A growing Republican rift between lawmakers who prioritize domestic issues and the party's powerful faction of foreign policy hawks was on full display after GOP Florida Gov. Ron DeSantis called Russia's war in Ukraine a "territorial dispute" that is not a vital interest to the U.S.
DeSantis, an all-but-declared presidential candidate, was one of several official and potential contenders for the 2024 Republican nomination to respond to a questionnaire from Fox News host Tucker Carlson. The Sunshine State leader took an "America First" approach to the conflict.
DeSantis said that "while the U.S. has many vital national interests," including competition with China and border security, "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," he said.
The popular governor's more isolationist posture is similar to the one held by former President Donald Trump, who argued in his response to Carlson's questionnaire that it is "unfair" of Europe to rely on the U.S. to fund Ukraine's defense.
The U.S. has sent more than $110 billion in economic and military aid to Ukraine since Russia invaded last year. Republican House Speaker Kevin McCarthy has rhetorically challenged what he considers the "blank check" approach to Ukraine, though he has yet to act to curb the spending.
National security expert Fred Fleitz told Newsmax that DeSantis is "exactly right" in taking a "principled America First approach to this issue."
"I completely agree with him that Ukraine is not a vital U.S. interest," Fleitz said. "This isn't to say the U.S. will not stand with other nations who are threatened by autocratic regimes and brutal invasions.
"However, the governor was right when he said that we had to prioritize the defense of our homeland over intervening in a state where we don't have a strategic interest in, is not a member of NATO, and the conflict is more Europe's problem than ours."
Retired Air Force Brig. Gen. Blaine Holt said DeSantis is "pivoting himself in the right direction" by advocating for accountability on how aid is being spent.
But he said DeSantis must take the time to address the complexities of the war.
"He needs to spend his time differentiating himself from a neocon," Holt said.
While he wouldn't "admonish" DeSantis for the questionnaire response, he said the governor should stop being "so simplistic" by going straight to the America First "no wars" mantra.
"He needs to rise to the occasion and say, This is going to require real presidential policy," Holt said.
Holt believes the GOP's focus should be twofold: first, arguing that the war itself was avoidable, but the Biden administration's policies emboldened Russian President Vladimir Putin to act; second, now that war is a reality, the U.S. can't turn its back on NATO and innocent Ukrainians and must find a diplomatic route out of the conflict in a way that helps us regain strength, prestige, and credibility on the world stage.
Former Vice President Mike Pence, who is mulling a White House run, and former United Nations Ambassador Nikki Haley, a declared GOP candidate, expressed viewpoints more in line with the establishment wing of the GOP, highlighting the importance of a Ukrainian victory over Russia.
They warned that a victorious Putin wouldn't stop his aggression with Ukraine and raised concerns that NATO countries soon could be at risk.
"We support those who fight our enemies on their shores, so we will not have to fight them ourselves," Pence wrote.
Haley added that a Russian victory would also serve to make China and Iran "more aggressive."
DeSantis' "territorial dispute" description was criticized by several Republican lawmakers on the grounds that the terminology minimized the true horrors of the bloody conflict.
Fellow Florida Republican Sen. Marco Rubio criticized DeSantis for failing to call the conflict an invasion.
"This is an invasion," Rubio told conservative radio host Hugh Hewitt on Tuesday. "This is not the same as two countries arguing over disputed boundaries that were settled in some treaty 50 years ago. This is basically the Russians want Ukraine to be under their thumb."
Rubio argued that the U.S. does have an interest in the conflict, though he allowed that he doesn't believe the Ukraine-Russia war is America's "No. 1 interest in the world," putting competition with China as the country's "single-biggest foreign policy priority."
Sen. Lindsey Graham, R-S.C., compared DeSantis' comments to those of the politicians who sought appeasement toward Nazi Germany before World War II.
"The [former British Prime Minister] Neville Chamberlain approach to aggression never ends well," Graham told The New York Times. "This is an attempt by Putin to rewrite the map of Europe by force of arms."
He told CNN that Putin is "committing war crimes on an industrial scale" and accused DeSantis of essentially saying that "war crimes don't matter."
Graham also argued that backing down to Putin could have a larger impact on geopolitics, especially as China ratchets up its aggression toward Taiwan.
"The statement by the governor is taking it off the table, and that will just incentivize Putin to stay in the game, to fight harder," Graham told CNN. "And if you know anything about China, they see weakness in Ukraine by the West, there goes Taiwan."
Sen. John Cornyn, R-Texas, told Politico he was "disturbed" by DeSantis' comments and said it is "important for us to continue to support Ukrainians for our own security."
Sen. Mike Crapo, R-Idaho, told CNN that the U.S. "should support the effort in Ukraine. If we don't hold the line in Ukraine now, we're simply going to see the issue expand into other European nations."
But though establishment Republicans appear united behind Ukraine, a desire to disentangle the U.S. from the conflict seems to align DeSantis and Trump with the Republican base.
According to a January Pew Research Center poll, the number of Republicans who say the U.S. has given Ukraine too much assistance jumped from 9% last year to 40%, while those who said the U.S. isn't giving enough aid dropped from 49% to 17%.
A new CNN-SSRS poll found that 80% of Republican or Republican-leaning independents want the eventual GOP nominee to take the position that the U.S. "should not be involved in the war between Russia and Ukraine."
The poll found that 40% of Republicans back Trump for the nomination. DeSantis came in second, earning support from 36% of GOP voters.
The No. 2 Senate Republican, South Dakota's John Thune, told CNN that, while he disagrees with DeSantis, there are "probably" going to be plenty of Republicans who do agree with him.
"I would argue," he said, "and I think the majority of people in this country recognize, how important it is that Ukraine repel Russia and stop this aggression and they be a sovereign country."
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