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DeSantis’s Trumpy Foreign Policy Goes Deeper Than Ukraine

Photo: Jeff Swensen/Getty Images

While Ron DeSantis has yet to announce his 2024 presidential bid, he’s been sending signals on how he might differ from his Republican primary rivals, including Donald Trump. Earlier this month on Tucker Carlson’s Fox News show, the Florida governor expressed his low opinion of Ukraine as a foreign-policy priority for the United States. This America First stance on the most prominent U.S. national security commitment of the Biden administration was viewed as an effort to challenge Trump’s leadership of the MAGA movement on a hot-button issue. But it also produced quite a backlash among Republicans, who hoped DeSantis might represent a return to the pre-Trump GOP foreign-policy principles associated with Ronald Reagan and George W. Bush. DeSantis was directly criticized for disrespecting Ukraine by Republican senators Lindsey Graham and Marco Rubio. Other major GOP figures — including likely presidential rivals Mike Pence, Nikki Haley, and Tim Scott — chose to reiterate their own commitments to the defense of Ukraine against Russia.

Unsurprisingly, DeSantis is now trying to make it clear that he’s not a Vladimir Putin fanboy, though he still doesn’t think the U.S. needs to be deeply involved in a “territorial dispute” between Russia and Ukraine. He addressed the criticism in his interview with Piers Morgan, as the Wall Street Journal reports:

Florida Gov. Ron DeSantis, a likely 2024 Republican presidential candidate, sought to qualify his recent contentious remarks that Russia’s invasion of Ukraine was a “territorial dispute” and not vital to U.S. interests.

“Well, I think it’s been mischaracterized,” he told broadcaster Piers Morgan for an interview to be shown Thursday on the streaming service Fox Nation. Mr. Morgan included the comments in a column Wednesday evening for the New York Post. 

“Obviously, Russia invaded. That was wrong,” Mr. DeSantis said, according to the column. “They invaded Crimea and took that in 2014. That was wrong.”

DeSantis also said Putin should be held accountable for “war crimes,” somehow or other. And he was duly rewarded by Republican critics for this apparent course correction:

So has DeSantis flip-flopped in an effort to make everyone happy before he runs for president? No, not really. As a strongly reported New York Times piece explains, the Florida governor never really aligned with the the old-school Reagan-Bush Cold War/Global War on Terror internationalists. He’s more rooted in the alternative foreign-policy tradition associated with Trump: the Jacksonians.

In his new book The Courage to Be Free, DeSantis describes himself as a Navy JAG officer deployed in Iraq recoiling from the “messianic” pretensions of George W. Bush’s war, with its failed goals of remaking the Middle East into a reflection of American values and international norms. Per the Times:

Mr. DeSantis’s analysis of Mr. Bush’s attempt to use the military to “socially engineer a foreign society” is the sort of thing one hears from conservative elites who call themselves Jacksonians, after President Andrew Jackson, the 19th-century populist. Though The New York Times could find no public record of the Florida governor describing himself as a Jacksonian, the word kept coming up in interviews with people who know Mr. DeSantis.

“I think he’s kind of dead-center where Republican voters are, which is to say that he’s neither an isolationist nor a neoconservative, he’s just a Jacksonian,” said David Reaboi, a conservative national security strategist whom Mr. DeSantis has hosted at the governor’s mansion.

The distinctive features of Jacksonian foreign policy include an indifference to the moral qualities of other nations; a hostility to encumbering alliances; and most of all, the conviction that American can be spared ruinous wars if it deters potential enemies via the credible threat of overwhelming, violent military force, pursued to quick and final victory. It’s a foreign policy of raw national self-interest, requiring a massive defense infrastructure; Jacksonian leaders hope never to use this military force, but love to display it menacingly. Trump’s love for military parades is not just a quirk; showing America is ready to smite anyone who looks at Uncle Sam wrong is the real key to this sort of “Strength Through Peace” on steroids philosophy. DeSantis appears to fit comfortably into this tradition, not just now but before his rise to national political prominence, as the Times notes:

Mr. DeSantis’s former House colleagues could not recall him ever worrying about whether girls got an education in Afghanistan or whether democracy could be spread throughout sub-Saharan Africa. Instead, they recall him expressing a hard-nosed and narrow view of the American national interest.

For non-Jacksonian Republicans more in line with the Reagan-Bush legacy, the key question about DeSantis may be whether his less volatile character makes him significantly less dangerous to world peace and genuine national security than the 45th president. But that raises other problems, too. Trump is the ideal Jacksonian president because no one doubts that if provoked, he is willing to order the fiery annihilation of millions of human beings from “shithole countries”; he is the epitome of the “madman” leader who can make the highly credible threats that deter predators. Is DeSantis a credible “madman”? That’s unclear. As the governor of Florida, he has shown himself to be a simple bully rather than a man with a fiery sword, using the power of government to torment LGBTQ kids, school teachers, university professors, librarians, journalists, and purveyors of cartoons and amusement parks. He can “own the libs,” but can he own the Chinese? It’s unclear.

Nevertheless, Republicans unsettled by Trump-style foreign policy should not count on DeSantis to provide a clear alternative, much less a return to the salad days of Dick Cheney and Donald Rumsfeld and George W. Bush standing on an aircraft-carrier deck in front of a sign reading “Mission Accomplished.” If that’s what they want, they’d better take a longer look at Haley, Pence, or Scott.

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DeSantis’s Trumpy Foreign Policy Goes Deeper Than Ukraine