At 48 years old, Ted Cruz is already past his (political) prime. Once the darling of the Tea Party grassroots, the Texas senator had to rely on the coattails of others to get him reelected last year. And once the tour de force of the 2013 government shutdown battle was over, he became just another faceless backbencher. Earlier this month, in a bid for relevance, Cruz gave a major foreign policy speech to a gathering at the American Enterprise Institute. It was just as haphazard as that “Vice President” Carly Fiorina fiasco.
Similar to how he presented his presidential campaign as a perfect blend of Reaganite conservatism, milquetoast libertarianism, and Protestant evangelicalism, Cruz attempted at AEI to carve out a third way between forever war and principled non-interventionism.
“Some have never met a country they didn’t want to invade. Others have never met a theater they didn’t want to abandon. Neither is the right answer,” Cruz chided. Fortunately he has a solution: “We should be intervening, or not, and deciding what form that intervention should take, based directly on America’s national interest.”
Putting America’s national interest first? Those sound like the words of an America Firster eager to rein in an overextended empire and reorient American policy around realism and restraint. Had Cruz given a speech denouncing wars of ideology, unnecessary military commitments, and politicians whose focus is halfway around the world, he would have started a conversation rarely heard in Washington. Unfortunately, Cruz wasted his opportunity by trying to repackage the D.C. status quo as something new and inventive. When most people use the term “national interest,” they have in mind the physical American nation and its borders. But through the lens of globalism and American exceptionalism, the entire Earth falls under our sovereignty. When the whole world is your backyard, everything falls under the “national interest.”
The nearly 40-minute speech wasn’t without its bright spots. Cruz wants the Senate to reassert itself as a deliberative foreign policy body, instead of ceding control to the executive in what he described as a “dereliction of duty.” He understands that this is a difficult challenge because of the incentives involved. “At some point in the last few decades,” Cruz said, “Senators realized that responsibility can be more of a liability than a privilege, because it means you have to argue your case, deliberate, decide, and live with the consequences.” And Cruz is critical (albeit briefly) of American regime change efforts in Iraq, Libya, and Syria that have empowered jihadists. “Uncle Sam has developed a bad habit of attempting to topple dictators who are killing terrorists, only to have them replaced by terrorists who kill Americans,” he said.
While he might criticize those efforts at regime change, you won’t find him attacking the budgets that fund them. The Senator reiterated the bipartisan consensus that the United States must have (by overwhelming proportion) the largest armed forces in the world. “The more prepared we are to defend ourselves, the less likely we are to actually face military conflict,” he said. Cruz touted his own efforts to add to the military’s largesse, taking credit for the mandate passed by Congress last year that the Department of Defense implement a test bed for “space-based interceptors for missile defense.” This sci-fi boondoggle is a topic I’ve addressed elsewhere.
Just like his fiscal conservatism, Cruz threw his ideal of free trade out the window too. He believes that economic sanctions should be used “vigorously against America’s enemies,” which he listed as Iran, North Korea, and Nicaragua (yes, you read that last one right). Regular TAC readers will be familiar with the continuous failure of sanctions to achieve political goals.
According to Cruz, all foreign countries can be placed in the following four baskets: friends, enemies, rivals, and problematic allies. Apparently, Cruz doesn’t believe in the term “neutral.” Where would Tanzania, Paraguay, and Switzerland fit? Isn’t it possible for the United States to have good, nonaligned relations with most of the world, connected by mutual diplomacy and trade? Not according to Cruz. You’re either with us or against us.
On the topic of friends, Cruz couldn’t help but gush over one “near and dear to my heart,” Israel. “Israel is key to the safety and security of Americans both at home and abroad,” he said, contradicting the opinions of numerous national security state alumni, including former CIA director David Petraeus and former secretary of defense Jim Mattis.
Cruz described former president Barack Obama as “unremittingly hostile to the state of Israel.” This is the same Obama who provided Israel with more aid than the United States has ever provided to any country. Cruz also lambasted the Obama administration’s support for United Nations Resolution 2334, which he said was “a disgraceful, dishonest endeavor for American diplomats to participate in, much less orchestrate.” The resolution declared Israeli settlements on Palestinian land to be a war crime. According to Cruz, instead “we should support their [Israeli] claims to territory rightfully gained in defensive wars, territory necessary to their continued protection.” This is nothing less than a falsification of history, considering that the 1967 conflict was indisputably an Israeli-initiated war of conquest.
Next came Cruz’s biggest bugaboo, Iran. To Cruz, when it comes to regimes that are “clearly, undeniably enemies,” “it is in our national interest to confront them.” And “Iran is an enemy. The possibility of a nuclear armed Iran is the greatest national security threat facing America across the world.” Luckily for everyone, it’s been the longstanding opinion of the U.S. intelligence community for over a decade that Iran has never possessed a nuclear weapons program. However, this fact didn’t stop Cruz from calling the U.S. withdrawal from the Iran nuclear deal “the single most important national security step taken in the past two years.” Whether or not it was wise to exit a functioning, internationally recognized diplomatic agreement that put serious limits on Iran’s civilian nuclear program, Cruz is correct that withdrawal was pretty darn important. Emphasizing that the United States should use “maximum economic pressure” and “crushing military force” to prevent Iran from developing a nuclear weapon it’s not seeking, Cruz was quick to make clear that he has no interest in trying to grow a liberal democracy out of the Islamic Republic.
North Korea received the same treatment. “Kim says repeatedly he’s willing to launch nuclear weapons at the American homeland,” rumbled Cruz. Somehow, he glazed over the diplomatic breakthroughs that have occurred over the past year. This includes the de-escalation of tensions between North and South Korea along the DMZ, a moratorium on the North’s bomb and missile testing, and a personal summit between President Donald Trump and Kim Jong-un that will be repeated before the end of this month. Instead Cruz said that the U.S. should “use all of our tools” in challenging North Korea, including a military strike, which we should be “willing and able to do…with overwhelming force.”
Unfortunately, some countries are just too big to bomb (for now). Both China and Russia are “rivals seeking to undermine and surpass our influence,” Cruz said, but “as a practical matter we have to do business with them.” Far from Trump’s calls to get along with Russia, however, Cruz endorsed Mitt Romney’s take from 2012. “I’m glad that the liberals have recently discovered that [Russia is our geopolitical foe]. It’s about time,” he said. This wasn’t unusual: Cruz in his speech had a surprising amount of praise for the Democratic Party. “There was a time when ‘Scoop’ Jackson Democrats were more commonplace,” he said. He also had kind words for Senator Bob Menendez of New Jersey, indicted on eight charges of bribery and corruption along with whispers of underage prostitution, and Joe Lieberman, the neoconservatives’ favorite Democrat.
“Turkey and Saudi Arabia are problematic allies,” said Cruz. The death of journalist Jamal Khashoggi was “horrific, state-sponsored murder,” and “nobody is under any illusions about the morality of the Saudis.” Still, the alliance is necessary to counteract Cruz’s obsession, the Ayatollah: “We need…a strong Saudi Arabia to balance Iran on everything from Yemen to oil sanctions.” Earlier, using Ronald Reagan’s “evil empire” pronouncement as an example, Cruz said that America’s “voice should be clarion, clear, and understandable, speaking truth.” Unless, of course, the perpetrator is the Saudi monarch or even Benjamin Netanyahu. Then moral clarity joins Cruz’s other principles in a pile underneath his windowsill.
“The Trump administration is primed to be a great incubator for a national interest-based foreign policy,” concluded Cruz. But if this is what Donald Trump meant by “national interest,” then the American people were sold a false bill of goods.
Hunter DeRensis is a reporter for The National Interest. Follow him on Twitter @HunterDeRensis.