On Thursday, Congress approved a nearly $40 billion package of military and humanitarian aid for Ukraine amid the country’s so far successful efforts to fend off the Russian onslaught, albeit at great cost. That support will make its way swiftly to where it is most needed thanks to legislation passed earlier this month resurrecting the “lend-lease” program, which will streamline the transfer process. These initiatives are still broadly popular among U.S. voters. There was almost no congressional opposition to the new lend-lease bill, and just 11 U.S. senators voted against the latest tranche of financial and material support for Ukraine. That paltry opposition could be easily dismissed by those Americans who support Ukraine’s mission, but that would be unwise. Opponents of this costly transfer of taxpayer funds to the Ukrainian front have a point. Addressing their concerns now could preemptively defuse a mission-imperiling scandal later.
The 11 U.S. senators, all Republicans, who voted against the transfer of sophisticated weapons, food aid, and general economic support to Ukraine are correct insofar as $40 billion is a lot of money. It’s only the latest multi-billion-dollar transfer of arms and assistance to Eastern Europe. The Republicans and conservatives who refused to support this latest disbursement generally make two arguments. First, that there is little oversight of this incredible largess, and taxpayers deserve a full accounting of how their money is being spent. Second, that these funds would be better spent at home or, due to inflationary pressure on the economy, not spent at all.
The second argument is easily dispatched. When it comes to securing America’s global security interests against its revanchist near-peer competitors, $40 billion is playing the game of global hegemony on the cheap. This latest tranche of aid represents only about 5 percent of the Pentagon’s overall budget. U.S. defense spending today is a fraction of what it was during the Cold War, a period defined by global proxy conflicts, a bifurcated marketplace, impenetrable spheres of influence, and the ever-present threat of nuclear annihilation. There’s little risk that Russia could reconstitute the menace it presented in the 20th century, but it absolutely can threaten Europe in ways that destabilize the European compact and force America to recommit to something approximating a Cold War-era presence to the European Continent. A conflict that neutralizes Russia as a conventional military threat for a decade or more advances U.S. strategic interests.
The outcome of this will reverberate around the world. The right’s self-styled realists who want to see America pivot to Asia, whatever the cost to U.S. interests elsewhere on the planet, should hope to see Russia lose this war in terms definitive enough so no other irredentist would dare mimic its performance. “The single biggest thing we can do to push back against President Xi and other authoritarian regimes in the region is to beat the Russians in Ukraine,” Senate Majority Leader Mitch McConnell said on Thursday. A Chinese campaign to take Taiwan by force would not only involve the United States in an indirect conflict with Beijing (in the best case scenario); it would close off commerce in the South China Sea, through which more than $3 trillion in goods travels annually. Deterring a conflict that would cripple the global economy isn’t “putting America last.” Quite the opposite.
The right’s first concern—where all these funds are going—is, however, a perfectly legitimate consideration that deserves a good-faith response.
“Meaningful oversight and accountability must be attached to any new funds sent to support Ukraine, not just the same toothless, boilerplate language that allows politicians to claim they’re looking out for taxpayers,” Heritage Foundation vice president of foreign and defense studies, James Jay Carafano, recently wrote. “Across the board, the way this administration and Congress spend money—without accountability, transparency, or making offsetting cuts—is morally wrong and fiscally foolish.” He’s quite right, and it will not be long before some scandal justifies his concerns in the public imagination.
While the Ukrainians’ cause is just, their need is urgent, and it is in the West’s interests to finance their war effort and subsequent rebuilding, there will be abuses. That is inevitable. Even the 1941 “Lend-Lease Act,” which the 2022 version supporting Ukraine consciously mirrored, was the subject of controversy because its appropriations were misused. If public figures in a developed democracy like Great Britain could squander those funds, a country like Ukraine, is a fledgling democracy with a pattern of corruption in its governing ranks, almost certainly will, too. That’s why we need an office of inspector general to oversee both Ukraine’s war effort and its eventual reconstruction.
That office wouldn’t entirely disarm the explosive political power of a scandal involving the misuse of U.S. funds, but it might identify one before independent journalists could uncover it first. That sequence of events would stave off a cynical argument—one that populist demagogues wouldn’t hesitate to make—that the U.S. government carelessly threw taxpayer dollars into a sewer at the expense of the American working man. If such an argument gained purchase, it would undermine the public’s presently prohibitive support for Ukraine’s cause. Oversight of these funds isn’t just good governance; it’s a preventative effort to preserve the legitimacy of a campaign to make Ukraine into a Western nation—whole, at peace, and a stable bulwark against Russian aggression.
Of course, none of this will dissuade those on the right who are hostile to the projection of American influence abroad from engaging in their regular table pounding. Republican politicians who contend that supporting Ukraine somehow comes at the cost of securing America’s southern border or that the war will deepen Europe’s reliance on American support (all evidence to the contrary notwithstanding) will continue to do so. That kind of soapbox agitation doesn’t require evidentiary support. But supporters of Ukraine’s cause can deprive those who would make the case by being the first to uncover abuses when they occur, which they doubtlessly will. That’s just preventative medicine. Washington would be wise to avail itself of the opportunity to head off populist critiques of the West’s support for Ukraine while that’s still an option.