Conservative Review - Rubio vs. Paul vs. Cruz on Foreign Policy

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Rubio vs. Paul vs. Cruz on Foreign Policy Premium Content

By: CR Editors | May 14th, 2015

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After many years without a clear direction on foreign policy, Republicans are now engaging in a robust and healthy debate over principles related to national defense and military intervention. 

Unlike conservative domestic policy, which is clearly directed by ideological principles of governance within the confines of the Constitution, U.S. foreign policy is more complex and contains a broader philosophical approach.  There is no single doctrine to fully dictate the particulars of all foreign policy initiatives or questions of military intervention.  Foreign policy decisions are ultimately governed by prudence and discernment based on the subjective assessment of each individual conflict and how it affects the strategic interests of America and our allies.  The aforementioned assessment must weigh the potential costs and benefits through the prism of likely outcomes. 

But these labels fail to capture the reality of the decisions America must confront.

In recent years, right-leaning commentators and media figures have discussed competing foreign policy visions in broad and vacuous terms, offering false choices between so-called neo-conservatives vs. libertarians, hawks vs. doves, or interventionists vs. isolationists.  But these labels fail to capture the reality of the decisions America must confront. 

Most mainstream conservatives are not Ron Paul libertarians who rule out supporting a robust foreign policy to combat emerging threats to our strategic interests, such as Islamic terrorism and the growing threat from Russia and China.  At the same time, most conservatives (and most Americans across the board) reject the notion that we can or should spread democracy to the Arab world and engage in nation-building, especially in countries that lack the building blocks of a civil society.  The challenges in Iraq and Afghanistan, along with the colossal disaster of the Arab Spring, have certainly laid waste to the democracy project we see today in the Middle East.

Due to the after-effects of 9/11 and the Iraq and Afghanistan wars, what we are seeing within the Republican Party are three predominant camps forming, most prominently on display through the informal doctrines of three presidential candidates: Rand Paul, Marco Rubio, and Ted Cruz.

The Paul Libertarian Camp

It would probably be more accurate to ascribe the following foreign policy views to Ron Paul rather than Senator Rand Paul (R-KY) simply because the younger Paul seems to be “evolving” on many foreign policy issues. 

At its core, this capital “L” Libertarian view is seemingly rooted in the belief that Islamic terrorists and terror-supporting regimes only hate America because of endless U.S. interventions in their part of the world. Many in this camp argue that if only the U.S. military would stop engaging in either projections of military power or the use of soft power against them, and the U.S. would end its overt support for Israel, America would not be facing an existential threat from Islamic Jihad. 

Not only do the Paulites oppose any military intervention in the Middle East, they vehemently oppose the use of soft power and sanctions against Iran.  They also typically believe our military and defense spending are well over the line of what is necessary to defend national security. 

As Rand Paul’s CR Presidential Profile highlights, the lowercase “l” Libertarian view that defines Rand’s foreign policy is best described as “realism.” Rand Paul is a staunch advocate of U.S. sovereignty and has consistently opposed sending aid to nations hostile to the U.S. However, Paul has exhibited questionable positions that are cause for concern for conservatives including his support for Obama’s call for normalized relations with communist Cuba and his opposition to new sanctions on Iran.

The Rubio/Graham Camp

Senator Marco Rubio’s (R-FL) foreign policy views are rooted in the notion that Islamic terror is an existential threat.  However, much like Sens. John McCain (R-AZ) and Lindsey Graham (R-SC), he believes that the way to combat the threat is by getting involved in Islamic civil wars and attempting to spread democracy.  Yesterday, Rubio delivered a major foreign policy speech unveiling the “Rubio doctrine.”

We must recognize that our nation is a global leader not just because it has superior arms, but because it has superior aims,” Rubio, the son of Cuban immigrants, intends to say. “As president, I will support the spread of economic and political freedom, reinforce our alliances, resist efforts by large powers to subjugate their smaller neighbors, maintain a robust commitment to transparent and effective foreign assistance programs, and advance the rights of the vulnerable, including women and the religious minorities that are so often persecuted, so that the afflicted peoples of the world know the truth: the American people hear their cries, see their suffering, and most of all, desire their freedom.

It is clear that Rubio feels the U.S. has a responsibility not only to combat Islamic terror through the spread of democracy via interventions, but has an obligation to get involved in other regional skirmishes on behalf of persecuted minorities or bullied nations. 

To that end, Rubio has supported the Arab Spring interventions, such as the ouster of Muammar Gaddafi.  He also supports a “boots on the ground” intervention in Syria and the arming of the Syrian rebels along with an endless flow of foreign aid to many Arab countries and rebel armies. 

Rubio’s CR Presidential Profile provides the full spectrum of his foreign policy record and position on national defense. He has made a name for himself in conservative circles as a leader on foreign policy as a result of his calls for decisive U.S. action against the Islamic State, his unyielding support for Israel, spearheading the passage of the Venezuela sanctions and introducing legislation that would place further sanctions on Iran and Russia. Unlike Senator Paul, Rubio – a Cuban-American – sees the dangers of normalizing relations with Cuba and has been an instrumental leader in sounding the alarm on the president’s plans.  However, the profile also details his eagerness to support involvements in civil wars that have often strengthened Islamic groups instead of weakening them.   

The Cruz Camp

To some, Cruz appears to be charting a new course that is neither “isolationist” nor “neo-conservative.”  But in fact, he argues that there is nothing new about his views, as they represent the authentic Reagan approach to foreign policy – one that emphasizes ‘peace through strength’ with robust defense, control of the seas, and effective use of soft power, but one that also eschews endless interventions and nation building.

As Cruz said Tuesday night on Fox News’ Kelly File, “Our military’s job isn't to transform foreign nations into democratic utopias — it's to hunt down & kill terrorists.”

Fox News, The Kelly File

The Cruz contemporary foreign policy is rooted in the same starting point as Rubio’s in that the threat of Jihad is viewed as the consummate challenge of our time.

The Cruz contemporary foreign policy is rooted in the same starting point as Rubio’s in that the threat of Jihad is viewed as the consummate challenge of our time.  However, those subscribing to the Cruz doctrine vehemently opposed the Arab Spring interventions, not because of isolationist sensibilities, quite the contrary, they would argue that opposition to tossing out relatively secular dictators is the true “hawkish” position.  Cruz would contend, much like Rand Paul, that those interventions helped strengthen the Islamic terrorists.   

The foundation for this view is built on the premise that there are two equally serious threats to our national security – Sunni Jihadists and Shiite terror groups and regimes, most prominently, Iran.  As such, every foreign policy decision in the Middle East has to be weighed against the logical outcome of how it strengthens or weakens one or both of those threats.

In the case of Libya, supporters of intervention swapped a nasty dictator, albeit a man who kept the radical Islamists in check, for a power vacuum that has been filled by ISIS and Al Qaeda.

Highlighted in his CR Presidential Profile, Cruz’s foreign policy record is one of the most impressive especially given his short tenure in the Senate. He has consistently led efforts to impose stricter sanctions on Iran and Russia, is a firm supporter of Israel, and continues to be a leader calling for the U.S. to take action to combat terror from the Islamic State without engaging in a protracted ground operation.

In Iraq, Cruz recently said that the 2003 invasion and regime change, in retrospect, was a mistake.  This is because Saddam Hussein, although a brutal dictator, was in fact the only person who served as a counterbalance to both existential threats – Sunni Jihadists and Iran.  It is certainly clear that Obama’s reckless pullout led to a quicker rise of ISIS and Sunni jihadists, but it is unlikely that the Iraq story would have ever ended well regardless of Obama’s actions.  Even before Obama’s irresponsible withdraw, Iraq had become a proxy for Iran.  Was it worth expending 4,500 of our finest soldiers plus over a trillion dollars to deliver Iraq into the hands of Iran?  

Although foreign policy is more complex, it would be wise for the party to develop some cogent principles before they reassume power as the governing party.

Moreover, even without Obama’s pullout, it would have been hard to stem the tide of Sunni insurgents in the face of Iranian Shiite dominance.  U.S. “leadership” and the spread of democracy will never hold these volatile and unstable countries together without eastern countries standing against them and their radical Islamic terror regimes. Now we are seeing the vacuum being filled by entities that pose a much graver threat to us than Saddam Hussein did over a decade ago.

It is this guiding lesson from the Iraq war that is fueling the view of the Cruz faction that the U.S. military should stay out of the civil war taking place in Syria and parts of Iraq.  With a tangled web of Iranian-backed Assad forces, al-Nusra, ISIS, and dubious or ineffective “Syrian rebels” engaged in conflict, there is no good outcome for U.S. strategic interests.  With Iran and ISIS fighting each other in Iran, why risk our lives and war chest to tip the scales to one side, only to see that side eventually become the next volatile regime? Why not let our two biggest enemies slug it out?  It is for this reason that Cruz would oppose any boots on the ground beyond decisive air strikes against those threatening the Kurds or Christian minorities.

The aforementioned view can best be described with the following doctrine: A president should only use military force if the end result will bolster our allies and weaken our enemies, preferably when those allies have built a civil society and have their own military for which our efforts will result in a positive outcome and territory gained or preserved for our allies.               

But while Cruz would take a hands-off approach to some of the Islamic civil wars, he is as hawkish as they come on Iran.  That is because Iran represents an existential threat and is responsible for killing more U.S. soldiers since 1979 than any other regime.  And the remedy here, unlike in other geopolitical conflicts, is not to referee a civil war and nation-build a balkanized country; it is the effective use of soft power through sanctions, freezing assets, control of the seas, and other covert activity at our disposal. 

This also explains why the Cruz camp wants to bulk up our military, increase our deterrent power and control over the seas, but save a lot of money by refraining from endless national-building escapades that have cost the U.S. trillions.  It’s why Cruz often cites the Reagan paradigm of increasing defense spending but never wasting money and lives with protracted military interventions.  After all, as Cruz also frequently points out, Granada was the largest country Reagan invaded during his tenure.

Those subscribing to this worldview also believe that securing our border and limiting the immigration of security threats is at least as vital, if not more important, than any projection of power overseas.  The same certainly cannot be said of the Rubio, Graham, and McCain camp. 

If nothing else, the fact that conservatives are now debating some of the past and present foreign policy decisions is a welcome development.  A lack of coherent principles on domestic policy has gotten Republicans into trouble in the past.  Although foreign policy is more complex, it would be wise for the party to develop some cogent principles before they reassume power as the governing party.

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