Why the ‘America First’ Politicians Aren’t Convincing Most Republicans

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Neo-isolationism has potential leaders in the Republican Party, but the Ukraine crisis shows it doesn’t have nearly enough followers.

The reaction of the vast majority of the GOP to the Russian invasion has been to agitate for more support for Ukraine and criticize a Democratic president for being dilatory and weak — which isn’t much different than it would have been to a similar event any time over the past 30 years.

Now, obviously, much has changed in the party since then, most importantly the rise of Donald Trump and of his allies in the pundit class who are outspokenly opposed to, or skeptical of, the GOP’s traditional hawkishness.

These realists or restrainers, as they call themselves, tended to stoke doubts about the U.S. intelligence predicting a Russian move against Ukraine and to blame NATO for provoking a misunderstood and maligned Vladimir Putin into acting to defend his country from creeping Western expansion.

This sentiment didn’t survive its first contact with the actual Russian invasion. Putin launched his “special military operation” on roughly the timetable and on the scale indicated by the intelligence and, once it was underway, there was no mistaking its shockingly unprovoked and brutal nature.

Elected Republicans have been almost uniformly pro-Ukraine and supportive of arming its defenders. Both Mitch McConnell and Kevin McCarthy, as well as other members of their leadership teams, have criticized President Joe Biden for not doing even more to step up. There are a handful of outliers among the most committed GOP libertarians and anti-interventionists, but even Sen. Rand Paul, the dean of this school of thought, says the invasion is “a terrible thing” and believes Putin “miscalculated the will of the Ukrainian people.”

The populist GOP Sen. Josh Hawley made a splash prior to the invasion with a letter to Secretary of State Antony Blinken questioning — not unreasonably — U.S. support for bringing Ukraine into NATO. Although there was a furor over this missive, Hawley stipulated “we should urgently deliver to Ukraine assistance it needs to defend itself against Russia’s military buildup and other threats.” And he’s sounded as hawkish as any other Republican since the war began.

Despite loose commentary to the effect that Republicans are all becoming Putinists under the influence of Donald Trump, GOP voters are solidly pro-Ukraine and anti-Putin. A recent NPR-Ipsos poll found that 46 percent of Republicans think we should be doing more when it comes to the war in Ukraine, whereas a slightly smaller percentage of Democrats (37 percent) think the same.

The same survey found that 60 percent of Republicans think Biden has been too cautious in supporting Ukraine, whereas only 35 percent of Democrats think he’s been too cautious.

According to a new Quinnipiac poll, 77 percent of Republicans agree with Biden’s formulation that Putin is a “murderous dictator.”

The vast majority of programming on Fox News is markedly supportive of Ukraine and hostile to Putin, with the retired Gen. Jack Keane appearing frequently to give unabashedly hawkish military analysis.

What did the neo-isolationists miss about the GOP?

A number of things. It remains a bedrock belief of most Republicans that U.S. influence in the world is a good thing, and pro-Western democracies (even flawed ones) are better than hostile dictatorships.

It’s not going to be easy, as some neo-isolationists clearly seek to do, to smuggle Noam Chomsky-like notions of the nefariousness of American power into the GOP worldview under the banner of “America First.”

Republicans are primed, through long experience, to believe the worst of the Kremlin, especially those Republicans who came of age during the Cold War. It’s as much use trying to convince them the latter-day czar in Moscow is a fine fellow as trying to tell them the Supreme Leader in Tehran is just another religious leader — the party has well-developed antibodies against both Russia and Iran going back decades.

The restrainers believe they are channeling the spirit of Trump, who still looms over the party. It is true that Trump was a fierce critic of the Iraq and Afghanistan wars, and his first instinct is non-interventionism. But he wasn’t an isolationist in office. He said foolish things about Putin (and still does) and yanked the chain of other NATO countries to get them to spend more on defense. But he armed Ukraine (despite the temporary, politically motivated freeze that led to his first impeachment) and otherwise had a reasonably tough-minded approach to Russia. He did indeed, as promised in his 2016 campaign, “bomb the shit” out of ISIS and had no compunction about killing Qasem Soleimani when the opportunity arose.

Republican support for Trump was less a sign of the ascendency of a George McGovern-style “come home, America” isolationism in the GOP than of a Jacksonian tendency — less concerned with spreading our ideals, but clear-eyed about our enemies.

At the end of the day, the neo-isolationists are fighting the last war. They warn of a return of the belligerent mood that led to the U.S. invasion of Iraq in 2003. But if 20 years ago the U.S. launched a large-scale military intervention without adequately calculating the risks or understanding the political and culture contours of the country it would occupy, it is the Russians, not the Ukrainians, Europeans or us, who are now replicating that mistake.

Giving the Ukrainians Javelin missiles is a far cry from taking over a large Middle Eastern country with no clear exit plan.

The restrainers want to believe that we are on the verge of a dangerous escalation in Ukraine. While there have been prominent voices who have called for a no-fly zone that would constitute such an escalation, Biden has been resolutely against it and the balance of opinion on left and right is opposed as well. Absent a truly game-changing event on the ground in Ukraine, it is not a viable option.

What we are talking about, realistically, is ramping up material support to the Ukrainians and further sanctions on the Russians. Both should be undertaken with care, but neither is tantamount to starting World War III.

As Jacob Heilbrunn noted in a dispatch from an “emergency” conference held by restrainers in Washington last week, their preferred policy approach is basically to allow the Ukrainians to get conquered by the Russians as soon as possible for their own good — that way, the Russians will stop bombing their cities to rubble.

The citizens of Bucha might find this a very odd form of solicitude. One can only imagine what the restrainer advice would have been to the Greek city-states resisting the advances of the Persian Empire in the 5th century B.C., to the Carthaginians during the Punic Wars, or to the Russians during Napoleon’s invasion.

For people who style themselves realists, this point of view displays a profound lack of awareness of how motivated people feel, even when badly outgunned, to defend their culture and their homeland when an invader seeks to dismember their territory or impose foreign rule.

It also implicitly asks the American public to ignore who is the aggressor and who is the defender, ignore who hates the West and who wants to join it, ignore who is doing the indiscriminate shelling and who is getting shelled, ignore who is led by a democratically elected leader of inspiring bravery and who is led by a venal autocrat who poisons and jails his opponents, ignore who gave up their nukes decades ago and who is making nuclear threats, and ignore, by the way, who has been winning against the odds and whose vaunted military machine has been repeatedly embarrassed.

That’s much too much to ask, and so it shouldn’t be a surprise that there have been so few Republican takers.

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