Tsai/Zelensky vs Xi/Putin: The Republican dilemma

Is it cynical to point out that Pompeo emerged as a Ukraine supporter after there was little doubt that the Russian military machine is broken?

(Originally published here on April 11, 2023 in the South China Morning Post.)

If Taiwanese President Tsai Ing-wen’s meetings with House Speaker Kevin McCarthy and other US lawmakers last week represented informal relations, many heads of state officially recognised by Washington must have been wondering if they would be better off with the “self-ruled island” moniker instead of “country”.

Beijing’s furious reactions to high-profile engagements like we saw at the Ronald Reagan Presidential Library last week should come as no surprise. Even so, the optics – including the backdrop of a decommissioned Air Force One plane suspended behind Tsai and McCarthy – obscured something the mainland authorities should care about more.

McCarthy – who, along with the rest of his party’s right flank, was openly sceptical and derisive of US President Joe Biden’s pledge of unending support for Ukraine’s effort to repel Russia’s invasion – sang a different tune on the matter in his press conference with Tsai.

Tying efforts to counter Beijing to Ukraine’s struggle against Russian brutality, he said: “The best way to [prevent Beijing from attacking Taiwan] is supply the weapons that allow people to deter war, supply the weapons that people could defend themselves [with]. It is a critical lesson that we learned through Ukraine.”

Only a few months ago, while pandering to his party’s right flank to secure their support for the role of speaker, he warned that Republicans should not write a “blank cheque” for Ukraine.

This pivot got very little press. McCarthy has been around long enough for us to know he will take any position or cut any deal necessary to hold on to power, and efforts to highlight his ideological contradictions hit the point of diminishing returns long ago.

But that is no reason to dismiss it. McCarthy’s latest position on Ukraine underscores the cross winds now buffeting a party that is still headed by Donald Trump, a figure who is incapable of uttering a negative comment about Russian President Vladimir Putin, and couldn’t completely conceal his admiration for other authoritarians, including President Xi Jinping.

Speaking of Trump, we should note that the reverberations from his arraignment in New York last week – an event of massive proportions in domestic politics – drew some attention away from the Tsai-McCarthy meeting. The unprecedented nature of Trump’s indictment also obscured another startling ideological leap in terms of Republican support for Ukraine, which also has implications for Beijing.

As Trump was being escorted before his judge, his former secretary of state Mike Pompeo was tweeting from Kyiv about “the bravery of the Ukrainian people” in the face of “the damage caused by Putin’s invasion”.

Pompeo shifts back to being a Republican more in the Ronald Reagan mold.

Is it cynical to point out here that Pompeo emerged as a Ukraine supporter after there was little doubt that the Russian military machine is broken and incapable of subduing Ukraine? Did Nato’s expansion finally push Pompeo, a likely candidate in next year’s presidential election, to switch sides in the stand-off between the Kremlin and Kyiv that was brewing long before Russian troops began their assault.

Whatever the case, the rules-based world order established by the West after World War II, one that has embraced civil liberties and minority rights, has not folded the way that Moscow, Beijing and the Republican Party’s Trump-led “make America great again” wing might have wished.

For Republicans, there is now no escape from the reality that Beijing doesn’t want an emboldened Ukraine backed by Western weapons to lead to Putin’s downfall. That is why the Chinese government will do anything short of supplying weapons to prevent such an outcome.

For Pompeo, who made hard-line positions against Beijing one of his highest priorities, this is a problem. He will find it difficult to live down his comments in February 2022 – while the US intelligence community he used to direct was warning the world that the Kremlin was about to invade Ukraine – that Putin deserves respect.

That remark underscored how wedded Pompeo is to the culture war that his party is waging against the rights of women and the LGBTQ community. This appears to be the only strategy it has in the absence of actual economic policy proposals.

His trip to Ukraine is a good start. However, a quick scan of his Twitter feed shows that Pompeo is soldiering on against “toxic wokeness” – a rhetorical battle Putin is also fighting, except with missiles and bullets.

Sooner or later, Pompeo and the rest of the Republican Party’s right wing will need to understand that their defence of Taiwan – the only place in Asia where same-sex couples can legally marry – and their weakening support for Putin are completely incompatible with their hatred of the Western world’s liberal democratic values. That will be more problematic for Beijing than the Taiwanese leadership’s meetings with US lawmakers.

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