At the CNN Las Vegas debate Tuesday night, an important distinction was reintroduced to Republican politics. During the debate, Texas Senator Ted Cruz presented a well-thought out, foreign and national defense policy based on the original, Reagan conservatism. One that focuses on advancing America’s security interests around the world, not on sacrificing American lives and treasure on replacing foreign dictators with human rights, birthing new democracies, or building jobs and prosperity in foreign lands.
The Cruz and Reagan doctrine goes all the way back to America’s Founding Fathers. They wanted America to stay out of endless European wars, and foreign “entangling alliances.” They wanted America to stand for human rights, democracy, and prosperity for all. But they envisioned America advancing those goals by its own example, not at the point of a gun.
At the debate last Tuesday, Florida Senator Marco Rubio took the lead in advancing a different, more recent policy — the neoconservatism of George Bush, which committed America to replacing Iraqi dictator Saddam Hussein with a modern democracy and economy, based on a culture of Western civil rights. Ohio Governor John Kasich and South Carolina Senator Lindsey Graham also appeared in supporting roles for Rubio’s vision. Cruz enjoyed the vocal, reasoned support of Kentucky Senator Rand Paul.
Cruz explained his foreign policy vision in his opening statement, saying, “We need a President who understands the first obligation of the Commander-in-Chief is to keep America safe. If I am elected President, we will hunt down and kill the terrorists. We will utterly destroy ISIS. We will stop the terrorist acts before they occur because we will not be prisoners to political correctness. Rather we will speak the truth. Border security is national security and we will not be admitting jihadists as refugees.”
When Wolf Blitzer asked Cruz whether his policy would be “to preserve dictatorships, rather than promoting democracy in the Middle East?” Cruz answered by explaining, “I believe in an America first foreign policy, that far too often President Obama and Hillary Clinton — and unfortunately more than a few Republicans — have gotten distracted from the central focus of keeping this country safe…. We need to focus on American interests, not on global aspirations.”
Cruz later added, in supporting Rand Paul’s well-articulated opposition to regime change, “The question of whether we should be toppling dictatorships is asking the wrong question. The focus should be on defeating our enemies. So, for example, a regime we should change is Iran because Iran has declared war on us. But we shouldn’t be toppling regimes that are fighting radical Islamic terrorists….”
Cruz explained the roots of his foreign and defense policies in Reagan, saying “We need a Commander in Chief who does what Ronald Reagan did with communism, which is he set out a global strategy to defeat Soviet communism. And he directed all of his forces to defeating communism.” Cruz added, “We need a President who stands up, number one, and says, we will defeat ISIS. And number two, says the greatest national security threat facing America is a nuclear Iran. And we need to be focused on defeating radical Islamic terrorists.”
Bush’s neoconservatism has become so ingrained in Republicans that Cruz’s opponents think his rejection of it offers an opportunity to attack Cruz as not a genuine conservative. Bret Stephens, the highly articulate neoconservative spokesman and Wall Street Journal columnist, actually recognized the shortcomings of neocon foreign policy in writing Tuesday, “[T]he purpose of U.S. foreign policy cannot be to redeem the world’s crippled societies through democracy-building exercises. Foreign policy is not in the business of making dreams come true—Arab-Israeli peace, Islamic liberalism, climate nirvana, a Russian reset, et cetera. It’s about keeping our nightmares at bay. Today those nightmares are Russian revanchism, Iranian nuclearization, the rise and reach of Islamic State and China’s quest to muscle the U.S. out of East Asia.”
But he fails to grasp Cruz’s distinction in criticizing Obama, “We’re looking at a President who’s engaged in this double speak where he doesn’t call radical Islamic terrorism by its name. Indeed, he gives a speech after the San Bernardino attack where his approach is to try to go after the constitutional rights of law-abiding citizens rather than to keep us safe.” Cruz would keep us safe by enforcing the border, which is anathema to Stephens. So Stephens, a man who is rarely wrong, foolishly labels this Cruz position as reflecting lack of character.
Cruz’s ultimate intellectual coup in this last debate is a very positive turn for Republicans. Reagan’s wise, conservative, foreign policy was enormously popular. All his political life, Reagan was maligned by Democrats as a warmonger. But once he got his chance as President, he won the Cold War without firing a shot. Bush’s neoconservatism, however, was hugely unpopular, and paved the way to the Republicans’ fall from Reagan’s grace.
His performance Tuesday will only further fuel Cruz’s rapid rise to a now probable, smashing Iowa victory. That will launch the next question on the road to Republican 2016 redemption: Cruz-Rubio, or Cruz-Kasich, or Cruz-Carson, or Cruz-Fiorina?