WASHINGTON — Hours before the House will vote this month to approve $40 billion in military and humanitarian aid to Ukraine, lobbyists affiliated with the Heritage Foundation, the prominent conservative think tank, were privately pressing Republicans to oppose the measure.
In a move that has caught the attention of conservatives across Washington, Jessica Anderson, the executive director of Heritage’s lobbying operation, released a searing statement – its headline screaming “The Ukraine Aid Package puts America last” – who called the move reckless and thoughtless. .
“America is grappling with record inflation, debt, a porous border, crime and energy depletion,” Ms. Anderson said, “yet progressives in Washington are prioritizing an agenda for $40 billion aid to Ukraine”.
The Heritage Foundation’s position helps explain why 57 House Republicans ultimately voted against the package, in the strongest show of opposition within party ranks to growing congressional support for Ukraine’s efforts to push back against the Russian invasion. It reflected the growing power of the “America First” impulse in the Republican Party, and how well it has trickled down to the thought leaders who shape its political worldview.
And he gave insight into the growing challenge facing party leaders, who have worked to keep anti-interventionist forces at bay in their ranks if the war drags on, as US officials believe, prompting the administration Biden to seek approval for another tranche of aid in the coming months.
In an interview, the group’s chairman, Kevin Roberts, pledged to “fight” any similarly structured bill “every step of the way.”
The position also reflects a profound change at the Heritage Foundation, an organization that conservatives have long considered a star intellectual and political guide.
For years, the group has advocated a hawkish foreign policy, enthusiastically supporting the wars in Iraq and Afghanistan, and more recently criticizing President Barack Obama for “always” seeking “to find the absolute minimum level of military power that he can get away with.” ”
But more recently, his lobbying arm has embraced the anti-interventionist fervor that has defined President Donald J. Trump’s foreign policy and swept the Republican Party.
On Thursday, Roberts posted a podcast interview with Senator Josh Hawley of Missouri, one of only 11 Senate Republicans to oppose the Ukraine aid package and the author of a recent op-ed. entitled “No to neoconservatism”.
“Neither you nor we intend any opposition to an aid program to be dismissive of the heroism we have seen in Ukraine,” Mr. Roberts told Mr. Hawley. “But I can at least speak for Heritage and say, ‘We’ve had enough of business as usual’.”
The fundamental tenets of the organization have long been based on the promotion of free enterprise, limited government, and strong national defense. But it has increasingly fed on the rise of populism within the party, first during the rise of the Tea Party and then under the Trump administration, supplying some of the most prominent members of Mr. Trump and boasting that almost two-thirds of his ideas had been carried out or adopted by his White House during his first year in office.
“What was so surprising about this moment was Heritage, which has always been tough on Russia, strong on NATO and guided by the mantra of ‘What would Reagan do? took a very strange turn,” said Eric Sayers, a current nonresident at the American Enterprise Institute who began his career at Heritage as a junior staff member.
The move, Mr. Sayers said, reflected the ascendancy in the organization “of more populist forces that are more right-wing than leadership-oriented”.
Mr Roberts, who called himself a “recovering neocon” in an interview, said Heritage’s stance on the aid package reflected “real skepticism among the conservative base of the entrenched leadership of conservative foreign policy”.
The nation’s financial situation, he said, required us “as a movement to determine that there are many heroic people in the world who will have to rely on the resources of other countries. That doesn’t mean America shouldn’t be involved, but we need to be less involved.
His argument echoed one that underpinned many of the policies put forward by Mr Trump when he complained that NATO allies were not spending enough on shared defense costs and argued for a US military footprint. smallest in the world.
This is a position taken by a growing number of conservative groups. Citizens for Renewing America, an organization led by Russell Vought, Mr Trump’s former budget director, lobbied against the latest Ukraine aid measure, saying it would leave “the United States on the hook for increased involvement in the war for the remainder of President Biden’s term.” mandate. Mr. Vought also lobbied against the accession of Finland and Sweden to NATO.
The same goes for Concerned Veterans for America, a Koch Network-funded advocacy group, which called it “a mistake for Congress to fast-track another massive aid package to Ukraine while the administration Biden has repeatedly sent confused and mixed signals about his desired end. -State in Ukraine.
But while these groups have long taken a stand against deeper US involvement in what they see as reckless military missions overseas, Heritage’s position is more recent.
In the months leading up to the vote on the Ukraine aid bill, Heritage political pundits argued for an aggressive US role in the conflict, including massive amounts of assistance. A report said the United States “must ensure that its massive humanitarian assistance helps the people of Ukraine survive Russia’s war of aggression.”
Another report, published in April, stated: “A sovereign Ukraine is necessary for overall European stability, which is in the interest of the United States and NATO. In many ways, the long-term stability of the transatlantic community will be decided in Ukraine. The United States must act accordingly.
James Wallner, a senior fellow at the R Street Institute who previously led policy research at Heritage, said the discrepancy between the tone of the reports and the group’s opposition to the aid bill reflected a situation within of the think tank “where the tail begins to wag the dog” and politics, not political principles, begin to guide decisions.
“I always raise the question of what happens when this people’s army that you create goes against policy research,” Wallner said in an interview. “Are you just doing what the base army wants? And if so, are you still a public policy organization that publishes cutting-edge research? I think you can’t have both at the same time, and I think that’s the challenge.
Senior officials of the organization say there has been no change.
Ms Anderson framed the vote against the aid package as a protest against the ‘binary choice’ she said Democrats had made ‘between supporting the great Ukrainian people and dealing with a long list of concerns we have here in the United States.”
“We’re not in the isolationist crowd,” Ms Anderson said. “Heritage has never been that. But we think it is entirely reasonable to express caution and concern, and we are truly encouraged that so many members have echoed these reservations.
Mr Roberts insisted Heritage was always guided by ‘the Reagan principle of peace through strength’ and said the think tank would have backed a narrowly tailored aid program to provide arms to Ukrainians.
“What I’ve found frustrating over the past two weeks out of all the comments,” Mr Roberts said in the interview with Mr Hawley, “is that we’re insincere in saying, ‘Why can’t we? we not build the wall on the southern border? Why can’t we take care of the problems at home? People understood that to mean that we were making excuses to oppose the Ukraine bill. That seems like a terribly legitimate criticism, not just to us in the think tank world, but to the average American.
But he also admitted that Heritage’s position reflected a broader “movement in the movement” that “would require us to be much more careful about the more limited resources we can devote to foreign policy”.
When Mr Roberts was selected to lead Heritage in October, he stressed in an op-ed setting out his vision for the think tank that part of his job would be to “open the movement up to fresh American air and people we are looking for”. to serve.”
“It is the job of the Tories inside the Beltway to better connect with the Tories outside the Beltway,” Mr Roberts wrote, “and not the other way around.”