Ted Cruz Banks on Foreign Policy as His 2016 Differentiator

Christopher Halloran/Shutterstock.com

Ted Cruz is running for president. The only thing left for him to do is say so.

According to sources close to the Texas senator, Cruz could be preparing for an end-of-year announcement and is now dedicating considerable time and effort to cultivating a foreign-policy foundation that might help his candidacy stand out in what is guaranteed to be a crowded field.

"At this point it's 90/10 he's in," one Cruz adviser said. "And honestly, 90 is lowballing it."

The senator's choreography since arriving in Washington has long pointed to a presidential run. His office meticulously documents the details of his meetings and events to guard against opposition research. He has aggressively pursued visits to important primary states, including Iowa, New Hampshire, and South Carolina. Late last month Cruz hired three prominent consultants with experience in national campaigns and extensive contacts in early nominating states. And he recently moved his chief of staff, Chip Roy, from his congressional office to the campaign operation, sending the clearest signal yet to allies inside and outside the Capitol that a bid for the White House is imminent.

Cruz's allies in the conservative movement have long obsessed over the timing of his decision. The senator told some supporters earlier this year that he planned to decide by the end of 2014, lending added gravity to every new hire and early-state visit.

But while those allies monitor movement on the surface, perhaps more consequential than any addition to his staff or speech in Iowa is his crafting of a foreign policy portfolio designed to draw sharp contrasts—not just against Democratic opponents, but potential GOP rivals as well.

Indeed, ever since he played an instrumental role in last year's government shutdown, Cruz has narrowed his agenda to focus on international affairs, both as an avenue to raise his profile among GOP donors and to pivot away from his reputation as a conservative kamikaze bent on wreaking havoc inside the halls of Congress. It's an abrupt evolution for someone who ran for Congress just two years ago on abolishing Obamacare and extinguishing comprehensive immigration-reform efforts.

But now, with the "entire world on fire," as Cruz says, and the Republican Party largely unified on matters of social and fiscal policy, the junior senator has made the calculation that global tumult affords him the best opportunity to stand apart from other probable contenders, in particular Rand Paul.

"I have been very clear that, in my view, the 2016 election is the most important election of our lifetimes," Cruz told National Journal in a lengthy interview in his Senate office. "Our nation teeters on the brink of a precipice. And I believe 2016 will be an election like 1980 about two fundamentally different visions for America."

It's no surprise that he wouldn't directly say whether a campaign is in the offing. But Cruz made clear he's waging a two-front messaging war on foreign policy, attacking President Obama and former Secretary of State Hillary Clinton for their handling of foreign policy, while casting himself as a pragmatist who both understands the nation's war-weariness but is not afraid to use force to defend American interests abroad.

"Is it true that the American people are war-weary? Absolutely," Cruz said. "We are tired of sending our sons and daughters to distant lands year after year after year, to give their lives trying to transform foreign nations. But I think it's a serious misreading of the American people to conclude that we are unwilling to defend ourselves, that we are unwilling to be strong and vigorous defending U.S. national security."

Cruz's foreign policy approach starts with soft power—pushing tougher sanctions on Iran and Russia, for instance, and using fierce rhetoric to undermine the legitimacy of unfriendly governments. Cruz, whose office features an enormous painting of Ronald Reagan at the Brandenburg Gate, says rhetoric should be paramount in American foreign policy. "It's a critical responsibility of the president of the United States to speak out as a clarion voice for freedom," Cruz said.

As for the conditions for use of force, Cruz appears ready to deploy the U.S. military, but not in a nation-building or occupation capacity, a position his team likely calculates as a poll winner, considering Americans' dissatisfaction with unsuccessful efforts in Iraq and Afghanistan.

"If and when military action is called for, it should be A) with a clearly defined military objective, B) executed with overwhelming force, and C) when we're done we should get the heck out," he said. "I don't think it's the job of our military to engage in nation-building. It is the job of our military to protect America and to hunt down and kill those who would threaten to murder Americans. It is not the job of our military to occupy countries across the globe and try to turn them into Democratic utopias."

While Cruz predictably saves his strongest criticism for Obama and Clinton—tying them together by repeatedly tagging the current White House approach as an "Obama-Clinton foreign policy"—he spends considerable time contrasting his positions with those of his likely rivals. In fact, Cruz's desire to exploit Paul's perceived weakness on foreign policy has in large part driven the Texas senator's brand-building strategy thus far. It's certainly what has led Cruz to focus early and often on establishing friends in the pro-Israel community of voters and donors, which remains wary of the libertarian from Kentucky.

Cruz has never been shy about showing solidarity with the Jewish state. (It backfired recently when he walked off stage to the sound of booing at an event for persecuted Middle East Christians after telling attendees they had "no greater ally" than Israel.)

Cruz has made three trips to Israel in less than two years in office. He has referenced the country thousands of times on the Senate floor, according to the Congressional Record. He has even begun meeting privately with Jewish leaders and advocacy groups during recent trips to early primary states. To leave no doubts, Cruz welcomes visitors to his personal office with a large, framed photograph of himself, his wife, and Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu.

Sources close to Cruz say much of this is meant to exploit the anxiety within the pro-Israel movement about Paul, who once echoed his father in suggesting an end to Israeli foreign aid. Paul has been laboring to repair relations with Jewish leaders. But Cruz allies, confident that "they aren't buying it," say the Texas senator has contacted some of the same parties to emphasize his commitment to their cause.

"It's no accident that Cruz is sponsoring bill after bill, making speech after speech, about Israel and mentioning Israeli citizens and Israeli causes—all with Rand right there in the chamber," said one Cruz adviser, who spoke on condition of anonymity to describe the senator's strategy.

What makes this contrast so effective, of course, is how little daylight exists otherwise between Cruz and Paul. Both freshmen senators ran insurgent, tea-party-backed campaigns and have been heralded as leaders of the conservative movement. But as both maneuvered into position for presidential campaigns, something had to give. And in March, it did.

"I'm a big fan of Rand Paul; he and I are good friends. I don't agree with him on foreign policy," Cruz said on ABC's This Week. "I think U.S. leadership is critical in the world, and I agree with him that we should be very reluctant to deploy military force abroad, but I think there is a vital role, just as Ronald Reagan did."

Cruz's opening volley—asserting that he and Paul are basically the same kind of conservative, save for Paul's views on foreign policy—launched something of a "Cold War" between the two offices, sources familiar with the situation said. The day following Cruz's comments on ABC, Paul wrote an op-ed for Breitbart.com that read: "Every Republican likes to think he or she is the next Ronald Reagan. Some who say this do so for lack of their own ideas and agenda.... What we don't need right now is politicians who have never seen war talking tough for the sake of their political careers."

Cruz isn't alone in attacking Paul. Other potential rivals, such as Sen. Marco Rubio of Florida and Texas Gov. Rick Perry, also have poked at his foreign policy positions, leading Paul to pen aTime op-ed this month entitled, "I Am Not an Isolationist."

When asked his opinion on that piece, Cruz smiled and took a long pause. "I will leave it to Rand Paul to characterize his own views," he said. A moment later, he added: "In the Senate there is a wide spectrum of views on foreign policy. On one end of the spectrum you have Rand Paul; on a very different end of the spectrum you have John McCain. Both have been forceful about their views on foreign policy. I would characterize my position as a third point on the triangle."

Cruz calls this "the sweet spot." By his own calculation, Republican voters who soured on endless war in Iraq and Afghanistan drifted in recent years from McCain's pole toward Paul's but are suddenly reconsidering that move after seeing American journalists murdered by jihadists.

Cruz's foreign policy profile captures this conflict. In one breath he says, "It is not the job of our military to occupy countries across the globe and try to turn them into Democratic utopias," and in the next he calls the Islamic State "the face of evil" and argues they must be defeated with overwhelming military force. These principles are not inherently in conflict, but as many presidents have come to realize, they are often difficult to marry.

While the "sweet spot" Cruz aims to carve might provide a presidential candidate some political refuge, it will be temporary. In 2016, as voters recognize a world that looks increasingly insecure, Cruz will be asked to answer a fundamental question: Should the president consider putting American boots on Mideast soil?

"We should do whatever is necessary," Cruz said slowly, "to protect this country."

This article appears in the September 29, 2014 edition of NJ Daily.

(Image via Christopher Halloran / Shutterstock.com)

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