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Israel’s supporters shouldn’t fear a GOP foreign-policy debate

Republican voters want to end funding for an endless and unwinnable war against Russia in Ukraine. Linking the alliance with the Jewish state to that cause is a mistake.

A destroyed Russian BMP-3 tank by Ukrainian troops in Mariupol, Ukraine. Credit: Ministry of Internal Affairs of Ukraine via Wikimedia Commons.
A destroyed Russian BMP-3 tank by Ukrainian troops in Mariupol, Ukraine. Credit: Ministry of Internal Affairs of Ukraine via Wikimedia Commons.
Jonathan S. Tobin
Jonathan S. Tobin is editor-in-chief of JNS (Jewish News Syndicate). Follow him @jonathans_tobin.

Vivek Ramaswamy may not be heading to the White House, but his candidacy did serve a useful purpose in the week leading up to the first presidential debate of the 2024 election cycle. Ramaswamy’s comments about foreign policy drew fire from his opponents while also giving him some attention in a race where all of the focus is on the man who isn’t deigning to show up at the debate: former President Donald Trump.

Ramaswamy drew the scorn of the mainstream media by saying that he would seek to divide Russia from China. His realpolitik approach to the Russia-Ukraine war probably didn’t do him much harm among conservatives, many of whom aren’t buying the notion that a commitment to endless and unwinnable conflict isn’t in the interests of the United States. But his plan to abandon Taiwan to the tender mercies of Beijing once America is producing its own semiconductors was both unrealistic and contradicted his position about the importance of realizing that we are in a Cold War with the Communist regime.

He also alienated the bulk of the primary electorate with his slighting comments about Israel. He said he would eventually end military aid to the Jewish state—a stand that is out of touch with the beliefs of most pro-Israel voters, but something that many Israelis are now saying. He added that he wanted to have a more even-handed approach to the region in which Israel would be lumped in with other U.S. allies, which is a position utterly at odds with the views of the overwhelming majority of Republicans who are lockstep backers of the Jewish state.

Is the GOP race already over?

Ramaswamy, a smooth-talking 38-year-old entrepreneur, has been focusing most of his attacks on Florida Gov. Ron DeSantis. That has led many observers to not unreasonably conclude that he’s really running for a cabinet post in a future Trump administration. He lacks any real qualifications for high office, as well as has a record of making absurd and troubling statements—like his comments about 9/11 being an “inside job” or his accusation that DeSantis signed a bill about antisemitism to please donors—that are disqualifying for the nation’s top job.

DeSantis remains the runner-up to Trump in the polls, although the gap between them—currently, a whopping 41.1% in the RealClearPolitics average of polls—is now assuming proportions that make it seem as if the GOP race is over before it starts.

The more Democratic prosecutors indict Trump on various charges, the more Republican voters seem to have concluded that—notwithstanding any qualms they might themselves have about the former president —these are banana republic tactics on the part of the Biden administration to jail their likely opponent next year. Many Republicans also have come to believe that Democrats see them all as insurrectionist “deplorables” and are rallying around the man they think is taking the hit for them.

Whether or not those sentiments are justified, most analyses of the race are also missing another crucial factor that explains Trump’s lead: his appeal to working-class voters.

Understanding Republican voters

In the last decade, there has been a drastic shift in party affiliation. While the very poor remain loyal to the Democrats, the majority of the working class, including those making $30,000 to $100,000 per year, as well as those without college degrees, are now Republicans while the highly educated as well as the wealthy are overwhelmingly voting for the Democrats. As Newsweek opinion editor Batya Ungar-Sargon put it, those working-class voters are primarily interested in three issues: no more foreign wars, controlling immigration and making the economy work for the people at the bottom rather than Wall Street.

This is a sea change of epic proportions. Whatever one may think about Trump, he’s able to speak to those concerns in a way that his GOP rivals, even those like DeSantis, who can make a good case that it’s time to turn the page on a replay of 2020, have difficulty matching.

It’s also why the country needs a debate about foreign policy. And the worries of many in the pro-Israel community notwithstanding, it’s one that friends of the Jewish state shouldn’t fear.

The leadership of both political parties in Washington and most of the corporate media seems tone-deaf to those working-class concerns, especially the part about foreign entanglements like the war in Ukraine. The authoritarian regime of Russian President Vladimir Putin is guilty of committing aggression, and Ukrainians earned the admiration of the world for their refusal to surrender. But at this point, the war has become a stalemate with World War I-style trench warfare that neither side is capable of winning. The idea that Americans need to eschew efforts to end it and go on spending hundreds of billions on funding the fight against a nuclear power while domestic concerns lack funds, including the collapse of security at America’s southern border, makes sense to many in Congress but not to GOP primary voters.

Still, many Jewish Republicans fear that the growing skepticism about the blank check that both President Joe Biden and Senate Minority Leader Mitch McConnell (R-Ky.) seemed prepared to write to Ukraine is incompatible with support for Israel.

Damage to a residential building in Zaporizhzhia, Ukraine, following a Russian airstrike on Oct. 9, 2022. Credit: National Police of Ukraine via Wikimedia Commons.

Supporters of Israel have always believed that having America engaged with the world, and prepared to oppose foreign tyrants and aggressors, as inextricably tied up with a foreign policy that recognized the value of the alliance with the Jewish state. That view was lent credence by the disastrous consequences of the Barack Obama presidency, whose “lead from behind” strategy and retreat on his “red line” threat to Syria led to handing that country over to Putin and Iran. Obama’s belief in a retreat from the Middle East while anchoring American policy in a rapprochement with Iran via a dangerously weak nuclear deal was a threat to Israel and the Arab states.

Trump was dead-set against more wars, but he still finished the job of defeating ISIS that Obama botched while reversing course on Iran. He strengthened ties with Israel and understood that Obama’s alienation of the Arab states could produce a breakthrough seen in the Abraham Accords. And though his revival of the phrase “America First” allowed his critics to brand him as an isolationist, it was on Biden’s watch, not Trump’s, that Putin invaded Ukraine, coupled with the disastrous withdrawal from Afghanistan that so damaged American credibility abroad.

Trump also helped mainstream the mindset that China was now the primary global threat to American power and influence. Some claim that going all-in on the war in Ukraine is part of a policy to contain China. But stripping American forces of their armaments in order to feed the pointless stalemate in Ukraine makes a U.S. response to Beijing’s threats towards Taiwan impossible.

Many supporters of Israel still think traditional hawkish policies that treat Russia as if it were the Soviet Union of the Cold War era are inextricably tied up with the alliance with the Jewish state. But as Trump proved, a Republican administration can be the most pro-Israel in history while also seeking a change in orientation elsewhere.

More to the point, those who act as if it was still 2004 and think Americans haven’t absorbed the lessons of failed adventures in Iraq and Afghanistan are doing Israel a disservice.

Defining American interests

Linking a pro-Israel policy to Ukraine is a mistake. As a recent CNN poll showed, a majority of all voters oppose more funding for the war in Ukraine. Republicans oppose it by 71% to 28% and independents do so by a 55% to 44% margin. Those candidates, like Nikki Haley, Mike Pence and Chris Christie, who seem to think that the answer is to be even more aggressive towards Russia while failing to understand that doing so isn’t going to hurt China, are out of touch with the voters.

What the country needs now is a coherent foreign-policy debate about vital American interests.

Prioritizing a war that is now about Ukraine regaining territory it lost to Russia in 2014 on Obama’s watch doesn’t qualify. That’s especially true when it is clear that a Russia that can’t beat Ukraine is no threat to NATO countries.

On the other hand, standing up to a Chinese regime that is committing genocide against Uyghurs, and which is posing a threat to American security and financial dominance around the globe, must be the new priority.

Stopping Iran from going nuclear—and threatening Israel and oil-producing countries like Saudi Arabia—is also an obvious American interest, albeit one Biden clearly remains indifferent to. China’s efforts to penetrate the Middle East, filling the vacuum that Obama and Biden have created in their quest for appeasement of Tehran and undermining of Israel, only underlines that point.

A U.S. foreign policy that reflects these truths is not something that supporters of Israel should fear or oppose. The U.S.-Israel alliance is strong enough to withstand a shift away from knee-jerk American support for more war. Rather than label a GOP foreign-policy move as isolationist, it’s imperative that pro-Israel voters abandon a stance that links a conflict that Americans understandably oppose to the future of the Jewish state.

Jonathan S. Tobin is editor-in-chief of JNS (Jewish News Syndicate). Follow him at: @jonathans_tobin.

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