Speeches presented at Donald Trump’s rallies are not renowned for their detailed presentations of carefully considered policy proposals. That’s not why people go to rallies in general, of course, much less this specific genre of rally. Attendees show up to show their support for Republican candidates — and to hear excoriations of the political left.
That’s the context in which we should consider the contribution by Rep. Marjorie Taylor Greene (R-Ga.) to a rally Thursday in Iowa: Her arguments about funding for the war in Ukraine were political rhetoric, not considered analysis. The question, instead, is what political aim she intended to advance.
Greene’s mention of Ukraine stemmed from a riff about the border. Greene accused Democrats and the news media of ignoring an alleged “crime spree” involving undocumented immigrants, including that there are “drugs flooding across our border, with fentanyl poisonings every single day.” One reason you’re hearing about fentanyl so much this year is that overdose deaths have increased, as the media have reported. Another reason is that Republicans are using the fear of fentanyl as a way to bash Democrats on border policies — although most fentanyl is smuggled in through existing border checkpoints, often by U.S. citizens.
Regardless, that was the setup for her comments about U.S. spending to help Ukraine.
“Democrats have ripped our border wide open,” she said in Iowa. “But the only border they care about is Ukraine, not America’s southern border. Under Republicans, not another penny will go to Ukraine. Our country comes first.”
See the logical jump there? From “Democrats care too much about Ukraine’s border” to “we shouldn’t spend on Ukraine at all.” It’s not clear how one follows from the other, but consistency on such things is not how Greene has built her political reputation.
While not the official position of the GOP, Greene’s “not another penny” line met with some applause. That’s not surprising, given that polling has shown increasing Republican skepticism about providing aid to Ukraine in its war against Russian invaders. As The Washington Post’s Aaron Blake noted Thursday, nearly half of Republicans now think the United States is doing too much in support of Ukraine.
But the United States is doing relatively little — particularly when considering the historical context of its effort to contain Russian aggression.
U.S. defense spending has increased dramatically since the end of the Cold War, the period in which U.S. opposition to Russian strength was most overt. That’s largely because of the increase in spending that followed the 9/11 attacks, including for the subsequent wars in Afghanistan and Iraq.
But it’s also because spending has increased broadly and because of inflation. Relative to total government spending, defense spending (here meaning Department of Defense outlays) has been fairly flat.
As a percentage of total outlays, defense spending is far lower now than it was in the Cold War era. It plunged in recent years, although that was in part thanks to a surge in spending aimed at containing the coronavirus.
Why is this context important? Because a central point of the Cold War-era spending was to combat Moscow’s expansionism (and, more broadly that of communism). For a much smaller portion of the federal budget and with much lower relative defense spending, the United States has been very effective in blocking Russian’s expansionist designs on Ukraine.
According to analysis from the Congressional Research Service that was updated late last month, the United States has committed a bit under $18 billion to the conflict since Russia invaded Ukraine in February. Here’s how that stacks up with defense spending since the early 1960s.
This isn’t all Defense Department spending. It includes funding from the Foreign Military Financing program of the State Department. It’s also not all of the spending that’s been approved. As you may remember from the last time the country’s attention was heavily focused on Ukraine — during Trump’s first impeachment in 2019 — the government has a two-step process for spending. There’s appropriation, meaning that Congress clears money for spending, and then the spending itself. In total, about $28 billion has been appropriated in fiscal 2022 and 2023 (the fiscal year begins at the start of October) to aid Ukraine.
If we compare those figures to total 2022 outlays, the spending on Ukraine looks like this.
Look, $28 billion is a lot of money to you or me, certainly. (Well, I assume.) It is not really very much to the U.S. government. It is common, though, that these numbers will be cited outside of the context of all federal spending to make it seem that the United States is being dangerously profligate. But that’s a rhetorical point that is generally aimed less at the spending than at the focus of the spending — as Greene is doing here.
Remember that Greene, like others on the fringe right, has expressed sympathy for the Russian position since the outset of the conflict. In March, she said in a Facebook video that the United States should not aid in Ukraine’s defense. She framed this as humanitarian: Extending the conflict simply meant more death.
“It’s not our responsibility to give [Ukrainian President Volodymyr] Zelensky and the Ukrainian people false hope about a war they cannot win,” she said then — an assessment that has certainly aged poorly. Then, too, she claimed that the government was spending on Ukraine instead of the border and then, too, she was incorrect.
That speech included various other false claims and disparagements of Ukraine. Greene went on consistently to oppose Ukraine funding. At one point, Rep. Jamie B. Raskin (D-Md.) unsubtly suggested that she was parroting Russian propaganda.
The reality is that the United States is providing relatively few pennies (relative to total spending, that is) on containing and degrading Russian aggression. To suggest that it is doing so at the expense of other priorities, such as the border, is disingenuous.
But, again, Greene’s frustration is not really over how much is being spent.