McConnell’s Ukraine Legacy Turns Into Political Headache
House Republicans sour plans for major joint funding package on Ukraine and Israel.
By Robbie Gramer, with Rishi Iyengar
By Robbie Gramer, with Rishi Iyengar
Welcome back to Foreign Policy’s SitRep! Robbie here. My newsletter partner-in-crime Jack is out on vacation this week sadly. Luckily, our ace global tech reporter Rishi Iyengar is stepping in to help out.
(Speaking of, a scheduling note: SitRep is taking next week off, as both Jack and Robbie will be out of office. Fret not, we will be back the following week.)
We’ll start off SitRep today with a snippet of stranger-than-fiction history. This week marks the 16th anniversary of that time the U.S. Navy teamed up with North Koreans to fight pirates. Read all about the 2007 Dai Hong Dan incident here.
Alright, here’s what’s on tap for the day: the U.S. congressional battles over Ukraine aid testing Mitch McConnell’s legacy, a major new initiative on artificial intelligence, internal dissent over U.S. Israel policy, and more.
McConnell’s Ukraine Legacy at Risk From His Own Party
In February, Senate Minority Leader Mitch McConnell went to Munich with a big congressional delegation for a major security conference. He delivered a pointed message for U.S. allies in Europe: The Republican Party was all-in on supporting Ukraine and NATO, while the death of the party’s historic support for U.S. allies abroad was “greatly exaggerated.”
It has become clear over the past few weeks and months that McConnell, sometimes dubbed the modern-day “Master of the Senate,” sees cementing U.S. aid to Ukraine as a major part of his legacy.
But that’s easier said than done with the state of the Republican Party today.
Doubts seeping in. One could forgive the nervous U.S. allies or Ukrainian war planners who are starting to doubt the message McConnell conveyed to Europeans in February.
U.S. President Joe Biden is working with Senate Democrats and Republicans to pass a new $106 billion national security package, with money for Ukraine, Israel, Taiwan, and U.S. border security. McConnell has emerged as an unlikely ally for Biden in supporting this massive tranche of funding, but the raucous House Republican caucus is making that look like Mission Impossible for McConnell.
New House Speaker Mike Johnson dealt McConnell a blow by pushing a plan to move forward with funding U.S. aid for Israel—to the tune of $14 billion—as a standalone bill and doing so in exchange for federal budget cuts elsewhere (even though that proposal would add to the deficit in the long run). This constitutes a legislative poison pill that the Democrats who control the Senate won’t touch.
“It’s not surprising given who’s in charge of the House now, but it signals that this crowd is not serious,” Democratic Sen. Chris Murphy, a member of the Senate Foreign Relations Committee, told SitRep in reaction to Johnson’s plan.
Impasse. Ukraine’s supporters in Congress see this House plan as a major setback, as Ukraine funding in the House could be derailed by a small group of far-right Republicans if not tied in with the widely supported funding package for Israel.
This all presents a major impasse and the biggest challenge yet to McConnell’s foreign-policy legacy.
McConnell’s pitch. McConnell has pitched combining aid for Ukraine, Israel, and Taiwan as part of one coherent U.S. push against an “axis of evil”—invoking a George W. Bush-era term that foreign-policy wonks may remember for its use in the disastrous Iraq War but a term that may resonate with Republican voters today.
“Think of it as an axis of evil: China, Russia, and Iran,” McConnell said during an event this week in Kentucky with the Ukrainian ambassador to Washington, Oksana Markarova. “So this is not just a test for Ukraine. It is a test for the United States and for the free world. And the path toward greater security for all of us is simple: Help Ukraine win the war.”
Whether he can navigate a solution on this emergency funding bill between the White House, Senate Democrats, and House Republicans will tell us a lot about the future of Republican foreign policy, according to interviews with multiple Republican congressional aides and outside experts.
It’s a test case of whether the isolationist wing or the more traditional wing of the party, championed by McConnell, will emerge as the victors in modern Republican foreign policy.
Mass vs. momentum. Right now, the pro-Ukraine side of the Republican Party has the mass, including McConnell and other Senate leaders, as well as powerful committee chairs and ranking members in both chambers.
But the anti-Ukraine faction has the momentum. It may be harder to measure on paper, but it’s there. (All while the prospect of Donald Trump being the likely Republican presidential nominee in 2024 looms in the background.)
A few Republican senators, including Sens. J.D. Vance and Josh Hawley, are more boldly and publicly opposing McConnell’s bid to pass a combined funding package that would benefit Ukraine and cast doubt on sending more money. Their message may not resonate with the bulk of their Republican colleagues in the Senate, but it appears to be resonating with Republican voters writ large.
And then there’s the House. On the House side, Republicans are still dealing with all the chaos and tension wrought by having a razor-thin majority. This gives the smaller faction of far-right political grenade throwers who have long condemned U.S. support for Ukraine, including Reps. Matt Gaetz and Marjorie Taylor Greene, outsized power.
Still, the dynamics within the Republican Party on Ukraine are more complex than some headlines would suggest, a point that may give McConnell in his unenviable position some hope.
Where House Republicans stand on Ukraine aid. Some Republican House members support giving aid to Ukraine but still want it separated from a funding package for Israel. Others, such as failed House speaker nominee Jim Jordan, are simply budget hawks: They’re open to aid for Ukraine but only if it comes with cuts to the federal budget elsewhere. Still others say they’ll support Ukraine aid but only with more accountability mechanisms in place for funding and a clearer strategy from the Biden administration on how it will help Ukraine win. (Some Republicans have been hammering Biden for not giving enough heavy weapons and military hardware fast enough to Ukraine.)
In short, the reservoir of support for Ukraine is there, with the right amount of political wrangling, public messaging, and procedural moves in Congress to keep the tap of military aid flowing.
“I have been very struck in private conversations with members, including members who vote against aid to Ukraine, that many of them do understand the importance of aid, but it’s really about how do we make a case to our constituents,” said Carrie Filipetti, the head of the Vandenberg Coalition, a conservative foreign-policy organization.
That, Filipetti said, requires better messaging on what’s at stake for the United States in Ukraine, a clearer strategy on how to avoid a Russian victory in Ukraine, and how the funding package can benefit Americans. (A large chunk of that funding, she notes, is not going directly to Ukraine but to U.S. armaments and munitions factories that employ Americans around the country to restock the U.S. military as it offloads older supplies to Ukraine.) “I think it’s a very reasonable position to say, if we’re going to continue providing support, I want to see what the strategy is,” she said.
The clock is ticking. But if the negotiations keep flailing, and prominent Republican voices outside of Congress (such as Steve Bannon and Tucker Carlson) keep hammering Biden and pro-Ukraine Republican lawmakers, it could become a major political issue ahead of the 2024 elections. This, Republican advocates of Ukraine fear, could push more lawmakers who are on the fence, or who simply don’t see Ukraine as a priority worth any personal political risk, to start quietly dropping their support.
And in the meantime, the slowing of U.S. aid to Ukraine will have very real and consequential impacts on the battlefield.
It’s a tricky mess for McConnell and pro-Ukraine Republicans to navigate. Back on the other side of the aisle, they aren’t getting much sympathy from Democrats. “For the better part of eight years, Republicans have had to deal with the consequences of elevating Donald Trump and his nativist allies to leadership of their party,” Murphy said.
“My Republican colleagues who support Ukraine are trying to manage the fact that Trump and Bannon and Carlson are all ginning up the days against Ukraine aid, but this is the bed they made. So they’ve got to figure a way out.”
Let’s Get Personnel
Biden nominated Kurt Campbell to be the next U.S. deputy secretary of state. Campbell is currently the National Security Council’s coordinator for Indo-Pacific affairs.
On the Button
What should be high on your radar, if it isn’t already.
All eyes on AI. They’re calling it the Bletchley Declaration: a pledge by more than two dozen countries and the European Union to mitigate the safety risks of artificial intelligence, named after the famous World War II code-breaking site that this week played host to the United Kingdom’s AI Safety Summit. The summit, which wrapped up on Thursday, is the latest in a string of multilateral efforts to get a handle on the rapidly evolving technology. The United Nations and the G-7 both announced updated AI governance initiatives in the past week, the Biden administration unveiled its long-touted executive order on AI on Monday, and the EU appears close to finalizing its landmark AI Act.
The challenge will be to move beyond talking shops. “There’s a belief that some sort of action should be taken, but I think what the action should be or how to actually solve the problem still remains unclear,” Michael Kratsios, the managing director of the AI data infrastructure firm Scale AI, who previously served as the Trump White House’s chief technology officer, told Foreign Policy from the sidelines of the summit. “I think the conversation continues. I don’t think there’s going to be any material resolution to the larger sort of collective action problem.”
The Israel-Hamas war. The war between Israel and Hamas shows no signs of slowing down, as Israel continues to reel from the massive Oct. 7 attack and as the death toll among besieged Palestinian civilians in Gaza grows. Former Israeli Prime Minister Ehud Barak told Foreign Policy in an interview that he estimates Hamas has 10,000 rockets; 25,000 to 30,000 fighters alongside Palestinian Islamic Jihad, another militant group; and 200 miles of tunnels in Gaza from which to fight Israel. “We should bring probably 50,000 or more troops in order to make sure that we win,” he said. It’s the clearest indication yet that this will be a long and costly war.
And as always in urban warfare, no matter which side wins, it’s civilians who lose. The human rights organization Save the Children this week announced that the number of children reported killed in Israeli strikes in Gaza in just three weeks “has surpassed the annual number of children killed across the world’s conflict zones since 2019.”
Room for dissent? The Israel-Hamas war has fueled a major internal crisis within the ranks of the Biden administration’s own national security establishment, as Robbie reports this week. Diplomats are registering formal dissent with Secretary of State Antony Blinken over what they perceive as blank-check support for Israel despite the massive humanitarian toll in Gaza, and one veteran State Department official who oversaw U.S. arms transfers has resigned. “In 25 years working at the Department of State … I’ve never seen anything like this,” said Aaron David Miller, a scholar at the Carnegie Endowment for International Peace and former State Department expert on Arab-Israeli negotiations. “It’s as if the administration is mediating its own internal Israel-Palestinian conflict.”
Put on Your Radar
Nov. 2-10: Blinken begins a globe-spanning tour, with stops in Israel, Jordan, Japan, South Korea, and India.
Nov. 4-7: Australian Prime Minister Anthony Albanese visits China, the first such trip by an Australian leader since 2016.
Quote of the Week
“There will most likely be no deep and beautiful breakthrough.”
—Gen. Valery Zaluzhny, Ukraine’s top military commander, to the Economist on Ukraine’s summer counteroffensive against Russia
This Week’s Most Read
- The Israel-Hamas War Has Entered a ‘New Phase.’ Here’s What to Expect. by Daniel Byman
- Saudi Arabia Is Mysteriously Absent in the Israel-Hamas War by Steven A. Cook
- How Many Wars Can America Fight at the Same Time? by Emma Ashford and Matthew Kroenig
Whiskey Tango Foxtrot
Please, won’t you think of the investors? This headline from the Economist caught our eye this week: “What a third world war would mean for investors.”
Update, Nov. 6, 2023: This article was updated to clarify the scope of Scale AI’s business, which includes both testing and data infrastructure of AI.
Robbie Gramer is a diplomacy and national security reporter at Foreign Policy. Twitter: @RobbieGramer
Rishi Iyengar is a reporter at Foreign Policy. Twitter: @Iyengarish
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