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DeSantis' 'Anything But Biden' Foreign Policy
DeSantis has no real objection to Biden’s Ukraine policy but he feels he has to come up with something so that he isn’t simply endorsing the president’s position.
Beyond that, however, DeSantis’ claims were incoherent. You cannot simultaneously believe that Russia invaded Ukraine because of Afghanistan and then turn around and urge the U.S. should withdraw support from Ukraine to stand tough on China.
It’s fair to say that DeSantis’ remarks were a grab-bag of anti-Biden talking points, and some of those talking points are going to be in conflict with each other. When the only requirement is finding a way to fault Biden for getting everything wrong, the criticism isn’t always going to be coherent (or accurate). DeSantis is first and foremost a partisan, and we saw the same thing when he was in Congress. Back then, he bashed Obama for “weakness” most of the time because that was what played well with Republican audiences, but he could see which way the wind was blowing on Obama’s proposed intervention in Syria in 2013 and spoke out against it. Years later when it was considered politically useful to bash Obama for “failing” to enforce the “red line,” he did that, too. In the same 2018 interview, DeSantis talked about how Trump had “decisively” struck Assad the year before, so his earlier objections to airstrikes in 2013 evaporated as soon as the president ordering them was from his party.
DeSantis’ overall record is that of a hardliner (and hardliners love him), and even his criticisms of Biden on Ukraine are framed in hawkish terms. When every criticism of Ukraine policy is couched in warnings that the U.S. is neglecting the “real” threat from China, we can tell that the argument isn’t over Ukraine policy as such. DeSantis’ embrace of nonsensical credibility arguments is a good sign that he will ultimately fall back on attacking Biden for not being aggressive and militaristic enough. But he is also opportunistic enough that he can triangulate against Biden by trying to split the difference between administration policy in Ukraine and full rejection of that policy.
I don’t think that DeSantis is urging that the U.S. should withdraw support from Ukraine. The point of his triangulation is to position himself between Biden and outright opponents of aiding Ukraine. This is why he complains about a “blank check” rather than about the assistance itself. He claims the problem is that U.S. support is limitless, but as even more aggressive hawks are happy to tell us the Biden administration has put limits on how much aid Ukraine receives and what kind it gets. There are more than a few people in Washington that believe there should be a blank check, and they are constantly fuming at Biden for not providing it. Of course, DeSantis isn’t going to acknowledge that.
Much like Josh Hawley, who has been criticizing the administration over Ukraine from his position as a China hawk, DeSantis has no real objection to Biden’s Ukraine policy but he feels he has to come up with something so that he isn’t simply endorsing the president’s position. It reminds me of Republican hawks in the ‘90s that carped about interventions in the Balkans not because they opposed intervention in principle but because these missions were distractions from the “real” threats in Iraq and Iran. They didn’t disagree with the substance of the policy, but they were deeply hostile to the president and needed to find some complaint to make about Clinton’s foreign policy. If someone from their party had been doing the exact same thing, they would have had no objections and would probably have been some of the biggest cheerleaders.
Having said all that, I think DeSantis may have identified one of Biden’s genuine political vulnerabilities on this issue, namely the growing perception that the focus on Ukraine is coming at the expense of attending to problems at home. The charge of neglecting domestic issues is a powerful one, and it is one that Biden ignores at his peril. George H.W. Bush was a mostly successful foreign policy president, and he was arguably one of the best foreign policy presidents of the postwar era, but this counted for next to nothing when he ran for reelection. Bush was perceived as out of touch and inattentive to the needs of the country, and his political opponents were able to capitalize on that. Biden could find himself facing something similar next year if he isn’t careful.