GOP split between neoconservative imperialists and traditional realists who respectively support and oppose Ukraine war aid
By JAMES CARDEN
This is the third and final installment of a three-part series on ‘The Blob’ that runs American foreign policy.
WASHINGTON – If the war in Ukraine has among other things re-established an ironclad discipline with the Democratic Party regarding foreign affairs, then the Republican side of the aisle is in the midst of a burgeoning civil war over the direction and purpose of US foreign policy.
The fragmentation within the Grand Old Party (GOP) over the war in Ukraine can be seen most starkly in the small pockets of dissent expressed by the several dozen or so realists and restrainers in Congress over the Biden administration’s decision to send US$40 billion in aid to Kiev.
In the US House of Representatives, Republican efforts to oppose the Ukrainian aid package have been led by Thomas Massie of Kentucky. Massie, appearing before a group of civic-minded pillars of Washington society at the Metropolitan Club in April, told the assembled that “… my colleagues in Congress want to turn NATO into an NGO … by continuing to expand NATO’s scope and what it endeavors to do, we put Putin up against the wall. We could have done things differently.”
The Republican drive to oppose the aid package in the upper chamber was led by Massie’s fellow Kentuckian, Rand Paul, who has now famously said that the US should not serve as Ukraine’s “sugar daddy.”
Paul and his fellow Republican, Utah’s redoubtable Mike Lee, have for years been among the leading advocates for a less-is-more approach to America’s role in the world, having worked tirelessly to end US support for Saudi Arabia’s unremitting war on civilians in Yemen.
The bipartisan passage of War Powers legislation by both houses of Congress which sought to halt US support for the Saudi war in April 2019 was perhaps the most consequential act of Congress in a generation. Specifically, it signaled the desire of a significant number of congressmen to take back the powers granted to the executive under Article I, Section 8, Clause 11, of the US Constitution. Then-president Donald Trump vetoed the legislation.
If the objections in the House and Senate to the Ukraine package show that small cracks in the Washington consensus are emerging, common sense still dictates that the odds remain firmly stacked against the 60 or 70 Republicans who seem to be rethinking their party’s long and disastrous fidelity to the principles of neoconservatism.
Christopher Preble, a long-time national security expert and co-director of the New Engagement Initiative at the Atlantic Council, says that in his view “it’s a sign of progress that 57 Republicans in the House and 11 in the Senate deemed $40 billion of aid worthy of scrutiny, but the fact that overwhelming majorities in both chambers so swiftly approved this package of aid with no questions asked, and no meaningful oversight regarding how this money will be spent, shows that the foreign policy consensus remains fixed firmly on punishing Russia and not worrying about the possible long-term implications.”
The debate over the Ukrainian aid package on Capitol Hill has, perhaps inevitably, carried over into the world of conservative think tanks and little magazines which exercise a certain influence on Hill staffers and, perhaps even occasionally, their principals.
If Ukraine has united all manner of Democratic Party progressives, liberals, moderates and blue dogs – cracks within the old Republican consensus are now surely evident.
The old consensus might best be summed up in the words of the eminent and late historian John Lukacs, who, in describing his view of Eisenhower’s secretary of state John Foster Dulles, wrote that Dulles possessed “a distressingly puritanical and at times even pharisaic inclination to see in the world struggle a national personification of good versus evil.”
As a measure of how far the Republicans have traveled, consider a recent essay by Missouri Republican Senator Josh Hawley, who ably expressed the reasons behind the hesitancy of some of his fellow members in embracing the bipartisan mania for sending all manner of money and weapons to Ukraine.
In an essay in the widely hyped post-liberal magazine Compact, Hawley wrote that his fellow Republicans “have forgotten their foreign-policy heritage.” “What America needs is not nation-building, but nationalism,” wrote Hawley.
Hawley’s (and Paul’s and Massie’s) views have found a surprising source of support in that bastion of orthodox Republican thought, The Heritage Foundation.
Republicans who opposed the aid package, said Heritage in a widely-circulated tweet, “took a tough and principled stand on the aid package. What is immoral is dumping tens of billions of dollars into a country without proper oversight or Congressional debate about US strategy.”
The comment drew immediate fire from the old Republican guard in the person of longtime National Review senior editor Jay Nordlinger, who fired back: “Aid to Ukraine is not only right, morally. It’s also in the US interest.
“But the Heritage Foundation says that the latest aid package ‘puts America last.’ Which is childish. Which is Trumpian nonsense and blather. It is also perfectly reflective of the state of the right.”
The one part of Nordlinger’s salvo that is unarguable is that Heritage’s pivot – from a reflexive and zombified neoconservatism to sounding support for a more restrained foreign policy – is indeed reflective of the state of the right.
But as Sumantra Maitra, a national security fellow at the realist-leaning Center for the National Interest, told this correspondent: “The fight isn’t new. Majority of the American public are overall very narrow realist and nationalist. It’s the small “r” Republican instinct that’s ever-present in this country.
“What is problematic is the hyper-imperial NGO-cracy which is sort of like an imperial edifice, which takes advantage of temporal public passions to promote their ideas. As for the Republican party, conservatism in the US was always mostly realist, but recently in the last few decades was corrupted and is now slowly reverting back to the norm.”
Indeed, the debate between the globalists and the small “r” Republicans goes at least as far back to the fin de siècle when the American nation took its initial steps toward a global empire.
As historian Barbara Tuchman has written, in the years immediately preceding the Spanish-American War (1898) the GOP was split between enthusiasts for Empire and those of a different cast of mind who adhered to Jefferson’s view that “if there is one principle more deeply rooted in the mind of every American, it is that we should have nothing to do with conquest.”
The split within the GOP, then as now, was between imperialists such as future US president Theodore Roosevelt and Senator Henry Cabot Lodge and American traditionalists such as House Speaker Thomas Reed, who was of the view that America’s overseas expansion was “a policy no Republican ought to excuse much less adopt.”
The battle within the GOP then, when the American Empire was in its infancy, bears more than a passing resemblance to the battle within the party today.
One may be forgiven for wondering why at this point in a long dissection of the state of the foreign policy debate within the GOP there has yet to be any mention of the ex-presidential elephant in the room, Donald J Trump.
One reason is that Trump’s position between the realist/restrainer camp and the old guard neoconservative-National Review camp remains somewhat muddied by the ex-president’s rhetoric, which reflects the former, and the views of his closest advisers and surrogates, which reflect the latter.
An example of the confusing signals Trump has sent can be seen in a statement he released in April in which he signaled support for a diplomatic solution, saying: “It doesn’t make sense that Russia and Ukraine aren’t sitting down and working out some kind of an agreement … if they don’t do it soon, there will be nothing left but death, destruction and carnage.
“This is a war that never should have happened, but it did. The solution can never be as good as it would have been before the shooting started, but there is a solution, and it should be figured out now – not later – when everyone will be DEAD!”
Trump’s sentiments seem to fit with the thinking of the Republican minority who voted against the Ukraine package. Yet a knowledgeable source formerly inside the administration says that the statement “was not at all representative of the thinking around him. Indeed, it was an aberration.”
The longtime chronicler of the American conservative movement, George Nash, recently predicted that after Trump there will be “an attempt by mainstream conservative figures to refurbish the house of conservatism with a certain amount of Trumpian furniture but without Trump himself as the proprietor of the house.”
And this seems to be exactly what’s unfolding at the America First Policy Institute, which claims to be carrying the torch of America First until such time as Trump is re-elected in 2024.
Headed by the wife of a former wrestling magnate, Linda McMahon, and CNBC fixture and Bear Stearns burnout Larry Kudlow, it is under the institutional banner of the AFPI where standard-issue Republican hawks like former generals Keith Kellogg and Jack Keane and policy intellectuals such as Kiron Skinner are trying to pass the policies of the old Republican consensus off as America First-style reform.
In other words, Trump’s post-presidency is looking a lot like his time in office when Trump talked a good game about addressing America’s overextended global posture but then stacked his staff with the most sanguinary and irresponsibly hawkish members of the national security establishment, including HR McMaster, John Bolton, Mike Pompeo and Mark Esper.
Trump’s primary contribution to the Republican foreign policy debate, then, has been to confuse and muddle it.
The Center for the National Interest’s Maitra, told Asia Times in his view, “the Thomas Massie/Rand Paul/JD Vance/Tucker Carlson wing of the GOP is ascendant and Donald Trump was the symbol of that.”
“The Republican leadership is of course completely out of touch,” said Maitra, “and the Republican base needs a lot more public voices, which is why the upcoming elections are so important.”
Indeed, more promising from the point of view of Republican realists and retainers is the ascending Thielocrat wing of the party, including but not limited to Ohio Republican senatorial hopeful JD Vance, Arizona senate candidate Blake Masters and the aforementioned Josh Hawley.
And given the virtually limitless funding capabilities of their sponsor, the tech-billionaire Peter Thiel, they, not Trump, probably represent the biggest threat to the Republican foreign policy orthodoxy since Nixon and Kissinger snubbed the hardline anti-communist wing of the conservative movement by making the pursuit of detente with Russia and China the primary aim of American foreign policy in the late 1960s and early 1970s.
Yet even if the election of a new generation of America First politicians is not assured in November, the debate within the Republican Party, sparked by the Biden administration’s response to the Russian invasion of Ukraine, will have ramifications within the GOP for years to come.