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"America First" Hawks Admit US Weapons in Ukraine are Plunging Down a "Black Hole"
If you ever try to define what the concept of “America First” means in contemporary political vernacular, you can expect to be promptly deluged with a succession of “No true scotsman”-style fallacies. For example, let’s say a prominent Republican official proudly declares himself a faithful steward of the “America First” agenda, and avows enthusiastic support for the figure generally agreed to have popularized “America First” in recent years — Donald Trump. Perhaps this hypothetical official even served in the Trump Administration, and continues to sing the praises of all he says the Administration accomplished. Despite these credentials, the official can and probably will be dismissed as not truly representing “America First.” Because, objectors will say, he favors X, Y, or Z policy — and no true “America First” adherent could ever favor X, Y, or Z. Repeat this process on loop, and it becomes exceedingly unclear who the hell could ever be said to legitimately represent “America First,” which has devolved into an increasingly inscrutable ideological category. If you follow these definitional debates online, you'll know it’s sometimes even claimed that the category no longer includes Donald Trump himself. Or may have never included him in the first place!
So it will probably likewise be claimed that the first inaugural Summit last week of the “America First Policy Institute” in Washington DC, which I attended, could in no way legitimately represent an authentic expression of “America First” — whatever that means exactly. Even though the Institute was founded by former Trump Administration officials, is populated by scores of ardently pro-Trump conservatives, and overtly brands itself as carrying forth the policy legacy of Donald Trump. Not to mention that the group is personally endorsed by Trump, who delivered a speech at the Summit for his first appearance back in DC since leaving office. (Trump has also given the group at least $1 million.) So if even the “America First Policy Institute” can be claimed to fall short of whatever criteria now determines the “true” meaning of America First, then the term is best understood to be bereft of any intelligible meaning — or at least the definitional debate has become so abstract that it’s kind of like debating the “true meaning of Christmas.”
And therein lies what may ultimately be the best way to resolve this quandary: whatever its origins, and whatever ideological constructs people may want to project upon it, “America First” in practice basically means next-to-nothing nowadays except “mainline Republican who remains positively disposed toward the previous Republican administration.” Which would help explain why everyone from Kevin McCarthy to Lindsey Graham comfortably showed up to this Summit, with no sign that their presence was met by any particular tension or dissonance.
The event was invite-only, so it wasn’t open to the general public as any kind of mass-mobilizing event. Instead it was attended by members of the Republican Party professional class who had the requisite connections to get invited. There may have been a time when “Republican Party professional class” and “America First” were assumed to be non-overlapping categories, or when the juxtaposition of those two categories implied some kind of “establishment versus outsider” friction. That is clearly no longer the case (if it ever was). Many attendees of the Summit previously worked for one or more of the Trump presidential campaigns in some capacity, and looked forward to doing that again. Or they worked for the federal government in some capacity under Trump, and wish to do that again. One guy even introduced himself to me half-jokingly as a DC “swamp creature,” citing his past employment in one of the federal Departments during the Trump Administration. In short, this was the consummate “America First” professional networking event.
“America First Policy Institute” mainly purports to be in the business of “thought leadership” — and yes, it really did use that precise term on promotional material displayed throughout the hotel conference venue. If you assumed that stimulating and inspiring “thought leadership” could only ever be found at idealistic liberal nonprofits or whatever, you assumed incorrectly. I honestly don’t know how anyone can declare themselves a “thought leader” and not want to immediately commit seppuku, but I guess that’s the sensibility one would have to expect from an outfit whose board is chaired by Linda McMahon and Larry Kudlow.
All this “thought leadership” being busily produced will eventually comprise the policy repertoire of the next Republican presidential administration, the thinking goes, and based on the “Four More Years” chant that broke out during Trump’s closing speech, there’s not much mystery about who they’re anticipating will steer the ship. (Yes, he’s running again, according to all the murmurings relayed to me.) Newt Gingrich proclaimed the America First Policy Institute occupies the same sort of vanguard position today as the Heritage Foundation did in 1979-1980, when it was busily incubating the forthcoming policy agenda of Ronald Reagan. When Reagan took office, he immediately hired tons of Heritage Foundation personnel. So at least according to Gingrich, this particular America First operation would be largely running the government in 2025, if everything goes according to plan.
Which is why I took particular interest in the foreign policy positions being espoused at this event. Because for all the adamant insistences one always hears about how “true” America First is non-negotiably predicated on some flavor of “non-interventionist” foreign policy, I did not hear a single word uttered which would be consistent with anything that resembles “non-interventionism” — or, god forbid, “isolationism.” Really it was the exact opposite.
For instance, the big marquee foreign policy panel was moderated by John Ratcliffe, the former Director of National Intelligence under Trump. If you recall, Ratcliffe was routinely pilloried by the media as an intolerable Trump lackey — so presumably he’s not seen as some kind of “establishment” anti-Trump saboteur. Ratcliffe introduced fellow panelist Rep. Mike Waltz (R-FL) as a person who has valiantly “lived by America First principles,” and predicted Waltz would be “one of our leading voices… setting our policy agenda from a foreign policy perspective” if Republicans take control of the House in the midterms.
Waltz announced he was fresh off his latest trip to Ukraine, which at this point may rival Mecca as the number one destination for international pilgrimages. At least by fever-brained elected officials. And the primary takeaway Waltz wanted to make sure he shared was that Joe Biden is really screwing up with respect to Ukraine. Not that the underlying policy was screwed up, of course — but that Biden is insufficiently aggressive in waging the war effort. Instead of “going for the kill,” Waltz complained, Biden has chosen to just “fiddle fart around.” All those long-range missile systems and heavy artillery pieces are apparently just “fiddle farts” — quite the vivid imagery. Waltz reported that notwithstanding the US effectively subsidizing the Ukraine military at this stage, Zelensky conveyed to him that he is “frustrated with this kind of piecemeal support from the administration.” The solution, Waltz proposed, is to send US military “advisors” physically into Ukraine to integrate themselves directly into the conflict. “Let’s win this damn war!” he demanded, perfectly content with the unavoidable implication that the US is an outright co-combatant in the war.
I caught up with Waltz afterwards and asked him to expand on what precisely his proposal would entail, and he seemed to preemptively anticipate the first and most natural objection: that he wants to send US forces into combat against Russia. “Let me tell you what it doesn’t look like,” Waltz assured me. “I’m not advocating for American troops on the front-lines in Ukraine. Absolutely not. But what the British are doing is they’re helping with planning. They’re helping with logistics. They’re helping Ukrainians use the equipment that we’re funding — at a headquarters level, in their supply depots. And the thing that I most want to happen is to provide oversight of all these billions that we’re providing. Where’s it going, who’s using it? How is it being used? We just can’t send this stuff into a black hole.”
I asked if this plan of his would require Congressional authorization, and he did not reply, instead ducking swiftly into an elevator. But think about what Waltz did manage to say. Like the vast majority of his Republican colleagues, he voted for the latest round of $40 billion in war funding back in May. Now, two months later, he’s publicly admitting the “billions that we’re providing” to Ukraine are going down a “black hole.” But rather that acknowledge this as an astronomical flaw in the measure he voted for — and therefore in the wider policy approach the US is taking to the conflict — Waltz now says the solution is to escalate the US war effort dramatically further, by sending US military “advisors” to physically integrate into the actual war. Which according to Waltz is what British forces are already doing. (By the way, does this mean the UK is at war with Russia? Wouldn’t the UK military personnel currently operating inside Ukraine be legitimate military targets? In the event they get blown up by a Russian missile strike, what is the US/NATO response supposed to be? Furthermore, why doesn’t anyone in the UK media seem to be asking these glaringly pertinent questions? There’s currently a Conservative Party leadership contest underway, and the UK press corps has all-but ignored the issue. But I digress.)
The blunt admission that all this much-heralded US weaponry is simply plunging into a “black hole” — from one of the most dedicated pro-Ukraine hawks in Congress, no less — really deserves to be dwelled upon for a moment. Not just in the insanity of the admission, but in how it’s now being used to justify even greater US military commitments. “I’d like to know where in the hell that equipment is too, Mike,” Sen. Bill Hagerty (R-TN) said to Waltz at one point. In order to fix the mess he created by voting for a bill with no actionable monitoring provisions, Waltz is now proposing to entangle the US even more deeply into the war. And according to Waltz — who’s apparently on track to be a top foreign policy sage for the next GOP House majority — this is a totally sensible remedy, because he doesn’t envision the troops technically deploying to the “front-lines.” Which sounds very reassuring. You don’t have to be a scholar of the Vietnam War to know that the incremental buildup of so-called “advisors” was how the US ended up in all-out war by 1965.
Spurred by Waltz’s “black hole” comment, I asked Sen. James Lankford (R-OK) if he viewed the current monitoring provisions for US weapons in Ukraine to be adequate. “It’s a war,” Lankford said. “And we don’t have eyes on it. So no, we can’t tell every weapon, every place. But we do get regular accounting of it. Can you go back and verify all that? No, it’s a war. And so you can’t go back and verify all those things as well.”
I’ll take that as a “no.”
All that Sen. Steve Daines (R-MT) would say (before his staff hustled him into an elevator) was: “It’s very important that the dollars that Congress has appropriated are carefully tracked and accounted for.” Both Lankford and Daines voted for the $40 billion “black hole” spending package in May.
Do figures like Ratcliffe, Waltz, Lankford, and Daines represent some authentic vision of “America First”? I’m sure there will be avalanches of right-wing commenters who scornfully deny this. But what’s perhaps more significant in terms of actual governance is that a key faction of the Republican Party professional class (in DC and nationwide) certainly seems to think so. As does Donald Trump. The emotional climax of Waltz’s panel discussion was a declaration by Sen. Joni Ernst (R-IA) “that we absolutely annihilate the Russian forces, and we get them to crawl back into Russia so bloody and bruised that they can’t come back.” This was received by great applause from the assembled crowd. I tried to track down Ernst, but she appeared to scurry out a back entrance.
Finally, I came upon Sen. Lindsey Graham (R-SC). If there’s anyone who would seem to represent the polar opposite of what most “America First” proponents say their foreign policy worldview is, it would have to be Graham. And yet, Graham is also the most prominent unabashed advocate of another Trump presidential campaign. “I hope he runs again,” Graham declared to the Summit gathering, to cheers. “I’m trying to move toward a strong America, and he’s the vehicle to get us there.”
Given that Graham apparently sees Trump as the “vehicle” for his preferred policy vision, does this make Graham an “America First” guy? Who knows. But here’s the exchange I had with him:
MT: When you say that Donald Trump is a vehicle for your preferred vision, does that include foreign policy? Because a lot of people don’t associate you with the “America First” agenda, which they view as a little bit more isolationist or non-interventionist. Is Trump still a vehicle for you in that regard?
Graham: I just don’t think America First is isolationism.
MT: How about non-interventionist?
Graham: Yeah, but it believes in alliances, but you got to pay your fair share. It’s not looking for a fight, but it wants folks—
MT: Because a lot of “America First” Republicans I talk to don’t regard the Ukraine issue as within the American national interest.
Graham: Well I do. Big time... If you want to make sure Taiwan goes, lose in Ukraine.
MT: Do you think most Republican voters agree with you?
Graham: Yes. In my state they do, overwhelmingly.
I’d love to see the detailed polling data that shows Republicans in South Carolina are in overwhelming agreement with Lindsey Graham on the issue of Ukraine, but that’s neither here nor there.
Graham dashed right from the America First summit to polish off his latest initiative calling on the State Department to officially designate Russia a “state sponsor of terrorism.” Amazingly, it passed by unanimous consent. Not a single member of the US Senate saw fit to raise objections that making such a designation could obliterate any hope of a US-brokered settlement to the war.
Are these the fruits of “America First” in 2022? Carry on with the frenzied definitional debate, I guess.
Note from MT: I have plenty more material from the Summit, so do yourself a favor and subscribe!