Foreign Policy

The 'Isolationist' Smear Against Ted Cruz

The term is becoming meaningless.


After the latest Republican presidential debate, the Washington Post's Jennifer Rubin argued that Sen. Ted Cruz had undone himself "courting" the "Trumpkin base," sinking "further into the far-right brew of isolationism and xenophobia." And to prove this contention, Rubin grabbed hold of two words Cruz used, "America" and "first," to claim that the senator from Texas was signaling support for 1930s/'40s-style isolationism.

This is a pretty popular accusation on the hawkish right. Marco Rubio has also called Cruz an isolationist. Having watched the debate, though, I think, as Donald Trump might complain, it is unfair. What I heard was not a case for isolationism but one against Middle Eastern democracy building—a project that's been a persistent and bloody failure, one that's sidetracked foreign policy from its "first" task, which is defeating the enemy.

You can certainly disagree with my assessment, but I'm relatively sure that merely holding a skeptical view of entanglements in the Middle East doesn't make anyone a potential America First Committee recruit. Yet here's the American Enterprise Institute's Danielle Pletka quoted in Rubin's piece: "Good for Ted Cruz for being honest. He doesn't want to be anywhere in the world, doesn't want America to lead, and harkening back to the likes of Pat Buchanan and Charles Lindbergh is truth in advertising for him."

Whether or not Cruz was dog whistling at Trump fans—and obviously, he's trying to lure them—nothing he proposed at the debate comports with Pletka's observation. Not even close. For one thing, Buchanan opposed the Gulf War, whereas Cruz proposes it as the ideal display of American military power. When a CNN moderator queried Cruz about his earlier desire to want to "carpet-bomb" the Islamic State group (and what isolationist doesn't support massive, indiscriminate bombing of foreign lands, right?), he answered that he is interested in "using overwhelming air power to utterly and completely destroy" the Islamic State.

I'm skeptical that saturation-bombing would solve the Islamic State problem or make the Syrian situation more agreeable in the long run. But I leave any policy certitude on the topic of beating the Islamic State or fixing Syria to think-tankers, completely unqualified explainer types, and pundits far smarter than I. What I do know is that "isolationist," much like "neocon," is quickly becoming a meaningless label, used not only to describe those who reflexively oppose American intervention but also to smear anyone who is unconvinced that trying to engineer democracies in Islamic societies through military power is a good idea.

This isolationist canard is part of a broader set of false choices that dominate foreign policy debates on the right these days. During the CNN debate, for instance, Wolf Blitzer asked Cruz, "So would it be your policy to preserve dictatorships rather than promoting democracy in the Middle East?"

The choice is almost never between democracy and preserving dictators; rather, it's either living with the ugly realities of the world or trying to change them and possibly creating new and uglier ones. Earlier this month, Cruz gave a speech at the Heritage Foundation, fleshing out his outlook by reviving Jeane Kirkpatrick's Dictatorships and Double Standards, which argued that disposing of autocrats in an effort to push democracy and protect human rights has not always worked in America's best interests.

Whether Cruz embraces these ideas for political expediency, we can't know. He is, like almost every Republican, trying to claim Ronald Reagan's national security legacy for himself. (The conservative icon was mentioned four times by candidates at the CNN debate, and three of those instances were by Cruz.) AEI's Gary Schmitt, unimpressed by this kind of talk, wrote a piece last week, which Newsweek titled "Ted Cruz Is Wrong About Cozying Up to Dictators." Schmitt pointed out that "when push came to shove, (Reagan) pressed strongmen in both South Korea and the Philippines to stand aside in favor of a turn to democratic rule."

This is true. The United States may have a moral duty to make the case for freedom and avoid "cozying up" to theocratic regimes, such as the one in Iran, that threaten their democratic neighbors, fund terror and spread illiberalism. But if dictators could simply be asked (or even compelled through force) to stand aside and we knew liberalism would flourish, Americans would be having a very different debate.

But Iraq is not 1945 Germany. Syria is not Japan. Libya is not South Korea. Asking the theocratic thugs in Saudi Arabia or the strongmen in Egypt and Pakistan to "stand aside" for democracy would almost certainly manifest in anarchy, widespread violence and more radicalism. If we trust Pew Research Center's study of the Muslim world—and everything recent history has shown us—it's clear that most Islamic-majority nations would be unlikely to embrace anything resembling Western democracy. Meanwhile, the process of democracy allows factional, religious and ethnic quarrels, always percolating, to reignite. The Arab Spring spurred more terrorism than it did liberalism for a reason.

Cruz is no libertarian; that's for certain. It's more reasonable to think of Cruz's position on American power—as one of his critics, Michael Gerson, put it in the Washington Post—as an "uncomfortable straddle" of both sides of the conservative foreign policy argument. This straddling means that Cruz's positions—whatever you make of them—will be less crisp than Marco Rubio's. What it doesn't mean is that Ted Cruz is the new Charles Lindbergh.


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  1. Guys, it’s December 18th today and I think its fine that we continue to demonstrate how morally superior “libertarians” are when it comes to politics. But by February or March i think its time that we get behind one of these right-wing neocon turdbag Republicans in the upcoming battle against She Devil Antichrist. I see this article– postulating that it’s unfair to criticize a man who has called for carpet bombing desperately poor citizens as an isolationist– as a bridge to those of us who think the government is too big.

    Nixon ’68, baby.

    1. Nixon was a progressive socialist who created the Environmental Protection Agency.

      1. The left hated him anyway. Because he destroyed communist intellectuals like Alger Hiss, as part of the House Un-American Activities Committee. The progressive pseudo intellectuals always had it in for him after that.

    2. I fully expect Reason to end up in the Cruz camp. There’s nowhere else for them to go.

      1. Personally, I expect to end up in a Trump or Hillary camp, if they get elected.

        1. Nah, you’ll just get a monitoring chip.

    3. american socialist|12.18.15 @ 3:26AM|#
      “Nixon ’68, baby.”

      Not surprising.

      1. I was being facetious. I would have voted for Pigasus in 1968 and George McGovern in 1972. I was a toddler when the Vietnam War ended, but I imagine if I was a few years older i would have felt just as much disgust and rage about Johnson and Nixon’s criminal wars as I did later about Bush’s criminal wars. What did an anti-government guy like you do in the 60s? Join the Weathermen? That’s probably what I would have done.

        1. Don’t forget JFK. That war started before Johnson, though he deserved the most credit for ramping it up.

  2. I keep failing to see why being called an actual “isolationist” could be considered a smear. Only a moronic politician would do the same things (bombing, boots on the ground, droning, special forces night raids, more bombing) for 15 years straight while the problems became WORSE as a result, and not decide to reexamine the strategy and try a more hands-off approach — at least for a while as an experiment.

    As for endorsements, I expect Reason will endorse the eventual Libertarian party candidate. The major party alternatives will be a giant steaming turd burger or a bag full of shit sliders. Even if we lived in an alternate reality where the two major candidates merely represented a choice between HUGE government wallet-grabbers and HUGE government bedroom-peepers (which would be oddly preferable to the excrement circus we have now), I would still expect Reason to endorse the Libertarian.

    1. I don’t think Reason ever endorses a candidate.

      1. The individual editors and writers usually share their preferences, but yeah, I don’t think there’s ever a monolithic selection.

  3. Has there been a military action that the likes Rubin and Pletka have not advocated we spill blood and treasure on? At this point I don’t even think it’s right to call them neocons. At least the original neocons had some iota of an understanding of the limits of what going to war could do. These guys are just adolescent warmongers.

  4. Jennifer Rubin being despicable once again.

  5. Cruz can’t be an isolationist, he’s Canadian!

    The solution to the world’s problem has always been the same, capitalism. All this jibber jabber is about the symptoms not the disease.

  6. No doubt, Reason scribblers saw to that.

  7. The purpose of foreign policy is to defeat the enemy? That’s it?

  8. The term “isolationist” is not becoming meaningless. It is merely being applied to the wrong people.

    It is the war mongering and the over spending of our government that is in fact isolating the United States. European allies are abandoning their former relationship with the US in that they are leaving NATO to align with Russia. That includes France, Germany and the United Kingdom. That is isolating the United States and it’s happening because of the war-mongering policies coming from the likes of John McCain, LIndsey Graham and Peter King.

    The United States is being isolated economically by China and the BRICS group. This is being done because the excessive spending of the United States is making the dollar worthless. Thus all the money we are spending, whether it’s on wars or on welfare or lining the pockets of some politicians, is causing the dollar to deteriorate. The Chinese RNB is taking the place of the dollar and that is in fact isolating the United States economically.

    So, the term “isolationist” is not meaningless. It is simply being applied to the wrong people. It’s not Ron or Rand Paul that are isolating the United States. It’s Barack Obama, both Bushes, Dick Durbin, Harry Reid, John McCain, and all those politicians that are causing the United States to become isolated militarily and economically, that are the isolationists.

  9. According to Harsanyi “the choice” we confront is b/w “either living with the ugly realities of the world or trying to change them and possibly creating new and uglier ones.”
    That’s the choice for USA because of our “Exceptionalism,” right? I mean Portugal or Micronesia don’t have that choice; ONLY we do? What if the day comes when China decides IT is “exceptional” and it doesn’t feel like tolerating the “ugly reality” of US NeoCons destabilizing the globe; so it drones Lindsay Graham?
    Could an event of that nature open Harsanyi’s mind to the Real Choice — b/w minding our own fucking business and meddling with foreign entanglements?

  10. I’m not really sure what people have issue with in this article.

    People are trying to call Cruz an isolationist as a smear. They are wrong, and Reason is pointing out how they are wrong.

    I for one appreciate articles that outline and describe what politicians are actually saying their position is and countering falsehoods that other’s say about them.

    I really don’t understand the hostility to this.

  11. Jennifer Rubin is scum. I stopped reading her a couple years ago when her column become “The Two-Minute Rand Paul Hate”.

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