Opinion | In Ukraine debate, three GOP candidates rebutted Trump isolationism

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If you could hear it over the hooting from the live crowd, the back-and-forth on whether the United States should continue supporting Ukraine was the clearest and most important clash of the first Republican presidential debate, reflecting substantial division among Republican voters themselves.

The good news is that only two of the eight GOP candidates onstage in Milwaukee on Wednesday night raised their hands when asked whether they oppose any more funding for Ukraine’s war effort. The bad news is that, along with former president Donald Trump, they’re ahead in the polls.

With public opinion in flux, this is a crucial moment for leaders with experience and sense to explain to voters why the Ukraine commitment is necessary. Some candidates did that. Those on the other side, whether out of conviction or in hope of attracting votes, failed to meet the moment, showing bad judgment, lack of experience or both. The consequences could reach far beyond Wednesday’s debate stage.

Florida Gov. Ron DeSantis presented a false choice between defending democracy abroad and securing the southern border. He said he’d get Europe to pay to help Ukraine instead.

Vivek Ramaswamy, a first-time candidate with no foreign policy experience, said it’s “offensive” that some of the other hopefuls onstage made “a pilgrimage to Kyiv” to visit Ukrainian President Volodymyr Zelensky, arguing that assisting Ukraine is “driving Russia further into China’s hands.”

In an interview with Tucker Carlson that aired during the debate, Mr. Trump called for an immediate end to the war.

Others on the podium exposed these positions as dangerously naive. Nikki Haley, a former U.S. ambassador to the United Nations, explained that the U.S. commitment has not been unreasonably large, pointing out that the United States has spent less than 3.5 percent of its defense budget supporting Ukraine and that 11 European countries have contributed more as a share of their gross domestic product. Moreover, she said, if the United States turned its back on Ukraine, China would become more inclined to invade Taiwan.

Former vice president Mike Pence said it is better for Ukrainian troops to do the fighting with American money and materiel rather than waiting for an emboldened Russia to invade a NATO member, which would compel the United States to put boots on the ground.

Former New Jersey governor Chris Christie stressed the moral imperative for the United States to act, saying the Russians have abducted more than 20,000 Ukrainian children — more than would fill the basketball arena in which they were debating. “They’ve gouged out people’s eyes, cut off their ears and shot people in the back of the head,” said Mr. Christie, “and raped the daughters and the wives who were left as widows and orphans.”

Ms. Haley, Mr. Pence and Mr. Christie deserve credit for explaining with moral clarity why countering Russian President Vladimir Putin is in the United States’ national interest, rebuking the isolationism that defined Mr. Trump’s hostile takeover of the GOP. Whether these voices of reason prevail in the Republican primaries will determine whether one of the country’s two major parties will turn its back on decades of U.S. international engagement, promising gains that would not materialize and failing to account for the risks this turn would bring.

Generations of Americans have defended freedom. In our time, Ukraine is the front line. America’s 2024 election is shaping up to be one of the most important battles in Ukraine’s war for national survival. As the campaign proceeds, it is critical for those on the right side of this issue to continue to speak forcefully — and for Republican voters to listen.

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Editorials represent the views of The Post as an institution, as determined through debate among members of the Editorial Board, based in the Opinions section and separate from the newsroom.

Members of the Editorial Board and areas of focus: Opinion Editor David Shipley; Deputy Opinion Editor Karen Tumulty; Associate Opinion Editor Stephen Stromberg (national politics and policy); Lee Hockstader (European affairs, based in Paris); David E. Hoffman (global public health); James Hohmann (domestic policy and electoral politics, including the White House, Congress and governors); Charles Lane (foreign affairs, national security, international economics); Heather Long (economics); Associate Editor Ruth Marcus; Mili Mitra (public policy solutions and audience development); Keith B. Richburg (foreign affairs); and Molly Roberts (technology and society).

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