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Doyle McManus: What would a GOP president do on Ukraine?

  • Los Angeles Times
  • Published Friday, March 28, 2014, at 12 a.m.

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Here’s what the United States has done so far in an attempt to deter further Russian incursions into Ukraine: applied two rounds of economic sanctions and asked Congress to approve $1 billion in loan guarantees for Kiev.

Here’s what President Obama says he won’t do:

“We are not going to be getting into a military excursion in Ukraine.”

The president’s careful response and unwillingness to consider military intervention has met with general support from other Democrats. But Republicans have been sharply critical.

The sniping is no surprise given the partisan divide in Washington, D.C. But would a Republican in the White House instead of Obama actually plot a different course?

That would depend entirely on which Republican we’re talking about. The GOP has long been divided on foreign policy, and Ukraine has exposed fault lines that are likely to grow as the Republicans’ 2016 nomination contest nears.

On foreign policy in general, and on Ukraine in particular, Republicans fall into three camps: hawks, realists and libertarians.

Let’s start with the hawks. Sen. John McCain, R-Ariz., the hawks’ leading voice on Ukraine, is not calling for U.S. boots on the ground, but he has called for immediate shipments of small arms and ammunition to Kiev, as well as U.S. intelligence-sharing.

Closer to the center of the GOP is moderate conservative Sen. Bob Corker, R-Tenn., the top Republican on the Senate Foreign Relations Committee. Although Corker wants tougher sanctions, he thinks military aid can wait.

The calmest part of the Republican Party when it comes to Ukraine may be its most traditional realists, who ran foreign policy during several presidencies. The main U.S. goal in Ukraine, former national security adviser Brent Scowcroft said, should be to make sure the conflict in Russia’s backyard doesn’t spread to other countries or other issues.

“I don’t think it’s an issue of that great consequence,” Scowcroft said of Crimea. It would be a mistake, he said, to try to match Russia “belligerence by belligerence.”

Finally, there are the libertarians, which brings us to Sen. Rand Paul, R-Ky., who’s at the top of early polls of potential Republican presidential nominees. Paul has been working hard in recent months to make his positions sound closer to the party’s mainstream, which means criticizing the president and trying to sound hawkish. The current situation has left him sounding a bit incoherent.

“If I were president, I wouldn’t let Vladimir Putin get away with it,” Paul announced in a column in Time magazine. What would he do? Among other steps, he’d suspend all U.S. economic aid to Ukraine, because some of the money might end up in Russia. In short, he’d destroy the Ukrainian economy in order to save it.

Even that much activism is too much for the senator’s libertarian father. “Why does the U.S. care which flag will be hoisted on a small piece of land thousands of miles away?” wrote former Texas congressman Ron Paul.

That attitude may have the most resonance with the American people. A Pew Research Center poll conducted in early March, before Crimea was annexed, found that most Americans believed the United States should “not get too involved” in the conflict.

The crisis in Ukraine has presented a new opportunity for Republicans to snipe at the Obama administration. But debate about what to do about Russia has also caused new fissures within the party, and they’re unlikely to be healed before 2016.

Doyle McManus is a columnist for the Los Angeles Times.

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