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Perspective: If America is the leader of the free world, we must lead

In opposing the immigration bill, Republicans jeopardize the GOP’s reputation as the party most willing to defend our allies

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Migrant men are searched and escorted into a van by Border Patrol agents on Dec. 15, 2023, near Lukeville, Ariz.

Migrant men are searched and escorted into a van by Border Patrol agents on Friday, Dec. 15, 2023, near Lukeville, Ariz.

Gregory Bull, Associated Press

Lately, the focus in Washington, D.C., has been on Republicans overwhelmingly opposing an enforcement-only immigration bill that had been negotiated with bipartisan support.

Much is being made of the fact that the border provisions in the bill were well to the right of proposals that Republicans have previously objected to, and that some Republican objections, including from former President Donald Trump, amounted to a complaint that any progress on the issue would be seen as a victory for President Joe Biden. That’s a crass and cynical position. National Review’s Noah Rothman believes it is both bad policy and bad politics for the GOP to reject the border compromise, and I’m sympathetic.

But the wider picture is even more disturbing. The only reason the border provisions were an issue is because they were mixed with aid to Ukraine, Taiwan and Israel. Thus, in one fell swoop, Republicans have risked, in a very serious way, their mantle as the party most willing to defend America’s allies. In fact, it may already be gone.

It is difficult to overstate what a massive change this is in the DNA of American politics. As professor Colin Dueck of George Mason University, an expert on domestic politics and national security, writes in his book “Hard Line,” Republicans and conservatives have historically been “committed to building strong national defenses, determined to maintain a free hand for the United States internationally, and relatively unyielding toward potential adversaries,” and that this has “considerable domestic political as well as international significance.” 

Complaining that most Republicans, at least on paper, are supportive of aid to Ukraine, Israel and Taiwan, and many senior ones, including Senate Republican Leader Mitch McConnell have a clear and consistent record of supporting such aid, is beside the point. Whatever political dynamics created last week’s events, it is undeniable that Republicans as a whole no longer prioritize that which would have been a core Republican principle just a few years ago. Good luck explaining that to a Republican circa 1984, 2004, or even 2012.

This will have political consequences. Parties can only coast for so long on historical images (i.e., Democrats care for the poor, Republicans want to protect America). Democrats were the party that won World War II and dominated American politics until, as Dueck put it, “Liberal Democrats began to abandon hardline foreign policy views following America’s war in Vietnam.” Then they became almost unelectable nationally for a generation.

From 1968 until 1992, Democrats only won the presidency once (and barely), after Watergate, the most serious domestic political scandal in American history. Republicans won four national landslides in that same time.

In other words, Republicans will not be able to play the “tough guy” forever while repeatedly promoting isolationist policies.

But this is not only a Republican problem. It is an American problem. Biden, and most Democrats in Congress, have been steadfast in support for aid to Ukraine, and, at least in public, supportive of Israel’s war against Hamas, and of Taiwanese independence. But the dovish elements in the Biden administration continually arise, and part of his base remains very skeptical of American power. The most progressive members of Congress have pulled their punches only in deference to Biden. It is not clear, if the administration, and the Democratic party writ large, will maintain its resolve over time. One can only hope.

Meanwhile, the EU just overcame Hungarian objections to dedicate $54 billion for Ukraine. European defense leaders such as Dutch Adm. Rob Bauer, a senior NATO official, said “We need a war-fighting transformation of NATO” if there is to ever be hope of deterring Russia in coming years. There is real concern that Russia could achieve something it believes was worth the price — by the Kremlin’s standard, not ours — which would only encourage more expansion.

Utah Sen. Mitt Romney was correct when he recently said, “America has long been considered the leader of the free world,” but it is difficult to escape the notion that, due mostly to Republican intransigence, America is not acting as such. It is not even leading from behind. Its allies are trying to drag it along, kicking and screaming. And so far, it has not budged. Indeed, NATO chief Jens Stoltenberg recently traveled from Europe to try to talk Republicans into helping Ukraine. It is difficult to overstate the size of such a shift where Europeans are trying to talk Republicans into taking a more hawkish stance.

This shirking of leadership is a disaster for Europe. While Ukraine is holding its own against a much larger foe, it is running low on ammo and a stalemate aids Putin’s aggression. Professor Philips O’Brien of the University of St. Andrews recently said that Putin’s invasion, “changed the entire future of European security.” And the consequences are not relegated only to Europe. Taiwan’s de-facto ambassador, for example, has publicly argued that his country’s freedom is likely dependent on signaling to China that the West has resolve and will continue to help defend Ukraine from Russian aggression.

To believe the degradation of the American-led world order will not impact ordinary Americans lives is naïve. It will affect our what we buy, what we sell, our ability to travel, and our very concept of America and its place in the world. The late, great Charles Krauthammer was prophetic when said in 2016, “Two generations of Americans have grown up feeling that international stability is as natural as the air we breathe. It’s not. It depends on continual, calibrated tending.”

Is all this really at risk over the fight over a single spending bill? Maybe not. Ukraine will continue the fight even without American dollars, and Moscow could prove even more brittle than it currently appears. Also, the Senate is poised to advance Ukraine funding on its own and, at least on paper, most Republicans in the House, and virtually all Democrats, favor Ukraine funding. But previously, Republicans had refused to advance Ukraine funding without the border component they just rejected, so whether it’ll pass the House remains very unclear.

But even the most optimistic outcome stands to diminish America’s leadership and ability to shape foreign affairs.

This dynamic did not start yesterday. House Speaker Mike Johnson has the thinnest of majorities and can be ousted at any time by his least reasonable members. Tucker Carlson, until recently the most influential media figure on the right and the modern equivalent of Depression-era demagogue Father Coughlin, recently traveled to Moscow and interviewed Vladimir Putin, functionally doing Putin’s PR directly for him. Correcting the course will not be easy.

In the classic book, “The Good Earth,” Pearl S. Buck wrote that “If you will hold your land you can live — no one can rob you of land. ... If you sell the land, it is the end.” The land inherited by the past two generations is the international order, forged in blood, that wildly benefited America. In my lifetime, those dedicated most strongly to maintaining that order have been Republicans. If the current course continues, they will sacrifice not only their own futures, but the good of the country, and indeed the world.

Cliff Smith is a lawyer and a former congressional staffer. He lives in Washington, D.C., where he works on national security related issues.