March 2023: “While the US has many vital national interests,” Florida governor and 2024 presidential aspirant Ron DeSantis wrote in response to a questionnaire from Tucker Carlson (as of that time still a Fox News host), “becoming further entangled in a territorial dispute between Ukraine and Russia is not one of them.”
As of October 2023, DeSantis takes a different approach: “Now is the time to defend Israel’s right to defend themselves to the hilt” and “[w]e must stand with Israel as they eradicate Hamas.”
Inquiring minds want to know:
How is meddling in a territorial dispute between former Soviet kleptocracies in eastern Europe “not a vital national interest” for the United States, while meddling in a territorial dispute between tribal Middle East garrison states is a “must?”
In general, if you have to ask why, the answer is “money.” In American presidential politics specifically, if you have to ask why, the answer is usually “cynical political calculation.”
While American Jews tend to vote for Democrats — estimates of 2020 results range from 60% to 77% of “the Jewish vote” going to Joe Biden — millions of evangelical Christians are “pro-Israel” and consider the issue important. Donald Trump knocked down 75-80% of that voting bloc in both 2016 and 2020.
Additionally “pro-Israel” individuals and groups, religious and secular, direct large sums to congressional and presidential campaigns, and to lobbying efforts, to ensure the continued flow of US aid (nearly $4 billion last year). One donor alone, the late casino tycoon Sheldon Adelson, ponied up $424 million to support Trump and other Republican candidates between 2016 and 2021.
Where “national interest” in Middle East affairs is concerned, one stock response is a need to ensure the free flow of oil … but that one doesn’t pass the smell test.
In fact, the opposite is more likely true. The US is a net oil exporter. It doesn’t need Middle Eastern oil. Producers in the US (where oil production is more expensive due to regulation and the higher costs of extracting it from shale) benefit from a foreign policy that IMPEDES the free flow of oil from, for example, Iran, to maintain profitability. Those US oil producers are, by the way, also generous campaign donors and lavish lobbying spenders.
Ron DeSantis is at least as slavishly devoted to Israel (even signing a law requiring state contractors to swear a loyalty oath to that foreign power — so much for “America First”) as US Senator Bob Menendez (D-NJ) has been to the Egyptian regime (which he was recently indicted for allegedly accepting bribes from) and the Cuban-American voter demographic, for the same reasons: Because that’s where their money and votes come from.
US meddling in the region doesn’t just cost Americans money. It also costs Americans their lives when it inevitably results in things like the Beirut barracks bombing, the 9/11 attacks, and foreign wars of choice.
When American politicians put Israel, or any other foreign country, ahead of you — and Ron DeSantis is the rule, not the exception, in that regard — they further discredit the already implausible term “national interest.”
Thomas L. Knapp (Twitter: @thomaslknapp) is director and senior news analyst at the William Lloyd Garrison Center for Libertarian Advocacy Journalism (thegarrisoncenter.org). He lives and works in north central Florida.