Opinion: The isolationist GOP, again

AP File Photo/Andrew Harnik / Sen. Lindsey Graham, R-South Carolina, speaks during a Senate Appropriations Committee hearing on May 16, 2023, on Capitol Hill in Washington, D.C.
AP File Photo/Andrew Harnik / Sen. Lindsey Graham, R-South Carolina, speaks during a Senate Appropriations Committee hearing on May 16, 2023, on Capitol Hill in Washington, D.C.

When historians look back on the early days of 2024, they probably won't recall what, precisely, an elderly Democratic president couldn't quite remember about the names or countries of other world leaders. They will note what 26 Senate Republicans chose to forget about world leadership.

I'm referring to Tuesday morning's Senate vote on a $95 billion supplemental foreign-aid package, including $60 billion in desperately needed military assistance for Ukraine, along with $14 billion for Israel and $10 billion for civilians in conflict zones, including the Gaza Strip. The bill must still pass the House, where it faces the opposition of Speaker Mike Johnson and can only hope to survive via parliamentary maneuvering and the votes of Democrats plus some remaining Republican security hawks.

On paper, the 70-29 vote looks like a bipartisan embrace of embattled democratic allies. But it marks the moment when Republicans reverted to the isolationism of the original America First Committee of pre-World War II infamy. A majority of the GOP Senate conference, including onetime Ukraine hawks such as Lindsey Graham and Tom Cotton, voted against the aid — mostly, they said, because it wasn't paired with border-security measures.

That's the same bill they voted against last week — a bill patiently negotiated over months by one of the most conservative Republicans in the Senate, Oklahoma's James Lankford. The cynicism would be breathtaking if it weren't so predictable coming from the Trumpified right.

Let's walk through some additional points of dissent among Republicans who opposed the bill.

From Arkansas' Cotton, there's the argument that support for Israel's efforts to defeat Hamas is incompatible with any civilian assistance for residents of Gaza. From Wisconsin's Ron Johnson, we have the claim that although Vladimir Putin is "an evil war criminal," Russia is certain to win the war, so funding Ukraine prolongs Ukrainian suffering and, by implication, wastes American money. From Ohio's J.D. Vance, this: "The supplemental represents an attempt by the foreign policy blob/deep state to stop President Trump from pursuing his desired policy."

What a mix of cruelty, defeatism, conspiracy-mongering and political servility.

I can think of no moral or strategic argument in which hunger and disease among Gaza's civilians serve anyone's interests, least of all Israel's. Johnson's argument that Ukraine can't win is belied by the fact that until it started running out of artillery shells, it was more than holding its own against Russia.

As for Vance, at least his position has the virtue of clarity: This is about sucking up to Donald Trump and his followers.

What all this makes for is a deeply unserious Republican Party at a deadly serious global moment.

There is abundant room to criticize the Biden administration's foreign policy record, from the shambolic withdrawal from Afghanistan to the reluctance to arm Ukraine with the weapons it needed when it needed them to its disastrous performance at the Southern border, which has been both a policy and a political fiasco.

There is no conceivable reason the fate of Ukraine, a vital U.S. interest, should hinge on our border policy, however broken, any more than a patient should put off getting a skin cancer removed until he loses 50 pounds. It is an idiotic linkage guaranteed to do harm.

The point of helping Ukraine defend itself against its despotic foe — like the point of defending Israel, or Taiwan, or NATO members rich or poor — isn't altruism. It's self-interest rightly understood. For the GOP to now lose that understanding is as much a disgrace to it as it is, potentially, a disaster for us all.

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