There are two poles in Republican foreign policy, represented by the two most recent GOP presidents, George W. Bush and Donald Trump. The Bush pole favors worldwide interventionism in support of regime change and democracy promotion. The Trump pole is less interventionist and less idealistic. It is also more successful: The Trump years were marked by diplomatic advances in the Middle East—in contrast to the chaos unleashed by Bush’s war in Iraq and the futility of the 20-year occupation of Afghanistan that ended with the Taliban retaking that country.
Which pole is Ron DeSantis closer to? The support DeSantis draws from so many pundits and consultants who would like to turn the party away from Trump’s policies, and not just from Trump himself, gives cause for suspicion. But if DeSantis’s record is any indication, his foreign policy is closer to Trump's than to that of the pre-Trump interventionist GOP.
De Santis is the most likely contender other than Trump for the party’s 2024 presidential nod. His supporters believe he has a better chance than Trump of winning a general election. They point to DeSantis’s commanding 20-point margin in the Sunshine State’s gubernatorial contest, when other right-leaning candidates foundered in midterm races. And many DeSantis enthusiasts see him as a younger, fresher, more competent conservative than Trump. Perhaps DeSantis could even fulfill more of Trump’s agenda than Trump himself could deliver.
But that assumes DeSantis has the same inclinations as Trump. What some populist conservatives fear, and what many anti-populist Republicans clearly hope, is that DeSantis ultimately leans more toward the GOP’s pre-Trump consensus, including on foreign policy. Like most Republicans, DeSantis may have had to move to the populist right during the Trump era. But if he becomes president, he will define an era of his own. And he might lead the party back to the Bush pole, even if he stops short of the Bush dynasty’s extravagant misadventures.
DeSantis had a career on the national stage before Trump. He was elected to the House of Representatives in 2012 and served there until 2018. Two-thirds of his career in Congress was before Trump’s presidency. And in his last two years in office, the congressional party was still led by Speaker Paul Ryan, hardly a Trumpian. Does DeSantis’s record as a legislator give some idea of the direction he might take as president? He served on the House Committee on Foreign Affairs and was chairman of the Subcommittee on National Security. DeSantis is no stranger to foreign policy—so where does the evidence say he stands?
The short answer is that he stands with the Republican Party. DeSantis’s record on foreign policy holds few surprises. As a Florida Republican he was a reliable vote for resolutions condemning the leftist regimes of Cuba and Venezuela, and he opposed then-President Barack Obama’s efforts to normalize relations with Havana. DeSantis was also a consistent supporter of resolutions in support of Israel and critical of Iran and the Palestinian Authority. He was an opponent of Obama’s Joint Comprehensive Plan of Action aka the Iran deal. Of course, so was Trump, who as president withdrew Washington from the JCPOA framework.
There is little to distinguish DeSantis from Trump on policy toward Latin America, Israel, or Iran. During the Obama years, DeSantis supported recognizing Jerusalem as the capital of Israel and moving the US Embassy there, a change that Trump subsequently implemented. The George W. Bush administration never dared to relocate the embassy, a point worth remembering when judging foreign-policy alignments.
Some on the non-interventionist right are quick to criticize Republicans like DeSantis and Trump for a supposedly reckless willingness to recognize Israel’s capital as its capital. But this policy simply doesn’t correlate with the demonstrated recklessness of earlier Republican administrations. Their conventional diplomacy in lesser matters didn’t prevent the two presidents Bush from charging into full-dress wars in the Middle East. Nor does support for the Iran deal vouchsafe a disposition toward peace—the Obama administration that fathered the JCPOA also pursued regime change in Libya. The Trump administration that abandoned the JCPOA, meanwhile, was the first administration since that of Ronald Reagan not to involve the United States in a new large-scale conflict.
In short, supporters of regime-change wars may also be supporters of cautious diplomacy where issues related to Israel or Iran are concerned; while supporters of bolder pro-Israel or anti-Iran policies may be opponents of regime-change wars. DeSantis, like Trump, is on the “bold” side. Evidence suggests DeSantis is also against regime-change wars.
In 2013, during DeSantis’s first year in Congress, Obama seriously contemplated a military intervention in Syria against the regime of Bashar al-Assad. The Bush pole of the Republican Party, represented in the Senate by John McCain, was in favor of the war. DeSantis wasn’t. He said in a statement on Facebook:
The Obama administration has not articulated a clear objective for using military force in Syria, much less a plan to achieve that objective. This is all the more problematic given the realities of a Syrian civil war in which Assad’s dictatorship (supported by Iran and Hezbollah) is fighting so-called rebels that are populated with Sunni Islamic supremacists and Al Qaeda fighters.
In other words, the United States does not have an interest in assisting either side of the conflict or in refereeing a civil war amongst these warring anti-American factions. Morever, there is a danger that an ill-planned or half-hearted American attack could make it easier for terrorist groups to obtain the very type of chemical weapons that Al Qaeda and other groups have long south [sic] to use against America.
DeSantis is a firm critic of the regimes in Tehran and Havana, but he has shown less inclination toward military interventionism than Obama. He was a voice for restraint at a time when Republicans could just as profitably criticize Obama for not being aggressive enough. While that falls short of proof that DeSantis would avoid regime-change conflicts and wars over suspected weapons of mass destruction if he were president, it is a promising indication. It is also a sharp contrast with certain other would-be 2024 Republican presidential contenders. Mike Pompeo, for example, who was also in Congress in 2013, supported an attack on Syria.
If DeSantis does run, he will inevitably come under pressure to champion the anti-Trump, anti-populist wing of the party, and his chances of defeating Trump in the primary season may depend on uniting those who oppose Trump for his policies with those who oppose Trump simply because they think he can’t win. And if DeSantis were to become president, Bush Republicans who want to reverse the precedents of the Trump era would have every motive to join his administration and turn its foreign policy toward the Bush pole. DeSantis would have to resist them consciously, which would mean setting out a very clear alternative vision of his own. What is now the Trump pole would have to become the DeSantis pole.
Like Trump, DeSantis would pay a price for defying the GOP’s hawkish foreign-policy establishment. He would lose a segment of primary voters, and he would make implacable enemies of neoconservative publicists in think tanks and legacy media. Even Reagan felt their wrath when he dared pursue diplomacy with Mikhail Gorbachev. But Reagan didn’t need them, and DeSantis doesn’t, either. At 44, he has a future to inherit, and 2028 may be even brighter for him than the 2024 cycle. Time is on his side.