Sunday, April 21, 2024

Senate Ukraine Supplemental Fails to Put American Interests First

In the early morning hours of Tuesday, a group of conservative senators ran out of procedural options for debating a $95 billion funding bill for Ukraine, Israel, and the Indo-Pacific. In the middle of the night, Sens. Ron Johnson, R-Wis., Mike Lee, R-Utah, Rand Paul, R-Ky., Pete Ricketts, R-Neb., Marco Rubio, R-Fla., Eric Schmitt, R-Mo., Rick Scott, R-Fla., and JD Vance, R-Ohio, articulated their opposition.

When they ran out of options, the tandem of Senate Majority Leader Chuck Schumer, D-N.Y., and Minority Leader Mitch McConnell, R-Ky., moved swiftly to pass the bill on a vote of 70 to 29. That included 22 Republicans who voted for foreign aid without addressing America’s own border crisis.

The measure now moves to the House of Representatives, where Speaker Mike Johnson, R-La., has pledged to hold the line at the urging of conservatives.

National security expert Elbridge Colby, co-founder and principal at the Marathon Initiative, spoke with The Daily Signal about what’s playing out on Capitol Hill and why he thinks this legislation misses the mark. He also explained how the United States should be prioritizing its national security. The conversation has been edited for length.

Rob Bluey: Let’s start by talking about the current debate that’s taking place in Congress. What’s your perspective on the supplemental?

Bridge Colby: Americans are increasingly, and with very good reason, worried about issues like rising the rising debt, the border, the failed wars, and military interventions.

What we should be doing is having a foreign policy that concretely puts Americans interests first. It’s important to have alliances and to have an international view.

If we look at the world in that perspective and say, “What’s the biggest threat to Americans interests?” It’s the People’s Republic of China, because it’s 10 times the GDP of Russia, and Asia, where China is located, is by far more important. It’s going to be almost half of global GDP. We can’t allow China to dominate Asia. Ostensibly, that is not only the Trump administration position but also the Biden administration’s position.

When I look at the supplemental, it’s totally out of whack. We’re sending $61 billion to Ukraine, and we’re spending a couple billion extra on the Indo-Pacific when very respected institutions like Heritage and the RAND Corp. have assessed that we’re behind militarily. We should be focusing on China.

At the same time, I personally do think that Russia remains a threat. Russia’s invasion of Ukraine is an evil act. Obviously there’s a lot of nuance there, but that’s fundamentally the reality. I support the Ukrainians, but we live in the world of reality—just like a family making its financial plan or a business making its financial plan.

We can’t solve all the world’s problems and we have big ones ourselves. And the biggest one is China. What do we do about that? First and foremost, we move our foreign policy alliance structure from a dependency structure to a partnership structure, where we expect our allies to actually step up and meet their obligations.

This is something President Trump talked a lot about, rightly. Even President Obama talked about it. The Europeans ignored us. The reality is the Europeans can and actually are now doing a lot more for Ukraine, but they have not yet met their spending commitments.

It’s difficult, but you know what? It’s difficult for Americans. We spend over 3% of GDP on defense. We have huge influx across the border. We’re not securing the border—a lot of fentanyl, etc. We have problems, so that’s the way I look at the supplemental.

Bluey: Why doesn’t the Biden administration put more of an emphasis on China? And why do you consider it such a threat? 

Colby: I actually look at it more from just how powerful China is. In fact, I communicate this to the Chinese directly whenever I have the chance. The reason that I’m so worried about China is not because I dislike China—if anything to the contrary, it’s because I have so much respect for China.

They have, according to the Office of Naval Intelligence, over 200 times the shipbuilding capacity of the United States. They have the world’s largest industrial base. People talk about the arsenal of democracy, but that arsenal left and went to China, unfortunately. These people are not making toy cars anymore. They’re operating at the forefront of technology in a lot of areas.

I’m looking for a balance of power. People often say, balance of power and realism, that’s un-American. Actually, to the contrary, I reject that. Why? The fundamental idea of the American system is the separation of powers. Nobody should be trusted with too much power, and that’s the logic I take toward China. I’m saying we need a coalition. I don’t trust them just on face value when they say they don’t have expansive intent.

I don’t think there’s so much debate anymore that China is a massive challenge for the United States. The biggest problem is just walking the walk in the sense that in order to deal with something that is really on a different order of magnitude than we’ve dealt with in a really long time.

If you just look at the size of China’s economy, it’s the biggest threat the United States has dealt with since the 19th century. We were much larger than the Soviet Union. The United States alone was larger than all three major Axis states.

A lot of the politicians, especially on the establishment side, are from a different era. It’s very hard to let go of the idea of this sort of “indispensable nation,” as Madeleine Albright put it. That’s almost like an intoxicating mentality for a lot of people, both Democrats and traditional Republican types. They feel like they are somehow morally on a perch or something. They’re not really capable of grappling with how much has changed.

Bluey: There are some who are making the case that the money that we’re spending in the supplemental will be a deterrent for China, specifically because they draw the connection to Ukraine. Why doesn’t that argument hold up?

Colby: It’s so convoluted it could only be a Washington rationalization.

There’s one variant that says China is going to be deterred by what we do in Ukraine. Well, just apply common sense. Here’s the thought experiment that I apply on that one: If China actually thought the future of Taiwan was going to be settled in Ukraine, it would intervene directly in the war.

Instead, it’s not doing that at all. Instead, it’s sitting back, getting us to spend more money and weapons and political capital in Europe, distracting us, tying us down in Europe and the Middle East. Meanwhile, building up its own strength. As Napoleon put it, if you want to take Vienna, take Vienna.

The other argument that you often hear is we’re going to spend a bunch of money on Ukraine and that’s going to help our defense industrial base. But that also doesn’t make sense. Why don’t you just spend the money on weapons to deal with the Chinese to deter them directly? Because you can’t use a weapon again, usually. You can’t use a missile again—it’s going to blow up. You can’t use oil. Aircraft get worn out, artillery, ammunition, etc.

I do support increased investment in the defense industrial base coupled with reforms to make it more equitable and accessible. But if we’re giving money to Ukraine, that’s not the same. And especially because a lot of these weapons will take years and years to replace.

Bluey: You talked about how the Europeans need to step up and do more, particularly in their own backyard. Former President Donald Trump has been critical of NATO. Your thoughts on his criticism and if it’s justified?

Colby: President Trump was absolutely right to urge the Europeans—and put real pressure on them—to increase their defense spending when he was president and so forth.

We’ve been trying to be as polite and nice as possible for many years and they ignored us. So I think at this point, if you actually think the situation is as grave as the Europeans and many of the neoconservatives say, then you should make it clear to the Europeans that this has to happen.

Now, my personal view is the United States should come to NATO’s aid if NATO is attacked. However, I also have said this publicly, and I’ve said this to the Europeans for many years, we should only provide that level of support that is consistent with maintaining deterrence in the Pacific.

There’s going to be a limit. This is true of a Republican administration and a Democrat administration. There has got to be a limit to how much we can provide to Europe because we don’t have what’s called a two-war force. A two-war force basically says the American military can fight two large conflicts at the same time.

We don’t have that, not because we don’t want to, but because we’re dealing with a superpower in China that we haven’t focused on. When I was in the Trump administration, we shifted to say we’ve got to get the big thing right. You’ve got to take care of your case of acute heart disease before you address your arthritis.

The Biden administration actually adopted that same fundamental approach. Their strategy is pretty much the same. But the problem is the Chinese have been moving like gangbusters, so we haven’t solved the problem. What happens if Russia moves into the Baltics? We should deter them and encourage them not to. We’re going to give them what we can, but not things that we also need to defend ourselves and our forces and our allies in the first island chain. Why? Not because we like Asia more than Europe, but because Asia is more important and China’s a bigger threat.

We can’t get that wrong. The solution to this is not to just wallow and criticize each other, but for the Europeans to step up. They’re totally capable of doing this. They have far larger economy than Russia. And by the way, they did this during the Cold War. They were all spending a ton more on defense.

Bluey: Tucker Carlson recently interviewed Vladimir Putin. What was the biggest headline coming out of that interview? And how much stock do we take in some of the things Putin said and what should we disregard as propaganda? 

Colby: Let me be clear, I think Putin’s invasion of Ukraine was an evil act. Ukraine has a legitimate just cause to self-defense. On the other hand, the world is not a morality play.

The administration itself has said that this war is going to end through negotiations. So I think the biggest thing that came out, at least that I could see, was that Putin at least ostensibly said that he was open to negotiations. Now he may be disingenuous or lying, but then I think it’s incumbent upon the administration.

This relates back to the supplemental. What’s the plan for ending this war? Because I think for a long time there’s been a kind of fantastical, magical thinking sort of idea to the end of this war that like, not only that the Ukrainians are going take back all of their territory, which looks unfortunately improbable, but more that the Russians are going be fundamentally changed.

Didn’t we learn from Iraq that you can’t fundamentally change a culture? And by the way, Russia is not Iraq, right? Russia’s got thousands of nuclear weapons. It’s one of the major powers of the world.

I agreed with Tucker’s reaction to Putin’s long disquisition on the history, “Well, yeah, a lot of countries have historical disputes.” That doesn’t mean it’s OK to use military force. I think a lot of it was Russian propaganda or spinning or whatever. I don’t think it was very effective, at least in changing a lot of minds in the United States.

There’s no court of right and wrong here. Putin is never going to be dragged in front of the International Criminal Court.

So how is this war going to end? It could just go on and maybe stalemate at some point. Or it’s going to end through some kind of negotiations. Obviously, it’s best for the Ukrainians to negotiate from a position of strength. We may sadly have missed that opportunity, but I think in any case, if the Europeans step up and support the Ukrainians more, they’ll be able to negotiate from a position of strength.

The Biden administration’s position has been very strange because privately, when they leak to the press and so forth, they’ll say this war is going to end through negotiations, but they actually never have the fortitude to publicly present that case.

Bluey: Can you share with us about the Marathon Initiative that you founded?

Colby: You can follow me at @ElbridgeColby on X, and I’ve got a book, “The Strategy of Denial,” which came out a few years ago, though I think it’s actually more current now.

My partner and I started the Marathon Initiative a few years ago as a nonprofit 501(c)(3). In the foreign policy space, we say, “We’re living in an era of great power rivalry. There are no easy answers. Let’s go without fear or favor to where the right strategies are.”

That’s what we wanted do—create a think tank in the sense it was originally conceived of in the national security space, which was to think hard about the toughest problems, produce books enable people like me to be able to take a more unorthodox or reformist or even heretical approach that reflects reality.

My concern is whether it’s happening fast enough. Because I don’t think we have so much time, given China and so forth.