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Bill Kristol leads charge to make Republicans think 'right' on Ukraine

His $2 million campaign wants to ensure that there is only one way to support the people there — and it's not focusing on diplomacy.

Analysis | Washington Politics

Notorious neoconservative Bill Kristol has just launched a $2 million campaign to prevent more Republicans from jumping off the forever war train and to remind them that true Republicans support Ukrainians by backing unfettered aid and weapons for the conflict. 

That is the clarion call promoted in this Washington Post story announcing “Republicans for Ukraine,” which is designed to provide “counter-programming” to the “populist” strain that has captured the base, particularly on foreign policy. It is the latest advocacy effort by Kristol’s group, Defending Democracy Together, which has been trying desperately to maintain the hawks’ grip on the GOP since Donald Trump began questioning it during his 2016 presidential campaign. 

"Supporting Ukraine is in the best interests of the United States and the best traditions of the Republican Party. Now is no time to give up the fight," declares the Republicans for Ukraine website.

In previous years (and before the Ukraine war) DDT also pushed campaigns like “Republicans Against Putin” and “Standing with Allies” (which advocated maintaining a U.S. presence in Syria and Iraq). It has leaned in hard on the Never Trump camp, particularly with the super PAC “Republican Voters Against Trump,” which raised over $10 million in the 2020 election cycle, spending $5.6 million in support of Democrat Joe Biden, and $3.3 million against Trump, according to Open Secrets.

Critics say it has been a long time since Kristol was considered a part of the Republican or conservative movement. Aside from his opposition to Trump, it's obvious that the populist shift in the base against the Washington war policies of the last 20 years has also driven his estrangement.

Conservatives were quick to point out on Tuesday that Kristol doesn’t speak for them or for voters who have soured on the Washington’s foreign policy playbook, particularly on Ukraine. That Kristol's campaign, through its cultivated Republican testimonials, is unabashedly deploying the Manichean language not only of the Cold War and the Global War on Terror, but also the Domino Theory and the Messianic talk he and his friends favored in 2002, makes the gambit even more out of touch.

“Since when is it ‘conservative’ to spend the taxpayers’ money with no accountability, no strategy, no timeline, and no end game? This ad buy is a waste of money, because conservative voters know the truth: we’ve spent too much money on Ukraine at a time when we can ill afford it. But I’m also not surprised...considering how well-financed the neocon war machine in D.C. has been,” blasted Kevin Roberts, president of the Heritage Foundation, in a comment to RS.

"Conservatives have moved on from such internationalist nonsense, as evident from the combined total tally of the top three primary frontrunners,” argued Sumantra Maitra, a senior editor at the American Conservative, pointing to comments urging restraint on Ukraine by Trump (who is 40 points ahead, on average, of his GOP rivals, despite his legal troubles), Ron DeSantis, and Vivek Ramaswamy. All three, particularly Trump and Ramaswamy, have called for negotiations and a swift end to the war in Ukraine.

“This (Republicans for Ukraine) initiative ignores the vital need to pair American military support with American diplomacy,” says George Beebe, QI’s Director of Grand Strategy. “Aid without diplomacy is simply a formula for yet another forever war — or worse, an escalation into direct war with Russia.”  

But to Republicans for Ukraine, that is not the American, or even moral way of talking about the war.

“We’d like to put pressure on Republicans to do the right thing on Ukraine,” said Sara Longwell, executive director of DDT.

That may be a tough slog. Recent polling shows that a strong majority of Republicans are unhappy with Biden’s Ukraine policy and wary of sending more aid to Ukraine. This has driven down overall support for the war, at least in various surveys. Sure, this doesn’t jibe with traditional party positions on Capitol Hill and among the GOP elite in Washington, which continue to see Russia as an existential threat to U.S. interests, and a military buildup of NATO and Ukraine as the best way to challenge it. This is obviously manifested in calls for bigger Pentagon budgets and even advocating for Ukraine membership in NATO

But the party cracks may be more evident as Biden and congressional leaders attempt to push billions in more aid through a general emergency spending bill this fall. 

Here’s where Kristol’s patented “you're either with us or against us,” “for aid, or against aid,” “democracy vs. autocracy” dichotomies start to fall apart. While some members are calling for a total cut-off, others just want to see future assistance tied to a clear strategy and/or tougher oversight measures.

“When you see Marco Rubio asking why Florida disaster relief must be paired with (Ukraine aid), you know it's not 2012 anymore,” said Jim Antle, politics editor at the Washington Examiner, pointing to recent comments by the Florida senator, usually one of the biggest foreign policy hawks on the Hill. Rubio said that Biden “owes the American people” a real Ukraine strategy, “something he’s refused to do since Putin invaded Ukraine.”

“We’ve seen incredible bravery by the Ukrainians over the last 18 months,” Rubio continued, “but we’ve also seen U.S. stockpiles dwindle, European countries slow walk critical supplies, and China grow more aggressive towards the U.S. and our national interests. We cannot give a blank check to continue the status quo.”

Conservatives Reid Smith (Stand Together) and Tyler Koteskey (Concerned Veterans of America) published this comprehensive “Blueprint for Rigorous Oversight of Ukraine aid,” in War on the Rocks this week. They acknowledged that there will likely be future aid, but “Congress should pursue a series of measures to ensure better Ukraine aid oversight and a more robust strategic dialogue about how U.S. involvement in the war impacts American interests.”

The new “Republicans for Ukraine” appear to see things through a more black-and-white prism: the only “right” way to support Ukraine is by doing “whatever it takes” unconditionally. Whoever thinks differently is wrong — they may not even be a real conservative or a patriotic American. (A similar frame and the pressures to conform to it also exist among Democrats on the left). These are the same tactics deployed by Kristol's cadre to chill debate during the two decades of failed U.S. policies in Afghanistan and the Middle East. It is not clear they will work again.

Will Ruger, president of the American Institute for Economic Research and Trump's nominee for Ambassador to Afghanistan, said DDT's consternation with the direction of the Republican base on Ukraine "is actually another great sign that those of us who have been fighting neoconservatism for decades are having an impact." But the fact that the group can easily marshal $2 million in an effort to stop it means this brand of political activism still wields influence.

"(It) shows that people who want to turn American foreign policy back to the dark days of the Bush administration have a lot of resources to try to sway Republicans," Ruger tells RS.

"The question, though, is whether the Republican base will listen given their increased skepticism towards an idealistic approach to the world that doesn’t seem to put our national interests first.”

Bill Kristol in 2017 (with Sen. John Kyl to his left) (Creative Commons/Gage Skidmore)
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