Republican Sen. Joni Ernst of Iowa says she’s “extremely frustrated” that foreign policy and national security often take a back seat to other issues on the campaign trail.
That’s why Ernst, who served in the Iraq War during her 23 years as an officer in the Iowa Army National Guard and who sits on the Senate Armed Services Committee, is inviting the declared and potential 2024 Republican White House contenders to discuss the issues in her home state of Iowa, which leads off the GOP presidential nominating calendar.
Her push comes amid an increasing Republican Party divide over Washington’s support for Ukraine in its war against Russian aggression that appears to split the growing field of GOP presidential hopefuls.
Ernst is teaming up with the Bastion Institute, a think tank whose goal is “to discuss the path toward strengthening America’s leadership and standing on the international stage,” to host discussions with the presidential candidates and likely contenders. The senator argued that foreign policy and national security will be “the top issue for the United States in the coming decade,” and she wants the Republican presidential candidates “engaging” in discussions “about America’s role in the world and the importance of American leadership.”
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“The message that I’m trying to project is one of America as the great convener,” Ernst said.
“We have had neglect from our most senior leadership around the globe,” Ernst charged. And she emphasized that “by maintaining diplomacy, by maintaining a small footprint around the world, we can assist with stability. We can avoid wars. But we’ve had a number of administrations who’ve chosen not to engage in the way I think they should be engaging.”
Pointing to the chaotic withdrawal of American forces from Afghanistan in 2021 during the first year of President Biden’s administration, Ernst argued, “We saw this horrible downfall in Afghanistan, and I think that was the fall of a domino that created the situation that we have now in Ukraine as well as China eyeballing Taiwan. And when we exhibit weakness on the world stage, the world is going to react in a way that is not good for the United States, our partners and allies.”
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Republican presidential candidate Nikki Haley, the former two-term South Carolina governor who served as ambassador to the United Nations during President Donald Trump’s administration, was Ernst’s first guest, as the two teamed last week for a Bastion Institute event in suburban Des Moines. Former Vice President Mike Pence, who’s moving toward a likely campaign launch in the spring, joins Ernst in Iowa on Saturday.
Ernst’s discussions with the 2024 contenders comes amid a widening chasm in the GOP over the degree of American involvement in overseas conflicts, and in particular over Washington’s support for Ukraine in its defensive war against Russia’s invasion.
While many in the GOP’s traditional hawkish wing firmly back supporting Ukraine, and criticize the Biden administration for not doing enough to assist Kyiv, they face an increasingly more vocal wing of anti-war voices from the MAGA wing of the party that’s led by Trump, who remains the front-runner in the early legs of the GOP presidential nomination race.
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Joining Trump is Florida Gov. Ron DeSantis, whom polling indicates is Trump’s most formidable rival for the nomination, even as he currently remains on the 2024 sidelines.
DeSantis, who now appears to be openly flirting with launching a presidential campaign as he makes visits to Iowa and the other early voting caucus and primary states, said this week that protecting Ukraine is not a “vital” national interest for America.
The governor’s comments came in a response to a questionnaire sent by Fox News’ host Tucker Carlson, which Carlson posted on Twitter.
“The Biden administration’s virtual ‘blank check’ funding of this conflict for ‘as long as it takes,’ without any defined objectives or accountability, distracts from our country’s most pressing challenges,” DeSantis argued.
The views of DeSantis and the former president differ with those of Haley, Pence and another likely contender, Mike Pompeo, who served as CIA director and later secretary of State during the Trump administration. And divisions over support for Ukraine are likely to flare as an issue as the GOP presidential race heats up.
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Ernst predicts a possible, but necessary, rough road ahead.
“I do think we have the potential to see some bumps and bruises along the way here, but we really have to vet our candidates carefully. And what I have seen and what I have heard over the course of the last six months, is that while Iowans have their favorites, they are open to hearing from new talent that exists in the Republican Party and they’re excited,” she told Fox News. “Iowans are going to vet the candidates carefully and they’ll decide who to support when caucus time comes around.”
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