Inside the halls of power and outside on the campaign trail, U.S. politics is a mess.
The leading Republican candidate for the 2024 presidential race, Donald Trump, faces four criminal indictments. The leading Democratic candidate, President Joe Biden, has dismal favorability ratings. The presidential race has so far generated as much positive enthusiasm as a barroom brawl between two old duffers, which in a certain sense it is.
Meanwhile, in Washington, Congress was deadlocked for three weeks in October because the Republican Party couldn’t decide on a new Speaker of the House. Finally, the party chose the far-right politician Mike Johnson (R-LA) whose obscurity was his greatest asset because he hadn’t made enough enemies among his colleagues to sink his candidacy. Obscurity also translates into precious little deal-making experience, which is not a good sign when the federal government faces a shutdown on November 17 if the two major parties can’t agree on a spending bill.
With a year left before Americans go to the polls in yet another supremely consequential election, President Biden is eager to keep the economy on an even keel and demonstrate resolve in the field of foreign policy. The latter has been sorely tested. Not only has the administration attempted to maintain support for Ukraine in its battle against Russian occupation forces, it is now trying to increase military assistance to Israel in its fight against Hamas.
Toward that end, the administration has proposed a $105 billion bill that bundles together military aid to Ukraine and Israel along with funding for Taiwan, increased security at the U.S.-Mexico border, and some humanitarian assistance for Palestinians.
In typical DC style, the bill contains something for nearly everyone. And yet, it still manages to piss off nearly everyone.
Most of the money earmarked for Ukraine and Israel would actually go to the Pentagon to replenish its stocks of weaponry to send to those countries. Congressional supporters of military spending, who make up the vast majority of lawmakers, should be delighted that, of the $61 billion slated for Ukraine, $44 billion would go to the Pentagon while, $10 billion of the $14 billion for Israel would also go to the military-industrial complex. China hawks will rejoice at the money for Taiwan while MAGA Republicans should be happy about the $13 billion for “border security.” The bill also includes some of the humanitarian aid to Palestinians that progressives have been urging.
Bundling is a traditional tactic for building consensus in a divided Congress. But it might not work this time, not only because the House is divided but because the Republican Party itself is a house divided.
On the issue of Ukraine, Republicans come in three flavors.
Senator Minority Leader Mitch McConnell (R-KY) heads up the plain vanilla faction. He supports Ukraine because he doesn’t like Russia, believes the United States is still locked in a cold war with this evil-ish empire, and was horrified by Trump’s pro-Putin statements over the years. McConnell is no friend of Biden’s, but he buys the administration’s frankly distasteful argument that the West is engaged in a civilizational struggle against a common enemy. For these reasons, McConnell has pledged to support the bundled funding in the Senate, though with some important caveats.
Over in the House, Mike Johnson straddles the vanilla faction and the Rocky Road crew: he’s a scoop of vanilla with some nuts sprinkled on top. Like McConnell, he is no friend of Russia. “We can’t allow Vladimir Putin to prevail in Ukraine, because I don’t believe it would stop there, and it would probably encourage and empower China to perhaps make a move on Taiwan,” Johnson told Fox News. “We have these concerns. We’re not going to abandon them.”
But Johnson has also adopted most of the positions of the nut-filled MAGA faction, from its unmitigated support for Trump to its die-hard opposition to abortion. So, despite his aversion to Putin, Johnson has introduced a bill to divide the funding for Israel from the money for Ukraine, presumably so that the far right can register its disapproval of the latter without compromising its approval of the former.
Johnson’s colleagues have various problems with the bill. J.D. Vance (R-OH) criticizes the small amount of humanitarian aid for Palestinians. Other Republicans have taken aim at the measure that was included precisely to curry their favor—money for border security—because suddenly they don’t care about money but insist instead on a change in administration policy.
Johnson is a budget-cutter, and he knows that 61 percent of Republicans believe that the value of aid to Ukraine is not worth the cost (compared to a mere 29 percent of Democrats). Reducing government spending is a perennial favorite of the Republicans going into an election (as opposed to after they win an election, when they go on a spending spree). As a result, Johnson supports the crowd-pleasing (but budget-busting) tactic of slashing funds for the IRS to pay for the military assistance.
But the leading criticism of the bill, from the far right, concerns Ukraine. Why the skepticism? Vance worries about “an endless conflict with no plan from the Biden administration.” But Vance and friends are not anti-war, anti-intervention, or anti-militarist. The signers of a congressional letter in September to the Biden administration vowing to oppose any further aid to Ukraine, aside from the libertarian Rand Paul (R-KY), have no problem preparing for “an endless conflict” with China.
In fact, many of these fixtures of Trump’s political universe have a residual affection for Vladimir Putin. In many ways, he’s their ideal politician: anti-LGBT, pro-Church, anti-liberal, pro-sovereignty, anti-woke. He’s also the leader of a predominantly white country that has many supporters in white supremacist circles in the West. Finally, Vladimir was one of Donald’s best buds. Republican Senate nominee Lauren Witzke summed up the MAGA position when she said back in April 2022 that anyone who supports Ukraine is “either transgender, a Satanist, or a straight up Nazi.” Methinks that Witzke doth project too much.
But it’s not just failed politicians who make these arguments. “NATO has been supplying the neo-Nazis in Ukraine with powerful weapons and extensive training on how to use them,” Marjorie Taylor-Greene tweeted back in March 2022. Paul Gosar agreed in May 2022 when he said that “Ukraine is not our ally. Russia is not our enemy.” More recently, Tommy Tuberville (R-AL) claimed that Democrats “created” the war in Ukraine. Who needs Twitter trolls when U.S. lawmakers indulge in such fictions?
Making the wrong link
It’s one thing to link aid to Ukraine and Israel as a political tactic. It’s quite another to make the larger argument that the money goes toward fighting the “same enemy.” Putin and Hamas have almost nothing in common beyond their militant illiberalism. Putin has turned Russia into an imperial power that has attacked its neighbors, occupied Ukraine, and attempted to establish an international network of illiberal states. Hamas is a reactionary entity that has enough power to commit atrocities but not enough power to occupy territory—not even its “own” territory of Gaza as the current Israeli invasion demonstrates.
If there are any comparisons to be made between the two regions, Russia’s counterpart is not Hamas but Israel, an increasingly far-right polity with messianic dreams that has been steadily expanding its control within the already Occupied Territories.
Unfortunately, Ukrainian President Volodymyr Zelensky has also bought into this civilizational discourse, coming out in strong support of Israel. His statements, however much they reflect his personal outrage at Hamas’s attacks, are largely directed at U.S. audiences. The Israelis have already indicated, by turning down an offer from Zelensky to visit in solidarity after the Hamas attacks, that there won’t be a quid pro quo in terms of boosting their support for Ukraine. So, Zelensky’s real goal is to help advance the $105 billion bill in Congress.
There’s a definite downside to this strategy. Zelensky’s attempts over the last year to woo Arab states, especially Saudi Arabia, is taking a hit from the Ukrainian leader’s defense of Israel. In August, Saudi Arabia hosted a meeting in Jeddah to consolidate support for Ukraine’s ten-point peace plan. Now, all of that patient diplomacy is at risk. A number of key countries, such as China, Egypt and the UAE, didn’t attend a follow-up meeting last weekend in Malta, and Saudi support seems to have dimmed as well.
Putin didn’t plan Hamas’s deadly intervention in Israel, but he must be pleased at the geopolitical consequences. On the other hand, being lumped together with Hamas, conceptually and budget-wise, doesn’t do Russia any favors. Ukraine’s image, at least among a certain class of wavering Republicans, might benefit from the faulty comparison.
Looking toward 2024
The U.S. economy is in relatively good shape, at least according to the conventional indicators: low unemployment, modest growth, tamed inflation. Despite the usual link between pocketbook issues and political favorability, Joe Biden’s approval ratings remain in the dumps.
On certain foreign policy issues, however, Biden is doing better. His approval rating on Ukraine is a few points higher than his overall polling. When it comes to U.S. policy toward Israel and Hamas, the gap is even more in Biden’s favor.
At this point in the campaign, at least, Biden is building the case that he is the more competent candidate when it comes to global issues. It’s not clear, though, whether American voters will care a year from now that America’s reputation is considerably higher around the world under Biden that it was under Trump. Being a competent statesman with an agile secretary of state would certainly guarantee Biden a presidential victory—if everyone in the world voted in the U.S. election.
For better or worse, however, only Americans will go to the polls next November. Donald Trump, the likely Republican nominee, will claim that he is the “peace candidate,” didn’t start any wars when he was president, “got us out of Afghanistan,” and would have restrained the adventurism of both Putin and Netanyahu. All of this is nonsense, but elections rarely bring out the rational side of an electorate.
With the latest supplemental funding bill, the Biden administration hopes that it can help Ukraine win the war and somehow contain the damage of the Israel-Hamas conflict. This is a pipe dream, since U.S. influence is limited. But this “new and improved” mission to fight a civilizational war, however false the narrative, might prove sufficiently convincing to speed passage of the supplemental funding bill and, in appealing to plain-vanilla conservatives and a few independents, perhaps win a presidential election as well.