The Washington PostDemocracy Dies in Darkness

A Republican ‘civil war’ on Ukraine erupts as Reagan’s example fades

GOP leaders and voters are increasingly skeptical of an extended commitment, part of a broader shift away from conservative support for foreign interventions

Former president Donald Trump speaks on the third and final day of the Conservative Political Action Conference on March 4 in Fort Washington, Md. (Jabin Botsford/The Washington Post)
17 min

When Ronald Reagan addressed a brand new organization of upstart conservatives nearly five decades ago, he cast U.S. entanglements abroad as part of the nation’s destiny to take on “leadership of the free world” and to serve as a shining “city on the hill” that inspired other countries, sparking thunderous applause.

At a dinner named after the former president at the annual Conservative Political Action Conference (CPAC) gathering earlier this month, failed Arizona gubernatorial candidate Kari Lake pushed a very different message to the party’s activists.

“We are living on planet crazy where we have hundreds of billions of dollars of our hard-earned American money being sent overseas to start World War III,” Lake said in her keynote address, inflating the amount of U.S. aid that’s been sent to Ukraine since Russia’s invasion. “This is not our fight. We are ‘America First!’”

Lake’s strident aversion to deepening American involvement in Ukraine, echoed by many speakers at CPAC, has been dismissed by some Republicans in Congress as a fringe viewpoint held by a handful of conservatives that does not meaningfully threaten NATO unity against Vladimir Putin’s invasion. Congress has appropriated more than $113 billion since the war started in multiple bipartisan votes.

But Republican voters are increasingly adopting those same skeptical views, with surveys showing them becoming colder to continued U.S. aid as the conflict drags into its second year. Likely and declared GOP presidential candidates, including Florida Gov. Ron DeSantis and former president Donald Trump, as well as a growing faction of Republican lawmakers in the House, are promoting that skepticism as well, with potentially seismic consequences for the conflict and the party itself.

DeSantis recently told Fox News host Tucker Carlson that helping Ukraine fend off Putin’s invasion is not a “vital” security interest for the United States, dismissing it as a “territorial dispute” in a written answer to Carlson’s Ukraine-related survey for 2024 candidates. (That marks a reversal from DeSantis’s earlier support for arming Ukraine in 2015 after Russia annexed Crimea.) Trump agreed, urged President Biden to negotiate a peace deal, and said Europe should pay back the United States for some of the funds it has provided Ukraine.

More than a year after Russia invaded, the war in Ukraine has reached a bloody stalemate, with troops on both sides fighting over mere yards of territory along a 600-mile front line in the country’s south and east. The United States and Western partners have donated tens of billions of dollars in ammunition and weapons systems, hoping to break the deadlock on the battlefield. But the prospect of a decisive victory, by either side, seems less likely than a grinding war of attrition with the possibility of a dangerous nuclear confrontation lurking just over the horizon.

Beneath the shift from Reagan to Lake is a story of the Republican Party’s own transformation on foreign policy in the past few decades, as a segment of notable conservative figures — most influentially, Trump — began to overtly reject the Cold War-era Reagan posture of leading the “free world,” to push a very different view of America’s role in the world.

“This is an ongoing civil war, and I think that the realists and those of us who believe in a more restrained foreign policy have momentum,” said Dan Caldwell, vice president at the Center for Renewing America, the policy shop led by former Trump White House budget director Russ Vought. “You are seeing more Republicans at the grass-roots level, at the policymaker level, and even at the institutional and donor level embracing a foreign policy of realism and restraint.”

‘America First’ migrates from the fringes

In recent memory, the Republican Party has often been aligned with a muscular foreign policy summed up by Reagan’s “peace through strength.” Long before Reagan, however, there had been a tradition on the American right of nationalism and skepticism toward foreign intervention (sometimes called isolationism, though today’s conservatives reject that term). The motto of “America First” originated with a group of influential conservatives who opposed aiding the Allies at the outbreak of World War II.

After the war, the threat of the Soviet Union and international communism served to unite Republicans behind a more aggressive foreign policy, temporarily papering over ideological differences over America’s role in the world, according to Nicole Hemmer, a historian at Vanderbilt University.

“As soon as the Cold War comes to an end, that kind of nationalistic, noninterventionist strain of the conservative movement comes roaring back,” Hemmer said. Most prominently, failed presidential candidate Pat Buchanan revived the “America First” slogan to advocate for withdrawing from overseas military entanglements in the 1990s. Republicans criticized President Bill Clinton’s interventions in Somalia and Kosovo, and George W. Bush campaigned for president in 2000 by opposing the concept of nation-building abroad.

The terrorist attacks of Sept. 11, 2001, changed Bush’s plans, and his presidency became dominated by a doctrine of preemptive strikes and interventionism premised on promoting democracy. For a time, the anti-interventionist strain of conservative thought appeared extinct, summed up by Wall Street Journal editorial page editor Paul Gigot as “four or five people in a phone booth.”

But by the time Bush left office, the costly and drawn-out conflicts in Iraq and Afghanistan became a drain on his approval rating, including among Republicans. A resurgence of antiwar sentiment fueled Rep. Ron Paul’s long-shot, but attention-grabbing, presidential bid in 2008 and the tea party wave of 2010. In 2014, the network of conservative groups led by billionaire industrialist Charles Koch expanded investments in foreign policy, setting up think tanks, advocacy groups and activist organizations that built an intellectual case for a more restrained approach to foreign affairs.

“Being more hawkish isn’t necessarily a real political winner in 2012, and by the time that Trump comes around in 2016, he sees an opening with key parts of that Republican base that are done with the Bush wars and this idea of remaking large parts of the world in America’s image,” said Douglas Kriner, a professor of government at Cornell University.

Kriner’s research with Harvard professor Francis X. Shen found that places that suffered more casualties in Iraq and Afghanistan tended to turn away from Republicans starting in 2006 and gravitate toward Trump in 2016, even controlling for other factors.

“Trump very skillfully tapped into something that was there, a real softening in that support,” Kriner said.

The breakthrough moment for this new era of Republican attitudes toward foreign policy came in the February 2016 debate ahead of the South Carolina Republican presidential primary. Despite having said he supported invading Iraq at the time, Trump now called the Iraq War “a big fat mistake” and criticized the Bush administration as lying about Saddam Hussein’s having weapons of mass destruction. Jeb Bush cut in to defend his brother’s record, saying the former president “was building a security apparatus to keep us safe and I’m proud of what he did.” Trump shot back, “The World Trade Center came down during your brother’s reign, remember that. That’s not keeping us safe.”

The crowd booed, and pundits widely predicted that the moment would tank Trump’s candidacy, especially in a state with a large military presence. Instead, a week later, Trump won 44 out of 46 counties.

“The answer to the question is two words: Donald Trump,” Bill Kristol, the anti-Trump ex-Republican, said of the GOP’s foreign policy shift. “Maybe some of this would have happened anyway after Iraq, but it’s Trump’s party.”

When he was in office, Trump’s foreign policy proved difficult to categorize, swinging between bellicose and adoring remarks toward North Korean dictator Kim Jong Un, pushing to withdraw U.S. forces from Afghanistan and northern Syria, and taking a more aggressive posture toward Iran — including ordering the assassination of a top Iranian general.

Ukraine and Russia played an outsize role in Trump’s presidency, from the investigation into Putin’s interference in the 2016 election to Trump’s efforts to pressure Ukrainian President Volodymyr Zelensky into investigating Biden, leading to Trump’s first impeachment. Both scandals primed Trump’s most devoted supporters to distrust Ukraine as corrupt and unreliable, while aligning with Trump’s apparent affinities for Putin, whom he avoided criticizing and frequently praised. Putin, in turn, has worked to strengthen Russia’s image with American conservatives by portraying himself as a champion of traditional values and Ukraine as a tragedy of liberal decadence. A YouGov poll last year, before Russia invaded Ukraine, found more Republicans had a favorable view of Putin than of Biden and other top Democrats — though that still represented a fraction of them, at 15 percent.

“He talks the language of gender issues and respect for the church,” Robert Kagan, a senior fellow at the Brookings Institution. “He is clearly making a play for these conservatives and successfully.”

Kagan, Kristol and some of their allies — a group known to detractors as “neoconservatives,” though they reject the term — have quit the GOP in the Trump years. Other Republican hawks have adapted to the shifting center of gravity.

Sen. Marco Rubio (R-Fla.), seen as a young voice of traditional Republican foreign policy who still supports continued aid to Ukraine, has recently started advocating for reorienting U.S. priorities from Europe to China. The Heritage Foundation, once styled as Reagan’s think tank, has come out against approving additional aid to Ukraine and even started advocating cuts to defense spending — positions that Heritage president Kevin Roberts said were driven by a combination of fiscal concerns and fatigue from the wars in Iraq and Afghanistan.

“If you called me 20 years ago I would have been one of the main advocates for invading Afghanistan and Iraq,” Roberts said. “But the lessons of that are conservative Americans have said: ‘Oh my gosh, we can’t continue to be engaged in anything that looks or sounds or smells like nation-building.’ And frankly, that’s what Ukraine is starting to look like.”

The reluctance to counter Russia, however, is not always paired with a noninterventionist stance on other regions of the world. Many of the new voices on foreign policy in the Republican Party are arguing for a far more aggressive posture against China.

Roberts hosted Sen. Josh Hawley (R-Mo.) for a foreign policy speech at the Heritage Foundation in February, where the senator called for America to tell Europe they must defend themselves against the threat of Russia while the United States focuses instead on preparing for potential war with China.

“Let’s tell the truth, China is on the march and we are not prepared to stop them,” Hawley said.

Kagan, the Brookings fellow, called Hawley’s vision “crazy” for proposing to abandon European allies in the middle of a conflict. But Elbridge A. Colby, who led the Pentagon’s National Defense Strategy during the Trump administration, argued that the United States simply does not have the power to pursue the global hegemony that Kagan and his cohort have long advocated for.

“The real sweet spot for the Republican coalition is a kind of conservative realism,” Colby said. “This would avoid the hyper-interventionism of the old guard that was disastrous before but would be catastrophic in the face of the overriding threat posed by China that Republican voters viscerally understand. I think that will ultimately be a natural equilibrium for the GOP.”

‘There’s a giant disconnect’

The Republican civil war on foreign policy has spilled over from think tank conference rooms to the 2024 campaign trail, GOP primary voters and Capitol Hill.

Trump and his allies have begun attacking 2024 rivals for more hawkish positions. Former U.N. ambassador Nikki Haley, who served under Trump, was heckled and booed at CPAC earlier this month by Trump supporters. Former vice president Mike Pence, another supporter of the Ukraine effort, is also a frequent target of their scorn. DeSantis, who polling suggests would be a front-runner for the nomination, has shed the former traditional Republican hawk posture he held as a House member to dismiss the importance of defending Ukraine.

Several Republican senators pushed back on DeSantis’s and Trump’s comments on Ukraine on Tuesday, saying they believe empowering Russia would be bad for U.S. and global security even as they acknowledged the split in the party on the issue.

“He’s not alone in that, there are other people who are probably going to be candidates in 2024 on our side who may share that view,” Sen. John Thune (R-S.D.) said of DeSantis’s contention that Ukraine is not a U.S. national security interest. “But I would argue, and I think a majority of people in this country recognize, how important it is that Ukraine repel Russia and stop this aggression.”

But that new tone on the conflict caters to a growing number of Republican voters. Public opinion surveys have repeatedly found that Republicans, who initially supported aiding Ukraine in large majorities, have since become split on the assistance. In February, 50 percent of Republicans said the United States was doing “too much” to support Ukraine, up from 18 percent last April, according to a Washington Post-ABC News poll.

As some of the party’s largest national figures denigrate helping Ukraine fend off an invasion, Republican lawmakers who have supported Ukraine aid in the past say this growing grass-roots distrust has led to pressure from constituents who believe in at-times conspiratorial arguments against the war.

“The average grass-roots Republican is a lot more noninterventionist than the average Republican senator,” said Andy Surabian, a Republican strategist and adviser to Ukraine-skeptical Republicans including Donald Trump Jr. and Sen. J.D. Vance (Ohio). “There’s a giant disconnect between our party’s voters and our party’s elected leaders on that issue.”

That could threaten future funding streams for the war, which so far have enjoyed bipartisan support. Senate Minority Leader Mitch McConnell (R-Ky.) is one of the loudest defenders in Congress of continued aid to Ukraine, frequently making the case for helping the invaded nation repel Russia in floor speeches and statements.

“Republicans know that the safest America is a strong and engaged America,” McConnell said this month, adding that China would be emboldened by a Russian victory. He told The Post in February that Republicans are united behind the aid and that too much attention has been paid to “a very few people who seem not to be invested in Ukraine’s success.”

But House Speaker Kevin McCarthy (R-Calif.), who would likely struggle to wrangle his harder-right members to back more Ukraine aid in his slim majority, has said he does not support a “blank check” for the nation’s defenses and recently rejected an offer to visit Ukraine from Zelensky. Rep. Thomas Massie (R-Ky.) called Zelensky a “Ukrainian lobbyist” when he addressed Congress in December — a speech most House Republicans skipped.

Congress has funded the war effort through the end of September, but dozens of Republicans in the House and 11 in the Senate voted against the last stand-alone bill to provide more funds in May, suggesting trouble ahead now that the House is Republican-controlled.

“What went underestimated for a long time is there are different political inclinations at play than saying ‘peace through strength’ zombie Reaganism,” said Reid Smith, vice president for foreign policy at the Koch-backed group Stand Together. “That was a knee-jerk political instinct for a lot of Republicans and still holds for some leadership factions within the House and Senate. But I don’t know if that’s attuned to the preferences and priorities of a political base that seems to be demanding additional restraint.”

Some Republican lawmakers have said they are open to arguments from constituents who want clearer objectives for and transparency over the United States’ support for Ukraine. But instead, they are often inundated with conspiratorial objections that have no basis in reality.

Rep. David Schweikert (R-Ariz.) described receiving “crazy text messages and emails” with untrue claims about Ukraine forwarded by constituents, including doctored photos purporting to show neo-Nazis fighting against Russians. He used to spend his time fact-checking the claims one by one, but has largely given up.

“My fear is the whole debate particularly among our communities has been distorted by a very aggressive propaganda misinformation campaign,” he said.

But Schweikert, who did not say whether he would vote for more Ukraine aid in the future, blamed supporters of Ukraine for not mounting a more aggressive effort to counter the propaganda, rather than members of his party who have at times spread it.

“It turns out members of Congress are — believe it or not — human beings,” Schweikert said. “Sometimes you regurgitate the very information you have.”

Rep. Gary Palmer (R-Ala.) said there’s a “tremendous distrust” in Biden’s ability to handle Ukraine among Republicans who doubt his leadership, and “massive disinformation” campaigns being waged that also contribute to the skepticism in the base.

“I don’t think I’ve ever seen anything quite as convoluted as this with so many factors that lead people to all kinds of conclusions,” Palmer said of Republicans’ views on aid to Ukraine.

Palmer stressed that in his view, pulling support would be “unbelievably damaging” to the United States, especially in the eyes of China, which would view that as weakness and be emboldened to take more aggressive actions in Taiwan.

He said he believes most Republican lawmakers still agree with him.

Indeed, senior GOP defense hawks at a recent House Armed Services Committee’s hearing sharply questioned Biden administration officials over why they have yet to fulfill Zelensky’s ask of sending F-16 fighter jets — arguing that Biden has not been aggressive enough in the fight.

“Since the beginning, the president has been overly worried that giving Ukraine what it needs to win would be too escalatory. This hesitation has only prolonged the war and driven up costs in terms of dollars and lives,” chairman Mike D. Rogers (R-Ala.) said. “This conflict must end, and the president must be willing to do what it takes to end it.”

Scott Clement and Meryl Kornfield contributed to this report.


A previous version of this article stated the CPAC Reagan dinner was last month. It was earlier this month. The article has been updated.