Ted Cruz is back in the headlines after what can be most charitably described as a bit of showboating at a summit of Middle Eastern Christians. Much has been written about that controversy, but one of Cruz’s comments received relatively less attention than it deserved.
“ISIS, al-Qaeda, Hezbollah, Hamas and their state sponsors like Syria and Iran, are all engaged in a vicious genocidal campaign to destroy religious minorities in the Middle East,” Cruz said. “Sometimes we are told not to loop these groups together, that we have to understand their so-called nuances and differences.”
“But we shouldn’t try to parse different manifestations of evil that are on a murderous rampage throughout the region,” the junior Republican senator from Texas continued. “Hate is hate. And murder is murder.”
Even the crowd that booed Cruz off the stage mostly applauded these lines.
What Cruz is encapsulating here is perhaps the most common view of the war on terror held by neoconservatives and other hawks on the right. All forms of radical Islam—sometimes without the radical qualifier—are essentially indistinguishable and should be treated as equally threatening to American interests.
That’s why in the aftermath of the 9/11 attacks, carried out against the United States 13 years ago last week, Baathists in Iraq received as much or more attention than al-Qaeda. Iran joined Iraq and North Korea in the “Axis of Evil.” Rather than more specific ideological descriptors like Salafist jihadism, we were understood to be fighting all-purpose Islamofascism.
The United States under George W. Bush ultimately heeded the advice of those who thought Iraq was a more important target than Afghanistan, even though the latter country actually sheltered those who attacked us.
President Obama is now hearing similar advice from those who think it important to fight Iran and/or Syria rather than ISIS. In fact, some of these usual hawks oppose military action against ISIS altogether if it might benefit the Iranian and Syrian governments.
As David Frum put it, the “policy in Syria and Iraq is to bomb to smithereens the deadliest enemies of Bashar al-Assad and the mullahs of Iran—while insisting that the U.S. has no intention of helping Assad or the mullahs.”
Hate is indeed hate and murder is murder. There is no arguing with Cruz on either count. But that doesn’t mean that the most effective way to fight against hate and protect the American people from murder is as simple as the question of right and wrong.
It is not always strategically sound to encourage all your enemies to band together against you. Sometimes it is best to divide them. The factions, organizations, and governments Cruz mentioned in his speech have their similarities, but also differences—differences that are in some cases important enough for them to go to war against each other. Indeed, these are the distinctions currently roiling the Middle East and breaking up Iraq.
And the United States has not always won wars by treating every enemy, rival, and illiberal political force without distinction. The U.S. allied with the Soviet Union to win World War II and reached out to China to gain advantage in the Cold War at a time when both countries were run by tyrannical mass murderers.
In both cases, many conservatives at the time understandably agreed with Ted Cruz that the United States shouldn’t “try to parse different manifestations of evil” or worry overmuch about understanding “their so-called nuances and differences.”
The unfortunate truth, however, is that a United States that tried to fight Hitler and Stalin or Mao and the Soviets all at once might not have prevailed against any of them.
Islam is the 1,400-year-old religion of a billion people. A nuanced understanding even of its elements that threaten American security is deeply important, if not likely to yield applause lines for political speeches.
If Cruz had stuck around a bit longer, perhaps his Christian audience could have reminded him that in a fallen world there is no shortage of evil. But to govern, as always, is to choose.
W. James Antle III is editor of the Daily Caller News Foundation and author of Devouring Freedom: Can Big Government Ever Be Stopped?