Very early in the invisible primary for the 2016 GOP presidential nomination, Ted Cruz had a bright idea: With an apparently viable Rand Paul at war with a semi-discredited “neocon” or interventionist wing of the GOP, the Texan would advance a “third way,” positioning himself (with, of course, Ronald Reagan, claimed by all Republicans) as “somewhere between” Paul and the Kentuckian’s loudest Senate critics, John McCain and Lindsey Graham.
The Washington Post’s Sean Sullivan had the story in September of 2013, when the debate over Syria leaped into the headlines:
“I agree with Rand Paul that we should not intervene militarily in Syria, because it’s not in defense of our U.S. national security interests,” said Cruz during a question-and-answer session following a speech at the Heritage Foundation, a conservative think tank.
But, Cruz added, he also agrees “with John McCain that if Iran is on the verge of acquiring nuclear weapons that we should intervene militarily to prevent it from acquiring those weapons. Why? Because it is in the vital national security interest of the United States.”
In the context of a potential 2016 contest in which Paul looked to have detoxified his old man’s noninterventionism via big gestures of solidarity toward Israel and loud criticism of Obama’s weakness, and with foreign policy more than likely becoming a back-burner issue, Cruz’s positioning made political sense.
But how about now, with Paul lingering on the edge of irrelevancy and events in the Middle East creating a powerful war lust among Republican elites and reportedly rank-and-file members of the base alike?
As Cruz and Marco Rubio emerge as potential finalists in the nominating contest, the Floridian is firmly in the McCain/Graham/neocon camp. Presumably feeling the wind is blowing his way (not an entirely irrational sentiment, given the prevailing GOP debate over how far we should go in restarting the Iraq War), a Rubio-affiliated super-pac is going after Cruz as sort of Paul Lite, focusing on his vote (with Paul and the Obama administration) for an alternative to the Patriot Act that reined in electronic surveillance.
Interestingly enough, Cruz is responding by again describing himself as a national security ‘tweener in an interview with Bloomberg’s Sahil Kapur:
Ted Cruz on Monday offered his strongest denunciation so far of Marco Rubio’s foreign policy views, assailing his Republican presidential rival as a proponent of “military adventurism” that he said has benefited Islamic militant groups. He even tied the Floridian to Democratic front-runner Hillary Clinton.
“Senator Rubio emphatically supported Hillary Clinton in toppling [Muammar] Qaddafi in Libya. I think that made no sense,” Cruz told Bloomberg Politics in a wide-ranging and exclusive interview during a campaign swing through Iowa. He argued that the 2011 bombings that toppled the Libyan leader didn’t help the fight against terrorists. “Qaddafi was a bad man, he had a horrible human rights record. And yet … he had become a significant ally in fighting radical Islamic terrorism….”
The Texan portrayed himself as a third way between the stalwart, non-interventionist views of Senator Rand Paul and pro-interventionist policies in pursuit of spreading democracy and human rights through the Middle East that Rubio espouses. Cruz’s belief is that trying to democratize those societies can be counterproductive and that U.S. military power should be focused narrowly on protecting U.S. interests.
“If you look at President Barack Obama and Hillary Clinton and for that matter some of the more aggressive Washington neo-cons, they have consistently mis-perceived the threat of radical Islamic terrorism and have advocated military adventurism that has had the effect of benefiting radical Islamic terrorists,” he said.
This careful and persistent positioning by Cruz has its obvious advantages, most notably enabling him to avoid the confusions and contradictions afflicting Republicans who agreed with the Obama administration’s decisions to intervene in Libya and Syria, and those who appear to be demanding big American troop commitments to fight on both sides of a regional civil war in which all the combatants look like “radical Muslims” to the kind of xenophobic and Islamophobic voters Cruz is stalking in Iowa. It also puts him more or less in the same camp as Donald Trump, who is offering a less cerebral version of truculent, militaristic noninterventionism.
Few observers would attribute Trump’s appeal to his foreign-policy “views,” such as they are. There’s probably some truth, however, to Peter Beinart’s argument that Trump (and, presumably, Cruz) is appealing to a “Jacksonian” impulse of slow-to-anger-but-then-insanely-violent attitudes toward overseas threats that has long been associated with the kind of white, working-class voters the Donald has been attracting in startling numbers. Perhaps Ted Cruz’s “triangulation” positioning is based on an outdated assessment of Rand Paul’s strength as a candidate, or of the respectability of noninterventionism in Republican circles now that the war drums are beating regularly. But perhaps this is just another way in which Cruz is preparing to inherit a sizable chunk of Trump’s support if and when the tycoon finally loses his mojo.