Republican presidential candidate Sen. Ted Cruz (R-Tex.), during a primary night campaign event in Milwaukee. (Paul Sancya/Associated Press)
Opinion writer

On Sunday afternoon, perhaps in anticipation of Donald Trump’s foreign policy speech this week, Sen. Ted Cruz (R-Tex.) held a conference call for his foreign policy team. Right Turn and a few other journalists were permitted to listen in as Cruz and his foreign policy advisers — Victoria Coates, Nile Gardiner, Andy McCarthy and Jim Talent — discussed President Obama’s European trip.

Cruz opened with a brief statement reaffirming, “National security is central to this campaign.” Recalling Obama’s speech in Berlin as a presidential candidate declaring himself a “citizen of the world,” Cruz pointed out how different that was from President Ronald Reagan’s speech 29 years ago in which he explicitly stood with allies. He promised to “recognize and affirm the special relationship between the U.S. and Britain.”

In a somewhat odd format, Cruz then asked questions of each of the speakers, who spoke at some length. Cruz added brief commentary after each one. Instead of having Cruz ask rather basic questions, he would have done better to talk more expansively, especially given his obvious passion for the subject. He then could have asked his advisers for details, giving the image of a president calling his staff in not for instruction but for recommendations and more granular analysis. In setting up the discussion as the Cruz camp did, it put Cruz in the uncomfortable position of saying too often, “I agree with that.”

The substance of his advisers’ remarks was generally noncontroversial. Gardiner chastised Obama for asserting on Friday that if Britain exited the European Union, it would have to go to the “back of the queue” to cut a separate deal with the United States. Gardiner observed that these remarks had been roundly criticized by the British press and cabinet officials as meddling in an internal discussion in Britain. Gardiner said this only illustrated Obama’s “willingness to slap allies in the face in much the same way he’s treated Israel.” He added, “This is no way to treat an ally,” and went on to argue that if Britain does exit, we should embrace the decision as an act of “self-determination and national sovereignty.” Cruz agreed (of course) and promised to return the Churchill bust to the Oval Office.

Talent, the most detailed and informative of the speakers, explained the impact Obama’s language had on our other European allies, already shell-shocked by seven years of Obama’s fecklessness. He recalled the decision Obama made early on his presidency to “pull the rug out from under the Poles and Czechs” in reversing the decision to put anti-missile defense systems into those countries. Talent then pivoted to argue that it is critical to rebuilding our military so that we could have the troops and equipment to upgrade our presence in Europe. He noted that with Vladimir Putin “applying tremendous pressure,” our allies are asking, “‘Where is America? Where is American leadership?'” Cruz recollected that during his trip a couple of years ago to Estonia, Ukraine and Poland, the “blood would drain from [the] faces” of leaders when asked how much confidence they had in America coming to their aid. Cruz added, dryly, “The level of confidence in this president is not high.”

The conversation next moved on to the threat of Islamist terrorism in Europe. McCarthy pointed out the danger of “parallel societies” in which Muslims do not assimilate. These communities become fertile grounds for jihadists and provide a support network for those who take up violence. He was also careful to emphasize that many peaceful Muslims embrace the “western liberty culture,” but he argued against allowing in more refugees, maintaining that we cannot vet these people properly. Again Cruz agreed.

In keeping with the serious tone of a policy discussion, Cruz and his advisers avoided uttering Donald Trump’s name even when arguing for a renewed commitment to NATO and identifying the threat from Putin. The contrast, however, was obvious, and Cruz would be smart to pound away at Trump’s irresponsible pull-back from Europe (which amounts to doubling down on Obama’s policies) and his infatuation with a repressive dictator who invaded and occupied two allies (Georgia under President George W. Bush, Ukraine under Obama). He should not hesitate to bash Trump for adopting the authoritarian rhetoric of a tin pot dictator (ordering troops to commit war crimes, threatening to open up libel laws, etc.), which would mar our international imagine and undercut our moral leadership in Europe and around the world.

Unfortunately, on some topics, including Trump’s ban on Muslims, Cruz has too often tried to echo Trump, leaving himself open to attacks from foreign policy experts that he is immature and from Trump defenders that he is a copycat. Unlike Trump, he surely knows we need the cooperation of our Arab allies internationally and the help of loyal Muslim Americans (in assisting law enforcement). When McCarthy points to the problem of insulated Muslim communities, Cruz should recognize that Trump’s extreme rhetoric and racist assumptions will only encourage that to occur in the United States.

Cruz has too often denigrated in sweeping terms our commitment to democracy promotion, leaving the impression he would offer little hope to dissidents or to societies struggling to establish functioning states and expand civil society. This is a mistake, for it would sacrifice an effective tool to wield against our foes. When the topic of Putin comes up, Cruz would do well to emphasize the Russian autocrat’s abominable human rights record. He should pledge to make that a topic of conversation whenever he or high level officials would meet with him. Unlike Trump, Cruz should insist we defend American values, not go along with Putin’s.

Cruz is light-years ahead of Trump when it comes to grasping the over-arching objectives of the U.S. and analyzing particular developments. His campaign should put him in a position to shine. More Cruz and less from his advisers, fewer platitudes and more surgical attacks on Trump’s foreign policy inanities would be in order.