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Neocon Nikki Haley rides again

The GOP presidential long shot talks about Ukraine like we were back in the Bush Administration. But is that what voters today want to hear?

Analysis | Washington Politics

“This is bigger than Ukraine,” Nikki Haley said during the CNN town hall on Sunday. “This is a war about freedom and it’s one we have to win.”

That sounds familiar.

“You look at those Ukrainians and what are they doing?” Haley continued. “Russia invaded their freedoms. They moved in there, went to the front lines and fought for their country.” One might assume her campaign was creating a ‘Mission Accomplished’ banner as we speak.

When the former United Nations ambassador and South Carolina governor announced that she was running for president in February, there was little wonder as to what kind of foreign policy she would promote. Throughout her tenure in the Trump administration and even before, Haley has never shied away from presenting herself as a George W. Bush-style Republican who sees all wars as struggles for freedom that must be won at any cost and despite any costs.

Or as the New York Times described her town hall: “Ms. Haley’s positions were a throwback to typical Republican Party stances before its populist takeover by Mr. Trump.”

No doubt. This would put Haley in the same camp with former New Jersey Governor Chris Christie and former Vice President Mike Pence, who announce their presidential runs this week, all dedicated hawks who would serve as the old guardians of the Bush-Cheney GOP in the primaries.

In contrast, the Republican trio most in favor of restraint (at least in words, and on the Ukraine front), would be former President Donald Trump, Florida Governor Ron DeSantis, and long shot candidate Vivek Ramaswamy.

Trump, the likeliest primary winner at this juncture, vowed that if he goes back to the White House he will “end the war in 24 hours” and through negotiations. While experts say it would likely take much, much longer than a day, Trump says he is a big believer in talking. He was also determined to keep the peace between Russia and the U.S. early on and throughout much of his presidency. He has a record, however uneven and imperfect, of promoting restraint, with the exception of China, with which he started a trade war in 2018, raising tensions. 

DeSantis, who despite drawing criticism for calling the Ukraine conflict a “territorial dispute” and saying he wants to avoid escalation, has still been a bit muddled on the subject. His campaign also relies on big donors, some of whom might hold a more conventional GOP view on Ukraine than the populist version espoused by Trump.

On China, DeSantis declared last month as he signed a new Florida bill aimed at countering Chinese communist influence: “I’m proud to sign this legislation to stop the purchase of our farmland and land near our military bases and critical infrastructure by Chinese agents, to stop sensitive digital data from being stored in China, and to stop CCP influence in our education system from grade school to grad school.” 

Politico also reported on Friday that DeSantis has engaged a few “China hawks” to shape his national security policy. 

For her part, Haley said “China, without question, is our number one security threat” and suggested the U.S. deal with the nation “strictly through a national security lens.” Seemingly contradicting herself, she also said, “I don’t care if Americans buy t-shirts and lightbulbs from China any more than I care if the Chinese buy agricultural products from our farmers. I welcome it,” but also that “there’s nothing that they dislike more than when we hit their wallets.”

Go figure.

A late May Quinnipiac poll of declared or potential candidates put Trump at 56 percent support with Republican or Republican-leaning voters, DeSantis at 25 percent, and Haley at 3 percent, with Pence, Christie and South Carolina Senator Tim Scott all at 2 percent. Ramaswamy and others received below 2 percent.

Meanwhile, polls show Haley’s soaring rhetoric on Ukraine a bit out of touch with GOP voters. A January Pew poll showed that 40 percent of Republicans thought the U.S. was sending too much aid to Ukraine. Pew then reported in May that "the share of Republicans saying the U.S. should focus on problems at home rather than paying attention to issues overseas has increased 6 percentage points since last year (71% now, 65% then)."

Rasmussen recently showed that Republicans and Independents are more likely to consider the Ukraine conflict a stalemate than Democrats.

Despite many Republicans questioning U.S.-Ukraine policy, Haley’s still in it to win it. Host Jake Tapper asked Haley what she thought about DeSantis’s framing of the war as a “territorial dispute.” She appeared to see no daylight between DeSantis and Trump. “For them to sit there and say this is just a territorial dispute, that’s just not the case,” Haley replied, apparently including Trump in her response. “It’s in the best interest of America. It’s in the best interest of our national security for Ukraine to win.”

“We have to see this through,” she declared. “We have to finish it.” Habitual hawk Lindsey Graham certainly must be proud of his fellow South Carolinian.

The closest Haley got to specifics were old canards like Ukraine must win, because “Russia said Poland and the Baltics were next. If that happens we’re looking at a world war.”

Haley then laid out what a Ukraine victory might look like and her vision of the U.S.’s role in it.

“So the way that you prevent (world) war is not giving cash to Ukraine. Not that we put troops on the ground,” she declared, ignoring that American taxpayers have been giving Ukraine lots of cash, billions in fact. She went on to say we instead have to “get with our allies and make sure that we give them the equipment and the ammunition to win. Because when Ukraine wins, that sends a message to China with Taiwan. It sends a message to Iran that wants to build a bomb. It sends a message to North Korea testing ballistic missiles.”

“And it sends a message to Russia that it’s over,” she added, not mentioning that the U.S has sent nearly $40 billion in weapons and military assistance to Ukraine and allies since February 2022

Haley endorsed Marco Rubio in the 2016 Republican presidential primaries, and he was considered the neocons’ preferred candidate in that cycle. Haley appears to be running as the neoconservatives’ favorite in the 2024 primary, at least among announced candidates, at a time when the desire for such a foreign policy amongst the GOP base is more questionable and even powerful hawkish institutions and figures are in a more awkward position post-Trump.

But you have to give her credit: Haley appears to be sticking to her hawkish guns, no matter the reality on the ground or what it might sound like in 2024. “What we have to understand is that a win for Ukraine is a win for all of us,” Haley declared.

Sure thing, Nikki.

U.S. Republican presidential candidate and former U.S. Ambassador to the United Nations Nikki Haley delivers a campaign policy speech on abortion in Arlington, Virginia, U.S., April 25, 2023. REUTERS/Kevin Lamarque
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