DeSantis' Slippery Ukraine Maneuvering
DeSantis essentially endorses the status quo while posing as a bold critic.
Ron DeSantis expands on his Ukraine position in response to a questionnaire from Tucker Carlson:
While the U.S. has many vital national interests – securing our borders, addressing the crisis of readiness within our military, achieving energy security and independence, and 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 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.
Without question, peace should be the objective. 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.
The early coverage of DeSantis’ statement is emphasizing and exaggerating the gap between him and Biden, and this is probably just what DeSantis wants. Note that DeSantis says that the U.S. should not become “further entangled,” which implies that he has no objection to the current level of entanglement. He attacks Biden again for a “virtual blank check” position that Biden doesn’t actually hold, and then goes on to rule out certain kinds of military assistance that the Biden administration has also been opposing. Like Biden, he says he worries about escalation risks and the possibility of direct conflict between the U.S. and Russia, but he can’t be seen acknowledging that Biden holds these same views.
DeSantis is looking for a way to run against Biden on Ukraine without embracing full-on opposition to the policy. What he has come up with is to misrepresent Biden’s position in order to make Biden seem more aggressive and reckless than he has been. Then DeSantis essentially endorses the status quo while posing as a bold critic.
This is a bit reminiscent of how Mitt Romney ran against Obama’s foreign policy. Because Romney didn’t really differ that much with Obama on substance on most issues, he usually had to distort Obama’s record to make the policy differences between them seem vast. The problem back then for the challenger was that Romney started to believe his own propaganda about apology tours and appeasement and then made a fool of himself on a regular basis.
This time around, DeSantis seems inclined to exaggerate Biden’s hawkishness, at least when it comes to Ukraine. That is not usually how Republican candidates run against Democratic incumbents. No doubt DeSantis will balance this out by falsely accusing Biden of weak-kneed capitulations elsewhere, but on this issue he seems to see an opening by painting Biden as more of a hardliner than he is.
As political triangulation goes, DeSantis’ statement works fairly well as long as you don’t care about accuracy. He presents himself as occupying the middle ground between a “blank check” policy that doesn’t exist and total opposition. He comes out against regime change, which is another extreme position that the administration does not take. He feeds it to Carlson so that it will be presented as sympathetically as possible to a Republican audience, and Carlson is such a propagandist that he isn’t going to care about or call attention to DeSantis’ distortions.
The trick is that DeSantis doesn’t differ with Biden on Ukraine as much as he or some of his hawkish detractors would like people to believe. As far as I can tell, he hasn’t pointed to a specific Biden decision related to Ukraine since the war started that he opposes. While he complains that Biden has no defined objectives, he doesn’t suggest what the objectives of U.S. policy should be in this case beyond the generic wish for peace. Notably, DeSantis does not call for a halt or reduction to current military assistance, and while he says that “peace should be the objective” he does not suggest any compromises or concessions that might need to be made to achieve it.
He wants to make sure that Trump can’t outflank him, and he doesn’t want to be identified as supporting Biden’s policy, but he has to keep everything as vague as possible so that he doesn’t get pinned down with specific proposals that he would have to defend. All in all, it’s a very slippery performance that should make everyone wary of DeSantis regardless of your views on Ukraine policy. He will jump in whichever direction seems to offer him the best political advantage, and that means that you can’t trust him.
The lack of extreme hawkishness of Biden is overstated by the author when he writes Biden does not favor regime change when the President is on record saying Putin must go and has the cabal of Nuland, Rice et al setting the agenda and pushing Biden one step at a time toward a doomsday scenario. Mr. Larison rightly acknowledges the politics of foreign policy in the Republican Primary and the lack of precision and clarity in DeSantis's remarks, but that has always been de rigueur in politics, n'est ce pas? Not to trust a politician is as certain of an assertion as the earth is not flat. Russophobia will remain bipartisan among the governing elite in Washington regardless who's President. I'm not holding my breath, at the risk of turning blue, for Cruz, Lindsey, Pompeo, Haley, McConnell, etc., to criticize Zelensky for kicking out the Orthodox monks from Pechersk Lavra only to have them pivot and start lecturing that there is no daylight between Israel and us. After all, we know those prayerful monks are really Putin agents intent on destroying American democracy!
DeSantis may be slippery, but that means that he may *possibly* be amenable to taking a less hawkish stance if convenient at the moment. Lord knows I don't want to oversell DeSantis.
That said, Biden is a known quantity, and has painted himself into a corner where he can only ratchet aggression up.