Yesterday, Ted Cruz made the following statement:
I met yesterday, alongside a bipartisan congressional delegation, with Ukrainian President Poroshenko. And he made clear that the Ukrainians are fighting to defend their nation. They want to defend their nation.
We have a treaty obligation to stand with them [bold mine-DL]. And right now, unfortunately, the Obama administration is not honoring that obligation.
I doubt Cruz could be so clueless that he actually believes that the U.S. has treaty obligations to Ukraine, so I have to assume that he intends to deceive people when he says this. Whether or not one agrees that arming Ukraine is reckless and dangerous, there is no doubt that the U.S. is not required to provide any assistance to Ukraine. There is no treaty that commits the U.S. to defend Ukraine or to aid in their defense, and to claim that there is one is thoroughly dishonest. Since Cruz has a way of discrediting whatever position he chooses to take, it is fortunate that he is unwittingly helping to discredit the arms-to-Ukraine argument in this way.
It doesn’t surprise me that Cruz said something that he must have known to be false on national television. It doesn’t even particularly surprise me that this falsehood went unchallenged by Stephanopoulos, who just continued the interview. Nonetheless, it helps explain why our foreign policy debate so often leads to awful decisions. When we have senators holding forth on these issues and blatantly misleading the public on matters of fact, it is no wonder that interventionists can successfully agitate for the latest harmful proposal. Not only is there no meaningful accountability when interventionists mislead the public on these issues, but on some occasions politicians utter obvious falsehoods and the people in the media supposedly responsible for holding politicians to account don’t even notice.
Cruz’s demagoguery exemplifies another very bad habit that hawks indulge in all the time, which is to exaggerate the extent of America’s foreign commitments and to invest other states with ally status when they don’t possess it. Hawks usually avoid talking about treaty obligations, because there are only a few dozen formal U.S. treaty allies in the world. In order to justify inserting the U.S. into one conflict after another, hawks normally just call other states (or groups within states) allies without ever explaining how or when this came about. Often enough, the U.S. has no obligations to these so-called “allies,” but the hawks very much want the U.S. to act as if it has them. Then when the U.S. “fails” to support our “ally” in this or that conflict, it gives hawkish demands to provide that support a bit more rhetorical power by insisting that the U.S. must not “abandon” an “ally” in need. It’s a familiar con, and it is often effective, but in this case Cruz screwed it up.
One of the many problems in inventing new obligations for the U.S. in this way is that it tends to undermine and devalue real treaty obligations by pretending that the U.S. has similar obligations to states that have never been American allies. It doesn’t make genuine U.S. security commitments more reliable to make them up on the fly in every crisis that comes along. It can hardly reassure treaty allies when other states are raised to their level without having to do anything to deserve that treatment.