Ron DeSantis Tries His Hand at Foreign Policy
Political cleverness concealing substantive incoherence.
Florida governor Ron DeSantis has started laying out his timeline for
announcing deciding when he runs for president. He is on some kind of “support for police” tour right now. As part of that tour he went on Fox & Friends to talk about a lot of things, including Ukraine. Let’s see what he said!
I don’t think any of this would have happened, but for the weakness that the president showed during his first year in office, culminating, of course, in the disastrous withdrawal in Afghanistan. So I think while he’s over there, I think I, and many Americans, are thinking to ourselves, okay, “He’s very concerned about those borders halfway around the world. He’s not done anything to secure our own border here at home.” We’ve had millions and millions of people pour in, tens of thousands of Americans dead because of fentanyl, and then, of course, we just suffered a national humiliation of having China fly a spy balloon clear across the continental United States. So, we have a lot of problems accumulating here in our own country that he is neglecting….
It’s important to point out the fear of Russia going into NATO countries and all of that and steamrolling that is not even come close to happening. I think they’ve shown themselves to be a third-rate military power. I think they’ve suffered tremendous, tremendous losses. I got to think that the people in Russia are probably disapproving of what’s going on. I don’t think they can speak up about it for obvious reasons, so I think Russia has been really, really wounded here. And I don’t think that they are the same threat to our country, even though they’re hostile. I don’t think they’re on the same level as a China….
They have effectively a blank-check policy with no clear, strategic objective identified. And these things can escalate, and I don’t think it’s in our interests to be getting into a proxy war with China, getting involved over things like the borderlands or over Crimea. So, I think it would behoove them to identify what is the strategic objective that they’re trying to achieve, but just saying it’s an open-ended blank check, that is not acceptable.
The Bulwark’s Amanda Carpenter was, shall we say, less than pleased with the tack DeSantis took: “Gross things can happen when you convince yourself that, no matter what, you must position yourself in complete opposition to your political opponents. Just look at what Ron DeSantis is doing… DeSantis has positioned himself on the wrong side of Ukraine because he thinks that opposing Biden, no matter what Biden does, is the only way to stay on the good side of MAGA voters.”
The hard-working staff here at Drezner’s World thinks that there are two ways to look at DeSantis’ comments: substantively and politically. On substantive grounds, DeSantis is borderline incoherent. On political grounds, DeSantis is trying to surf the shifting tides within GOP primary voters.
Substantively, DeSantis has a kernel of a good point in calling on the Biden administration to “identify what is the strategic objective that they’re trying to achieve.” Polling shows that most Americans agree that it is worth stopping Russia from absorbing Ukraine. The problem is that this leads to a policy outcome that is a grinding battle exacting an appalling loss of life. The Biden White House needs to lay out a path for what achievable victory looks like in Ukraine. On that point I’m looking forward to hearing what Biden’s speech in Warsaw will contain.
Beyond that, however, DeSantis’ claims were incoherent. You cannot simultaneously believe that Russia invaded Ukraine because of Afghanistan and then turn around and urge the U.S. should withdraw support from Ukraine to stand tough on China. If you really believe that the conflict in Ukraine is a proxy war with China (it isn’t), then exactly what signal does DeSantis thinks the United States would send if it withdrew support from Kyiv?! If reputations for resolve are singular, then withdrawing from Ukraine signals to China that it could move on Taiwan or elsewhere. I am, frankly, a little shocked at how weak DeSantis sounds on China with this kind of rhetoric.
Even more absurd is DeSantis’ claim that the war in Ukraine is not worth engaging because Russia has “shown themselves to be a third-rate military power.” Well gosh, Governor Ron, how do you think Russia’s military has been degraded?! Could it have been the marriage of Ukrainian resolve and U.S. military and intelligence assistance?! Sounds to me like DeSantis is implicitly acknowledging that Biden’s policies over the past year have been a smashing success at turning a military that NATO feared a year ago into a “third-rate” power. It also sounds like DeSantis and his team has not thought longer than two seconds about foreign policy substance.
Politically, of course, this posture makes more sense. The shot on the Afghanistan withdrawal is clever, because it allows DeSantis to blast Biden and Trump at the same time. Trying to link funding on Ukraine with the southern border is nonsensical, but it echoes the demented Marjorie Taylor Greene logic of equating the two. That means it will resonate with the MAGA base. And, of course, DeSantis knows how to read the polling on this issue. As the GOP base turns against the war, DeSantis is sure to follow rather than lead the MAGA caucus as he lays the groundwork for his presidential campaign.
So, to sum up: DeSantis is running for president. To do that he needs to appease the MAGA base. And to do that he needs to sound pretty incoherent on foreign policy.