election 2024, foreign policy, Im-Politic, NATO, North Atlantic treaty Organization, nuclear war, politics, Ron DeSantis, Russia, Ukraine, Ukraine War, vital interests, Vladimir Putin
Since the Ukraine War is the first international crisis in decades that could draw the United States into a nuclear war, and since Florida Republican Governor Ron DeSantis could well become the nation’s next president, it’s vital to explain why the real mistake made by DeSantis in recently commenting on U.S. policy toward the conflict isn’t the one his critics have charged he’s made.
Instead, it’s a mistake that’s not only different, but actually serious, because it could eventually force him to support deeper and more dangerous U.S. involvement if he ever wins the White House.
The mistake DeSantis supposedly made in an interview published yesterday was flip-flopping, or at least seeming to walk back, an earlier statement downplaying Ukraine’s importance to the United States, and stating that because of nuclear war risk, should sharply limit its military aid and shift its focus to pushing for a peace deal.
Here’s his full statement to Fox News-talker Tucker Carlson. To me, the key passages are:
“While the U.S. has many vital national interests – securing our borders, addressing the crisis of readiness within our military, achieving energy security and independence, and checking the economic, cultural, and military power of the Chinese Communist Party – becoming further entangled in a territorial dispute between Ukraine and Russia is not one of them.” And
“Without question, peace should be the objective. The U.S. should not provide assistance that could require the deployment of American troops or enable Ukraine to engage in offensive operations beyond its borders. F-16s and long-range missiles should therefore be off the table. These moves would risk explicitly drawing the United States into the conflict and drawing us closer to a hot war between the world’s two largest nuclear powers. That risk is unacceptable.”
The core ideas: Ukraine’s fate is not a vital national interest of the United States’, and is therefore obviously not worth risking exposing America to a nuclear attack from Russia.
Full disclosure: At this point, DeSantis is my preferred presidential candidate. So keep that in mind as I evaluate his comments. And this Ukraine position is my position. But of course, it’s far from a consensus. According to supporters of current Biden administration policies (and even more aggressive actions), these first DeSantis remarks were fundamentally off-base because Ukraine is in fact a vital U.S. interest, and because therefore Russia’s aggression must in fact be defeated (a goal that could take several somewhat different forms) “no matter what,” as Mr. Biden recently declared.
It should be apparent even to DeSantis opponents or those neutral, though, that he was not proposing dropping all aid to Ukraine and leaving that country at Vladimir Putin’s mercy. But backers of the current (and even more aggressive) American policies thought confirmation of their flip-flop (or less dramatic “walk back”) claim came in yesterday’s DeSantis remarks. Here’s the passage they believe shows that the Florida Governor now sees the error of his ways in calling the war a “territorial dispute that’s not of “vital” importance to America:
“Well, I think the [“territorial dispute statement has] been mischaracterized. Obviously, Russia invaded (last year) — that was wrong. They invaded Crimea and took that in 2014 — That was wrong.
“What I’m referring to is where the fighting is going on now which is that eastern border region Donbas, and then Crimea, and you have a situation where Russia has had that. I don’t think legitimately but they had. There’s a lot of ethnic Russians there. So, that’s some difficult fighting and that’s what I was referring to and so it wasn’t that I thought Russia had a right to that, and so if I should have made that more clear, I could have done it, but I think the larger point is, okay, Russia is not showing the ability to take over Ukraine, to topple the government or certainly to threaten NATO. That’s a good thing. I just don’t think that’s a sufficient interest for us to escalate more involvement. I would not want to see American troops involved there. But the idea that I think somehow Russia was justified (in invading) – that’s nonsense.”
I don’t see how these words can be read in any way other than saying that “territorial dispute” was poor wording, and that DeSantis still opposes any U.S. steps to “escalate more involvement.”
But his rationale for opposition changed significantly here. As opposed to simply denying that Ukraine’s independence and territorial integrity are vital U.S. security interests and therefore not worth the nuclear risk, here he’s saying that there’s not “sufficient interest for us to escalate more involvement because “Russia is not showing the ability to take over Ukraine, to topple the government or certainly to threaten NATO.”
That is, previously, DeSantis’ position focused solely on Ukraine’s intrinsic value to the United States. Russia’s strength or lack thereof was immaterial. Because he’s said nothing about changing, much less ending, the U.S. commitment to the NATO (North Atlantic Treaty Organization) alliance, whose members are protected by an American nuclear guarantee, I assumed that he believed that nuclear deterrence plus the major buildup of conventional forces from NATO members in those allies in Ukraine’s neighborhood would suffice to keep Putin at bay whatever Ukraine’s fate (which is my position).
But in the new interview, DeSantis made his opposition to a harder Ukraine line conditional on Russia’s capabilities, not Ukraine’s intrinsic importance. And I worry that if he becomes President this stance could trap him into a Biden-like Ukraine policy, with all the nuclear war risk, if Russia proves stronger (or more reckless) than he currently surmises, or after it becomes stronger in a post-Ukraine war world. As a result, he would wind up risking nuclear attack on America for a country that he may still consider of inadequate intrinsic interest to the United States – which I view as the height of foreign policy irresponsibility.
It’s still very early in the 2024 presidential cycle. In fact, DeSantis isn’t even a declared candidate yet. He’s a foreign policy newbie and it’s not even known yet who he’s been getting his foreign advice from – if he’s indeed getting any in a systematic way. So there’s still time for DeSantis to tack back to a genuine America First-type approach.
If he doesn’t, all else equal, I’d have to reconsider my support. And the next presidential campaign’s foreign policy debate, and the nation’s approach to Ukraine War and national security overall, will be all the poorer.