FILE - In this Dec. 17, 2013 file photo, Sen. Ted Cruz, R-Texas speaks with reporters on Capitol Hill in Washington. Getting ready to run for president means working through a hefty checklist of activities long before most people are paying attention to the contest ahead. Prep work, positioning and auditioning don't wait for the primary season. And the pace is picking up.(AP Photo/J. Scott Applewhite, File) Sen. Ted Cruz (R-Tex.) (AJ. Scott Applewhite/Associated Press)

From Poland, the latest stop on his overseas trip, Sen. Ted Cruz (R-Tex.), who has forcefully tried to distance himself from potential 2016 rival Sen. Rand Paul (R-Ky.) when it comes to foreign policy, rebuked the administration for the “consistent pattern” of “retreating from the world” as well as the “tendency to alienate and abandon our allies,” during a conference call Wednesday afternoon. Cruz spent two days in Israel, then traveled to Ukraine and Poland. He will end the trip in Estonia.

Asked the purpose of the trip, he replied that as part of his job as a senator on the Armed Services Committee, “I need to do my best to understand our national security threats. There is no substitute for meeting with leaders and seeing the situation on the ground.” The comment had the benefit of being true and also laying down a marker by which other 2016 rivals might be judged. His opening remarks were largely dictated by his itinerary, focusing on Israel, Iran and Russia.

As for Russia, Cruz said, “I have to give Putin credit. Putin has been very explicit.” He reminded the media that for Putin “the demise of the Soviet Union is the greatest geo-political disaster of the modern era.” He spoke in admiring tones about the new Ukrainian government and the students who stood up for freedom. Asked if they felt let down by the United States, Cruz diplomatically replied, “Their leaders are looking for help and solidarity wherever they can find it.” He stressed that Ukraine needs help to defend itself and that it gave up its nuclear arsenal in exchange for promises the United States would defend it. He stated that the goals of U.S. policy should be to help Ukraine defend itself and lessen its dependence on Russian gas and oil, and also to enact “meaningful costs, meaningful deterrence” to respond to Russian aggression. In that regard, Cruz urged we increase our export of LNG and that the  Obama administration move along on 22 pending applications. Pressed by a Texas reporter whether that would include blocking Exon-Mobile energy development, he twice replied that this was something we should “look very closely at,” and he then stressed his preference for providing basic military gear and using our energy production to both aid Ukraine and undermine Putin.

This was a very subdued and serious Cruz (it was late in his day in Europe), one who was careful not to overstep his bounds by speaking for the Ukrainians but not shy about blasting the president. In aligning himself with a robust U.S. foreign policy and support for free people, he plainly was creating space between his views and Paul’s.

When it came to Israel, Cruz was emphatic about the administration’s failings. I asked if it was a mistake to give the president “room for diplomacy” with Iran and whether the Senate should act on sanctions. He responded, “Absolutely yes, and yes.” He then explained, “Perhaps the most striking aspect of my entire trip was the unanimity and was the gravity [in viewing] the Iranian threat and the insufficiency of the U.S. approach.” He continued, “Every single leader I met with” viewed the prospects of a nuclear Iran “as the gravest threat that is facing Israel and that is facing the U.S.”  He declined (as he did with Ukraine) to characterize any misgivings the Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu may have expressed about the U.S. in their meeting (good move, there) and instead referred to the prime minister’s public comments that the interim deal was “a very, very bad deal, an historic mistake.”

As for sanctions Cruz said, “We should have voted months ago. . . .  There is one reason and one reason only [a sanctions bill] hasn’t passed — Harry Reid won’t allow a vote.” He called that a “serious mistake,” although he said he would go further than the Kirk-Menendez bill. He joined in that effort, he said, because he thought it was important to get bipartisan support for disapproval of the interim deal, but he would prefer to “re-impose sanctions immediately, strengthen these and lay out a clear path” for disarming Iran that would include “dismantling centrifuges and handing over its enriched uranium.” He opined that the situation was beginning to resemble North Korea, and the chief negotiator for that failed attempt to prevent a new nuclear-ready state was running the Iran negotiations (Wendy Sherman). However, he said it would be far worse if Iran got the bomb since its regime is “driven by a radical religion” and that the danger of it using a bomb was “unacceptably high.” He explained, “The best case scenario, the best case scenario” is that it would “put Iran in a position to  dominate the Middle East” and set off an arms race. He was especially critical of the interim agreement’s failure to require Iran to “dismantle anything” and to permit it to continue with its IBM program. He warned that “the only purpose is to project force, to threaten us.”

On other topics regarding Israel, he declined the invitation to assert Israelis are concerned about American isolationism. He did relate at some length his visit to an IDF hospital in the Golan Heights where Israel doctors treat wounded Syrian civilians. “It is illustrative of the values that define the nation of Israel,” he observed. And on the peace process he rapped the president and secretary of state, stating that they had consistently “berated, criticized and attacked Israel while not placing blame for the refusal of the Palestinian leadership” for not engaging in good faith negotiations. He pointed out, “No one wants peace more than Israel, but there will not be lasting peace, unless and until the Palestinians recognize Israel’s right to exist as a Jewish state and renounce terrorism.”

Cruz has yet to delve deeply into stickier topics such as what precisely he finds objectionable about the president’s Syria policy or whether he would have left troops in Iraq. But if he runs for the White House, he’ll have time to craft a position on those topics. He is, however, accomplishing something few in the 2016 field of potential candidates have done: Demonstrate a real grasp of details, align himself forcefully with the GOP tradition as the pro-defense, pro-liberty party and show some deft restraint. Both in tone and in avoiding invitations to characterize other governments’ privately stated views and requests, he demonstrated self-discipline, something not always associated with Cruz but, if he keeps it up, will impress voters who care about a commander in chief capable of cleaning up the mess President Obama is going to leave behind.