President Biden’s surprise trip to Kyiv deserves at least a respectful nod in private from his antagonists at home, even if they are lukewarm to negative about his approach to Ukraine—and there are different ways to be negative about it, as I’ll discuss.
If nothing else, this was well played. It was planned in secret, stayed secret, had exciting spy-novel trappings—an unmarked train!—and went off without a hitch. You can detest someone and his policies and still admire his gamesmanship, a la “Rommel, you magnificent bastard, I read your book!” Those who want to cavil about it have been complaining that he went to Ukraine and not somewhere else, i.e., East Palestine, Ohio, the site of a train derailment and chemical accident.
That was also relatively well-played as a political matter, since it connects to a larger anti-Biden theme, which is that he doesn’t care about Trump-supporting areas of the country—or that he cares more about his “globalist” agenda than the lives of ordinary Americans. Still, doing the “he should have done this thing rather than that thing” seems like sour grapes, a talk-radio cavil.
The question is what effect Biden’s dramatic play here is going to have on the Republican Party and conservatives more generally. As the GOP is the opposition, it can be expected to oppose. There are two kinds of opposition possible. One, represented by the more hawkish elements among conservatives, would hold that Biden is talking a big game but isn’t actually committing enough resources to the effort in Ukraine to get the job done. This view is most eloquently expressed by Frederick Kagan and his colleagues at the Critical Threats Project and the Institute for the Study of War.
The other is to say that Biden is doing too much, that we don’t have the resources to spare to help Ukraine, that helping Ukraine is a fool’s errand, and that it’s a distraction from the real threat, which is China.
The best distillation of the latter view can be found in Sen. Josh Hawley’s speech last week to the Heritage Foundation. Hawley claims, in effect, that we’re fighting the wrong enemy, and that we’re doing so based on corrupt pretenses that have been dominating Washington for a generation. He says a “uniparty” made up of neoconservatives and liberal globalists has been coddling China while it has been involving us in useless and damaging conflicts in the Middle East and Ukraine.
The analysis is absurd, and while I’m not sure anything is unworthy of Hawley, a person of low and factitious character, he knows enough to know he’s lying. Neoconservatives today say the path to deterring China depends upon our helping Ukraine resist Russian engulfment. Hawley calls this “magical thinking,” which is rich coming from a man who says that “we should have seen the threat of China coming years ago” while accusing the very people who saw the threat of China coming years ago of engaging in “magical thinking.” Indeed, when I was partly running the Weekly Standard in 1996, we literally produced an entire special issue called “China: The Threat.” COMMENTARY has been similarly resolute over the past three decades. There were China coddlers, but they weren’t neoconservatives.
Hawley gives the game away by insisting we should literally cut Ukraine off and reduce our force levels in Europe so we can dedicate all our resources to opposing China—in the course of a speech that begins with Hawley saying that if China should move on Taiwan, it will take Taiwan. Yeah, well, good luck convincing China not to move on Taiwan if we pull out of Ukraine and Europe. Here’s Hawley’s strategy: “We should be stockpiling weapons, dispersing our forces in the Indo-Pacific, and accelerating late-stage development of space, cyber, and other critical capabilities, like the B-21 strategic bomber.”
There’s some ludicrous “magical thinking” for you right there. I agree we should do all these things, but an America that pulls out of the fight against the one country in the world that’s now trying to swallow up another country whole will be sending the unmistakable signal to China that it can act without consequence against Taiwan. With a presidential campaign now all but before us, in which Donald Trump and Nikki Haley are already contesting, you can see how tempting the Hawley position is going to be for the key entrant, Ron DeSantis. It sounds hawkish—we need to dedicate all our resources to stopping China—while actually being isolationist.
Where will DeSantis come down on this? Haley has already made clear she’s on the hawkish side. Trump, of course, will double down on his NATO contempt. DeSantis told Fox News on Monday he didn’t like Biden’s “blank check” policy on Ukraine, which is a ridiculous way to characterize the president’s approach over the past year; it took months each time for Biden to agree to commit new resources to Ukraine, from ammunition to missiles to tanks. He said Russia has been revealed as a third-rate power from which NATO has nothing to fear, which certainly would not be the case if Russia actually managed to prevail in Ukraine and properly felt emboldened by its victory there.
This is one interview and there’s a whole year to go yet. But it’s not reassuring that DeSantis’s initial instinct was to speak in Hawley-like terms, as opposed to Nikki Haley, who said last week, “I don’t think we need to write them blank checks but they have the passion to fight for their own freedom. Give them the ammunition to do it.”
The most disturbing aspect of the right’s response to Biden and Ukraine is that the present set of attitudes suggests the better Ukraine does and the closer it might get to victory, the more the GOP will be tempted to act as though this entirely desirable outcome would be bad news for America.