An interview with Brian Mefford, of Wooden Horse Strategies, LLS.
A condensed edition of this interview was first published on Kyiv Post.
Have Governor DiSantis' recent comments put US support for Ukraine at substantive risk? Should Ukrainian leaders worry about his statement?
No. The Governor of Florida has no jurisdiction over US foreign policy or Ukraine. He is a potential - but not yet announced candidate - for the Republican presidential nomination next year. If he wins the primary and then wins the general (two big "if's") then maybe it’s a matter of concern. However, what candidates say in a primary when appealing to the base voters, versus what they say in the general election when appealing to the center, and then what they do if actually elected is often three different matters.
In the case of DeSantis’s comments on Ukraine though, let’s deconstruct his responses to Russian apologist Tucker Carlson. First, nothing DeSantis said was pro-Russian which contrasts with some backbench Republican members of Congress. Second, his comments largely downplayed Ukraine as a priority for America. Given that Ukraine has no electoral votes and foreign policy is rarely a vote winner, this is not surprising. Third, he gave safe and cautious answers to the questions. For example, he said “no blank checks”, but as a fiscally conservative governor, he doesn’t give blank checks anyway. He also said F-16s should be off the table, but President Biden has said the same and certainly no one will characterize the President as anti-Ukrainian.
The one comment that that was concerning was his reference to Russia’s invasion of Ukraine being a “territorial dispute”. In the best case he was merely repeated Russian talking points that have managed to contaminate the mainstream media discussion. In the worst case, he believes it’s indeed a territorial dispute rather than an issue of sovereignty. More likely, like many Americans, DeSantis simply don’t know the facts.
Governor DeSantis’ comments brought both surprise and disappointment. First, his comments to Carlson contrast with his statements as a congressman during the Russian invasion of 2014 and his statements as governor last February. In 2014 Congressman DeSantis criticized the "blankets not bullets' policy of the Obama administration on Ukraine and called for arming Ukraine with weapons. After the invasion on February 24th, he predicted the "death of 1000 cuts for the Russian army". He also criticized the Biden administration for weakness that encouraged the invasion and called for tougher sanctions on Russia. Have the governor's views changed since last year or 2014? It's doubtful, but like any politician he is going to play the audience to which he is speaking (in this case Tucker Carlson).
Secondly, the comments were a disappointment to Republicans wanting him to take a decidedly pro-Ukrainian stand. That is because DeSantis is currently the only potential Republican presidential candidate with a chance to beat Donald Trump in the primaries. Since Trump has taken an isolationist view on Ukraine, DeSantis’ comments position him in the middle of the GOP candidate field as well as with the GOP electorate. Keep in mind that polling shows Republican voters either evenly divided on Ukraine aid or slightly negative. Other Republican presidential candidate including former Vice President Mike Pence, former Secretary of State Mike Pompeo, and Senator Tim Scott, have all have taken decisively pro-Ukrainian positions. The issue now within the GOP is that you can't beat something with nothing. Love or hate him, Trump is definitely something and for DeSantis (or anyone else) to beat him in the primaries, he has to play to the base voters. Hence, the cautious comments on Ukraine from DeSantis to avoid attacks from Trump on the issue.
Other senior Republicans have now effectively 'corrected' DiSantis, and there are primaries coming up. How do you see this internal dynamic about Ukraine playing out?
The fact that Florida’s senior Senator Marco Rubio corrected DeSantis on the Ukraine issue is a positive sign. I read it as an indicator that the governor is still formulating his opinion on the issue. Governors don’t deal much with foreign policy, but senators do. The GOP Senate leadership has often been more hawkish on arming Ukraine than the White House and has criticized President Biden for slow walking weapons to Ukraine. That main dynamic with regard to Ukraine in the GOP presidential primary will be simply be Trump’s isolationism versus his main opponent’s position. It is unlikely though that Ukraine will be a decisive issue for Republican primary voters.
If you were directly advising GOP politicians on Ukraine, what policy principles would you be advising?
The GOP is the party of “peace through strength” and pro-defense industry. We need to prioritize our principles first, our paychecks second and our party third. When President Biden is right on an issue, like I believe he is on Ukraine, we need to be supportive and be constructive. When the president is wrong - and he often is - we need to oppose him but oppose him based on principles of conservatism rather partisanship. When talking to Republican voters, much of the opposition to Ukraine is rooted in the fact that Biden supports Ukraine rather than any policy or principle. It’s primarily “Biden is for it so I am against it.” Republicans should be owning the Ukraine issue and criticizing Biden, not for giving another $50 billion to Ukraine, but rather for not giving $100 billion and F16’s to Ukraine. Russia has been a threat to American interests for the last 75 years. We should not suddenly wobbly on Russia in hopes of scoring some petty political points.
If foreign policy has very little bearing on electoral results in the USA, why has DiSantis even taken this position?
It's true that only a handful of people actually vote based on foreign policy. Most voters are motivated primarily by social and economic issues (principles and paychecks). However, Presidents have to deal with foreign policy whether they want to or not. George W. Bush promised to focus on domestic issues during the 2000 election and couldn't recall the name of the President of Pakistan in an early interview. After 9/11 though, he became a foreign policy President and quickly learned the name of every leader of every country connected to the Middle East. Candidate Donald Trump in 2016 was critical of Ukraine but surprised everyone as President by arming Ukraine with Javelins and adding more extensive economic sanctions on Russia than the Obama administration was willing to do. Presidential realities are different than candidate rhetoric.
Having little foreign policy experience as Florida governor, DeSantis’ comments strongly suggests he wants to win the GOP nomination on issues other than foreign policy. Thus, DeSantis’s comments to Carlson seem more designed to avoid making mistakes in the primaries than any principled and firm position on Ukraine.
What would Ronald Reagan be saying about Ukraine and what would he be saying to other Republicans?
President Ronald Reagan always had strong support in the Ukrainian American community. Many of the arguments used against greater US support of Ukraine are similar to ones used against him as President. These include nonsense about if we are too tough on the Russians they will use nuclear weapons, we need to give the Russians an off ramp to avoid them losing face, we are pulling the US into a confrontation, etc. All of those arguments were thrown against Reagan and all proven flawed.
I believe President Reagan would be reminding Republicans (and European leaders) of the words from his 1964 “Time for the Choosing” speech, the advice from which is particularly apt in the case of Russia’s invasion of Ukraine. He said, “We cannot buy our security, our freedom from the threat of the bomb by committing an immorality so great as saying to a billion human beings now enslaved behind the Iron Curtain, ‘Give up your dreams of freedom because to save our own skins, we’re willing to make a deal with your slave masters’…Now let’s set the record straight. There’s no argument over the choice between peace and war, but there’s only one guaranteed way you can have peace -and you can have it in the next second – surrender. Admittedly, there’s a risk in any course we follow other than this, but every lesson of history tell us that the greater risk lies in appeasement, and this is the specter our well-meaning…friends refuse to face, that their policy of accommodation is appeasement, and it gives no choice between peace and war, only between fight and surrender…You and I know and do not believe that life is so dear and peace so sweet as to be purchased at the price of chains and slavery.”
It's been suggested that Ukraine policy is now entirely played out through red/blue divide. How should Ukraine manage the risks of that?
The unfortunate partisan polarization of the US is partly due to Russian efforts to disseminate disinformation, contaminate media streams with conspiracies, and provoke divisions within American society. Ukraine must be careful in navigating this environment to avoid becoming a partisan casualty. Specifically, Ukraine needs to avoid any perceived or otherwise interference in US domestic politics and stick to a strict bipartisan approach to Ukraine’s interests. Playing political favorites is a recipe for causing Ukraine long term damage. This means keeping the focus on weapons, humanitarian aid, NATO membership, etc. and avoiding any hint of preference on American social or economic policies. In addition, while Ukraine needs to continue to cultivate its relationship with the Biden White House, it also must cultivate its relationship with Speaker McCarthy, Senate Minority Leader Mitch McConnell, Republican leaders in the House and Senate, and even the leading Republican presidential campaigns. Finally, Ukraine needs to present a unified front abroad. There are certainly many domestic political divisions in Ukraine, but when that dirty laundry gets aired in the US, it will quickly fan the flames of Ukraine fatigue.
Last one: will MAGA wing prevail on Ukraine policy?
We will know next spring after the primaries. The Republican electorate is generally split evenly between Trump isolationists and Reaganite idealists, the latter who strongly support Ukraine. For those of us living and working in Ukraine, it’s sometimes inconceivable how anyone wouldn’t be on Ukraine’s side and when we hear something that isn’t entirely supportive, we take it personally. This in turn causes us to sometimes lose perspective on the magnitude of the matter. For example, much has been made out of last May’s vote when 57 Republican Representatives and 11 Senators voted against aid to Ukraine. Its rightly a concern, but when you consider that 149 Republican Representatives and 39 Senators voted for Ukraine aid, the size of the opposition is not particularly significant. Time will tell but I believe the majority of Republicans will continue to support Ukraine and be on the right side of history.