foreign policy divide

Top GOP House recruit leans toward party’s anti-interventionist wing 

State Sen. Tom Barrett is pursuing a second Congressional campaign after losing to Rep. Elissa Slotkin in 2022

Tom Barrett for Congress

State Sen. Tom Barrett

As Republicans on Capitol Hill find themselves increasingly divided between traditional hawks and a growing anti-interventionist wing, one of the leading GOP House recruits is leaning into some isolationist rhetoric — in sharp contrast with the Democratic lawmaker he’s looking to succeed.

After an unsuccessful challenge to Rep. Elissa Slotkin (D-MI) in 2022, former Michigan state Sen. Tom Barrett is making another attempt to flip her Lansing-area congressional seat, announcing his second congressional campaign over the weekend. Slotkin recruited former state Sen. Curtis Hertel Jr., who declared his candidacy on Monday, to run for the seat.

The GOP’s growing foreign policy divide has made itself most clear in debates over America’s continued funding of Ukraine’s defense against Russia’s invasion.

Barrett, an Iraq war veteran, described the Russian invasion as “an attack on a sovereign country… that disrupted the peaceful status quo that had existed in Europe for more than a generation.” But he was skeptical of the U.S.’ role as the lynchpin of the pro-Ukraine international coalition, and told Jewish Insider that “a lot of people thought this would have been resolved by now.”

“I think our best approach right now is to have our president engage European leaders to really take the responsibility of leading the effort as it relates to Ukraine, and to try and bring about a peaceful outcome from that conflict,” Barrett said.

He said that the U.S. had “carried the torch of liberty” through the War on Terror, but that “now it’s time for us to pass that responsibility” — although “not entirely” — to the Europeans.

Barrett — speaking to JI hours before Turkey agreed to allow Sweden to join NATO — said he “questioned” the wisdom of NATO expansion. He argued that American citizens are not interested in “sign[ing] up right now to go and die in Finland” and warned that the expanding alliance could pull the U.S. into a broader conflict.

“We have to be very measured and very thoughtful about what we are doing,” Barrett said. “This isn’t an exact comparison, but in World War I, you had all these alliances that took place, and one domino tipped and the whole world goes to war. I don’t want to see us stumble our way into another global catastrophic war that way, with the posture of Russia.”

Barrett emphasized his opposition to sending U.S. troops into Ukraine — an option that has not been floated by leaders in either party — warning of inevitable loss of life to both troops and civilians as well as “mission creep.” It’s a view in line with his position that the U.S. should limit its overall military engagements abroad.

The two-time congressional candidate emphasized the need for “appropriate safeguards” on U.S. financial assistance to Ukraine and said “there are ways in which we can be helpful, beyond just direct dollars that don’t necessarily have accountability behind them.” In explaining his position on the issue, he invoked House Speaker Kevin McCarthy’s (R-CA) comments last year that he would oppose a “blank check” to Ukraine.

Pressed on the differences between his views on the subject and those in his party who believe U.S. aid to Ukraine should be cut off entirely, Barrett said that the issue “presents a real challenge” with which many “Americans are struggling.”

“As leaders, or potential leaders, we have to go into it eyes wide open, we have to know what we’re signing up for,” he said. “Because, again, my hesitation comes from the mission creep that I’ve seen in the military, and all these other conflicts that we’ve engaged in. I lost too many friends and wars that lasted way too long.”

He also criticized the Biden administration’s decision last week to send controversial cluster munitions to Ukraine, arguing that the move would potentially alienate European allies from the Ukrainian cause and that the administration’s announcement had exposed Ukrainian supply shortages to Russia.

Barrett’s current tone on the war seems more cautious than that which he adopted in the initial days after Russia’s invasion — when he reportedly donned a Ukrainian flag ribbon and voted in favor of a state Senate resolution condemning Russia and expressing support for Ukraine. 

He told local outlet MLive that the resolution would “send a message to the rest of the world that we are standing on [Ukraine’s] side and hopefully giving them some uplifting encouragement.” Barrett also said that he “hope[d] there’s more that we can do as the days and weeks progress.”

Elsewhere in the world, Barrett, who told JI last year he was worried that Iran may already have developed nuclear weapons capabilities, said that his concerns about Iran have not abated over the past year.

“It presents a destabilizing effect in the region, and it presents a massive threat to any type of free society or free nation, whether that’s us or any of our allies abroad,” he said. “We’ve not done the [deterrence] it takes to prevent these types of things from happening, and I feel that our adversaries abroad — whether that is China, whether that is Russia, whether it is Iran — they see weakness in the White House and they are exploiting that to their benefit. And we need to get serious about confronting it.”

Barrett told JI he decided to run again because “the challenges we’re facing as a country… haven’t gotten any better in the last eight or nine months since the last election” — rattling off rising costs of living, national security threats from China, border security, fentanyl and public safety as among his animating issues.

He said that various factors in this election will help push him over the top this time: he’s getting into the race earlier this time without any concerns about redistricting; he won’t be challenging an incumbent; and he’s not likely to face the same fundraising disparities as he did against Slotkin, a prodigious fundraiser, in what was among the most expensive congressional races in the country.

He added that he predicts a “far more competitive race at the top of the ticket” in 2024, noting that Republican gubernatorial candidate Tudor Dixon lost the district by 11 points.

Barrett also faced significant backlash in 2022 from his position on abortion; at one point in the campaign, he deleted a page from his campaign website declaring that he would “protect life from conception.”

In his previous interview with JI, Barrett indicated that the threat from violent domestic extremists, which has been a focus for Slotkin, would not be a priority for him in office. One such extremist was arrested last month for threatening to conduct a mass shooting at a synagogue in Lansing, the heart of Barrett’s congressional district.

Barrett told JI on Monday that the incident indicates the importance of intelligence and resource sharing between federal and local law enforcement agencies.

“We need to hold people accountable for acts of violence, or express[ing] interest in acts of violence. And it sounds like if that were able to be prevented, that is a good example of how law enforcement worked together,” he said. “That’s a success that we should try and emulate in other ways.”

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