Ted Cruz is having a moment in the 2016 GOP primary sun. And as Cruz surges in Iowa and nationally, his actual policy pronouncements and secret backroom meetings [nationalreview.com] are starting to attract some attention, particularly on foreign policy.
Last week Cruz gave a major foreign policy speech at the Heritage Foundation (though as Slate’s Joshua Keating wryly notes, “never in the history of American campaigns has anything been billed as a ‘minor foreign policy speech’). The speech was interesting for several reasons, not the least of which is that it rankled neoconservatives something awful. This sampling of Cruz’s speech hints at what neoconservatives didn’t like about it:
Would it be nice if the progress of liberal democracy was an inevitable, linear evolution in human affairs? And that freedom, once achieved, would be a permanent state of affairs? Indeed, it would. But even a cursory glance at the history of democracy in the some two and a half millennia since the experiment was first attempted in ancient Athens, reveals this is far from the case, and the reality is that in order to preserve and strengthen the United States, we cannot treat democracy promotion as an absolute directive; but rather as a highly-desirable ideal — one that can be reached most effectively through the promotion of the security and the interests of the United States.
It’s unusual to see Bret Stephens, Lee Smith, Max Boot and Stephen F. Hayes go after a Republican not named “Rand Paul” with this degree of
coordination ferocity, but that’s exactly what they did. Click on the links above if you want to read what they say, but distilled to its essence, Stephens, Boot, Hayes et al. argue that
- Ted Cruz is no Ronald Reagan;
- Cruz is willfully misreading Jeane Kirkpatrick’s “Dictatorships and Double Standards” essay;
- If you look carefully, Cruz’s foreign policy approach to the Middle East is the same as Barack Obama’s.
To be fair, this is not just the neoconservative take on Cruz’s speech. In Slate, Keating noted:
Given that Cruz believes America has “receded from the world stage” and is “increasingly viewed as irrelevant” under the Obama administration, which has pursued “a photo-op foreign policy of a bomb here and a missile there” rather than trying to defeat ISIS, you might expect that Cruz is promising a dramatically more aggressive policy to defeat the group. But the Cruz plan for taking on ISIS doesn’t differ dramatically from the airstrikes plus proxy war strategy the Obama administration is already pursuing to decidedly mixed effect.
So is Cruz just pulling a Marco Rubio and talking tough without pledging to take more forceful action? Sort of, yeah. Cruz says “we should include the Jordanian and Egyptian militaries” and “do whatever is necessary and required to defeat ISIS” while in the next breath basically rejecting the use of ground troops as “a talismanic demonstration of strength.”
That’s a muddle, to say the least. It’s almost as if Cruz is just trying to occupy the GOP foreign policy sweetspot between Rubio and Paul rather than articulating a coherent doctrine.
The thing is, the problem with Cruz’s foreign policy doctrine is deeper and more problematic than that. It lies in the way that Cruz’s grand strategy differs from Obama’s. At the outset of his speech, Cruz says:
The challenges that Ronald Reagan and Jean Kirkpatrick faced in their times were daunting: first and foremost, the threat of Soviet Communism — a threat that many in America thought could not be beaten, we were told that on an almost daily basis by elected officials, by academics, by those in the media. But with a focus, a determination, and an unshakable belief in the greatness of our exceptional nation, President Reagan won the Cold War.
Today, we’re once again facing challenging times, both at home and abroad. Again, we face an aggressive enemy whose goal is nothing less than the eradication of our very way of life. And there are many in this country who fear once again that we cannot defeat this enemy, that to even speak its name labels us bigots….
What America needs today is a moment of clarity. Our enemy is radical Islamic terrorism, and this is an enemy that can and will be defeated.
Indeed, this is the one thing that Cruz, Cruz’s critics, and Obama’s supporters might agree on: Obama has prioritized other foreign policy issue areas over radical Islamist terrorism. He has invested his political capital and foreign policy resources into other priorities: repairing the U.S. economy, rebalancing to the Pacific Rim, reinforcing nuclear nonproliferation (including the nuclear deal with Iran) and securing multilateral cooperation on a climate change accord. Or as I wrote in September:
Obama has a clear prioritization of what is vital to American interests and what is not so vital. He has dealt with the vital stuff — the maintenance of the core of the liberal international order — pretty well. He has dealt with the peripheral stuff mostly by not devoting resources to it.
The weakness is that Obama has done well enough at husbanding American power and influence for critics to complain that he hasn’t used it — without considering the possibility that had Obama not husbanded it, there would be less power to exercise. This sort of foreign policy doctrine just isn’t terribly popular.
Obama’s Middle East policy is a mess, but the strategic defense of Obama’s foreign policy is that he just doesn’t think that region — and the radical Islamist movements that fester there — are of strategic import. Critics can and should criticize Obama for this, but they can’t deny (and the honest ones don’t) that it’s a coherent strategy.
The damning thing about Cruz’s foreign policy speech is that he really believes that radical Islamist terrorism is the existential equivalent of the Soviet threat during the Cold War. Whether it’s true or not isn’t the question. The question is: If you accept Cruz’s premise, what is his solution to countering, containing and eliminating that threat? His answers — saying the talismanic words “radical Islam,” tougher immigration controls, a few more bombs, full-throated support for Gen. Abdel Fatah al-Sissi’s Egypt — are weak beer.
To put it more simply: Obama’s Middle East policies are grounded in the strategic calculation that U.S. resources and attention are better allocated elsewhere. Cruz thinks that radical Islamist terrorism is the greatest threat to the United States — and yet he’s not proposing anything more ambitious than Obama’s status quo.
That dog won’t hunt.