With the slimmest of majorities, Rep. Kevin McCarthy appears poised to take the speakership of the U.S. House of Representatives. He will have a lot on his hands, including a restive caucus and a hostile Senate and White House. There are domestic challenges aplenty and differing perspectives on how to meet them—even among Republicans let alone between Republicans and Democrats.
But there are also growing national security challenges that cannot be ignored, among them Ukraine, China, Russia, Iran, and more. Those challenges represent an opportunity for McCarthy and for the GOP overall. They can help sharpen the Biden administration’s cautious internationalism and work to restore decisive U.S. global leadership. Or they can usher in a period of 1930s-nostalgic Republicanism—an era, political historians might tell McCarthy, that contributed to decades in the wilderness for the GOP.
On Ukraine, isolationist Trumpists sense the bit in their teeth. During the midterm campaign, the ever-vocal Rep. Marjorie Taylor Greene said, “Under Republicans, not another penny will go to Ukraine. Our country comes first.” Incoming Ohio Sen. J.D. Vance said he doesn’t “really care what happens to Ukraine one way or another.” But even more mainstream conservatives—McCarthy among them—have sounded the alarm on the open spigot of U.S. assistance to Ukraine. In a now-infamous October statement, the would-be speaker warned, “I think people are gonna be sitting in a recession and they’re not going to write a blank check to Ukraine. They just won’t do it.” And the leader of the conservative bellwether Heritage Foundation has repeatedly emphasized his own doubts about U.S. support for Ukraine.
Nor are they alone. There is a growing Republican chorus linking action in Ukraine to inaction on pressing domestic matters: Per Rep. Warren Davidson, “My constituents are saying, ‘Why are we more worried about Ukraine’s borders than we are about America’s borders?’ My constituents are not sitting there going, ‘Gosh, we have to save Ukraine’s borders.’” Ditto Rep. Kat Cammack: “I liken it to the airline videos they do before you take off: You need to put your own oxygen mask on before helping others. And I just don’t think as a legislator that I could, in good conscience, support billions and billions of funding going overseas when we have such dire needs here.”
And then there are those who are less worried about so-called wasting money on Ukraine than they are simply, in service to isolationist impulses, apologists for Russian President Vladimir Putin, like Rep. Paul Gosar: “Ukraine is not our ally. Russia is not our enemy. We need to address our crippling debt, inflation, and immigration problems. None of this is Putin’s fault.” Ditto Taylor Greene and her voting partner, Rep. Thomas Massie, both of whom hold the dubious honor of having voted against every recent Russia sanctions measure. These Ukraine-skeptic members—whether motivated by pro-Putin, anti-spending, or isolationist impulses—reflect an important shift in Republican public opinion, with GOP voter support for U.S. aid to Ukraine softening dramatically this year.
Isolationist impulses on the right about Ukraine are not replicated regarding the question of China, an area of rare comity between Democrats and Republicans. However, there are serious fault lines. In the last Congress, the GOP expressed doubts—consistent with historical conservative skepticism on industrial policy—about one of the signature efforts to halt China’s technological advances. The CHIPS and Science Act provides approximately $280 billion dollars in funding to boost semiconductor research and manufacturing in the United States. These critical building blocks are largely manufactured in Taiwan (more than 60 percent of the world market), but more important still, only 12 percent of chips are manufactured in the United States.
The dramatis personae of CHIPS opposition will be familiar to most who follow congressional politics. McCarthy, using one of his pet phrases, denounced the Senate version of the bill: “The Senate passed a bill that took a small, discretionary program and turned it into a $280 billion blank check, including $79 billion in mandatory spending on corporate welfare to be handed out to whoever President [Joe] Biden wants.” In the House, the bill passed with only 24 Republicans (and all Democrats). In the Senate, 17 Republicans supported the bill, including, notably, Minority Leader Mitch McConnell. Texas Sen. Ted Cruz summarized the opposition: “I’m all for using the tax code to incentivize manufacturers to build semiconductors in America, but when the federal government simply gives billions of taxpayer dollars directly to massive corporations, it invites cronyism and corruption.”
Similar to divisions on Russia, Ukraine, and China, there are divisions among Republicans about Iran, defense spending and priorities, involvement with international organizations, and (of course) among many, a desire to expend political time and capital investigating the Biden family rather than pushing the Biden administration toward better policies. But those squabbles pale when compared to the opportunities.
There is a critically important job ahead for the GOP, and party members ignore it not simply at their own political peril but at the peril of the nation. Even if the GOP were to accept the basics of the Biden administration’s National Security Strategy—though there is much more to be done—resourcing better foreign policy and more decisive global leadership is key. And eminently possible.
During previous years of political cohabitation (as the French call it)—with a Democrat in the White House and Republicans controlling some or all of Congress—there was, among other accomplishments, congressionally led United Nations reform, NATO expansion, the Iraq Liberation Act, sharpened sanctions on Iran, and a GOP-forced rethink about arming Bosnia against its enemies. Not all of these need to be replicated today, but the model itself is a guide. Congress can be the backbone the White House needs.
On the question of Ukraine, squabbling within the Republican caucus should be resolvable. Beginning with McCarthy’s assertion that there cannot be a “blank check,” Congress can demand better oversight and accountability. How has money for Ukraine been spent? Perhaps more importantly, why has the Biden administration requested authorities it has not used? Why has the Biden administration repeatedly reversed itself on the number and quality of weapons it is willing to provide the Ukrainian military? Congress is right to ask, having appropriated tens of billions of dollars, exactly what the Biden administration did with the funds.
More importantly, Congress can begin to divide responsibilities for Ukraine in a way that the Biden administration has refused to. Right now, the United States is providing financial as well as military assistance. There is every argument to be made that weapons-wise, the best supplier is the United States. And certainly Germany’s volte-face on providing meaningful military assistance to Ukraine underscores the dangers of relying on allies where pacifist impulses are deeply rooted. But when it comes to budgetary support to Ukraine, money is money. It is not clear why the U.S. taxpayer should be paying for something that European supporters of Kyiv can easily manage. Indeed, of the tens of billions of euros pledged by the European Union since Russia’s invasion, only a small percentage has actually been delivered. It’s time for the spigot to open—fully.
Presumably, America’s NATO allies also wish Kyiv to prevail against a common enemy. But let’s not fool ourselves: Russia is a far more immediate threat to Europe than it is to the United States. There is no excuse for Europe to be a deadbeat. That must end. And if the Biden administration is unwilling to name and shame, then Congress can do so. That is what hearings are for.
Of course, there will continue to be isolationists and Russophiles who believe U.S. taxpayer money is best spent elsewhere. But that is not the majority of the GOP caucus nor the majority of GOP voters. And a clear delineation of where the United States can thoughtfully support Ukrainian warfighting to reverse Russia’s occupation is an easier case to be made than transfers of cash. Thoughtful Republicans are already making this case, and if McCarthy is to lead, then he would be well positioned to push both the Democratic-dominated Senate and the White House to think more strategically.
Similarly, there has been insufficient consideration of Ukraine reconstruction in Congress. At a staff level, there is an understanding that there will need to be an international conference of some kind and that cash transfers to the historically corrupt Ukrainian government will not fly. But how will that happen? What will the source of those funds be? There are around $300 billion in Russian reserves now frozen outside Russia. That might be a start, but again, using these Russian assets to rebuild what Russia has destroyed will require amendments to existing law and consensus with other donors. The House can begin to delineate guardrails and set down markers about the United States’ role and costs. Absent that action, decision-making will devolve to the White House, where hand-wringing about decisive action on Ukraine reigns.
Part of what has driven the slow roll regarding deliveries to Ukraine are objections from the U.S. Defense Department about drawing down stockpiles, with warnings about risks to U.S. readiness in the absence of key weaponry. Congress has rightly smacked down those complaints and increased budget requests for defense in the last year. But incremental increases are untenable with inflation hovering close to 8 percent, affecting not simply the budget but expenditures on personnel, pensions, and health care as well.
Some Republicans appear to believe that the biggest risk to U.S. national defense is so-called wokeness within the armed forces. That’s a problem for sure—abandoning fitness standards and test scores in recruiting and prioritizing “diversity” over combat readiness and complex problem-solving skills is a recipe for disaster—but a withering national defense capability remains more important.
What’s worse is the Pentagon’s Future Years Defense Program, an echo of the Soviet five-year plans that pretends the United States is in the midst of an extended peacetime, focusing instead on 2030’s capabilities. Between that and the bizarre notion of integrated deterrence—which, depending on how one interprets the word salads that describe it, may or may not mean less actual military deterrence and more diplomatic action—the GOP has its work cut out for it. Because one thing is clear in 2022: Integrated deterrence didn’t deter Putin, and it doesn’t seem to be deterring Chinese President Xi Jinping.
Both the incoming chairman of the House Armed Services Committee, Rep. Mike Rogers, and the outgoing ranking member of the Senate Armed Services Committee, Sen. Jim Inhofe, have said the defense budget must be 5 percent above the rate of inflation. Experts estimate that rather than the $773 billion the White House requested for defense in 2023, at least $824 billion will be needed. But less important than the money is how the money is spent. In the current budget request, at least $109 billion is being spent on schools, climate programs, humanitarian aid, and other non-core defense activities. Whether such programs are being replicated at, for instance, the U.S. Agency for International Development or the Environmental Protection Agency is less material than the fact that they do not belong in what used to be called the War Department.
Right now, the United States isn’t ready to fight one conflict, let alone two. As others have written, the U.S. defense industrial base is not broad or deep enough to replenish supplies from even a small skirmish with China over Taiwan. One reason the Pentagon has been hoarding weaponry at Ukraine’s expense is for just that reason—because backfilling critical weaponry is a yearslong process. Typically, congressional micromanagement of the defense budget has driven snafus just as often as it has driven readiness and modernization, but a focused GOP could start pushing the Pentagon toward a reconsideration of everything from its current one-war doctrine to a here-and-now procurement process. There is a vacuum of leadership on defense, and Congress can and should fill it.
And there’s more. Much, much more. The Biden administration isn’t doing as much as possible to help protesters in Iran. Nor does it have a discernible strategy for responding to Iran’s decision to become Russia’s supplier of weapons of last resort despite the manifest violations of U.N. Security Council resolutions. As with Ukraine, when others seek to fight America’s enemies, the right call is to do the utmost to advantage their battle.
Rather than talking about providing Iranians access to the internet via Starlink or other technology—and giving the regime time to stop it—Congress should leverage the White House into doing more for Iran’s dissidents. There are myriad options, starting with jawboning the president into enforcing U.S. law and ending impunity for Chinese imports of Iranian oil, sequestering confiscated oil shipments and selling them to resource a strike fund for Iranian workers, beginning information operations to reveal Iranian government leaders’ hidden overseas assets, and snapping back U.N. sanctions on Iran.
Also on the foreign-policy smorgasbord should be reforming and modernizing the United Nations, including legislating penalties for U.S. taxpayer-funded specialized agencies—remember the World Health Organization—run by or subservient to Chinese diktat, capping U.S. funding for peacekeeping budgets that continue to spiral out of control, and forcing the Biden administration to make the reforms it promised inside the Israel-obsessed U.N. Human Rights Council. When was the last great round of U.N. reforms? The 1990s—and one of its main authors was Biden.
How about stopping the United States from making reparations payments on climate change? Derailing the Biden administration’s efforts to rehabilitate Venezuela’s oil business? There is no shortage of things that a GOP House could do on its own or in cooperation with the Democrat-controlled Senate. Of the things that were made clear in the recent midterms, one was that politicians who spent their time and energy on conspiracy theories and relitigating history lost across the board. Governors and members of Congress who got things done won handily. It would serve the Republican leadership of the House and the minority in the Senate to remember that. There’s a dangerous world out there, and if the president isn’t going to ensure U.S. global leadership, then Congress must.