The most interesting speech yesterday was not the State of the Union or any response. (Please, please end these tortuous ordeals.) It was Sen. Ted Cruz’s speech at the Heritage Foundation, a bold repudiation of isolationism and a sign that the right may, as the damage done by President Obama’s retrenchment become evident, return to a Reaganesque foreign policy.
Cruz (R-Tex.), from our vantage point, has not been consistent on national security. He’s bought into easy slogans on the National Security Agency. He failed to lead on Syria or to recognize the connection to Iran. But hawks should give him his due. He is plainly thinking through the big issues and evidencing a more mature world outlook.
He has, in recent months, blasted the president on Cuba and Iran. On Tuesday, he sternly criticized the “lack of U.S. leadership championing freedom and the lack of effective leadership defending our interests in the world, which is making the world a much more dangerous place.” He warned that Russian President Vladimir Putin’s influence is spreading in Iran, Egypt and elsewhere. His focus was on Russia and Russia’s “growing spheres of influence,” but he more generally challenged conservatives to return to a pro-freedom foreign policy. Human rights, he said, is more than “disinterested do-goodism”; it is essential to speak and act in defense of our values as Americans and in keeping with our traditions and history.
Cruz faltered, however, when he said the “unilaterally announced strike” on Syria went off the rails (he and others opposed it, thereby helping to push it off track). He further claimed U.S. action lacked a national security purpose. However, his own speech proved it had a central purpose: To enforce the prohibition on WMD’s, deal a blow to Iran and check Russian influence. He’s obviously thinking about these issues — and should rethink this incongruity.
That said, not every senator talks at length about the Magnitsky Act, going through in gruesome detail the fact surrounding its namesake’s murder in Russian jail and bashing the Obama administration for refusing to enforce its terms.
Cruz went on to slam the interim Iran deal (“very, very, very bad”) and correctly compared it to the North Korea deal. “Any deal, just cut a deal,” he says, has become the default U.S. policy. And he gave a rousing defense of Ukraine. (“We stand with those who are protesting for freedom.”) His explanation of our ability to help Ukraine by removing its dependence on Russian natural gas was impressive. “We have nothing to gain by ceding our principles to Russia,” he said. And he concluded by saying it has historically been dangerous for tyrants, despots and autocrats when the United States stands up for freedom. “American exceptionalism has caused tyrants to tumble.”
On the whole, it was promising speech. Plainly, he is not seeking to mimic the isolationism of some on the right. His diligence in learning the particulars of foreign policy issues allows him to talk with authority. Because of his particular appeal to the party’s far right, he offers hope that he will keep that segment of the party within the Reaganesque tent. He is smart enough to criticize Obama from the right, not the left.
Free advice isn’t worth much, but Cruz and the GOP would benefit if he would build on this effort. First, Cruz needs to take a sane view of NSA surveillance, defending accountability and oversight but opposing efforts to make effective programs more cumbersome. A strong foreign policy requires strong anti-terrorism tools, as I think he must understand. He need not follow Sen. Rand Paul (R-Ky.) down the rabbit hole of paranoia. Second, he would do well to look again at immigration in the context of national security. It is essential that we control our borders, encourage high-skilled and entrepreneurial immigrants to stay in the United States and, at the very least, figure out who is in the country, who is overstaying visas, etc. Perhaps the legislative movement away from earned citizenship toward legalization will make his re-evaluation of immigration reform efforts easier. And finally, he can play a useful role in making the case that economic growth goes hand in hand with strong national security and an internationalist outlook. Frankly, too many hawks have failed to make this argument, thereby allowing the Obama-Paul argument that we have to recede from the world to “nation build at home” carry the day.
I differ with Cruz on a number of things and think his misguided behavior in the shutdown hurt the GOP and the cause of conservatism. Nevertheless, just as Sen. Mike Lee (R-Utah) is leading the right to a more constructive, positive domestic agenda, Cruz can do the same on foreign policy. If he does continue his defense of a strong U.S. foreign policy, he can help himself, his party and his country.