Greene’s call for an end to Ukraine aid isn’t about the money

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Speeches given at Donald Trump’s rallies are not known for detailed presentations of carefully thought-out policy proposals. That’s not why people go to rallies in general, of course, even less this specific rally genre. Attendees come to show their support for Republican candidates and hear speeches from the political left.

This is the context in which we should consider Rep. Rep. Marjorie Taylor Greene’s (R-Ga.) contribution to a rally Thursday in Iowa: Her arguments about funding the war in Ukraine were political rhetoric, not analysis. Instead, the question is what political goal she intended to achieve.

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Green’s mention of Ukraine stemmed from a riff on the border. Green accused Democrats and the news media of ignoring a possible “crime spike” involving undocumented immigrants, including “fentanyl-laced drugs flowing across our border every day.” One of the reasons you’re hearing so much about fentanyl this year is that there has been an increase in overdose deaths, as reported by the media. Another reason is that Republicans are using the fear of fentanyl to attack Democrats on border policy, even though most fentanyl is smuggled through existing border checkpoints, often by US citizens.

Regardless, it was her comments about US spending to help Ukraine.

“Democrats have ripped up our border,” she said in Iowa. “But the only border they care about is Ukraine, not America’s southern border. Not a dime will go to Ukraine under Republican leadership. Our country comes first.

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See the logical leap there? From “Democrats care too much about Ukraine’s border” to “we shouldn’t be spending on Ukraine at all.” It’s unclear how one follows from the other, but consistency in such matters is not how Green has built her political reputation.

Although not the official GOP position, Green’s “not a penny” line received applause. That’s not surprising, given that polls show growing Republican skepticism about helping Ukraine in its war against Russian invaders. As The Washington Post’s Aaron Blake noted Thursday, almost half Republicans now believe that the US is doing too much to support Ukraine.

But the US is doing relatively little—especially given the historical context of its efforts to contain Russian aggression.

US defense spending has risen dramatically since the end of the Cold War, when US opposition to Russian power was most visible. This is largely due to the increase in spending that followed the 9/11 attacks, including the subsequent wars in Afghanistan and Iraq.

But it is also because expenses have increased widely and due to inflation. Compared to total government spending, defense spending (here meaning Department of Defense spending) has been fairly flat.

As a percentage of total spending, defense spending is now much lower than it was during the Cold War era. It fell in recent years, though that was partly due to increased spending aimed at containing the coronavirus.

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Why is this context important? Because the focus of Cold War era spending was the fight against Moscow’s expansionism (and communism in a broader sense). For a much smaller share of the federal budget and with much smaller relative defense spending, the United States has been very effective at blocking Russia’s expansionist plans toward Ukraine.

The United States has invested just under $18 billion in the conflict since Russia invaded Ukraine in February, according to a Congressional Research Service analysis updated late last month. Here’s how it has related to defense spending since the early 1960s.

These are not all Department of Defense expenditures. This includes funding from the State Department’s Foreign Military Financing Program. This is also not all the expenses that have been approved. As you may recall from the last time the national spotlight was heavily on Ukraine — during Trump’s first impeachment in 2019 — the government has a two-tiered spending process. There is an appropriation, which means Congress clears the money for spending and then the spending itself. In total, about $28 billion has been allocated to help Ukraine in fiscal years 2022 and 2023 (the fiscal year begins in early October).

If we compare these figures with the total expenditure of 2022, Ukraine’s expenditure looks like this.

Look, $28 billion is definitely a lot of money to you or me. (Well, I assume.) It’s actually not very important to the US government. However, it is common for these numbers to be cited out of the context of all federal spending to create the impression that the United States is dangerously wasteful. But that’s a rhetorical point that tends to focus less on spending than on spending—as Greene does here.

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Remember that Green, like others on the right, has expressed sympathy for the Russian position since the beginning of the conflict. In March, she announced on Facebook that the US should not help defend Ukraine. She saw it as humane: widening the conflict only meant more death.

“It is not our duty to give [Ukrainian President Volodymyr] Zelensky and the Ukrainian people are delusional about a war they can’t win,” she said at the time, and that must have dated badly. Again, she claimed the government was spending on Ukraine, not the border, and again she was wrong.

This speech included various other false statements and denigration of Ukraine. Green has consistently opposed Ukrainian funding. At one point rep. Jamie B. Raskin (D-Md.) seamlessly recommended that she parrots Russian propaganda.

The reality is that the US spends relatively few pennies (relative to total spending) to contain and humiliate Russian aggression. To suggest that it does so at the expense of other priorities such as the border is disingenuous.

But again, Green’s frustration isn’t really about how much is being spent.


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