Republican Foreign Policy vs. Everybody

By Jack Detsch and Robbie Gramer

Welcome back to Foreign Policy’s SitRep! Jack and Robbie here. We’re sad about the loss of the legendary Tina Turner at 83, but we’re sadder about U.S. diplomats in Australia dancing the Nutbush in honor of the fallen singer. Robbie is stashing dozens of diplomatic cringe videos that he will share with you at a later date.

Alright, here’s what’s on tap for the day: Republican presidential hopefuls take on all foreign-policy comers, Biden is set to tap a new top U.S. military officer, and Ukraine faces some training snags to get F-16s.

Failure to Launch

Don’t try this at home, kids.

Florida Republican Gov. Ron DeSantis announced his long-anticipated presidential bid on Wednesday, not with a bang but a whimper: Twitter Spaces, where he was making the announcement, crapped out with users flooding in to listen.

And if there was a flourish of foreign-policy realism in DeSantis’s launch—just months after he took heat for calling Russia’s full-scale invasion of Ukraine a “territorial dispute”—it certainly wasn’t in the campaign announcement video: DeSantis’s super PAC adapted the footage to add the image of fighter jets roaring over the Florida governor’s head.

Yes, the Republican presidential nominating cycle is being waged over domestic issues right now (DeSantis has called his home state a place “where woke goes to die”), but behind the scenes, some of the presidential hopefuls are already hitching their wagons to foreign policy.

A Pence for your thoughts. First among the foreign-policy-focused candidates is former Vice President Mike Pence—who is widely expected to declare a long-shot presidential bid against his onetime boss and antagonist, former U.S. President Donald Trump. Pence harkens back to Reagan-era flourishes, if not policy.

On Wednesday, the Pence-backed nonprofit Advancing American Freedom released a legislative agenda that calls for canceling Chinese Treasury holdings as COVID-19 restitution to the families of victims, accelerating the U.S. nuclear program, and advocating more free trade, a genuinely lonely position on both sides of the aisle these days.

Even if Pence is a no-hope candidate (FiveThirtyEight has him tracking at just over 5 percent in an average of the latest national polls, compared to Trump’s 54 percent), his backing of a legislative agenda similar to House China Select Committee Chairman Mike Gallagher—including a nationwide TikTok ban—is telling: decoupling with China is going to be a thing on the campaign trail.

Personnel is policy. Remember the last year of the Trump administration? It featured such classics as White House staffers interviewing defense officials about their perceived loyalty to Trump; a reshuffling of the Pentagon brass, including sacking then-U.S. Defense Secretary Mark Esper; and the shaking up of top policy boards, such as the Defense Policy Board, that pushed the Biden administration into a drawn-out review.

John McEntee, the head of the Presidential Personnel Office during those days, is now over at the Heritage Foundation, helping to staff up a sizable roster of policy experts with MAGA bona fides in what could become a new Republican administration if things go the GOP’s way in 2024.

And they’re already making a case that they have a bone to pick with the federal bureaucracy, picking up on Trump’s “deep state” trope, as many Trump loyalists exited government in January 2021 believing that Washington’s national security establishment slow-walked or stymied Trump’s foreign-policy initiatives from within. “The 47th president must and will confront the Deep State and will turn to John McEntee to do so,” Paul Dans, the director of the Project 2025 initiative at the Heritage Foundation that McEntee will help spearhead, said in a May statement.

Past is prologue. It’s not clear exactly which administration the Heritage-led initiative is targeting, although the presence of McEntee, Trump’s former body man, would indicate that it’s the former president. For now, conservative foreign-policy experts across Washington tell SitRep that many of them are keeping the tent flaps open, preparing to help all the candidates craft their foreign-policy platforms and put forward a united front against U.S. President Joe Biden.

Project 2025 has also launched an online questionnaire, asking would-be conservative wonks in a Republican administration to explain their political philosophy, who influenced it, and asking them a series of questions including whether the United Nations should have authority over sovereign countries and whether the U.S. president “should be able to advance his/her agenda through the bureaucracy without hinderance [sic] from unelected federal officials.”

Think tankers in waiting. Another conservative think tank to watch for potential 2024 Republican administration picks is the Hudson Institute, which seems to have effectively struck a balance between MAGA and the more traditional wings of the Republican Party with its own cast of conservative foreign-policy heavyweights.

Deep state battles, round 2. Trump, not chastened by his fights with the bureaucracy in his first term, has already pledged to dismantle the so-called deep state and wants to push an executive order if elected that would reclassify tens of thousands of federal government workers as at-will employees.

“The past is never dead,” as William Faulkner may have noted. “It’s not even past.”

Let’s Get Personnel

Biden today tapped Gen. Charles Q. Brown, currently the Air Force’s chief of staff, as the next chairman of the Joint Chiefs of Staff, the U.S. military’s top official. Brown would be just the second Black chairman after Colin Powell, and the first Air Force officer to hold the job since the start of the Iraq War.

One of the State Department’s top China officials is calling it quits. Rick Waters, a foreign service officer running the recently established “China House,” is stepping down, two officials confirmed to SitRep. Kudos to Bloomberg, which first reported the news. Waters will remain a foreign service officer.

Former House Armed Services Committee member and former Rep. Elaine Luria, who was defeated in her reelection bid last year, is joining BAE Systems’ board of directors.

On the Button

What should be high on your radar, if it isn’t already.

Sweet 16s. Ukrainian pilots are ready to go back to school, with around 20 of them set to enter initial training on Western fighter jets that could lead to the delivery of F-16s, Jack and Robbie report. One snag, though: The American-made fighter isn’t quite what Ukrainians are used to flying. The warplane doesn’t even have gauges or instruments where Ukrainian pilots are used to seeing them in Soviet-era MiGs.

And Western officials are concerned about scarce resources to train Ukrainian pilots: Both Norway and the Netherlands have shuttered training units for F-16s, and NATO countries could risk displacing their own pilot trainees if the practice sessions run long. But that’s not damping Ukrainian demand: Yehor Cherniev, a lawmaker, said that Ukraine is hoping to scale up from about 40 Western jets to 160 to 200 jets.

Hunkering down. With the prospect of the United States reentering the Iran nuclear deal a very distant possibility at this point, and with Tehran enriching uranium close to weapons-grade levels, Iran has begun to fence itself off from the possibility of a Western strike. Iran appears to be building a nuclear site deep in the Zagros Mountains, according to satellite images obtained by The Associated Press, the completion of which could threaten to cross the red line laid out by Biden and Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu. Tehran said the new facility will replace a centrifuge manufacturing center damaged by a fire and explosion in 2020 that Iran blamed on Israel.

Home on the (missile) range. Russia and Belarus inked a deal on Thursday to formally allow facilities for the Kremlin to forward-deploy Russian tactical nuclear missiles into the pro-Moscow country. The deal would allow Russia to stash nuclear weapons in a special facility in Belarus, the northern neighbor of Ukraine, that could be finished in as soon as a month. Russian Defense Minister Sergei Shoigu said today the move was a response to the West waging an “undeclared war” against Russia and its allies, presumably a nod to U.S. military aid to Ukraine and U.S. and NATO military deployments in Eastern Europe that have angered Moscow.


Members of the 3rd U.S. Infantry Regiment place flags at the headstones of U.S. military personnel buried at Arlington National Cemetery in preparation for Memorial Day, on May 25, 2023, in Arlington, Virginia.

Members of the 3rd U.S. Infantry Regiment place flags at the headstones of U.S. military personnel buried at Arlington National Cemetery in preparation for Memorial Day, on May 25, 2023, in Arlington, Virginia.

Members of the 3rd U.S. Infantry Regiment place flags at the headstones of U.S. military personnel buried at Arlington National Cemetery in preparation for Memorial Day, on May 25, 2023, in Arlington, Virginia. Win McNamee/Getty Images

Put On Your Radar

Saturday, May 27: Former U.S. Secretary of State and National Security Advisor Henry Kissinger turns 100.

Sunday, May 28: Turkey is set for a runoff election between incumbent President Recep Tayyip Erdogan and opposition candidate Kemal Kilicdaroglu.

Monday, May 29: New Nigerian President Bola Tinubu is set to be inaugurated, despite a February vote marred by allegations of voter intimidation and vote-buying.

Tuesday, May 30: Brazilian President Luiz Inácio Lula da Silva will host South American heads of state for a so-called retreat in Brasília.

Wednesday, May 31: Latvia holds presidential elections.

Quote of the Week

“What on earth is ‘fire drill’? ‘Exercise for annihilating’ a nuclear power is just sheer bullshit, isn’t it?”

—North Korean state media responds to anti-government protests and military test exercises in Seoul on May 19.

This Week’s Most Read

Whiskey Tango Foxtrot

Internal criticism. Wagner Group chief Yevgeny Prigozhin, the only person in Russia who seems to be able to criticize Russian President Vladimir Putin without ending up dead, exiled, or in jail, is out with another interview in which he says that Russia’s objectives of “de-Nazifying” and “demilitarizing” Ukraine have failed miserably.

He ended by dropping this perfect one-liner: “Fuck knows how, but we’ve militarized Ukraine!” And then, predictably, the internet turned Prigozhin into a meme.

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