What Does This Grown-Up Speech and Debate Nerd Think About Foreign Policy?

Texas Sen. Ted Cruz's foreign-policy beliefs amount to little more than over-heated rhetoric.


To any veteran of this country’s high school and collegiate speech and debate circuit, Texas Sen. Ted Cruz is instantly recognizable. Preening, ambitious, and overly fond of metaphors and quoting the American founding fathers, Cruz is the consummate speech and debate nerd. With a practiced cadence, a studied delivery, and an unshakeable articulateness, Cruz is the kind of speech and debater who harbored what at one point in his life was probably a secret desire: to ride his talent for oratory all the way to the White House.

On Monday, he publicly declared himself a candidate for president with an address that could be described as a parody of the overwrought oratory that is a mainstay of the debate circuit — if for no other reason than the strange rhetorical device Cruz relied on throughout the address.

In his speech, Cruz asked his audience again and again to “imagine.” As in, “imagine a president who says, ‘We will stand up and defeat radical Islamic terrorism,” to “imagine health care reform that keeps government out of the way between you and your doctor,” to “imagine a federal government that protects the right to keep and bear arms of all law-abiding Americans.” Cruz asked his audience to “imagine it’s 1776,” “imagine it’s 1777,” “imagine it’s 1933,” and “imagine it’s 1979.”

Cruz asked his audience to imagine so much that one could be forgiven for feeling that one was being beaten with the misappropriated memory of John Lennon.

When Cruz directed that metaphor toward issues of foreign policy, it delivered only boilerplate Republican talking points. “Instead of a president who boycotts Prime Minister Netanyahu, imagine a president who stands unapologetically with the nation of Israel,” Cruz said, as he pledged to “defeat radical Islamic terrorism” and prevent Iran from acquiring a nuclear weapon.

It is difficult to get a handle on where Cruz stands on foreign policy, and that’s in part because his positions have rarely amounted to more than overheated rhetoric. Cruz, for example, once tried to strip the United Nations of funding by tying the appropriation of such money to China’s abortion policy.

And then there are his repeated statements on how to fight the Islamic State. Speaking to Fox News in August, Cruz articulated his plan for defeating the group. “They want to go back and reject modernity,” he said. “Well, I think we should help them. We ought to bomb them back to the Stone Age.”

The following month, Cruz expanded that plan into a three-point strategy to defeat the Islamic State: 1) secure the border between the United States and Mexico; 2) strip Americans who join the Islamic State of their citizenship; 3) bomb the Islamic State into oblivion.

That proposal evinced a distinct unwillingness to deal with the complexities of that conflict, something the senator appeared strangely cognizant of. His plan, Cruz explained, “is not laden with impractical contingencies, such as resolving the Syrian civil war, reaching political reconciliation in Iraq or achieving ‘consensus’ in the international community.”

At the same time, Cruz has criticized other military options aimed at changing the balance of power in the Syrian civil war. “I do not support arming the rebels in Syria, because the administration has presented no coherent plan for distinguishing the good guys from the bad guys,” Cruz told National Review. “Every time I have pressed the administration in both open hearings and classified hearings, as to how they would distinguish the good guys from the bad guys, the administration has failed to have an answer that makes any sense.”

The bottom line, Cruz seems to think, is that the United States should be in the business of killing terrorists and not much else. “I don’t think we should be engaged in long-term nation building. I think there are too many nations on earth to build up, and it’s not our military’s job,” Cruz told National Review in 2011. When asked by the magazine about America’s presence in Iraq and Afghanistan, Cruz’s answer showed a weariness with those conflicts. “What I don’t think is acceptable is for us just to stay there in perpetuity and try to rebuild each nation into a perfect utopia. That’s not our job and not our role. I think we have an important role stopping and killing terrorists.”

Even though he is the first major politician to announce his candidacy for the White House, Cruz does so as he is slipping behind his rivals in the polls. He now trails presidential hopefuls such as Kentucky Sen. Rand Paul, Florida Sen. Marco Rubio, and Wisconsin Gov. Scott Walker.

As he tossed red meat to the crowd of college students Monday, Cruz appears to occupy an increasingly marginal position within the Republican Party, whose leadership and donors he has alienated during his headline-making debut in the Senate. “The most interesting question about Mr. Cruz’s candidacy is whether he has a very small chance to win or no chance at all,” Nate Cohn wrote Monday for the New York Times.

That starting point for Cruz’s candidacy may mean that we see more rhetorical fireworks from the Texan. During a trip to New Hampshire this month, Cruz displayed the heights to which he is capable of soaring. “The Obama economy is a disaster, Obamacare is a train wreck, and the Obama-Clinton foreign policy of leading from behind — the whole world is on fire,” Cruz said while speaking at a Barrington manufacturer of turbomachinery.

According to the Concord Monitor’s account of the event, a 3-year-old sitting in the front row was surprised to hear that the globe stood in flames and asked the Texas senator to clarify: “The world is on fire?”

“The world is on fire. Yes! Your world is on fire,” Cruz told 3-year-old Julia Trant of Londonderry. “But you know what? Your mommy’s here and everyone’s here to make sure the world you grow up in is better.”

Mark Wilson/Getty Images

Elias Groll is a staff writer at Foreign Policy. Twitter: @EliasGroll

Trending Now Sponsored Links by Taboola

By Taboola

More from Foreign Policy

By Taboola