Vital Interests: Gov. DeSantis falls out with the neo-conservatives at The Wall Street Journal editorial pages.

The failures of Silicon Valley and Signature banks were an addictive story these last ten days.  Humiliation for the start-up sector. Red meat for progressives. Field maneuvers for the financial press. A stress test for the bank regulatory system, which failed, and for the Biden administration, which passed. It was not, however, the most important story of the week.

The bigger story was the news of the first shots fired in the battle that looms in next year’s presidential election over US-led NATO support for Ukraine in its resistance to Russia’s invasion.

Protecting the independent nation from Russian absorption “is not a vital US interest,” said Florida Gov. Ron DeSantis in a statement to Fox News host Tucker Carlson last week. A quartet of Washington Post (and their editors) promptly jumped on the news.  DeSantis’s position “firmly [put] the potential presidential candidate on the side of Donald Trump, and at odds with top Congressional Republicans.”

The presidential-contender continued,

“While the US has many vital national interest – securing our borders, addressing the crisis of readiness with our military, achieving energy security and independence, and checking the economic, cultural, and military power of the Chinese Communist Party – becoming further entangled in a territorial dispute between Ukraine and Russia is not one of them.”

Two days later, the editorial page of The Wall Street Journal headlined “DeSantis’s First Big Mistake.”  The two-term Florida governor enjoys a a reputation as “a fearless fighter for principle who ignores the polls,” the editorialists noted.  “Then how to explain his puzzling surrender this week to the Trumpian temptation of American retreat?” The editorialists answered their own question before providing an out:

“The argument goes that Mr. DeSantis is reading the political mood. About 40 percent of Republicans say that the US is providing “too much support” for Ukraine, up from 9 percent in March last year. Yet some of this is a function of polarized US politics.  Many Republicans oppose helping Ukraine because Mr. Biden is doing it, an the mirror image is Democrats from an anti-war left putting Ukrainian flag stickers on their electric cars…. Mr. DeSantis is clearly still refining his views and his remarks on Ukraine left some room to improve them later.”

The spectacle of the two American wings of Rupert Murdoch’s media empire disagreeing so sharply about a fundamental matter presage a far wider and more complicated battle next year.

I’ve criticized NATO enlargement for twenty-five years. I was therefore painfully conflicted by Vladimir Putin’s ham-handed invasion of Russian’s southern neighbor. It may have been understandable, but it was profoundly wrong. Still, I think of myself as center-left. How is it I now find myself allied with Tucker Carlson, Donald Trump, Ron DeSantis and Keri Lake?

I can only dream that they finally listened to me. Or, more likely than that, to Jeffrey Sachs, head of Columbia University’s Earth Institute, a long-time center-left maverick (see his “The Ninth Anniversary of the Ukrainian War;”, to veteran antiwar-journalist Seymour Hersh (“Who’s your George Ball?”; or even to film-maker Oliver Stone (“Ukraine on Fire”).

I don’t have poll numbers to show it, but my hunch is that something like 40 percent of all Democrats also have begun to believe that the US is spending too much money or risk on Ukraine’s defense of itself, though President Biden and Senate leaders of both parties continue to strongly support the funding the war. DeSantis, like Trump, may suspect as much himself.  He is an opportunist, as all politicians are, though less nimble than Trump.

I expect that Joe Biden and the Congressional leadership will have the advantage in 2024.  I disagree with Biden’s foreign policy but I will vote for him if he runs again.  Probably he will win – it won’t be easy for a Republican candidate to run on a call for retreat (never mind all the domestic issues!)

But a second term for the aging Biden would mean he will have to bear the burden if the defense of Ukraine ultimately fails. That depends on what happens on the battlefield, of course, where the advantages seems mostly to be Putin’s.   When the war ends, political realignment in America will begin.

.                                                  xxx

Twenty years ago today, the morning of March 19, 2003, a US-dominated coalition of forces began bombing Baghdad.  The US had demanded that Saddam Hussein leave Iraq within 48 hours.  When he didn’t, coalition forces attempted to kill him and his sons in the first hour of their “shock and awe” invasion. They didn’t succeed. President George W. Bush went on television that evening to describe the purpose the war to follow: “to disarm Iraq, to free its people, and to defend the world from grave danger.”

The invasion of Iraq was the fulcrum on which much has shifted since. In a speech to the Munich Conference on Security Policy, in February 2007, Vladimir Putin dissented sharply from Washington’s vision of a unipolar world and warned against further NATO expansion along Russia’s southern borders. It is worth noting that Putin borrowed heavily from the US playbook for his invasion of Ukraine last year, including the attempted decapitation of the Zelensky government leadership team.

It didn’t work any better in Kyiv than in Baghdad.

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