In the battle between Ted Cruz and Marco Rubio to define the GOP's Middle East policies, Rubio the superhawk has been consistently worse. But that doesn't mean Cruz is actually good. Consider these comments from last night's debate, in which the Texas senator offers a reasonable point about the disastrous consequences of the Libya war but then runs roughshod over an important distinction:
[L]et's go back to the beginning of the Obama administration, when Hillary Clinton and Barack Obama led NATO in toppling the government in Libya. They did it because they wanted to promote democracy. A number of Republicans supported them….[W]e were told then that there were these moderate rebels that would take over. Well, the result is, Libya is now a terrorist war zone run by jihadists.
Move over to Egypt. Once again, the Obama administration, encouraged by Republicans, toppled Mubarak who had been a reliable ally of the United States, of Israel, and in its place, Morsi and the Muslim Brotherhood came in, a terrorist organization.
Cruz uses the verb topple in both of his examples, but he's conflating two rather different situations. NATO really did topple the government of Libya. There was a revolution in progress, but the revolutionaries appeared to be losing; then the West swooped in with military support, tipping the scales in the rebels' favor. In Egypt, by contrast, the Obama administration's chief contribution to the revolution was to inform Mubarak, whose regime received heavy doses of American aid, that it would no longer stand behind him. There is a basic, fundamental difference between withdrawing support for a government and dropping bombs on it, yet Cruz speaks as though they're the same thing.
Meanwhile, Marco Rubio's response to Cruz was even more confused:
To begin with, Moammar Qaddafi and the revolt against Qaddafi was not started by the United States. It was started by the Libyan people. And the reason why I argued we needed to get involved is because he was going to go one way or the other. And my argument then was proven true, and that is, the longer that civil war took, the more militias would be formed and the more unstable the country would be after the fact.
If Cruz is giving Washington too much credit for what happened in Egypt, Rubio is giving it too little credit for what happened in Libya. Yes, a revolt was already underway there when the U.S. intervened; and yes, this rebellion was more violent than most of the other Arab Spring movements. But it was far from clear that Qaddafi "was going to go one way or the other," and that certainly wasn't how the intervention was sold to the public. If you look back at Rubio's own statements at the time, they're full of calls to "limit the regime's ability to wage war against its own citizens" and to stand with "the Libyan people, who simply yearn to usher in a new era of freedom." That is not the sort of thing you say if you think a dictatorship is bound to fall no matter what.
At any rate, given that Libya is engaged in a civil war right now, for reasons directly related to the fall of Moammar Qaddafi, it's a little perverse to claim that NATO's bombs made the country more stable than it otherwise would have been.
So if you want to subsidize the world's Mubaraks, Cruz may be your candidate; if you want to bomb the world's Qaddafis, you'll probably prefer Rubio. If you don't want to do either, you're going to have to look elsewhere.