dispute” shorn of any vital U.S. interest has set off panic in the GOP, as well as in the conservative Russia-hawk circles that once included DeSantis.
Former Republican congressman and Never Trumper Adam Kinzinger (IL) expressed surprise at his former fellow congressmember’s response. He and DeSantis once sat together on the House Armed Services Committee.
“Whelp DeSantis just threw in with the crazies. Talk about a misread,” he tweeted.
Whelp DeSantis just threw in with the crazies. Talk about a misread https://t.co/vV4d4tnVn6
— Adam Kinzinger #fella (@AdamKinzinger) March 14, 2023
Former Republican congresswoman Liz Cheney, another Never Trumper and strident neoconservative, said “DeSantis is wrong and seems to have forgotten the lessons of Ronald Reagan.”
Sen. Lindsey Graham (R-SC), a Trump ally but also a top neoconservative in the Senate, issued veiled criticism of Trump and DeSantis’s responses.
“To those who believe that Russia’s unprovoked and barbaric invasion of Ukraine is not a priority for the United States — you are missing a lot.”
To those who believe that Russia’s unprovoked and barbaric invasion of Ukraine is not a priority for the United States – you are missing a lot.
— Lindsey Graham (@LindseyGrahamSC) March 14, 2023
Several other hawkish Republican senators also pushed back against DeSantis’s remarks.
Another Fox News host, Geraldo Rivera, said he was “disappointed” in DeSantis’s response that Ukraine was not a vital U.S. interest.
Disappointed in Gov Ron DeSantis announcing Ukraine is not a vital US interest.
Not in US interest to prevent expansionist Russia from invading innocent neighboring countries?
Not in our interest to prevent return of the Iron Curtain?
In our interest to roll over for Putin?
— Geraldo Rivera (@GeraldoRivera) March 14, 2023
Senator Chris Murphy (D-CT) said Wednesday on MSNBC’s Morning Joe that former President Trump’s wing of the Republican Party “has decided to turn its back on democracy.”
“I worry that DeSantis and Trump’s support for Putin and opposition to Ukraine is part and parcel of a broader lack of enthusiasm for democracy and self-governance,” he said, arguing that if the U.S. did not defend Ukraine, the “entire post-World War II order falls apart.”
Yet some neoconservatives held out hope DeSantis was just trying to take votes away from Trump and that if he was president, his actual policies would be different.
Peter Doran, a senior adjunct fellow at the hawkish Foundation for the Defense of Democracies tweeted, “People are asking: What to make of DeSantis’ UKR answer. I suggest this take by @jimgeraghty in @NRO: ‘…a presidential candidate’s foreign-policy vision and the actual policies enacted by his administration are often no more than distant cousins.’”
People are asking: What to make of DeSantis’ UKR answer. I suggest this take by @jimgeraghty in @NRO.
“…a presidential candidate’s foreign-policy vision and the actual policies enacted by his administration are often no more than distant cousins.” https://t.co/cHtlnbvJMF
— Peter Doran (@PeterBDoran) March 15, 2023
Geraghty also wrote in the neoconservative National Review:
Presidential candidates are usually just trying to come up with something that sounds good and ‘tough’ during a debate or television interview. But once in office, getting that presidential daily briefing, every foreign-policy challenge suddenly looks a lot more complicated. What DeSantis says now may not tell us all that much of what he would do as president.
The Post‘s Aaron Blake had a similar assessment:
I’ll admit that I wouldn’t be terribly surprised if DeSantis’s position “evolves” or “moves” as [Sens. Kevin Cramer and Mike Rounds] suggest it might. DeSantis does have a political reason to stake out this ground. That’s because this position, while perhaps not yet predominant in the GOP, is clearly the ascendant one. Also, the GOP nominating contest is almost completely Trump vs. DeSantis right now. And hewing to Trump’s position could take off the table an issue that animates the more activist, Ukraine-skeptical portions of the base.
Trump — who has increasingly taken shots at DeSantis, as it appears the Florida governor is gearing up for a run — himself said DeSantis was copying him.
He told reporters traveling with him in Iowa that DeSantis is “following what I am saying. It is a flip-flop. He was totally different. Whatever I want, he wants,” according to CBS News.
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