America has been screwing up on the foreign policy front for a long time. George W. Bush's efforts to spread democracy were laudable — but quixotic and ill-fated. And Barack Obama's "leading from behind" and"don't do stupid stuff" strategies, which supposedly learned all the right lessons from Bush-era misadventures? These also did not work.
So as we head toward a critical presidential election in 2016, what should we be looking for when it comes to foreign policy? The answer is Ted Cruz.
Don't laugh — he's the only candidate on either side of the aisle who seems to have learned the right lessons from the twin failures of Bush and Obama.
Cruz was right when he joined with other Republicans in opposing military intervention in Syria, arguing Bashar al-Assad's actions — though horrific — weren't a direct threat to our national security. On other occasions, he has demonstrated moral clarity, such as when he penned this op-ed from March arguing that "Vladimir Putin running rampant in Ukraine" shows Obama's "abdication of global leadership." The bottom line is that if after eight years of Obama-style diplomacy you're looking for someone willing to stick his neck out for America, you need look no further than Cruz's line about wanting to bomb ISIS back to the "stone age." Cruz is bold when he needs to be, but restrained in opposing militarism outside of America's core interests.
Now, it's impossible to fully diagnose the foreign policy of a man who has never commanded a state militia, much less ground troops, so we largely have to use his rhetoric and votes as our guide. In this regard, Cruz's foreign policy is arguably the most Reaganesque I've seen since, well, The Gipper. (And last time I checked, he managed to do pretty well for himself — and the nation.)
Now, maybe you think saying you want to bomb ISIS back to the stone age is overwrought or irresponsible. But consider Christopher Caldwell's recent book review of American Bridge. As Caldwell notes, Reagan's "greatest triumphs came on issues that he advanced in the face of unanimous advice to the contrary." As conservative journalist Matthew Continetti tweeted, "Reading this Caldwell review, I can’t help being struck by similarity btw. Reagan and @SenTedCruz."
It's also interesting to note that Reagan's foreign policy was a reaction to past presidents, just as Cruz's is. The Vietnam era and the post-Vietnam era undermined confidence in this country's competence, efficacy, and virtue. These qualities needed to be restored, the conventional wisdom went, and that meant demonstrating American might and influence without getting bogged down. So Reagan eschewed nation-building, instead focusing on moral clarity in the Cold War ("We win, they lose"; "evil empire"; "Tear down this wall"; and so on). He also outsourced fighting to surrogate freedom fighters. That last part doesn't look so hot in retrospect — but it's also the part that seems least Cruz-like.
But overall, Cruz is emulating Reagan's style — a clear sense of America's moral authority, with a realistic appraisal of what we can do militarily. But in spite of all this, Cruz finds himself criticized.
The column that has me most agitated comes from The Atlantic, where Peter Beinart unfavorably compares Cruz's foreign policy to recent Republican advocates of adventurism:
Like George W. Bush before them, McCain and Graham are militaristic optimists. They want America to bomb and arm its way toward a free, pro-American Middle East. Cruz is a militaristic pessimist. He mocks the Obama administration's effort to foster reconciliation "between Sunnis and Shiites in Baghdad" because "the Sunnis and Shiites have been engaged in a sectarian civil war since 632." [The Atlantic]
What Beinart is describing is a more humble foreign policy than the neocons' — humble because it does not presume the utopian notion that we can transform Kabul into Kansas. But it's also serious. It grasps how dangerous the world is — especially when America retreats from a position of leadership, and when weakness (or the perception, thereof) invites provocation.
Cruz is described by Beinart as a "militaristic pessimist." This sounds horrible, but — of all the positions one could adopt — isn't that a prudent and cautious and realistic place to be in a dangerous world? Don't we want the person charged with keeping us safe to have some combination of these qualities?
"Ted Cruz wants to kill people in the Middle East who he believes might threaten the United States," writes Beinart. "And he wants to defend Christianity there. Other than that, he really couldn't care less."
What's the problem with that?
It's fashionable in Washington circles to portray Cruz as a sammy glick who is often wrong, but never in doubt. But when it comes to foreign policy, Cruz's middle ground is prudent — a logical response to the last decade or so of adventurism and impotence — which is why it's surprising to see Beinart portraying Cruz's foreign policy as extreme.
When Beinart writes that Cruz's foreign policy unites the GOP's "interventionists" like McCain, and the "isolationists" like Rand Paul, by "embodying the worst of each," it makes for good copy. But is it really the worst of each? Couldn't this just as easily be called a middle-of-the-road position? After all, almost exactly a year ago, Cruz himself argued that his foreign policy was "somewhere in between" McCain and Paul.
Cruz is a political animal, and there are indeed political benefits to the space Cruz is attempting to occupy. But let's not pretend his is an incoherent worldview, either. If his overarching leitmotif is something Beinart derisively describes as "militaristic pessimism," the good news is that, unlike Paul — whose positions seem unpredictable (depending on the latest news) and capricious — one can sort of anticipate Cruz's foreign policy stances.
It is said that foreign policy rarely drives voting decisions, which, if true, means we tend to underrate its importance. Regardless, if you're a voter who is squeamish about more Bush-era adventurism, but equally worried about the perils of non-interventionism, isn't Cruz's position right in the sweet spot? And before you answer, consider this: It's okay to say something kind about the man when he gets it right.
Editor's note: Matt Lewis' wife formerly worked as a consultant for Ted Cruz.