Isolationist stance

Rand Paul, Mike Lee rail against U.S. aid to Ukraine

The two senators, who favor a more restrictionist foreign policy spoke last week at a foreign policy conference on Capitol Hill organized by The American Conservative magazine

(Photo by ANATOLII STEPANOV/AFP via Getty Images)

Ukrainian servicemen ride atop an armoured personnel carrier vehicle (APC) in the Zaporizhzhya region on June 11, 2023.

Sens. Mike Lee (R-UT) and Rand Paul (R-KY), two of the most prominent avatars of a more restrictionist foreign policy in the Senate Republican conference, criticized the bipartisan U.S. approach to Ukraine and the U.S.’ broader foreign policy posture in speeches at a foreign policy conference on Capitol Hill organized by The American Conservative magazine.

The critiques expressed by the two Republican senators, while less popular on Capitol Hill, have been gaining increasing traction in parts of the Republican Party. 

Lee lamented that “anyone raising dissent” or “legitimate questions” about the U.S.’ assistance to Ukraine is “immediately labeled a Putin apologist, a lover of Russia,” and said that fellow NATO members have not been pulling their weight in supporting Ukraine.

Echoing a line adopted by a growing number of conservative critics of U.S.foreign policy on the war in Ukraine, Lee claimed that the U.S. is depleting stockpiles that would be needed in a potential conflict with China.

“This is leaving us ill-prepared to replenish those resources and prepare for what some would say might end up being the most significant near-term threat to our national interest and our national security abroad,” Lee said.

Lee railed against the United States’ NATO allies, who he said “have, decade after decade, shirked their responsibility to prioritize their own defense.” He argued that the U.S.’ contributions to European defense through NATO have, as such, “been funding European socialism.” 

“This isn’t OK,” Lee said. “It doesn’t just impoverish us, it also makes us less safe.”

He argued that the U.S. should “not spend one penny more on Ukraine” until NATO allies hit their defense spending obligations. NATO members have been increasing their military spending in recent years, although some still have not hit their goals.

Lee criticized plans to potentially include additional aid for Ukraine in an upcoming disaster relief funding bill as “another sign of weakness in our unflinching pro-Ukraine strategy” and a sign that the war is actually unpopular among Americans.

“If your aid package cannot pass on its own merits, such that it has to be attached to another package, a sympathetic, must-pass bill… that says something about your cause,” he argued.

Paul echoed Lee’s concerns. “I think the people are with us, but Washington isn’t, and that’s why we still need to clean house and get a new Congress as soon as possible,” Paul said.

Paul offered significant scorn for his more hawkish GOP colleagues. He lamented efforts by some Republicans to circumvent the defense spending limits in the debt ceiling deal; he compared a commitment made by Senate leadership to considering further emergency defense appropriations — in response to protests from GOP hawks — to “an orchestrated public shaming session… in Mao’s China.”

“My prediction is that they will break the even limited, ineffective caps they put on within two months,” he said.

Paul argued that “if we had a constitutional foreign policy” and “weren’t doing everything, everywhere all the time,” existing defense spending levels “might be more than enough.”

He took a more dovish view than Lee on the possibility of conflict with China, arguing that the U.S. is not making concerted efforts to avoid a war and critiquing legislative efforts, including from his Republican colleagues, to strengthen U.S. policy regarding China and Taiwan.

Addressing his overall outlook on U.S. foreign policy, Lee emphasized that he feels he does not fit into the traditional isolationist camp, describing himself as a “constitutional realist.”

“America can’t simply fall into the practice of ignoring the rest of the world,” Lee said. “But our engagement, particularly our commitment of treasure and the precious blood of America’s sons and daughters must come only when the highest, most stringent, most analytical threshold has been met and fully satisfied… This analysis must be undertaken only by individuals who are accountable to the people, from the president to Congress, but especially Congress.”

The Utah senator offered particular condemnation of the bureaucratic national security apparatus, which he said is unaccountable to the American people and has seized control of decision-making, particularly from Congress.

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