Opinion

Ron DeSantis Could Decide Republicans’ Foreign Policy

Gov. Ron DeSantis of Florida is widely considered the strongest potential primary challenger to former President Donald Trump’s third campaign in 2024. His national profile, developed during the Covid-19 pandemic and in battles over public education, is by definition domestic, and yet his experience as governor is an obvious precursor to the highest office. Especially if Mr. DeSantis runs in 2024, there is the real possibility that he will emerge as the new leader of the G.O.P.

But there’s one major presidential responsibility in which governors’ records are often lacking, or at least little-known: foreign policy. Were he elected president, Mr. DeSantis would become America’s top diplomat, commander in chief and maybe the Republican Party’s direction-setter on foreign policy for years to come in Ukraine, Taiwan, Iran and beyond.

How a prospective Republican presidential candidate views foreign policy feels like a question from a different era. For several years, the party’s politics and understanding of its role at home and abroad have revolved first and foremost around Mr. Trump. But in the years since Mr. Trump became president, the G.O.P. coalition has split over America’s role in the world, the causes and conflicts which deserve U.S. intervention and the value of international alliances.

Before his current office, Mr. DeSantis represented Florida in the House of Representatives. There he served on the Foreign Affairs Committee, chaired the Subcommittee on National Security, and built a foreign policy record. In many regards, it’s a standard Republican record: critical of Pentagon waste but uninterested in reducing military spending, even to balance the budget; skeptical of unchecked foreign aid; reflexively supportive of Israel; willing to subvert civil liberties in the name of fighting terror; critical of U.S. military intervention in Syria under the Obama administration but supportive of it in the Trump years; and prone to framing relations with unreformed Soviet Bloc nations — Cuba, North Korea, and especially China — in absolutist, ideological terms.

On three key issues, however, Mr. DeSantis stands apart: his distance from Mr. Trump on Russia, his noticeable quiet on the wars in Afghanistan and Iraq compared to Mr. Trump and other potential 2024 presidential candidates, and his fixation on Iran as a major threat to the United States.

The aftermath of Russia’s invasion of Ukraine highlighted the first contrast with Mr. Trump. Where Mr. Trump responded by calling Russian President Vladimir Putin a “genius” for invading, Mr. DeSantis decried the invasion as a Russian strategic blunder. Where Mr. Trump has long admired Mr. Putin as powerful and intelligent, Mr. DeSantis has dubbed him “an authoritarian gas station attendant.” And where Mr. Trump notoriously accepted Mr. Putin’s denial of Russian meddling in the 2016 election, Mr. DeSantis in 2013 saw “Putin as somebody who’s trying to confront the United States” and last year included Russia on a short list of countries with “nefarious intentions … to engage in espionage or influence operations” in Florida.

In 2015, Mr. DeSantis denounced President Barack Obama for “promoting foreign policy based on principle of leaving no dictator behind.” Squint just a little and it’s possible to see him finding his way to a similar line in a close primary race against Mr. Trump, though whether that could resonate with the MAGA base remains to be seen. (G.O.P. figures including the House speaker, Kevin McCarthy, and Senator J.D. Vance have said the U.S. should curtail aid to Ukraine, and prominent right-wing commentators met the Washington visit of President Volodymyr Zelensky of Ukraine with vitriol.)

On Afghanistan and Iraq, Mr. DeSantis’s position is murkier. His 78 statements in the congressional record over three terms in office are not especially enlightening on how he views the two biggest wars of the post-9/11 era. In one statement about the 10-year anniversary of the invasion of Iraq, Mr. DeSantis, who himself was deployed to Iraq as a legal adviser in 2007, sidestepped debate about the war itself, and instead praised the troops. Discussing Syria in 2014, Mr. DeSantis said he disagreed with the idea that “Americans are war weary,” and instead argued they were “weary of missions launched without a coherent strategy and are sick of seeing engagements that produce inconclusive results rather than clear-cut victory.”

He has dropped a few hints of skepticism toward the conflicts started in the 2000s. Most explicitly, while criticizing President Biden’s withdrawal from Afghanistan last year, he acknowledged that “the whole Afghanistan thing — we needed to find a way to kind of dial that down, and I’m in favor of that generally.”

Perhaps Mr. DeSantis’s thin and even ambiguous record is the new norm for a Gen X candidate whose political career began well after the 2001 and 2003 invasions and whose presidential run would begin well after the wars’ ends. But it raises the troubling possibility that Mr. DeSantis lacks wariness of military intervention and nation-building projects, which U.S. failures in Afghanistan and especially Iraq normalized even among Republicans in recent years. Determining that those generational wars weren’t worth fighting was a formative political experience for many Americans, ordinary voters and politicians alike. Did Mr. DeSantis share in that lesson?

That’s not a purely academic question for a potential president, particularly one with Mr. DeSantis’s record of hostility toward Iran. A frequent subject of his legislative sponsorships, Iran was one of his most favored topics in the congressional record, where he characterized Tehran as “an enemy of our country” with whom we do not share any national interests. He made opposition to diplomacy with Iran a priority while in Congress, even urging Mr. Trump to withdraw from the Iran nuclear deal a year before the president did so.

Mr. DeSantis’s anti-Iran talk is within the normal range of Republican presidential candidates from the last two decades. Yet in concert with his record on Russia (Iran’s partner in Syria, Ukraine and beyond) and with the open question of how he views the lessons of the post-9/11 wars, a President DeSantis might reprise that old G.O.P. ditty about bombing Iran.

And beyond specific policy decisions, Mr. DeSantis would assume Republican leadership at an inflection point for the party’s foreign policy. Iraq, Afghanistan and Mr. Trump’s transformation of the G.O.P. — his repudiation of Bush-era neoconservatism and governance by golf buddy and inchoate Jacksonian impulses — left undone the Republican consensus on foreign affairs. The war in Ukraine has scrambled it further. Will the next Republican president be more or less likely than a Democratic rival to fight China over Taiwan? Would he or she withdraw the United States from NATO or settle in for a long-term proxy war with Russia? How will the post-Trump G.O.P. handle shifting relationships in the Middle East, international trade disputes and rising focus on the Indo-Pacific region?

While most domestic policy battles are still drawn along familiar lines, the G.O.P.’s foreign policy is in many senses a true unknown. Where the party lands in future decades could well be determined by its first effective post-Trump leader. That’s a title Mr. DeSantis is presently favored to claim.

Bonnie Kristian (@bonniekristian) is the author of “Untrustworthy: The Knowledge Crisis Breaking Our Brains, Polluting Our Politics, and Corrupting Christian Community.” She is a columnist atChristianity Today and a fellow at Defense Priorities, a foreign policy think tank.

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