Ted Cruz’s Un-American ‘America First’ Strategy

The senator suggests his foreign policy follows in Ronald Reagan’s footsteps. His real inspiration is more troubling.

LAS VEGAS, NV - DECEMBER 15:  Republican presidential candidate U.S. Sen. Ted Cruz (R-TX)speaks during the CNN Republican presidential debate on December 15, 2015 in Las Vegas, Nevada. This is the last GOP debate of the year, with U.S. Sen. Ted Cruz (R-TX) gaining in the polls in Iowa and other early voting states and Donald Trump rising in national polls.  (Photo by Justin Sullivan/Getty Images)
LAS VEGAS, NV - DECEMBER 15: Republican presidential candidate U.S. Sen. Ted Cruz (R-TX)speaks during the CNN Republican presidential debate on December 15, 2015 in Las Vegas, Nevada. This is the last GOP debate of the year, with U.S. Sen. Ted Cruz (R-TX) gaining in the polls in Iowa and other early voting states and Donald Trump rising in national polls. (Photo by Justin Sullivan/Getty Images)

Tuesday evening’s GOP debate witnessed a sharp exchange between candidates Marco Rubio and Ted Cruz on U.S. policy toward dictatorships in the Middle East and North Africa. Where Rubio restated his support for regime change in Iraq in 2003 and Libya in 2011, Cruz suggested leaving anti-Islamist dictators well alone. “We need to learn from history,” said Cruz, “If we topple Assad, the result will be ISIS will take over Syria, and it will worsen U.S. national security interests. And … instead of being a Woodrow Wilson democracy promoter … we ought to hunt down our enemies and kill ISIS rather than creating opportunities for ISIS to take control of new countries.” The discussion did nothing to resolve what has become a significant fault line over foreign policy within the Republican Party.

Indeed, this wasn’t the first time Cruz has outlined his vision of an “America First” strategy. His debate remarks echoed the foreign policy speech he delivered at the Heritage Foundation on Dec. 10 — a speech that offers the most complete portrait to date of Cruz’s strategic worldview and, as such, deserves more scrutiny than it has received. True to his style in domestic politics, Cruz’s foreign policy rhetoric seems at first glance to belong to a mainstream tradition, only to reveal political intentions that, in the context of American history, are more marginal and troubling.

In that sense, it’s no accident that Cruz cited Jeane Kirkpatrick as a central inspiration. A professor of government at Georgetown University in the 1970s, Kirkpatrick was active in the Committee on the Present Danger – formed in 1976, with a membership that included Eugene Rostow, Paul Nitze, and Norman Podhoretz, to warn that the policy of détente was emboldening the Soviet Union and weakening the United States — and served under Ronald Reagan as a hard-hitting U.S. Ambassador to the United Nations. At the 1984 Republican National Convention she delivered a keynote speech that slammed “San Francisco Democrats” for their tendency to “always blame America first.” To Cruz’s audience, Kirkpatrick’s credentials as a Reaganite conservative are impeccable.

Kirkpatrick’s most famous work is her 1979 Commentary article, “Dictatorships and Double Standards,” which Cruz cited in his Heritage Foundation speech. It offers a bleak analysis of world affairs and of human nature. It takes issue with the Enlightenment notion that history is heading in the direction of “reason, science, education, and progress,” and chides those naïve Americans, such as Jimmy Carter, who subscribe to the fanciful “doctrine of modernization” that “predicts progress (in the form of modernization for all societies) and a happy ending (in the form of a world community of developed, autonomous nations).”

History has no direction, cautions Kirkpatrick, and the United States needs to focus less on perfecting imperfect but reliable allies (as it had disastrously attempted to do with Mohammad Reza Shah Pahlavi of Iran and Anastasio Somoza García of Nicaragua) and more on the global threat posed by communism. While Washington can work productively with anti-communist “traditional autocracies” (and indeed, such entities might mellow in time), “revolutionary autocracies” such the Soviet Union and China are threats of a different sort — possessed of a malevolence that is firmly set. Kirkpatrick contends that while “traditional autocracies are, in general and in their very nature, deeply offensive to modern American sensibilities,” such regimes are infinitely preferable to those susceptible to Marxism-Leninism.

There are three reasons why Cruz might have identified Kirkpatrick as a lodestar. First, Kirkpatrick, the first woman to ever to serve as U.S. Ambassador to the United Nations, was a significant influence on the foreign policies of President Reagan — particularly in his support for brutal anti-communist military dictatorships in Latin America — and this connection, in the eyes of today’s Republican Party, automatically confers privileged status. For anyone with serious ambitions in either major party, indeed, invoking Reagan’s wisdom is like pinning an American flag badge to your lapel — you do it without a second thought. Second, Kirkpatrick was inspired to write the article by the supposed failings of President Jimmy Carter, whom she lambasted in the article as weak-willed and sanctimonious, which makes for a nice analogical fit — scratch Carter and replace with Obama.

The third reason more directly concerns the substance of Kirkpatrick’s views. Cruz seems to believe Kirkpatrick’s clear-eyed realism offers guidance for the troubles facing the United States today. Rather than take morally charged leaps into the unknown (read: the Iraq War or Libyan War), Cruz is suggesting we follow Kirkpatrick’s advice in supporting unpleasant “authoritarian” leaders. With more than a few intellectual contortions, Kirkpatrick’s references to Somoza and the Shah could be scratched and replaced with Bashar al-Assad and Muammar al-Qaddafi.

In the sum, the core of Cruz’s message is this: I’m a literate, tough-minded heir to Ronald Reagan and I see the world as it is.

But Cruz’s preferred self-image relies on a highly distorted reflection. Begin with the fact that Reagan was highly selective in how he applied Kirkpatrick’s ideas. In Guatemala and El Salvador, for example, the administration supported murderous right-wing, but reliably anti-communist, dictatorships perpetrating awful crimes against their people. (Guatemala’s then leader, Efraín Ríos Montt, is to be retried for genocide in January.) But in the Philippines, Reagan eventually came round to the idea of pressuring the autocratic Ferdinand Marcos to step down from power, repudiating a key element of Kirkpatrick’s thesis. Indeed, Marcos once offered an after-dinner toast to Kirkpatrick that quoted verbatim from “Dictatorships and Double Standards” — for all the good it did him.

Kirkpatrick’s ideas remain far from the mainstream of either political party in the United States. She was a civilizational pessimist who wanted her nation to ruthlessly follow its core interests, not act upon universal values. In this sense, she shared a similarity with former Secretary of State Henry Kissinger, whose support for anti-communist strongmen mirrored her own. Indeed, Kissinger registered strong disapproval of Marcos’ ousting in Kirkpatrickian terms in March 1986: “Whatever else may be said about the Marcos regime, it contributed substantially to American security and had been extolled by American presidents, including President Reagan, for nearly two decades.” From the perspective of Kirkpatrick and Kissinger, those of Reagan’s foreign policies that were informed by a neo-Wilsonian commitment to democratization weren’t just a disappointment – they were naïve and dangerous.

But, of course, Reagan accomplished something in his second term that Kirkpatrick thought impossible: He formed a close working relationship with a Marxist-Leninist who implemented policies — Glasnost and Perestroika — that served to mellow a “radical totalitarian” regime. Mikhail Gorbachev, leader of the Soviet Union, was the very thing that Kirkpatrick’s theory held as implausible. When Cruz said in his speech, “we could do worse, in my opinion, than adopting the Reagan-Kirkpatrick philosophy today,” he neglected to note the massive gulf that separated the two.

And here lies a potentially significant problem for Cruz. While Kirkpatrick was sometimes insightful — writing on the second Iraq War in 2006 Kirkpatrick lamented that “we have helped to create the chaos that has overtaken the country, and we may have reduced rather than promoted the pace of democratic reform” — she was also bracingly amoral, as this section from “Dictatorships and Double Standards” attests:

Traditional autocrats leave in place existing allocations of wealth, power, status, and other resources which in most traditional societies favor an affluent few and maintain masses in poverty. But they worship traditional gods and observe traditional taboos. They do not disturb the habitual rhythms of work and leisure, habitual places of residence, habitual patterns of family and personal relations. Because the miseries of traditional life are familiar, they are bearable to ordinary people who, growing up in the society, learn to cope, as children born to untouchables in India acquire the skills and attitudes necessary for survival in the miserable roles they are destined to fill. Such societies create no refugees.

Such brutal sentiments have historically not flown well in the United States. It is one thing to suggest that deposing Qaddafi was reckless because it created conditions in Libya more injurious to U.S. interests than existed before. It is quite another to note, as Cruz has, that “we don’t have a side in the Syrian civil war” and admiringly quote Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu’s comment that “when two of your enemies are fighting each other, I say don’t strengthen one or the other. I say weaken both, or at least don’t intervene, which is what I’ve done.” This isn’t wisdom so much as churlishness, and the American public has generally been apt to recognize it as such in candidates for high office.

After all, Syrians struggling to survive a hellish civil war in which Bashar al-Assad and the Islamic State are the principal antagonists do not “learn to cope … in the miserable roles they are destined to fill.” They flee and they die. And contrary to Kirkpatrick’s world-weary claim, places like Syria, whatever else is true about them, most certainly “create refugees.”

David Milne is a professor of modern history at the University of East Anglia. He is the author or editor of three books, most recently Worldmaking: The Art and Science of American Diplomacy. Milne is co-editor and co-author, with Christopher McKnight Nichols and Danielle Holtz, at work on the forthcoming Ideologies and U.S. Foreign Policy: A New History.

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