policy position

DeSantis’ Ukraine flip alarms pro-Israel Republicans

DeSantis’ comments on Ukraine were met with criticism by several leading Republican senators this week

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Florida Gov. Ron DeSantis speaks to police officers about protecting law and order at Prive catering hall on February 20, 2023 in the Staten Island borough of New York City.

In declaring his belief that protecting Ukraine from Russian aggression is a “territorial dispute” and not a vital interest to the United States, Gov. Ron DeSantis of Florida, who is widely expected to run for president in 2024, raised alarms among traditional GOP hawks and conservative pro-Israel foreign policy experts. 

A spokesperson for DeSantis did not respond to requests for comment from Jewish Insider on Tuesday, as a growing number of GOP leaders rushed to condemn his Ukraine remarks, written in response to a questionnaire solicited by “Tucker Carlson Tonight.”

“I’m extraordinarily disappointed in what DeSantis said about Ukraine to Tucker Carlson,” said Danielle Pletka, a senior fellow at the American Enterprise Institute. “Foreign policy isn’t actually that complicated: It’s about principles. If you care about American values and American security, then you know that attempts to exterminate a nation simply for being — whether that nation is Ukraine or Israel or any other on earth — are wrong, and that such power plays ultimately end in threatening our homeland.”

In an email to JI, Elliott Abrams, a former diplomat who serves as a senior fellow for Middle Eastern studies at the Council on Foreign Relations, also rejected the basis of DeSantis’ argument, which claimed that U.S. funding for Ukraine “distracts” from more “pressing challenges” on the home front that should be addressed. 

“On the merits, I would say that a Putin victory in Ukraine will threaten American friends and NATO allies in Europe and threaten a wider conflict there, as well as delivering a dangerous message to Xi Jinping that would make war over Taiwan more likely,” Abrams said on Tuesday, referring to the leader of China. “Accordingly, support for Ukraine against Russian aggression very much protects vital security interests of the United States, and failing to support Ukraine makes more conflict more likely.”

DeSantis’ comments on Ukraine were criticized by several leading Republican senators Tuesday, in a rare break with a likely presidential candidate from their own party. 

Sen. Lindsey Graham (R-SC), offering perhaps the most forceful denunciation of the Florida governor’s stance, likened DeSantis to the British prime minister whose appeasement of Adolf Hitler helped precipitate World War II. “The Neville Chamberlain approach to aggression never ends well,” Graham said in an interview with The New York Times on Tuesday. “This is an attempt by Putin to rewrite the map of Europe by force of arms.”

Among other traditionally oriented Republicans who publicly spoke out against DeSantis on Tuesday were Sen. Marco Rubio (R-FL), John Cornyn (R-TX), Roger Wicker (R-MS) and Mitt Romney (R-UT). “I believe it’s in the national interest for us to honor our word,” Romney, who argued that DeSantis’ approach is not reflective of the GOP overall, said in a brief interview with JI. “We made a commitment to Ukraine that we would assure their sovereignty, and that’s what we’re doing.”

Rich Goldberg, a Republican campaign strategist and former Hill staffer who co-hosts JI’s weekly podcast, believes the governor “has clearly made a political calculation that leaning into the isolationist message on Ukraine is helpful to his path,” he wrote in an email to JI on Tuesday. “Whether that signals a wider embrace of isolationist views or a siloed decision on Ukraine based on the polling remains to be seen.”

“This is still the same governor pushing hawkish policies on confronting China, combatting Iran, defending Israel and putting pressure on both Cuba and Venezuela,” Goldberg said. “Is he a born-again Tucker Carlson ideologue or just a politician looking to win a primary with GOP polling on Ukraine moving in the wrong direction? Jury’s out.”

Other GOP presidential candidates or those who are weighing bids have expressed continued support for aiding Ukraine. They include former Vice President Mike Pence, former New Jersey Gov. Chris Christie and former U.S. Ambassador to the United Nations Nikki Haley, who announced her campaign last month and is one of three primary candidates currently in the race. 

In a statement to JI on Tuesday, Haley defended her own approach to the war in Ukraine and suggested that DeSantis’ position would exacerbate tensions not just in Europe but in the Middle East and beyond.

“America should always have the backs of our allies and friends, like Israel and Ukraine, and we should expect them to have our back,” Haley said. “Russia is a strongly anti-American country, trying to expand by force into a neighboring pro-American country, and threatening other American allies. We are far better off with a Ukrainian victory than a Russian victory. Sitting on the sidelines will only embolden Russia and its Chinese and Iranian allies.”

Even amid the blowback, DeSantis managed to raise his own profile while giving a major boost to the isolationist faction of the GOP — and joining with former President Donald Trump in expressing weariness over American involvement in the conflict

Such issues underscore a broader conflict within conservative foreign policy circles that has fueled division between establishment GOP hawks in favor of backing Ukraine, and an increasingly outspoken contingent of populist-leaning Republicans, who are promoting a more skeptical approach to international engagement as a whole.

DeSantis, for his part, boasts a strong pro-Israel record thanks to his long tenure in public office at the state and federal levels. But some conservative foreign policy experts say they are taking a wait-and-see approach to assessing his motivations for dismissing Ukraine — and what that shift could more broadly portend about his platform.

In 2015, DeSantis sided with those in his party in criticizing the Obama administration for not providing military aid to Ukraine after Russia invaded Crimea. “We in the Congress have been urging [President Obama], I’ve been, to provide arms to Ukraine. They want to fight their good fight. They’re not asking us to fight it for them. And the president has steadfastly refused. And I think that that’s a mistake,” DeSantis said to conservative radio host Bill Bennett at the time.

His apparent evolution on the subject has unsettled GOP hawks, concerned about whether DeSantis could change his views on other national security issues. The Times reported that pro-Ukraine Republicans have been unsettled by DeSantis’ ties to the Claremont Institute think tank, which promotes foreign policy views aligned with Trump.

Ric Grenell, a former acting director of national intelligence under Trump, credited the former president, rather than DeSantis, with embracing what he characterized as a novel approach to foreign policy.

“Too many Republicans forget the power of diplomacy and race to talk solely about the military option as if it’s the only way to show strength and protect U.S. national security,” Grenell explained. “Peace through strength means having a second-to-none military that you don’t have to use because your diplomats are successful.” Trump, he said, “fundamentally understands this concept like no one else.”

DeSantis now is trying to occupy a similar lane with his new statement on Ukraine, pitting the vast majority of Republican voters on a crash course against the sentiment of its top leaders.

Additional reporting contributed by Jewish Insider’s Capitol Hill reporter Marc Rod.

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