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DeSantis and the Hawkish Thought Police
DeSantis’ dissent-that-isn’t-really-dissent on Ukraine has brought out the hawkish ideological enforcers like almost nothing else in the last few years.
Max Boot is a terrible foreign policy analyst, and his latest column on DeSantis and Ukraine proves it:
This distinction — U.S. aid to Ukraine bad, U.S. aid to Taiwan good — makes little strategic sense: Both Ukraine and Taiwan are worth supporting, and both Europe and Asia matter to the United States. But it’s a dichotomy rooted in a century of Republican foreign policy thinking.
DeSantis’ dissent-that-isn’t-really-dissent on Ukraine has brought out the hawkish ideological enforcers like almost nothing else in the last few years. Perhaps only the withdrawal of Afghanistan has generated as much outraged screeching from the usual suspects. David French bemoans DeSantis’ timidity and lack of Reagan-like leadership, Boot trots out the tired isolationist slur, and Bret Stephens declares DeSantis unfit to be president solely because of his Ukraine statement. The Wall Street Journal editorial board’s reaction was mild by comparison, but they still faulted DeSantis for a “puzzling surrender” to the “Trumpian temptation of American retreat.” These are not sane reactions to a rather vague, slippery statement that basically endorses the status quo. They are also not accurate assessments of DeSantis’ position. At no point has DeSantis said that U.S. aid to Ukraine is “bad,” and he never said that he opposes providing current levels of aid.
These attacks are more of the same old brain-dead policing of the foreign policy debate against any hint of ideological deviationism that we have been dealing with for decades. The thing that seems to have triggered these deranged responses is DeSantis’ true claim that Ukraine is not a vital interest of the United States. It’s strange that this is the part that critics are seizing on, since it is the most obviously correct thing in DeSantis’ answer. Current U.S. policy takes for granted that Ukraine is not a vital American interest. If it were a vital American interest, the U.S. should be willing to fight for it with its own forces and bear the risks that come with that. The Biden administration and sane people across the country agree that the U.S. should not do that in Ukraine, so we can safely conclude that it is not vitally important to the United States. Perhaps a lifetime of confusing vital and peripheral interests has left these hawkish critics somewhat confused when someone correctly distinguishes between them.
This is also why Ukraine should never be brought into NATO, because the U.S. should not commit to fight when it has no vital interests at stake, but DeSantis had nothing to say about that and we cannot assume that he opposes their membership in NATO based on this statement alone. Restrainers should be wary of reading too much into DeSantis’ words, since that would simply copy the error of his hawkish critics. We can see how much of a hardliner he has been in the past, and we should assume that he will still be one in the future until he shows us something real to cause us to reconsider. So far he hasn’t done that, and I don’t expect that he will.
The fact that some of the worst people in the country have decided to go after DeSantis over this is not proof that he actually disagrees with them about very much. In every other respect, DeSantis’ foreign policy record suggests that he would be on board with the same agenda that his hawkish critics have. DeSantis’ foreign policy record seems as if it were designed in a lab to satisfy these people, but it seems they won’t be satisfied with anything less than total conformity.
I don’t like DeSantis, but I find the fanatical denunciations of him over nothing to be confirmation that our policy debates are every bit as toxic as they were in the bad old days of the Bush era. DeSantis’ leading hawkish detractors may not have much clout with Republican voters anymore, but they inexplicably continue to have considerable influence in Washington’s foreign policy debates. Attacking DeSantis for “isolationism” that he clearly doesn’t support is intended to force him back into line and to intimidate other ambitious politicians from straying too far from what the fanatical enforcers will accept. It makes for garbage analysis, but as an exercise in policing the boundaries of acceptable thought it often does the trick.
It would be encouraging news if the “pre-Eisenhower GOP were back with a vengeance,” as Boot claims, but this is unfortunately just another hawkish lie. While there may be a some Republican politicians that want to prioritize anti-China militarism over everything else, this is not a return to a relatively less ambitious foreign policy agenda. On the contrary, these China hawks are in some ways more dangerous and more likely to get us into unnecessary wars in places where the U.S. has no vital interests. The problem with Republicans like DeSantis isn’t that they think that the U.S. doesn’t have vital interests at stake in Ukraine, but that they want the U.S. to keep meddling all around the world while also pursuing a costly rivalry with China.
Like any other Republican hawk, DeSantis opposed the withdrawal from Afghanistan and has since blamed it for encouraging the invasion of Ukraine. This is a ludicrous argument, but it is also clearly not one that a “quasi-isolationist” would ever make. As far as I can tell, DeSantis is just as much of a militarist as Trump, and Trump is a big militarist. We know what Trump’s foreign policy was like when he was president, and it had nothing to do with pulling back from unnecessary conflicts or reducing commitments overseas. We also know that DeSantis was a cheerleader for Trump’s foreign policy when he was still in Congress, and he continued to support some of the worst parts of it after he became governor (e.g., regime change in Venezuela). While the hawkish ideologues are obsessed with policing DeSantis’ words, the rest of us should pay close attention to what he has done and the policies he has supported over time. That will prove to be a much more reliable guide to what a DeSantis foreign policy will look like.