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There’s a Big War Brewing Among Republicans Over … Well, War

Sixty-eight congressional Republicans voted against the latest round of Ukraine funding. Sure, it was partly an anti-Biden play—but much more is going on.

Senator Rand Paul of Kentucky
AL DRAGO/AFP/Getty Images
Rand Paul of Kentucky was among 11 Republican senators who voted against a Ukraine aid package last month.

Dan Caldwell was eager to go to Iraq. An infantryman in the Marine Corps who enlisted in 2005, he wanted the same experiences that his predecessors had had. By the time he was deployed with the 2nd Battalion, 1st Marines, hundreds of thousands of American service members had already been to Iraq.

Caldwell didn’t have strong ideological feelings about the wisdom of the Iraq War. He remains proud of his experiences there as an infantry team leader, squad leader, and vehicle commander. But in 2014, he was dismayed when ISIS conquered territory where he had served, in Al Anbar and Ninawa provinces. “That was a wake-up call that what we were doing [in] foreign policy was not making us any safer—and in many ways was counterproductive to that goal,” he recalls. By then, he had left the Marine Corps after four years and was working with Concerned Veterans of America, an effort to “end endless wars” and adopt a less militarized foreign policy. He linked up with the Charles Koch Institute, which pushes for similar policies, and is now at Stand Together, one of the institute’s organizations.

After years of advocating for scaling down America’s overseas commitments, Caldwell is gratified to see some progress. In May, the Heritage Foundation, for decades a bastion of hawkish conservative foreign policy thinking, signaled a major change in Republican Party defense debates when it shifted its stance on Russia’s war in Ukraine by urging members of Congress to oppose a $40 billion aid bill. “The package is too large, too bloated, and completely lacking in strategy,” wrote James Jay Carafano, vice president of Heritage’s national security wing.

Reflecting similar sentiments, 57 House Republicans voted against the Ukraine aid package, as did 11 Senate Republicans, including longtime anti-interventionist Rand Paul and upstart Josh Hawley.* This dissent from militarism marks a major departure from the pre-Trump years, when ambitious conservative politicians outdid one another to see who could be more in favor of using force around the world. Sure, simple partisanship is at work here—conservatives feel comfortable opposing whatever a Democratic Party president would like to do. But the division also reveals something much more important: a powerful insurgency aimed at upending the GOP’s long-standing commitment to militarized internationalism. And it just may succeed.

Heritage has long favored congressional support for military endeavors far more wasteful and unwise than aiding Ukraine. These include the Iraq War (“the most justly fought war in the history of modern warfare”), Afghanistan (“After winning the war, the United States must consolidate the peace”), and missile defense (where the think tank was instrumental in convincing President Ronald Reagan that he could construct an impenetrable such program), among many others.

Now, however, Heritage president Kevin Roberts hosts videos on “How to Avoid WW3,” where he and Carafano praise Trump’s rejection of President George W. Bush’s military adventures and call for “a third way between isolationism and interventionism.” The move away from interventionism has drawn criticism from hawks who remain committed to strategies that forefront military action and American dominance around the world, despite that approach’s sorry track record.

In Heritage’s public statements, the problem with the Ukraine bill was the economic situation at home. “America is struggling with record-setting inflation, debt, a porous border, crime and energy depletion yet progressives in Washington are prioritizing a $40 billion aid package to Ukraine,” according to a statement from the think tank’s lobbying arm. But even as Roberts tries to impose his vision of a third way onto Heritage, status quo thinking remains entrenched in the organization. While some complain about reckless spending, other staffers call for increased military spending and modernizing costly nuclear weapons.

The economy was in far worse shape in the opening years of the Great Recession, after the 2008 financial crisis. But back then, Heritage was criticizing President Barack Obama for his “more humble, more restrained” foreign policy, his pragmatism, and his desire to withdraw from Iraq. As well as his reluctance to use military force. Unaffordable commitments or wasteful spending weren’t Heritage’s priorities then. If anything, concerns about such matters were deemed a sign of weakness, isolationism, or lack of resolve around American exceptionalism.

The truth is that Heritage and other Republican institutions and leaders downplaying or reversing their stances on interventionism are responding to other things besides economic priorities. Republicans are accommodating themselves to realities overseas. China’s rise the last two decades while the United States was preoccupied with failed military adventures in Afghanistan, Iraq, and Libya, alongside the hundreds of thousands of American veterans and contractors killed or wounded in the “war on terror”—all this has helped turn the conservative base against once prominent notions about American indispensability in world affairs. These developments, more than fiscal worries, are what’s driving a foreign policy rethink among Republicans. “It’s about much more than that,” says Trump’s former Office of Management and Budget director Russ Vought, who heads a think tank called the Center for Renewing America.

Under Vought’s leadership, the CRA campaigns to end endless wars, in those exact words. “Over the last several decades, the United States has abandoned a principled, clear-headed approach of realism and restraint to interventionism,” reads the organization’s website, using the type of language that used to be marginal in the conservative moment and Republican Party. The CRA opposes expanding NATO to include Finland and Sweden and rejects providing further aid to Ukraine. More ominously for progressives hoping to ally with conservatives skeptical of militarism, there is the whiff of nativism in the center’s warning that America’s plan to accept refugees from Afghanistan means “importing hundreds of thousands of people who do not share American cultural, political, or ideological commonalities [and] poses serious risks to both national security and broader social cohesion.”    

Trump succeeded in making this combination of military prudence and xenophobia a permanent (for now, anyway) fixture of conservative politics, in ways that have yet to be fully incorporated by the Republican Party leadership. “There is a movement to build on where the Trump presidency was,” says Vought. Trump remains deeply popular with GOP voters, and his foreign policy worldview has been adopted by people like Tucker Carlson, the influential Fox News host who has called for President Joe Biden to push for an end to the war in Ukraine instead of “single-handedly prolonging” it.

Senate Minority Leader Mitch McConnell is now openly committed to quashing what he calls the GOP’s “small isolationist group, somewhat encouraged by the former president.” But in making the case for the Ukraine aid bill, he felt pressured to repeatedly address their concerns. “This is not some handout,” he said. “This is not charity we’re involved in here. This is our interest—to help Ukrainians.”

McConnell’s critics remained unconvinced. Right before the vote on the package, Roberts released a statement lamenting that “manipulative rhetoric is coming from Capitol Hill.” He promised that “Heritage will not rubberstamp the Swamp’s attempt to use the latest crisis of the moment, especially when it will push our country further into debt, drive up inflation, and reward special interests and even foreign bureaucrats with our citizens’ money.” Roberts was displaying his Trumpian bona fides by employing the phrase “the Swamp,” Trump’s catch-all term for lifelong Washington players and institutions (like, say, the Heritage Foundation). Such is the power of the shadow Trump continues to cast across the conservative movement.

For people like Russ Vought and Dan Caldwell, the battle over the Ukraine bill is just the beginning of their efforts to extinguish hyperinterventionism—and perhaps any internationalist foreign policy—from the GOP. It’s a tall order, given the default hawkishness of leading Republicans for generations. But Trump mainstreamed a different kind of conservatism, one more nationalist, opposed to activity abroad, and distrustful of foreigners. And it’s clear this worldview has resonance in the conservative base. Says Vought: “It is a big fight that’s coming.”

* This article originally misstated Tom Cotton’s vote on the Ukraine package. He supported it.