Sen. Ted Cruz (R-Tex.) has spent a good deal of time trying to make clear that he is not Sen. Rand Paul (R-Ky.) when it comes to foreign policy, citing his tough stances on Russia and Iran, to name two. (He sometimes sounds — as Paul does — as if he opposes National Security Agency data gathering and droning jihadists overseas, but he’s not been pinned down nor has he taken a stance on defense spending, which should be a no-brainer.) But in voting “no” on the use of force in Syria in 2013 and in opposing the resolution on Syria now, he risks frittering away what progress he made in establishing himself as a serious foreign policy leader.

Sen. Ted Cruz speaks during a press conference on immigration on Sept. 9. (AFP PHOTO/Mandel NGAN/Getty Images)

Unlike Sens. John McCain (R-Ariz.), Lindsey Graham (R-S.C.), Rep. Buck McKeon (R-Calif.) and a small fleet of conservative foreign policy experts who offer up their own proposals to crushing the Islamic State, Cruz is surprisingly passive. A senior Cruz aide felt obliged to reiterate Tuesday that if the president wants ground troops (which Obama does not) “the President should make [the case] to Congress, which he has so far declined to do. What Sen. Cruz will not do is commit U.S. troops to a mission aimed at achieving the unattainable goal of political reconciliation in countries that have been warring for the last 1,500 years.”  Later the aide added that Cruz knows that successfully taking out the Islamic State will almost certainly require ground troops. But then again, he hasn’t put it that definitively. Aside from the absence of precision, this is peculiar on a number of fronts.

First, it’s fine for a freshman senator with less than two years on the job to tell the president to go first, but if you are styling yourself as a thought leader or even a presidential candidate, why not recommend what you think is needed? He and other hardline members have become expert on voting “no” on most every controversial matter, but that does not seem like the behavior of someone who is ready to be president.

I would like to hear how he thinks we are going to eliminate the Islamic State or how, even in Iraq alone, he thinks the army (which again faltered when attacked) is going to get it together or  what he thinks it will take for the Sunni tribes to get off the sidelines.

Then Cruz (via his aide) resorts to an Obama-like straw man: “What Sen. Cruz will not do is commit U.S. troops to a mission aimed at achieving the unattainable goal of political reconciliation in countries that have been warring for the last 1,500 years.” And who is for that? Republicans who supported the successful surge in Iraq in the Bush era understood that military force accompanied by the uprising of the Sunni tribes was essential to bringing an end to sectarian violence. They also understood a stay-behind force was required to protect the fragile arrangement and keep then-Prime Minister Nouri al-Maliki on the straight and narrow. Is this the sort of mission Cruz objects to?

He frankly sounds like Barack Obama or Hillary Clinton in 2008 ridiculing McCain when McCain said we could be in Iraq as a peaceful presence for “100 years.”  By exaggerating and distorting the mission — which actually is to destroy the Islamic State — he avoids responsibility for offering his own plan.

Denigrating “political reconciliation” sounds like a right-wing preemptive defense to the accusation they are “nation building.” This is misguided. We cannot get rid of the Islamic State without enlisting some actors on the ground. Without a functioning state (in Libya, Yemen, Iraq) terrorists will behave opportunistically. If we want to prevent jihadists from continually reconstituting themselves, we will need to buck up national leaders so they do not leave a vacuum in which these terrorists can thrive. That means aiding the Kurds and the Sunni tribes and reviving the Free Syrian Army (which has deteriorated since Obama and senators like Cruz and Paul bitterly opposed aiding them for years).

Syria certainly is a mess, but we should be clear why it is: The administration and anti-interventionists in Congress did not want to use any U.S. hard power or provide lethal aid to non-jihadis at a time when the Islamic State was non-existent in Syria. They did not want to tip the balance away from Bashar al-Assad last year by enforcing the red line. So, yes, we now have the unpleasant problem of trying to buck up the FSA while it still battles both the Islamic State and Assad. That leaves us few choices. We could use our own ground forces in greater numbers, but that’s not what Cruz is advocating (although he leaves open the possibility it might be needed). We can aid the FSA against the Islamic State but do nothing about Assad. Or, as McCain and Graham suggest, we can give up the pretense that “moderate opposition forces in Syria will stop resisting a tyrant who has killed nearly 200,000 Syrians.” They argue:

Nor can we pretend that Assad will stop attacking moderate Syrian groups that remain committed to his ouster — especially when the United States and our partners still, correctly, share the same goal and will now be arming and training Assad’s moderate opponents. The sooner the Administration wakes up to this reality the better. It must recognize that it is neither effective nor moral to train and equip thousands of Syrians to fight ISIS, but make no commitment to defend them from Assad’s continued air strikes and barrel bombs.

Prior to [Monday’s] operation, President Obama threatened the Assad regime with military retaliation if it attacked U.S. and partner forces fighting ISIS in Syria. That threat was credible, and it worked. The President should now issue a similar threat to Assad: The air strikes and barrel bombs against our moderate opposition partners and civilians in Syria must stop, or else your air power will be destroyed. After last night’s operation, no one can question our military capability to enforce this threat at limited risk to our personnel. The President must display the resolve that can make this threat credible. If he does not, our Syrian partners will have less incentive to join us in fighting ISIS, and Assad’s wanton brutality will continue to create conditions in Syria that enable ISIS to grow stronger and more threatening.

If there is some viable alternative to that — not air power alone, which no credible observer thinks is the solution — Cruz should speak up. But simply name-calling, failing to acknowledge the opportunity that slipped away in 2013 and declining to put out his own vision won’t really cut it if he wants to do more that be part of the Senate debating society. It’s standing up, but not leading.

UPDATE: Cruz seems to have really gone around the bend and now mimics Obama and Clinton in saying we stayed too long. So it was right to leave no stay behind force? His patter about “political objectives” reflects his complete misunderstanding of counterterrorism and how we successfully deployed the surge.