Republican Party’s divisions on Ukraine could prove costly

Republican Party’s divisions on Ukraine could prove costly

Mitch McConnell (L) and Chuck Schumer (R) walk with Volodymyr Zelensky (C) at the U.S. Capitol building. Sept. 21, 2023 (AFP)
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During a busy week in New York at the UN General Assembly, the topic of Ukraine took center stage. However, in terms of US domestic politics, it created controversy. While Democrats advocated for more help for Ukraine, many Republicans were more reluctant and suspicious, claiming that they do not see an end to the conflict or to US aid. However, this is unprecedented, as the Republican Party is usually known as the one that is bullish on national security matters.

Ukrainian President Volodymyr Zelensky made a passionate speech at the UN, saying that Russia cannot be trusted. He added that the fight for Ukraine is the world’s fight. However, some Republicans are skeptical. They do not see any plan to end the conflict and no exit strategy for the US. They see it as an open-ended conflict. They also question the value of US taxpayers’ money being spent on the conflict and wonder whether Ukraine is making any progress against Russia.

This Republican attitude reflects the views of many of their voters, who are becoming less supportive of Ukraine. In August, Fox News found that 56 percent of Republicans thought the US should be doing less to help Kyiv.

If we look back 20 years, it was the Republicans who were adamant about going to war in Iraq, citing national security and the potential threat of the weapons of mass destruction allegedly possessed by Iraq, while the Democrats were generally against the war. This was one reason Barack Obama won the Democratic nomination for president in 2008 ahead of Hillary Clinton. The latter voted in favor of authorizing the Iraq war and refused to admit that it was a mistake, which was viewed negatively by the Democratic base.

Given that the general view of Russia and Putin is negative, being soft on them will not resonate well with most voters

Dr. Dania Koleilat Khatib

Today, while the Republicans do not have a favorable view of Russia, a large faction does not want to confront the Kremlin. So, why the change of heart? The Republican Party is becoming dovish, while the Democratic Party is becoming hawkish. Is this a legacy of the isolationist streak of Donald Trump?

It is no secret that Trump molded the Grand Old Party from the conservative party of America to the Trump party of America. Mitt Romney, who this month announced he would be retiring from politics next year, was seen as the Republican who best preserved the basic values of the party. But he became an anomaly after the party was taken over by the Trump effect. Is this change in the spirit of the Republican psyche an expression of guilt over the wars of George W. Bush? Maybe. However, this change is unlikely to help the Republican Party in next year’s presidential and congressional elections.

Given that the general view of Russia and Vladimir Putin is negative, being soft on them will not resonate well with most voters. Independent voters are the ones who tip the balance in US elections, not those committed to either party. While the Democrats are known for pursuing greater civil liberties and social services, the Republicans are known to be adamant on preserving national security. In times of threat, people generally favor national security, while in times of stability they favor social services and civil liberties.

This is why Bush got reelected in 2004. The average American felt that the US was a nation at war and it was not the time to adopt a softer stance. Today, the average American does not want to see Ukraine lose its fight.

Trump’s entry into politics has created confusion on the Republican side. He has promoted the notion of isolationism. Though the former president is the front-runner in the Republican race, we cannot really gauge his effect on the average American’s perception. In the last congressional elections, the Trump-endorsed candidates did not do as well as expected. That tells us that the Trump-driven narrative is not as convincing as it was before. In a time of conflict, the average American might not feel that isolationism is appealing.

Trump’s entry into politics has created confusion on the Republican side. He has promoted the notion of isolationism

Dr. Dania Koleilat Khatib

We still do not know exactly what drove the change in Republican mindset. Have the voters’ preferences changed and the politicians are tagging along, or is it the other way round? However, this indecision and split in the Republican Party is probably not going to help it in the next elections.

Republicans are expressing discontent and skepticism regarding US aid to Ukraine, saying that there is no end in sight. However, they offer no alternative. Unfortunately, both Russia and Ukraine have made so many sacrifices that any concessions would be viewed as a betrayal and an admission of defeat. Hence, ending the fighting through negotiations does not seem like a plausible solution, at least for now.

Also, while the Democrats are united and aligned with Joe Biden, the Republicans are divided and hesitant. This is a show of weakness that will probably turn off voters in the upcoming elections. Veteran Republicans like Mitch McConnell and Lindsey Graham think showing weakness to Putin will compromise America’s position and even buttress China, while the more Trumpian republicans like Rand Paul are adamantly against funding aid for Ukraine. A proposed new $24 billion aid package for Ukraine has exposed the divisions among Republicans, highlighting their lack of decisiveness and a unified vision.

The funding for Ukraine is also tied to a government shutdown. If Congress fails to pass the funding legislation that includes the aid to Ukraine by the end of the month, the government will shut down and the Democrats will use the opportunity to blame the Republicans. Ukraine represents an issue that will show to the American public which is the party that has vision and decisiveness. The Republicans should not take that lightly.

  • Dr. Dania Koleilat Khatib is a specialist in US-Arab relations with a focus on lobbying. She is president of the Research Center for Cooperation and Peace Building, a Lebanese nongovernmental organization focused on Track II.
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