Florida Gov. Ron DeSantis attempted to revitalize his flagging presidential campaign with a major foreign policy speech at the Heritage Foundation on Friday.
Casting his foreign policy vision as the desirable middle ground between “post-9/11 neoconservatism” and the supposed fecklessness of Obama, DeSantis presented a familiar playbook of much higher military spending and hardline posturing mixed with some rhetoric aimed at appealing to Americans weary of constant foreign wars. Promising to make the 21st century an “American century,” the governor endorsed a costly and dangerous China policy that would put the U.S. on course for a ruinous conflict in the Pacific.
The governor gave the impression that he wanted nothing to do with Bush era foreign policy with his denunciation of “Wilsonian abstractions” and his criticism of nation-building projects, but when it came to the larger “war on terror” that Bush launched he had no substantive objections. He had nothing to say about reforming or repealing the 2001 AUMF, and he explicitly mentioned the Iraq war only once when he referred to his own service in it. He spoke in general terms about avoiding “murky missions” and “misguided agendas,” but he chose not to identify examples of these things.
The governor took his usual shots at Biden’s foreign policy, predictably accusing it of being “rudderless” and “weak.” This is a standard attack that hawkish opponents of an incumbent president make, and in DeSantis’s case it reflects his instinct to take the more hardline position on almost every issue. He also faults Biden’s foreign policy for being “solicitous” of adversaries, but this is based on a caricature of Biden’s record that makes it much harder to take the rest of DeSantis’s speech seriously.
Among other things, he claimed that Biden “empowered Iran with sanctions relief.” This is a cruel joke to anyone who has paid close attention to what the president’s Iran policy has been. Far from granting sanctions relief, the administration won’t even honor the terms of the prisoner exchange agreement that it reached with Iran earlier this year.
The $6 billion of Iran’s own money that was supposed to be released via a Qatari bank is still inaccessible in response to Hamas’s October 7 attack on Israel. There is no evidence that Iran “orchestrated” the attack, but DeSantis stated this as if it were certain. Pretending that non-existent sanctions relief “fueled” the Hamas attack on Israel is another one of DeSantis’s false claims.
On Ukraine, DeSantis repeated his previous criticisms of Biden for alleged “weakness” that “invited” the Russian invasion. He added a new twist by pretending that non-existent sanctions relief for Iran is somehow going towards funding the Russian side of the war.
DeSantis boasted about his opposition to the Iran nuclear deal, which he somewhat misleadingly called the “Obama-Khamenei Iran nuclear deal.” The JCPOA wasn’t just a bargain between the U.S. and Iran or their respective leaders, but rather involved all permanent members of the Security Council and Germany. It was the most extensive and successful nonproliferation agreement to have ever been negotiated, and it substantially and verifiably restricted Iran’s nuclear program more effectively than anything before or since. DeSantis’s knee-jerk hostility to the deal and to diplomacy with Iran isn’t news, but the fact that he still thinks opposing the agreement is something to be proud of tells us that his foreign policy judgment remains quite poor.
DeSantis is nothing if not a China hawk, and the second half of his speech was dedicated to hyping the threat from China and making every other problem seem like an extension of that purported threat. The governor said China has “grand ambitions” and “seek[s] to be the dominant power in the entire world.” This is a common claim from China hawks, but it is one that has remarkably little evidence to back it up. It’s more of an article of faith among supporters of rivalry and containment than a well-founded assessment of Chinese goals.
The governor assumes that the Chinese government wants to export its political system to other parts of the world, but there is scant evidence that the Chinese are intent on reproducing their system elsewhere. While the Chinese government does try to expand its political and economic influence, this is no different from how any other major power has operated. Treating China as if it were the Soviet Union 2.0 in terms of its ideological goals is a serious mistake that exaggerates the threat to U.S. and allied security.
Because he believes that the Chinese government is “marshalling” its society to pursue these ambitions, DeSantis proposes that the U.S. should have a “whole of society” approach in response. That suggests a degree of mobilization and regimentation in American life that would make Americans less free. It would certainly require pouring huge resources into the military-industrial complex and the national security state.
Like the China hawks that have been advising him, DeSantis insists that the U.S. should prioritize the “Indo-Pacific” above all else and allocate resources accordingly. DeSantis argues that deterring China will be achieved simply through strength and that Beijing will respect strength, “especially strength in their region.”
It doesn’t seem to occur to the governor that increasing U.S. military power in China’s vicinity will be viewed as a growing threat and will cause China to grow its military to keep pace. He has nothing to say about reassuring the Chinese government about U.S. intentions, but instead he focuses entirely on trying to intimidate them. That is a guaranteed path to an arms race and puts our countries on track for war.
It is true that resources are scarce, as he says, but that makes the decision to squander those resources on a massive military buildup that U.S. security does not require all the more foolish. The huge surge in shipbuilding he proposes to create, first a 355-ship, and eventually a 600-ship navy would be very expensive and unnecessary. This “four-ocean navy” would be an extravagant waste of national wealth, and it is no surprise that the governor didn’t tell the audience how he would pay for it.
Copying a line of Reagan, DeSantis defines the end of U.S.-China rivalry in simplistic terms: “We win and they lose.” If we take DeSantis at his word, that implies either regime collapse or forcible regime change, but the governor didn’t bother to spell out how that might happen or what the dangers of such an outcome might be. He proposes pursuing an intense great power rivalry with a nuclear-armed opponent, and he defines that rivalry in zero-sum terms. That is a recipe for a major war that would have catastrophic effects on America, China, and the rest of the world.
DeSantis talks a good game about not wanting the U.S. to enter “into any ill-defined or unnecessary conflicts,” but his China policy would put the U.S. on a collision course for the biggest unnecessary conflict of all.
Finally, the governor says that Americans must “arrest our country’s decline,” but embracing militarized rivalry against China is one of the surest ways of hastening it.
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