Ron DeSantis Is Clumsily Backing Away From His Past as a Russia Hawk
DeSantis' foreign policy seems to be defined by a simple rule: Whatever Democrats do is wrong, but whatever Republicans do is right.
When then-President Barack Obama decided that the United States would not provide lethal weaponry as part of a $53 billion aid package to Ukraine in 2014, Ron DeSantis was quick to criticize the decision.
DeSantis, then a member of Congress representing Florida's 6th district, told conservative talk radio host Bill Bennett in 2015 that it was a mistake for Obama to refuse to provide arms to Ukraine after Russia's annexation of Crimea the previous year.
"I think that when someone like [Russian President Vladimir] Putin sees Obama being indecisive, I think that whets his appetite to create more trouble in the area," DeSantis said at the time, according to a CNN report published last month. "And I think if we were to arm the Ukrainians, I think that would send a strong signal to him that he shouldn't be going any further."
Three years later, when President Donald Trump decided that the United States would provide weapons to Ukraine, DeSantis told Fox News that it illustrated the difference between the two presidents.
"[Obama] did nothing when Russia invaded Crimea, made incursions into Ukraine," DeSantis told Jeanine Pirro in 2018. In contrast, he said, Trump's actions were a way to be "strong against Russia" and prevent future conflicts.
In response to Russia's invasion of Ukraine last year, the Biden administration has wholeheartedly adopted the approach that DeSantis used to advocate. The U.S. has provided $113 billion in aid to Ukraine since the war began, much of it in the form of deadly weapons that have helped slow and even reverse some of the Russian military's early gains in the conflict. The administration's rationale for feeding money and arms to Ukraine has been a fear that Russia could threaten nearby NATO countries if Putin's expansionist ambitions aren't halted in the Donbas.
In short, it's been nearly the exact same argument that DeSantis made in 2015 after the annexation of Crimea: Arm the Ukrainians to "send a strong signal to [Putin] that he shouldn't be going any further."
Now, however, DeSantis is criticizing that approach.
During an appearance on Fox News last month, DeSantis slammed Biden's recent promise that America would continue to support Ukraine's fight indefinitely, DeSantis called that a "blank check" approach to the conflict. He also specifically downplayed the threat that Russia supposedly presents to the rest of Europe.
"The fear of Russia going into NATO countries and all that…has not even come close to happening," DeSantis said, adding that the conflict has exposed Russia to be "a third-rate military power."
Judging from his history of talking about conflicts in Ukraine, DeSantis' foreign policy seems to be defined by a simple rule. Whatever Democrats do is wrong, but whatever Republicans do is right.
As Flordia's governor, DeSantis has excelled at that kind of zero-sum political game, positioning himself as the culture-warring conservative hero who is single-handedly saving the state from liberal ideologies and "woke" culture, making Florida a refuge for those fleeing Democratic-run states like New York and California. That might work on the state level, and it might work as a tactic for domestic political wins, but can it be effectively translated into a principle for guiding foreign policy?
As I detailed in this month's Reason cover story, DeSantis' politics have evolved considerably from his time as a member of Congress, where he served three terms between 2013 and 2018. The gap between that earlier version of DeSantis and the boisterous character that the governor has recently embraced will be something that other Republican presidential hopefuls will likely try to exploit if DeSantis decides he wants to seek the White House in 2024.
So what should Americans expect if DeSantis ends up not only as the general of the GOP's culture war, but as America's commander-in-chief, with the power to commit the world's largest military to a real war?
Daniel Larison, a noninterventionist foreign policy analyst and author of the Eunomia Substack, sees DeSantis' recent comments about Ukraine as an attempt to triangulate between Biden's position and where some Republican voters stand.
"His position is very much shaped by domestic politics. If DeSantis comes out and opposes a Ukraine aid package, that would be a clearer signal that he is really staking out a different position," Larison tells Reason. "He doesn't want to take the political risk of coming out in favor of cutting off military assistance (and his record in Congress suggests that he has no problem with providing that assistance), but he doesn't want to be seen as endorsing Biden's policy without qualifications, either."
In fairness to DeSantis, the governor of an American state does not need to have much in the way of a coherent vision for foreign policy. But DeSantis is widely viewed as a front-runner for the Republican presidential nomination in 2024—and, in situations like the appearance on Fox News last month, he is actively choosing to wade into these issues as a possible prelude to a presidential run.
Whoever heads up the Republican ticket next year will have the task of reorganizing Republican foreign policy after Trump pivoted the party away from its Bush-era, neoconservative streak that called for spreading democracy around the globe (at the point of a gun, if need be). DeSantis has excelled within the new Republican focus on domestic policy and culture warring, but he'll have to do more than criticize Biden to build a cohesive foreign policy.
Perhaps there is room for DeSantis to find that middle ground that Larison describes. He could criticize the "blank check" approach of the Biden administration while maintaining that Obama's refusal to provide any weaponry was also incorrect. But how much is the right amount, and how would he know what to do in a similar situation?
So far, DeSantis is having a hard time articulating that answer. In a Times of London profile published last week, DeSantis sparred with David Charter, the paper's U.S. editor, over the Ukraine question.
"I ask about Ukraine and he says that 'there's a critique of Biden, and I think I'm sympathetic to it in the sense that, is our policy just do whatever Zelensky wants? Or do we have a concrete idea of what we're trying to achieve exactly?'" Charter wrote. "When I ask him how it should be handled differently, he refers to Biden being 'weak on the world stage' and failing at deterrence, but as that is not answering how it should be handled now, I ask again. DeSantis does not have anything to add: 'Perhaps you should cover some other ground? I think I've said enough.'"
Outside of the Ukraine issue, DeSantis seems to hold fairly typical Republican views on foreign policy. "DeSantis has signaled his pro-Israel views, an understandable disdain for the communist and far-left dictatorships of Latin America, and a hawkish view of China," summed up Dalibor Rohac, a senior fellow at the American Enterprise Institute, a conservative think tank, in November. But there are still some big gaps to be filled in, including "his views of trade, an area where Trump's protectionist instincts have continued to dominate U.S. policy under Biden," wrote Rohac.
For Bonnie Kristian, a Reason contributor and fellow at Defense Priorities, a foreign policy think tank, DeSantis has "a standard Republican record." He's been "critical of Pentagon waste but uninterested in reducing military spending, even to balance the budget; skeptical of unchecked foreign aid; reflexively supportive of Israel; willing to subvert civil liberties in the name of fighting terror; critical of U.S. military intervention in Syria under the Obama administration but supportive of it in the Trump years; and prone to framing relations with unreformed Soviet bloc nations—Cuba, North Korea, and especially China—in absolutist, ideological terms," Kristian wrote in The New York Times in January.
And while the Ukraine war is the most acute and pressing foreign policy issue facing the country right now, Kristian notes that DeSantis seems to be a more serious Iran hawk than Trump ever was. "He talks about [Iran] in very absolutist terms, saying that the United States and Iran have no interests in common," she said during an appearance on Larison's Crashing The War Party podcast last week. "It seems plausible that he would be moving back towards not just this dysfunctional, no-active-diplomacy relationship that we have with them right now, but potentially thinking about military intervention there again."
Indeed, the biggest red flag in DeSantis' foreign policy background might be the praise he's sung for John Bolton, an unapologetic architect of the Bush administration's catastrophic foreign policies after 9/11 who also served, briefly, in the Trump administration as a foreign policy advisor. Bolton has spent literally decades trying to maneuver the United States into a direct war with Iran—after leaving the Trump administration, Bolton wrote that Trump's biggest mistake was not going to war after Iran shot down an unmanned American drone in 2019. Bolton is an ultra-hawk who advocated for the calamitous intervention in Libya during the Obama years, tried to convince President George W. Bush to attack Cuba over nonexistent biological weapons, and cheered the prospect of a nuclear exchange between Israel and Iran.
What does DeSantis think of Bolton? In that same 2018 Fox News interview where DeSantis praised Trump for being tough on Russia, he called Bolton (then a White House advisor) "a very strong voice, very clear thinker."
"I think that importantly, he knows how bureaucracy works and so he is going to be instrumental in getting the bureaucrats to actually enforce President Trump's policies which they haven't been, you know, as willing to do as they were under Obama," DeSantis said. "So, I think it was a really good choice and I do think that you will see positive results in terms you have the execution of the Trump foreign policy."
DeSantis' praise for Bolton might not extend to support for Bolton's maximalist position on Iran or American interventionism, but it does seem to illustrate, once again, that DeSantis defaults to uncritically supporting fellow Republicans—even when those same Republicans have been disastrously wrong in the past.
If DeSantis ends up as the GOP's presidential nominee next year, he might have a freer hand than any prominent Republican politician in a generation to redefine the party's foreign policy approach. In the wake of the disastrous Bush wars, the chaotic Trump years, and Biden's "blank check" in the Ukraine conflict, there is an opportunity for a leader to compose a foreign policy that recognizes the costs, risks, and limits of America's global military presence.
To present a cohesive foreign policy vision, DeSantis must meaningfully move beyond his reflexive partisanship and successfully grapple with his own uncomfortably hawkish record—something he might have to do now that the Republican electorate has soured on pointless foreign wars. He should clarify the confusion surrounding his views on arming Ukraine. And he should publically pledge to never, ever hire John Bolton as an advisor.