How the New Republicans Could Reshape US National Security

From China to anti-extremism efforts, a GOP-led House will have its say.

American support for Ukraine is going to survive the Republican takeover of the U.S. House in January. The anti-Ukraine, pro-Russia faction of the conservative party simply doesn’t have the numbers or leadership support to force any real halt to it. 

But the House GOP’s return to power—and the start of full-bore 2024 presidential campaign politics—could bring more attention and change to national security issues, from diversity programs to anti-China tech policies. At the very least, it will force Democrats to address those issues or negotiate with Republicans more. Conservatives are already beating drums, threatening to derail the overdue defense policy bill, burying Pentagon nominees, and pledging hearings next year to challenge the administration on Ukraine aid, defense spending, the mandatory COVID vaccine for U.S. troops, diversity and inclusion policies at the Pentagon and national security agencies, corporate relationships with China, and more. 

Republicans vocal about national security include authoritarian sympathizers, democracy doubters, would-be election overturners, Ukraine challengers, and Christian nationalists. But they hold sway over GOP leaders and the party base. Only 35 House Republicans voted last year to support even the creation of the independent commission to investigate the Jan. 6 insurrection on the Capitol Building. Less clear is whether they’ll hold sway over staider aspects of security like the NATO alliance, Middle East partnerships, and President Joe Biden’s vision for U.S. global leadership. But a new poll shows Republican support for the Ukraine war effort is declining. Just 33 percent of Republicans are in favor of supporting Ukraine “as long as it takes,” while 61 percent of Democrats feel that way. 

Politics, despite the saying, has never ended at the water’s edge. In the past week, news of a U.S. hostage coming home from a Russian prison became an instant partisan wedge for those conservatives who slammed Biden for swapping Russian arms dealer Viktor “Merchant of Death” Bout for WNBA player Brittney Griner, who is Black and gay, instead of Paul Whelan, a white male Marine Corps veteran captured during the Trump administration. 

Griner is just one facet of the American partisan politics that loom over Ukraine’s effort to fend off a Russian invasion. Mainstream conservatives now support Rep. Marjorie Taylor Green, R-Ga.’s demand for an audit of the 20 billion taxpayer dollars that the Biden administration has sent to help Kyiv turn back Moscow. 

Still, some say the GOP complainants are getting outsized publicity.

“I think that's one of the big myths out there that is worth debunking: that there's a large number of Republicans who support Russia and are against Ukraine. That's simply not true,” said Kurt Volker, who served as the Trump administration’s special representative to Ukraine. “There's a small vocal, but small minority that speak up…I think you have a mainstream in the Republican party that is very solid on supporting Ukraine, on pushing back on Russia.” 

Similarly, Democrats who leaked a letter pushing for negotiations with Russia were “shouted down” so hard from within their party that it was withdrawn, Volker said at Defense One’s Outlook 2023 event this week. 

Still, the anti-interventionist strain of Trumpism has had a lasting impact on the conservative elite and its base. Russia’s invasion has hardly slowed Fox’s Tucker Carlson’s praise for dictator Vladimir Putin and his mockery of Ukraine’s President Volodymyr Zelenskyy (now Time’s Man of the Year). The result? A November survey showed that while more Americans this year consider Russia to be an enemy and the Ukraine war worth supporting, fewer Republicans than Democrats do.   

Evelyn Farkas says right-wing attacks have made it harder politically for Republicans to stand with Democrats on the Ukraine war while hawks in both parties like to portray themselves as tough on China. 

 “It doesn't cost them anything politically, and it's a safe place to be,” said Farkas, who is executive director of the McCain Institute and a former Pentagon official in charge of Russia and Eastern Europe policy. 

But even on China, partisan politics has muddied the waters for Americans looking for policy direction—and opportunity. Farkas said the Biden administration will need to work hard to keep Congress, and by extension the American people, on the same page. 

“They need to finesse this,” she said, by establishing “strong deterrence” to prevent Beijing from doing things like “seizing Taiwan,” while protecting the trade on which the U.S. and global economies depend. “It's going to really be up to the Biden administration to keep Congress on board” while “at the same time trying to make sure that the entire economic order doesn't collapse, and that we keep China as much as we can within that order.”

America’s diminished trust in the military is also, some argue, the result of politics. In the recent survey, Americans said they are doubting military leaders more. The result follows two years of the right-wing’s fierce opposition to the Biden administration’s efforts to weed out extremists in the ranks, and to diversity and inclusion efforts, all of which conservatives deride as “woke” policies that weaken the military, drawing defensive military leaders into political fights.

Said Volker: “I think that this is a huge debate in our politics in the country, between a left that wants to press a progressive agenda and a right that wants to prevent an imposition of a progressive agenda on society in ways they don't like. And that is a big fight going on in our politics, and it motivates almost every election we have. And the best thing that we can and should do is try to insulate our military and our national security and our foreign policy actions as a country from that internal political debate.”

Farkas argued that the current mistrust of the military began with President Donald Trump’s unprecedented term. 

“He politicized the military. I mean, he really started this process. He had members of the military wearing MAGA hats,” she said. “He was the one that pulled the right in, and made and made the military think it was acceptable to somehow have a political position. That's where we've gone wrong.”

“I will say that sometimes the generals don't help themselves by understanding where the proper line is,” Farkas said, citing Gen. Mark Milley’s frequent comments supporting the civilian policies toward the Ukraine war. “But I will also say that, unfortunately, there are actors in the media… Tucker Carlson and others who will try to pull the military into controversies in a way that is not helpful.”