Ted Cruz's New Foreign Policy Isn't Conservative

He doesn't like nation building, but he still pushes the same idealism that conservatives have been fighting for centuries.

Texas senator Ted Cruz is one of the more interesting of the potential 2016 Republican nominees. He’s an Ivy Leaguer who enjoys strong support from the Tea Party. He was a collegiate debate champion, yet his most famous public appearance saw him reading Dr. Seuss’s Green Eggs and Ham on the Senate floor. And he’s consciously trying to beat a new path for the GOP on foreign policy, explicitly stating that he’s “somewhere in between” the party’s hawkish and dovish wings, and arguing he draws lessons from both. It’s hard not to see political tactics here: in a presidential primary, Cruz would be competing with Rand Paul for Tea Party votes and thus needs to distinguish himself from the Kentucky senator. Taking a more aggressive line on foreign policy than Sen. Paul is probably the least risky way to do that—it makes him more palatable to the Republican establishment, and it’s unlikely to cost him many primary votes. Cruz’s new direction might be good politics. But is it conservative?

The Ted Cruz foreign-policy approach appears to have two distinctive features: an increased emphasis on moral leadership, particularly on matters of human rights, and a decreased emphasis on nation building. Cruz, writes the Daily Beast’s Eli Lake, “is an American exceptionalist who is wary of remaking the world in America’s exceptional image.” Cruz’s words to Lake: “It’s not the job of the U.S. military to do nation building or produce democratic utopias.”

This comes out in his critique of the Obama administration’s quick abandonment of Egypt’s Hosni Mubarak: “His human-rights record was not good, we had a responsibility to speak out against it,” but Obama “went further than that to topple him and replace him with the Muslim Brotherhood, whose interest and animus was rabidly anti-American.” Cruz is right: the fall of Mubarak accomplished nothing more than a few years of chaos: Egypt is once again a military autocracy, only this time with more volatile politics. Obama pushed Tahrir Square; Egypt paid the price.

Lake suggests that this approach echoes Ronald Reagan. In Reagan’s time, there were many Mubaraks. America supported anti-Communist dictators from South America to Seoul. But Reagan also saw Soviet abuses as a point he could attack, and had watched Jimmy Carter’s quick criticism of autocratic allies produce a new Soviet client state (in Nicaragua) and undermine a key pillar of American policy in the Middle East (in Iran). How could we speak up for human rights without setting back our national interests? Reagan squared this circle with the help of Jeane Kirkpatrick, his ambassador to the United Nations. Kirkpatrick had written an article in a 1979 issue of the influential neoconservative journal Commentary which suggested that not all autocracies are equal, that “although there is no instance of a revolutionary ‘socialist’ or Communist society being democratized, right-wing autocracies do sometimes evolve into democracies–given time, propitious economic, social, and political circumstances, talented leaders, and a strong indigenous demand for representative government.”

In other words, abuses by America’s autocratic allies, provided they were preventing the spread of Communism, existed in a different moral category than abuses by America’s Communist enemies. A lesser evil. History seems to have proven Kirkpatrick right. Pinochet’s Chile became democratic and prosperous; Castro’s Cuba is now Castro’s brother’s Cuba. South Korea gave up its military dictators; North Korea built concentration camps. Greece had a much smoother transition to democracy than its neighbors in the former Yugoslavia. Places where America, under Carter, pushed for friendly autocracies to change—like Iran, for example—have not fared as well.

It’s quite reasonable, then, that Cruz’s national-security adviser Victoria Coates has interns read the Kirkpatrick essay. Yet so many of Kirkpatrick’s points—and so much of Reagan’s foreign policy—rested on the existence of a massive, organized, global and well-funded threat: the Soviet Union. No such threat exists today. China acts more like a traditional great power; Russia is an economic and geopolitical husk of its former self; radical Islam is dangerous but lacks the resources and the internal order to present a true systemic threat. Revolutionary autocracies like those Kirkpatrick decried are all but nonexistent. Even the world’s last really revolutionary state, Iran, has personalistic internal politics that look a lot like the traditional autocracies with which Kirkpatrick thought we could do business.