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The Israel and Ukraine Conflicts Demonstrate the Right’s Intellectual Bankruptcy
MAGA has shattered the old foreign policy consensus into conflicting factions
When Hamas terrorists perpetrated the single deadliest attack in Israel’s history on Oct. 7, prompting a ferocious Israeli military response in civilian-heavy Gaza, it wasn’t immediately clear how the right might react to these events. After all, within a single generation, conservatives have gone from enthusiastically supporting tough Cold War containment policies against the Soviet Union to seriously downplaying Russian aggression against Ukraine; from ensconcing within their highest ranks neoconservative hawks who favored U.S. intervention abroad in order to defend and spread American values to pushing for an isolationist withdrawal from the post-war liberal order on Trumpian nationalist grounds.
Given this radical shift, it would be useful to take stock of the range of positions that right-wing politicians and influencers have staked on the two biggest foreign policy issues right now: Israel and Ukraine. Mapping their responses would allow us to see if there is any coherent principle guiding right-wing thinking.
As it turns out, there is none. It is a complete free for all. Right-wingers are all over the map. Some support both causes; some neither; and some support Israel but not Ukraine. No one supports Ukraine, but not Israel. And none is willing to touch the cause of Palestinian statehood.
Donald Trump: Yes to Israel, Emphatically No to Ukraine
Let’s begin with the clear thought leader of the right, Donald Trump, who in 2020 unveiled a fundamentally unserious proposal to end the Israeli-Palestinian conflict at a ceremony to which Palestinians weren’t even invited.
Trump initially responded to Hamas’s attacks by praising Lebanese terrorist group Hezbollah as “very smart,” labeling Israeli Defense Minister Yoav Gallant a “jerk,” and criticizing Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu for failing to join America’s assassination operation against Iranian chief intelligence officer Qasem Soleimani in 2020. After widespread outcry over his remarks, Trump took to Truth Social to post the hashtags “IStandWithIsrael” and “IStandWithBibi.” Trump may have issues with Israel’s leadership, but he also understands that many of his voters are solidly pro-Israel—which is precisely why, as president, he moved the U.S. embassy from Tel Aviv to Jerusalem. He explicitly told us that he did that “for the evangelicals,” not to advance any higher principle.
Since 2016, Trump has inarguably been the most significant driver of the right’s softening attitudes toward Russia. He is a longtime admirer of Russian strongman Vladimir Putin. His solution for ending the Russia-Ukraine war involves a “settlement” that he would achieve in “24 hours”—although he tells us that he can’t reveal what exactly the deal would consist of because, if he does, then he “can’t use the negotiation” himself. But it would almost certainly require granting Russia at least some of the Ukrainian territories it has forcibly seized.
Personal animosities rather than doctrinal considerations drive Trump’s policy positions. Ukraine is no different. Larger concerns about whether Russia deserves to be rewarded for its aggression or how this might embolden other imperialist powers like China don’t enter his calculation.
He wants to settle scores with individuals he perceives to have wronged him—like Ukrainian President Volodymyr Zelenskyy, who declined to comply with his request to share alleged dirt about Hunter Biden’s business dealings, and Netanyahu, who accepted Joe Biden’s election victory instantly and subsequently expressed his appreciation for Biden’s support. The flip side is that Trump is chummy toward those who flatter him, no matter how odious, as is the case with Putin as well as North Korean dictator Kim Jong Un.
Trump’s only concerns other than himself are: (a) his reflexive opposition to whatever positions Democrats take and (b) his instinctive knack for populist demagoguery to solidify his base. These are traits that his heir apparent, Donald Trump, Jr., the most politically active of the Trump children, is emulating.
Donald Jr. has been an outspoken critic of the U.S.’s Ukraine policy. He claims that “Ukraine is the new religion of the left” and that it is “one of the most corrupt nations in the world.” He disparaged Zelenskyy for not being “on the front lines” and suggested that the Ukrainian government’s requests for support are a ploy to fatten the pockets of its officials. But it’s on the Israel-Palestine conflict that he’s offered his boldest solution. On Oct. 25, Don Jr. posted a meme of a goat with a nuclear bomb inside its body and the trigger close to its anus, an image trading on the racist trope that Arab people are “goat fuckers.” “Problem solved,” he wrote.
Florida Governor Ron DeSantis, currently second in the national polls for the Republican presidential nomination, is following Trump’s script and is emphatically pro-Israel. He has gone so far as to use his state’s resources to arrange flights to evacuate U.S. citizens from Israel and secure everything from humanitarian aid to weaponry for Israel. He even ordered Florida’s state guard to be ready to respond to the unfolding crisis “as needed.” These are bizarre moves for a state, since responding to international conflagrations falls under the federal government’s purview. But DeSantis has a track record of using Florida’s resources to score political points to stick it to the woke left and advance his presidential ambitions.
DeSantis has claimed Palestinians in Gaza “are all antisemitic.” Although he says “most [Gazans] probably aren’t” active members of Hamas, DeSantis maintains the U.S. should not take in Palestinian refugees because they would bring with them a “toxic culture” that would “increase antisemitism” as well as “anti-Americanism.” His main rival for second place in the race for the GOP nomination, former South Carolina Governor Nikki Haley, was rightly critical of DeSantis’s characterization of Gazans, noting that “half of Palestinians don’t want to be governed by Hamas.” DeSantis responded by accusing Haley of being “politically correct” and trying to “please the media and people on the left.”
Earlier this year, DeSantis characterized the Russia-Ukraine war as “a territorial dispute,” no doubt because such talk appeals to the pro-Putin, isolationist right that is also a big part of Trump’s base. He faced sharp criticism for such a patently absurd statement given that Ukraine’s borders have international recognition. So, in a more recent speech, he changed his tack, taking the milder line that Ukraine is distracting us from focusing on American interests. He has not really explained why support for Israel is in the U.S.’s interest but support for Ukraine isn’t.
Like DeSantis, Utah Senator Mike Lee has called for an end to Ukraine funding—as well as an end to United Nations funding, partly on the grounds that they’ve been “hostile to Israel.” Ohio Senator J. D. Vance strongly disapproves of a bill because it includes funding for Ukraine along with Israel. These “are not the same countries” and they “are not the same problems,” he insists. Likewise, Congressman Matt Gaetz, the man most responsible for defenestrating Republican House Speaker Kevin McCarthy, has written: “Israel is a land with a 4,000 year connection to our faith. Ukraine is a former Soviet state. These are not the same thing, and should be considered independently.”
Stephen Miller, policy advisor to Trump and ardent immigration-restrictionist, is not only against sending more aid to Ukraine but also against the U.S. providing safe haven for Ukrainian refugees. Miller, the architect of Trump’s travel ban that targeted Muslims, believes Israel should unleash a military response in Palestinian areas that is full of such “righteous fury” and “rage” that Israel’s “enemies tremble.” Miller sees “no analogy between the situation in Ukraine and Israel”—Ukraine, Miller tells us, is simply embroiled in a dispute over “NATO expansion”; Israel, on the other hand, is facing “a genocidal terrorist camp operating on its border.”
Montana Rep. Ryan Zinke, formerly Donald Trump’s secretary of the interior, not only favors military aid to Israel, but he introduced a bill called Safeguarding Americans from Extremism Act that could effectively ban Palestinians from coming to the United States, and expel some Palestinians who are already here.
Yes to Israel, Yes to Ukraine
Nikki Haley, an old school neoconservative on foreign policy, is a leading Republican voice in favor of supporting both Israel and Ukraine. Easily the most outspoken supporter of Israel of any of her rivals for the GOP nomination, Haley believes Israel is more than a nation—it’s “a righteous cause.” Haley, a former Sikh whose family hails from India, explicitly grounds her support for Israel in her “Christian faith,” and believes Israel’s fate is inextricably linked to the United States. She insists that Oct. 7 “was not just an attack on Israel [but] an attack on America.” This kind of talk smacks of foreign entanglements and ought to be anathema to the GOP’s isolationist grassroots. But of course it appeals to parts of the Christian right. In a throwback to George W. Bush’s simplistic binary, “you’re either with us, or with the terrorists,” Haley has characterized the conflict as a “battle of good vs. evil” and declared that anyone who views Israel’s response as “disproportionate” is guilty of “siding with evil.” Haley has also audaciously claimed that “anti-Zionism is antisemitism.” If elected, Haley has pledged to pull the tax exempt status of schools that don’t “combat antisemitism in all its forms.”
When it comes to Ukraine, Haley believes that America not only must materially support the country but that it has a moral obligation to do so. Ukraine is a “peaceful, pro-American country,” she insists, while Russia is led by an “evil war criminal who is guilty of genocide.” She has called for more aid to Ukraine at a time when her party wants to scale back, and has criticized Trump as being “weak in the knees” on this issue, which sounds like an understatement given that Trump is actively siding with Putin. No doubt she is trying not to offend the GOP’s MAGA base any more than necessary.
Now that former Vice President Mike Pence has dropped out of the race, Haley is virtually the only Republican presidential aspirant left who supports both Israel and Ukraine (others, such as Asa Hutchinson, simply don’t have a viable path to the presidency). Pence had been vocal that the U.S. should continue to assist Ukraine in its resistance effort, but he also, quite irresponsibly, suggested putting American boots on the ground in Gaza, doubtless owing to the religious affinity he feels toward Israel, much like Haley.
Senate Minority Leader Mitch McConnell, for years one of the top two most powerful Republicans in Washington, agrees with his party’s pro-Israel chorus but has criticized his side for largely failing to see the importance of ongoing support for Ukraine: “Some say our support for Ukraine comes at the expense of more important priorities. But … this is a false choice. … If Russia prevails, there’s no question that Putin’s appetite for empire will actually extend into NATO, raising the threat to the U.S. trans-Atlantic alliance, and the risk of war for us.”
Arkansas Senator Tom Cotton, a hawk’s hawk and possibly the Senate’s most ardent militarist outside of Lindsey Graham, wants President Biden to “send everything that shoots on everything that flies” to Israel. Cotton does not believe there is anything Israel could do that is “disproportionate” to what Hamas has done in Israel. Before the Israeli counter-offensive against Hamas began, Cotton said: “With Joe Biden and Democratic senators already waffling and wavering before major combat operations have even begun, let me say again: As far as I’m concerned, Israel can bounce the rubble in Gaza.” Cotton has stated that anyone who “claims to support the people of Gaza but not Hamas should remember that Gazans elected Hamas.” (That statement borders on a lie because even though Hamas was initially elected by a plurality in Gaza in 2006, it never held another election and stayed in power through force.)
Cotton is also a strong supporter of sending arms to Ukraine and holds that stopping Russia’s advance is squarely “in America’s national security interest.”
Hell Yes to Israel, Unsure About Ukraine
A few days ago, the Republican-controlled House of Representatives passed a bill (226 to 196) pledging $14 billion in aid to Israel. Every conservative—fiscal or otherwise—in the chamber voted for this bill save two: gun idolator Tom Massie of Kentucky and QAnon-spouting Marjorie Taylor Greene of Georgia.
Senate Majority Leader Chuck Schumer from New York, who is an ardent supporter of Israel, nevertheless declared the bill dead on arrival in the Senate since it did not include aid to Ukraine. Instead, the Senate will push for a bipartisan proposal that combines assistance for Israel, Ukraine, and humanitarian aid for Gaza. New House Speaker Mike Johnson expressed a willingness to address aid to Ukraine, but only if it can be paired with stricter border security measures for the migrant situation on America’s Southern border. Prior to becoming speaker, Johnson was against ongoing assistance to Ukraine. But since taking charge of the House, he’s been more open to funding Ukraine’s war effort.
Ben Shapiro, a prominent conservative commentator, is in favor of the U.S. helping to broker a settlement between Russia and Ukraine that cedes much of the seized territory to Russia but secures important “security guarantees” for Ukraine. On Israel, Shapiro gives the IDF very wide latitude to do what it must in order to eliminate Hamas and scoffs at calls for Israel to carry out a “proportionate” response as “absolutely meaningless and stupid horseshit.”
No to Israel, No to Ukraine
Vivek Ramaswamy, who trails DeSantis and Haley in the polls, has simultaneously shown flashes of more measured thinking than his rivals but also a greater willingness to spout conspiratorial nonsense. Ramaswamy opposes Israel’s ground invasion into Gaza, believing it will further provoke Israel’s enemies and eventually require U.S. military involvement. This, he says, will lead to the creation of a supercharged “Hamas 2.0.” After being criticized for being insufficiently supportive of Israel, Ramaswamy issued an over the top endorsement of Israel’s right to militarily respond to Hamas’s attacks. In that statement, Ramaswamy, a practicing Hindu, referred to Israel as “a Divine nation charged with a Divine purpose.” Meanwhile, Ramaswamy does not view ensuring victory for Ukraine as “a vital U.S. interest.” As president, he would “cease further support for Ukraine.” Ramaswamy peddled the conspiracy theory that President Biden’s Ukraine policy is a quid pro quo for the millions Hunter Biden received while on Burisma’s board. Ultimately, it seems, Ramaswamy opposes spending American taxpayer dollars on conflicts abroad because he is a self-avowed libertarian with a strong streak of MAGA isolationism.
Congresswoman Marjorie Taylor Greene has vowed to vote no on all funding packages to Ukraine and Israel because she wants the U.S. to spend its resources on stricter border enforcement, including deploying tanks to the Southern border. In a flawless instantiation of horseshoe theory, Greene joined with Codepink activists to oppose Ukraine funding. Earlier in the year, Greene willfully misquoted Zelenskyy as demanding the U.S. send its “sons and daughters” to die defending Ukraine, when the quote in context shows he merely predicted that if Ukraine loses the war and Russia further invades NATO states, the U.S. will inevitably be drawn in to combat Russia.
Tucker Carlson, who until his ouster at Fox News has probably been the most influential conservative, recently revealed he was “enraged” by House Speaker Mike Johnson’s acquiescing to funnel funding to Israel. What about Ukraine? Carlson has been so relentlessly critical of Ukraine that Russian state media has decided to broadcast his X show.
No Dollars, No Tears for Gaza
There isn’t much support for the Palestinians in the GOP or the right more broadly. The closest is Kentucky Senator Rand Paul. After initially declaring that Israel deserved a license to deliver a “punishing response” in Gaza to take out Hamas, as the civilian toll mounts in Gaza, he is now warning against “blowback.”
Paul’s libertarianism has made him a strong opponent of spending American taxpayer dollars abroad—for example, he’s implacably opposed to aid for Ukraine. But he was also against sending funds to Israel to build its Iron Dome. And no doubt he will balk at any aid package or other material support for Gaza.
There are Republicans who are willing to stick up for Israel and/or Ukraine, but there is no one noteworthy even calling for assistance to Gaza. Even as Schumer, a Jewish senator, is holding up aid for Israel until it is combined with funds for Ukraine and Gaza, some Republican-sponsored bills are calling for redirecting aid intended for Gaza to Israel instead.
Intellectual Flux and Moral Bankruptcy
During the Cold War, the main divide in the country was between hawks and doves. The hawks, concentrated largely on the right, favored a strong military capable of defeating and containing the Soviet Union. Deterrence through strength was its motto. The doves, concentrated largely on the left, worried about an arms race, especially nuclear, and favored détente, disarmament, and diplomacy with the Soviet Union.
But now the fault lines in the right have not only widened but they crisscross in weird and unpredictable ways. Old fashioned Reaganite conservatives who wanted to keep the world free from Soviet communism are in conflict with the new right that sees Putin as a defender of Western civilization against the woke left. MAGA America Firsters hate foreigners but less than they hate neoconservatives who believe in using America’s military and diplomatic prowess to maintain a U.S.-led liberal order. There is a strong, new anti-war strain in MAGA that wants to expend no American blood or treasure defending countries abroad. Its inward retreat ought to translate into lower military spending except that these same folks also want to build Fortress America, which is expensive. That’s why Trump proposed handing the Pentagon even a bigger budget than it requested. All this makes the GOP’s fiscal conservatives unhappy but they are a vanishing breed so no one cares about them. That’s not the case with the religious/evangelical right that is a core part of the Trump’s MAGA base and has its own notions of the role that America should play in bringing about a biblically ordained world. This is sometimes in tension with the isolationist right, but sometimes it is not.
The Israeli and Ukrainian conflicts have thrown into sharp relief the deep divides and confusion on the right on foreign policy. Such intellectual flux may not have been a bad thing if the movement were not being led by a morally bankrupt narcissist who thrives on chaos and lacks a basic sense of right and wrong. Given that it is, how this will all eventually shake out is anyone’s guess.
© The UnPopulist 2023