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OPINION | BRADLEY R. GITZ: The isolationist temptation

by Bradley Gitz | March 27, 2023 at 4:33 a.m.

The usually impressive political instincts of Florida Gov. Ron DeSantis deserted him recently when attempting to pander to the isolationist MAGA crowd.

In a statement issued to the alarmingly ubiquitous Tucker Carlson, DeSantis declared that Ukraine shouldn't receive any kind of "blank check" because we have no vital interest in a mere "territorial dispute" (prompting National Review's Noah Rothman to note that "Russia's unprovoked invasion of Ukraine is a 'dispute' over territory in the same way a bank robber and depositor have a 'dispute' over money.").

The Neville Chamberlain post-Munich reference to "a quarrel in a far-away country, between people of whom we know nothing" comes unwelcomingly to mind.

Contrary to DeSantis, we never give a "blank check" to any country in foreign affairs, and no one is proposing that we do so now with respect to Ukraine. Nor does anyone want uncontrolled escalation that could lead to war between Russia and NATO (least of all Vladimir Putin, who knows he would lose such a war, certainly, quickly and badly). And yes, there are pressing problems here on the home front, border security perhaps most obvious among them.

But all countries necessarily walk and chew gum at the same time when it comes to formulating policy at home and abroad; indeed, the "either/or" distinction between addressing problems here and problems there is almost always a false, even disingenuous one, given that there is no way to prevent developments in one realm from affecting the other and no success in either that can't be undone by failure in the other.

The idea that we have only two choices--no aid to Ukraine or war with Russia--is equally misleading in its simplistic, binary logic.

The appropriate amount of support to give Ukraine, and the forms which that support might take, are the central questions to be debated, but such debates should be based on a clear understanding that unless we make the perpetrators of aggression (of the kind Putin has clearly committed) pay, there will be more of it, from him and others.

Thus, there are only two real options when it comes to Ukraine--we can let Putin get away with it, or we can provide sufficient aid to Ukraine for as long as necessary in an effort to prevent that.

If one accepts the quite reasonable proposition that Putin's perceptions of our resolve is perhaps the most important factor influencing his decision-making, then it behooves us to convince him that our commitment will not slacken. At this point, the war is being prolonged not just by courageous Ukrainian resistance but Putin's belief that he can wait us out. A Republican primary field (yielding a possible future Republican president) filled with candidates competing to satisfy MAGA isolationist sentiment therefore serves his purposes nicely.

If the so-called "hawks" in the GOP want to do more to deny Putin victory (and thereby re-establish some degree of deterrence regarding his imperial ambitions, which undoubtedly focus on the NATO member Baltic states), the MAGA isolationists apparently, and mystifyingly, assume that Putin's appetite will be satiated rather than enhanced by reincorporating Ukraine into the Russian empire through conquest. To the extent that they are even aware of the past, they see no lessons to be learned from it; more specifically, no linkage between the causes of humanity's worst war and the American isolationism they are so bent upon resurrecting.

Just as American isolationists and European appeasers were Hitler's best friends, the folks that DeSantis was trying to appeal to are now Putin's.

The idea that what happens in Europe stays in Europe and doesn't affect us is perhaps even more preposterous (and dangerous) now than it was in 1917 or 1938, but there will always be plenty of ostriches eager to stick their heads in the sand and see no evil.

Somewhere in the middle of all this, in many respects splitting the GOP difference, is Biden administration policy, which to this point has essentially consisted of firm commitment in theory and a certain amount of vacillation in practice--to give Ukraine some of what it wants but not all, and to give later than sooner, often after first saying no or maybe.

Enough aid is being given Ukraine to keep it in the fight, but not enough quickly enough for it to gain the upper hand. This approach has a certain contradictory "push-pull" logic at its center: We want to see Putin defeated, but not necessarily Ukraine victorious.

In many respects, then, the chasm between the isolationists and the hawks on the GOP side has given Biden political cover--he is giving more than the isolationists want and demonstrating his commitment to the "rules-based international order" by aiding Ukraine, but also demonstrating caution and prudence and avoiding escalation by giving it less than the hawks demand.

When Henry Kissinger was running the State Department, he allegedly always told his staff to draw up only two policy recommendations regarding any issue, because any third would be a compromise between the first two that contained the worst of each.

Biden's efforts to stake out a middle ground on Ukraine, between the isolationists and the hawks, represents a bet that Kissinger was wrong.

Freelance columnist Bradley R. Gitz, who lives and teaches in Batesville, received his Ph.D. in political science from the University of Illinois.

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