Ted Cruz Is Wrong About Cozying Up to Dictators

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Republican presidential candidate Ted Cruz speaks in Johnston, Iowa, December 4. Cruz has resurrected an argument that the Middle East would be more stable if the U.S. had not assisted in toppling dictators, the author writes. Brian C. Frank/Reuters

This article first appeared on the American Enterprise Institute site.

On December 10, Senator Ted Cruz resurrected former U.N. Ambassador (under President Ronald Reagan) and AEI scholar Jeane Kirkpatrick's "Dictatorships and Double Standards" argument that the U.S. should not go around knocking off dictators in the name of advancing democracy or human rights.

In particular, he argued that the Middle East would be more stable if we had not toppled Saddam Hussein and Muammar el-Qaddafi. It would take much more than a blog post to fully address why Cruz is wrong, but it is worth noting just a few things off the bat.

First, Cruz is obviously using Kirkpatrick's argument to suggest rhetorically that he is the true heir to the hard-headed national security policies of Reagan.

But, as much as there was to admire in Kirkpatrick's tenure at the U.N., in fact, Reagan ultimately came down on the opposite side of her policy prescription when it came to dictatorships. When push came to shove, the president pressed strongmen in both South Korea and the Philippines to stand aside in favor of a turn to democratic rule.

Moreover, carried out consistently, Cruz's willingness to live with dictatorships would have been at odds with Reagan's larger strategic goal of bringing down the Soviet Union and freeing the peoples of Eastern and Central Europe. In theory, Cruz would have been happy with the Nixon policy of "détente."

And, speaking of Nixon, it was Nixon's "realist" policy to live with the shah of Iran and use that dictatorship as the would-be pillar for maintaining stability in the Middle East that actually led to the even worse Iranian regime today. Indeed, it led to much of the chaos and uncertainty we see now in the region.

Failing to push the shah to reform internally created the very revolutionary dynamic that Khomeini and company were able to take advantage of and establish the theocratic monstrosity the U.S. and our allies are now dealing with.

Cruz's position on the overthrows of Saddam and Qaddafi is also a canard.

Was the Middle East really going to be more stable with Iraq led by a dictator who had invaded two countries? Who had terrorized Kurds and Shia alike and used chemical weapons? Who had employed and sheltered terrorists? Who was only a year or so away from building a nuclear weapon in 1990 and had plans to acquire that capacity once free of the U.N. sanctions regime—a regime that was well on its way to falling apart by the late 1990s?

Does Cruz really think either Saddam or his bloodthirsty sons were going to be a stabilizing force over time?

The real causes of the ongoing instability in the Middle East were President Bush's team taking too long to stabilize Iraq post-Saddam and then, once they got down to business, the Obama team tossing that success overboard. And, of course, the problem in Libya was making no effort whatsoever to deal with a post-Qaddafi Libya. In short, the intervention wasn't the problem; the problem was not being serious about it.

As with any broad policy, prudence should guide how and when we promote and support democrats over autocrats, but history shows that dictatorships over the long run are not likely to be reliable partners. Staying in power is a dictator's principal goal—a goal that prevents such a regime from being a true ally in assisting the U.S. in maintaining a rules-based, liberal international order precisely because such an order lies in conflict with the legitimacy of the dictator's own rule.

There is a reason, then, why "Dictatorships and Double Standards" didn't fly the first time. And it won't do any better in Cruz's 2.0 version.

Gary Schmitt is the co-director of the Marilyn Ware Center for Security Studies at AEI and the director of AEI's Program on American Citizenship.