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The Heritage Foundation Is Wrong on Ukraine
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The Heritage Foundation Is Wrong on Ukraine

Its emerging populism undermines American interests and its own achievements.

I want to start today with the good news. On Monday the Senate voted on an overwhelming bipartisan basis, 81-11, to advance a $40 billion aid package for Ukraine. The vote came days after the House passed the package by a similar bipartisan majority, 368-57. The United States is still pouring resources into the fight against Russia, and it’s still largely united behind the Ukrainian people.

But there’s bad news. Resistance against Ukraine aid is growing on the right, and the center of right-wing resistance is no longer Tucker Carlson but one of the most powerful think tanks in Washington, the Heritage Foundation. 

Heritage’s opposition would be troubling enough on the merits, but compounding the problem, Heritage (a think tank, remember) has abandoned careful analysis in support of cheap, easily rebutted MAGA talking points. It’s sad to see.

The background is simple. Just before the House vote last Thursday, the think tank’s sister advocacy organization, Heritage Action,  put out a statement that said, “Ukraine aid package puts America last.” Puts America last? Really? That’s a strong charge. What’s the evidence? 

The statement contains bullet points offering a few critiques of the bill. It’s expensive (it’s more costly than “the funding for the Environmental Protection Agency, Department of Labor, and Department of Commerce combined”), there are “no spending offsets,” allegedly “no accountability for where each dollar will be spent,” and “no guarantees for equal contributions from European neighbors.”

I’m still unclear how that “puts America last,” but the sheer pettiness of the objections—especially in light of the urgency of the tactical and strategic situation—is remarkable. Let’s take the expense point for a moment. Yes, $40 billion is a lot of money, but the federal government spent an extraordinary $6.82 trillion. The Ukraine aid represents a whopping .06 percent of federal expenditures. It is relatively immaterial to our national spending crisis. It’s a rounding error in the American budget.

But it’s not a rounding error on the battlefield. For the first time since 1945, two advanced armies are engaged in a life-and-death struggle on the battlefields of Europe. As I type this newsletter, Russia is reeling from setbacks in eastern Ukraine, but the Ukrainians are losing men and expending munitions at a terrifying rate. Americans, accustomed to counterinsurgency warfare, may not grasp the scale of combat. 

To provide a sense of perspective, earlier this month Wisconsin Rep. Mike Gallagher said on Fox News, “We just burned through seven years” of Javelin missile stocks, and that’s in less than three months of combat when American forces weren’t even engaged. It’s of urgent importance that we maintain both Ukrainian and American anti-tank capabilities. As Rep. Gallagher notes, we may need those weapons to defend Taiwan. 

And in fact the Ukraine aid bill includes $9 billion to replenish American weapons stocks, which makes Heritage President Kevin Roberts’ response to me slightly puzzling:

We’re spending billions on American equipment to maintain American stockpiles, not just to arm Ukraine. Moreover, consider for a moment the staggering costs of a Russian breakthrough. First there would be the utter shock to Europe of a humanitarian crisis that could dwarf even the horrors we’ve seen to date. Then we’d face the challenge of large-scale, long-term military reinforcement to deter any further Russian aggression as it rebuilt its own suddenly victorious forces. 

Does it sound inconceivable that Russia could triumph over Ukraine given the failures we’ve seen to date? Well one way to put Ukraine at profound risk is to dither over aid payments and munitions supplies at the very moment that it’s fighting for its life.

But there’s more than military aid in the Ukraine package. In fact, Heritage Vice President James Jay Carafano took direct aim at the non-military aid in a Fox News op-ed

While the bill contains important spending that will bolster Ukraine’s defenses, it also authorizes nearly a billion dollars in unlawful immigration benefits, and roughly $9 billion for things like funding Ukrainian government officials’ salaries and pensions.

We have to remember the nature of total war. When a nation is fighting for its life—and may well face a war of attrition against a much larger foe—it can’t just maintain forces in the field, it must maintain a functioning government and prop up a battered economy. Government failure and economic failure can lead to battlefield failure. In total war, the entire infrastructure of the modern state is devoted to the war effort, and thus it becomes necessary for allies to support that entire infrastructure. 

Carafano argues that “House leaders gave members only a few hours to review the proposal before voting. This should be a red flag to everyone that there are problematic proposals buried in this spending package that leadership didn’t want Americans to have time to find.” 

This sounds reasonable, until you actually bother to go and read the bill. It’s quite short. You can read it in a few minutes. And when you spend the few minutes, you quickly learn, among other things, that the bill does contain, as The Dispatch’s own Klon Kitchen observes, “multiple safeguards to monitor how money  is spent—including separate, monitored accounts, reports to Congress from SECDEF & DoD IG, etc.”

He also notes that the immigration funding “pays for the Ukrainian refugees that have already been approved.” We should be welcoming Ukrainian refugees. We should be amply funding their rescue and resettlement.

Carafano writes, “it should never be the responsibility of experts at The Heritage Foundation, or anyone in the conservative movement, to rubberstamp the agenda of the elites in Washington simply because they yell ‘crisis!’” I respect Carafano a great deal. I’ve spoken to him before, and benefited from his insights, but this is sheer populist nonsense. 

It doesn’t take an “elite” to know that a crisis exists in Ukraine. We are watching the combat with our own eyes. We can see the devastated cities. Russia and Ukraine are at war, millions of people are displaced, tens of thousands have died. Thousands more are dying every week. And it’s all happening in Europe, the cradle of the last two world wars, and one of the combatants is the world’s largest nuclear power

It is particularly disappointing to see Heritage’s stance now given its long and proud history of intellectual rigor, commitment to American strength, and resistance to Soviet and Russian aggression and authoritarianism. The Heritage Foundation of a previous era would recognize the enormity of the stakes and America’s indispensable role as the arsenal of democracy. 

There is no allied nation on earth capable of sending more aid, more quickly, to a fight far from its borders than the United States. The closest recent comparison is the massive American effort to save Israel during the Yom Kippur War. There was no question that the IDF was capable of defeating Egypt and Syria on the battlefield, but the sheer level of Israeli equipment losses put the outcome of the war in doubt. 

The United States responded with Operation Nickel Grass, a massive, immediate airlift of supplies to Israel—an airlift that included advanced fighters taken directly from American stocks at the height of the Cold War. It was an extraordinary military achievement, and it gave Israel the assurance that it could stay in the fight until it could turn the tide.

This is a Nickel Grass moment in Ukraine, but it’s one that could have even more direct and tangible benefits to the United States than our support for Israel. Israel defeated Egypt and Syria’s military, but those militaries were never threats to the United states. Ukraine is presently breaking the conventional strength of the Russian army, and Russia is one of our two greatest geopolitical foes.

At a time of extraordinary polarization, America’s bipartisan unity in support of Ukraine is reminding the world that America can still rouse itself in defense of the liberal order. It is not the nation that stood for too long on the sidelines in World War II. It is still the nation that forged the most powerful defensive alliance the world has ever seen.

The Heritage Foundation played an important part in laying the moral, intellectual, and strategic foundation for the alliances and military capabilities that are paying off on the battlefield today. Now, at a crucial moment, Heritage flinches. Its emerging populism undermines American interests and its own achievements. 

One last thing …

If you want to learn more about Operation Nickel Grass, here’s an interesting short documentary on the turn of the tide in 1973. Fascinating stuff:

David French is a columnist for the New York Times. He’s a former senior editor of The Dispatch. He’s the author most recently of Divided We Fall: America's Secession Threat and How to Restore Our Nation.