An influential chorus within the Republican establishment is raising questions about whether Ted Cruz can be trusted on foreign policy. Among this crowd, Cruz’s use of the term “neocon” was seen as the latest evidence of his willingness to elevate politics over principle on matters of national security.
By the end of George W. Bush’s second term in office, the term “neoconservative,” once widely used to describe the hawkish foreign-policy views held by several of the president’s most senior advisers, had become radioactive. As critics began using it to describe a cadre of like-minded Jews who had allegedly hijacked American foreign policy and driven the U.S. to war in Iraq, it took on a conspiratorial tinge.
“He knows that the term in the usual far-left and far-right parlance means warmonger, if not warmongering Jewish advisers, so it is not something he should’ve done,” says Elliott Abrams, a former Bush administration National Security Council official and a fellow at the Council on Foreign Relations.
“It’s an epithet. It’s always used pejoratively. And the main thing I resent about it is, it’s a label, it’s a way of avoiding arguments,” says Eliot Cohen, a Bush administration State Department official and a professor at Johns Hopkins University’s School of Advanced International Studies.
Another former Bush administration Defense Department official says simply, “It was a dog whistle.”
The kerfuffle reflects deeper concerns among a core group of Republican intellectuals who favor a more active American foreign policy. They have occupied senior positions in and outside of government since the Reagan era; in essence, they constitute the heart of the conservative foreign-policy establishment. The subject of those concerns: Cruz’s stances on issues from the National Security Agency’s collection of metadata to the U.S.’s intervention in the Syrian civil war, as well as his approach to his duties on the Armed Services Committee, where he has been conspicuously absent from several public hearings.
Cruz is a master of triangulation and, since his arrival in the Senate, has said repeatedly that his views fall somewhere between those of John McCain on one end of the foreign-policy spectrum and Rand Paul on the other. At least rhetorically, Marco Rubio has replaced McCain now that Rubio and Cruz are competing for the Republican nomination. The perception of Republicans, Cruz said in Iowa late last month, is that either they “want to retreat from the world and be isolationist and leave everyone alone, or we’ve got to be these crazy neo-con invade-every-country-on-earth and send our kids to die in the Middle East.” Days later, he told Bloomberg, “The enemy of my enemy is not necessarily my friend. If the Obama administration and the Washington neo-cons succeed in toppling [Bashar al-] Assad, Syria will be handed over to radical Islamic terrorists. ISIS will rule Syria.”
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Asked to respond to criticisms specifically of his using the term neocon, Cruz’s communications adviser, Catherine Frazier, says in an e-mail, “Ted Cruz will never hesitate to tell the truth. Whether others like it or not.”
All of this comes as Cruz is gaining momentum in the presidential race and trying to shore up his national-security credentials. He has been increasingly at odds with Rubio, who has become one of the GOP’s leading advocates for a muscular foreign policy and who is now trying to undermine Cruz’s credibility on the issue. The Rubio campaign continues to send a stream of e-mails pounding Cruz for his opposition to the NSA’s metadata program and to intervening in the Syrian civil war.
Cruz’s deliberate and repeated use of “neocon” gave fresh ammunition to many Republican hawks, as well as to his GOP rivals, who have long doubted his sincerity on matters of international affairs.” You don’t accuse someone of being a neocon if you see yourself as a Reagan conservative on national security,” former Pennsylvania senator Rick Santorum said in an interview. “And he’s not. The Republican party thanks to Ron and Rand Paul have brought in different elements into the party, and I think Ted’s comfortable in those elements.”
“Cruz’s problem is that he tends to look like he wants to tap into whatever’s popular at the moment,” says Gary Schmitt, a resident scholar at the American Enterprise Institute and a former staff director for the Senate Select Committee on Intelligence. “Now he’s kind of trapped because he thought the winds were blowing one way, and he’s got to live with the statements he’s made a couple of years ago.”
Indeed, public sentiment has swung sharply on the matter of American engagement abroad. In December 2013, two years after President Obama celebrated the removal of the last American ground troops from Iraq, and as Rand Paul emerged as a Republican superstar – Time would later feature him on its cover as “The Most Interesting Man in Politics” — the Pew Research Center conducted its quadrennial survey on “America’s Place in the World.” Fifty-two percent of respondents said the U.S. “should mind its own business internationally and let other countries get along the best they can on their own,” while 38 percent disagreed. It was, Pew said, “the most lopsided balance in favor of the U.S. ‘minding its own business’ in the nearly 50-year history of the measure.”
‘Cruz’s problem is that he tends to look like he wants to tap into whatever’s popular at the moment.’
– Gary Schmitt
But in August 2014, as ISIS emerged as an Islamist wrecking ball and images of public beheadings dominated the nightly newscasts, Pew found that 54 percent approved of a U.S. military campaign against ISIS in Syria and Iraq, while just 31 percent disapproved. In July of this year, nearly a year later, Pew announced that the gap had grown further, with 63 percent in favor and 26 percent opposed. Just this month, a CNN/ORC poll found for the first time a majority of Americans, 53 percent, willing to send U.S. ground troops to the Middle East, with 45 percent opposed. (That’s a 30-point swing since September 2014, when 38 percent were in favor and 60 percent opposed.)
Positioning himself between rivals Rand Paul and Marco Rubio on the national-security spectrum has given Cruz wiggle room to modulate his approach based on changing circumstances. It has also allowed him to claim kinship with various factions of the Republican electorate, including the “liberty” activists he’s courted in Iowa and New Hampshire. But such support, it has become clear, won’t include the party’s more interventionist foreign-policy thinkers.
“I think he’s basically picking foreign-policy positions not based on strategic necessity or internal coherence but basically designed for political advantage,” says Max Boot, the military historian and senior fellow at the Council on Foreign Relations, who is advising Marco Rubio. “I just don’t think Senator Cruz’s positions add up to a coherent foreign policy. What they add up to are convenient sound bites.”
Cruz angered his critics again on Thursday when, in an address at the Heritage Foundation in Washington, D.C., he once more portrayed himself as a sane middle ground between the isolationists who say America has no role abroad and the warmongers who want to topple every dictator and pursue what Cruz has called “democratic utopias.” The speech was particularly curious, Boot says, because it was framed as an ode to Ronald Reagan and his U.N. ambassador, Jeane Kirkpatrick.
“He trashes neocons and democracy promotion, but then he champions Ronald Reagan and Jeane Kirkpatrick,” Boot says of Cruz. “And of course Jeane Kirkpatrick was one of the original neocons, and Ronald Reagan made democracy promotion a key part of his foreign policy.”
But James Carafano, the Heritage vice president who introduced Cruz on Thursday, defended the speech — and Cruz’s triangulation between Paul and Rubio — because, he says, “there has to be a reframing of the conversation” about Republicans’ approach to national security.
“Four years ago it was between isolationism and interventionism, and that was the kind of caricature of our foreign policy that evolved in the post-Iraq world,” says Carafano, who has advised all three freshman senators. (He agreed, however, that Cruz should not say “neocon” — a phrase used often by Paul, to conservatives’ chagrin — because it “has been taken over by the Left, and it’s everything we don’t like about foreign policy. It’s become a pejorative. You wind up insulting half the people you don’t mean to insult.”)
Some of Cruz’s critics have also noted his lax approach to his duties on the Armed Services Committee, where the former Bush administration Defense Department official calls him “a no-show.”
“He just hasn’t attended hearings very often,” he says. “He’s done some pretty high-profile things, getting into the filibuster with Rand Paul on the drone strike and taking the position he did on the NSA stuff, but he hasn’t really mastered any set of issues; he’s gone after whatever the headline of the moment was.” In April, Politico reported that Cruz had attended just 17 of the committee’s 50 public hearings, referring to him as the senator who was “heard but not seen.” (Attendance has also been a nagging issue for Rubio, who serves on the Intelligence and Foreign Relations Committees.)
One of the strategic premises of Cruz’s campaign is his ability to consolidate the Right of the Republican party by not allowing anybody to get to his right. On national security, this is tricky: The party’s right flank can be hawkish or dovish depending on the moment. That’s in part what Cruz is grappling with now.Former senator Jim Talent, a foreign-policy adviser to Mitt Romney in 2012 and to Scott Walker this year, says Cruz “doesn’t have much of a history with these issues” and therefore thinks Republicans should cut him slack on perceived vacillating. “It’s natural for someone to sound more hawkish and more security-conscious” at a time like this, Talent says. “I think it’s a natural evolution in response to the circumstances.”
Others aren’t so sure. Schmitt, who has advised Rubio, Jeb Bush, and Ben Carson, says Cruz’s constant search for a middle ground “instead of having a solid view of his own” is concerning. “I think the fact that his positions are moving targets lends itself to people doubting whether they can trust him,” Schmitt says. “And that’s a problem.”
— Tim Alberta is chief political correspondent for National Review. Eliana Johnson is Washington editor for National Review.
EDITOR’S NOTE: This piece has been updated since its original posting.