In National Security Address, Ted Cruz Promotes 'Bully Pulpit of the Presidency'

Ted Cruz speaks to gun owners at CrossRoads Shooting Sports in Johnston, Iowa, on December 4. On Thursday, Cruz unveiled a foreign policy doctrine that linked several mass shootings to radical Islamic terrorism, not guns. Brian C. Frank/REUTERS

One thing stood out in Ted Cruz's address on national security Thursday morning: In his mind, the threat that America faces from jihadis is comparable to the Soviet Union at the height of the Cold War.

The Tea Party favorite, Texas senator and presidential candidate is leading some early polls in Iowa for the Republican nomination, and in his address he laid out a kind of Cruz Doctrine, arguing that the U.S. should lead on the global stage with professed idealism while supporting regimes and groups that advance its interests, even if they are not democratic.

"The true threat to the spread of liberty is...radical Islamism," Cruz said. He called that threat "just as oppressive as Communism" and drew several parallels between the Cold War and current counterterrorism efforts.

Cruz's doctrine took as its starting point the idea that the next president should start "uttering the words 'radical Islamic terror,'" a gesture he thinks would constitute a significant departure from current U.S. foreign policy (other presidential contenders have also made this point). The first half of his speech focused almost exclusively on those words, as he criticized the Obama administration for being "politically correct" and refusing to use the phrase in public remarks. He said that the approaching end of Obama's second term is "proof there is a God."

Democrats argue that using rhetoric about "Islamic terror" antagonizes the Muslim world at large and may play into terrorist-recruiting propaganda. Better to just call it terror, they argue, or to call terrorists "killers and thugs," as the president said in his nationwide address last Sunday. But in Cruz's view, the wrong word choice illustrates a failure to confront the problem for what it actually is.

"The greatest trick the devil ever pulled is convincing the world he did not exist," Cruz said, quoting Kevin Spacey's character in The Usual Suspects.

The former Princeton star debater might be getting his diplomatic philosophy from that film's Keyser Soze, but he seems to have gotten his domestic security strategy from a different shadowy character: Edward Snowden. Speaking about a string of domestic massacres that he attributed to "radical Islam," from the Fort Hood shooting to the Boston Marathon bombing to the shooting in San Bernardino, Cruz had one concrete suggestion about U.S. terrorism prevention policy: prevent bulk data collection.

"There are some on the right and the left who want to exploit the crisis by calling on Americans to surrender our constitutional liberties," Cruz said. "On the right, there are some who have called for resurrecting the government's bulk data collection.... More data is not always better data." He criticized his rivals in the GOP presidential field for wanting to resuscitate warrantless surveillance made legal under the Patriot Act.

On the left, of course, the call is for more gun control, not more surveillance. In California, the San Bernardino shooters used assault rifles to kill 14 people, but Cruz said the problem goes deeper than the availability of guns.

The strategy for preventing future incidents like San Bernardino begins by "calling it by its name," Cruz said, referring, again, to "radical Islamic terror."

"We are in a desperate need for clarity," he said. On dealing with Iran, Syria's Bashar al-Assad and jihadis, he said that "we need the Churchillian clarity that [Israeli] Prime Minister [Benjamin] Netanyahu provides." "Bibi," as he is affectionately known to conservatives, "doesn't have time" for political correctness, Cruz said. He directly accused the Obama administration of becoming the "speech police" and said Obama has "weaponized" the Justice Department to crack down on "those who would dare speak out against the threat." He was referring to Attorney General Loretta Lynch's recent pledge to vigorously prosecute hate crimes against Muslims.

As Shakespeare once wrote: Words, words, words. Why exactly are words so important to Cruz? The answer lies in his emulation of Ronald Reagan, whom he called "the single greatest liberator of human oppression that the world has ever known." Reagan, Cruz argued in his speech, used the "bully pulpit of the presidency" to spread America's influence and defeat Communism, and it was Reagan's belief in an "exceptional" America that set the tone for the end of the Cold War and led to the collapse of the Soviet Union.

In comparison to Reagan, he said, Obama has become a "laughingstock," starting with his so-called "worldwide apology tour" during his first term. To Cruz, Reagan's "Tear down this wall" wasn't just a call to action; it was a manifest policy couched in a philosophy of American exceptionalism.

Cruz also praised Reagan's foreign policy adviser and U.N. ambassador Jeane Kirkpatrick, a former Democrat and neoconservative hawk who crafted a doctrine of combating totalitarian Communism by supporting some authoritarian regimes, such as military juntas in Latin America.

"We do not betray the idea of America by accepting reality," Cruz said, arguing that some dictatorial governments were preferable to the rise of radical Islamic regimes. He said that America "doesn't have a side" in the current Syrian civil war, a sharp contrast with the Obama policy of forcing the political ouster of Bashar al-Assad. He also praised Egyptian President Abdel-Fattah el-Sissi for cracking down on extremist ideology (el-Sissi has also jailed journalists).

Reagan did not defeat Communism by "forcing democracy on unwilling nations," Cruz argued. The senator's form of idealism, which embraces Kirkpatrick's realpolitik, is a marked departure from the post-2000 strain of neoconservative philosophy in the Bush administration, which sought the spread of democracy throughout the Middle East, and famously deposed one notable dictator to achieve that end. Cruz reserved some praise for George W. Bush, saying that Libyan dictator Muammar el-Qaddafi was kept in check throughout the 2000s because he "feared threat of intervention" from the Bush administration. Cruz then accused Obama, who decided in 2012 to strike el-Qaddafi's army from the air and establish a no-fly zone over Libya, of letting the country fall into extremist hands.

"We will not win by replacing dictators...with terrorists," Cruz said. Post-Qaddafi Libya continues to be a hotbed for some jihadist groups, including the Islamic State militant group (ISIS).

Cruz, a Harvard Law School graduate, has a well-documented scrupulousness for legal principle when it comes to domestic issues, often to the chagrin of his Senate colleagues. His idealism on foreign policy parallels his strict interpretation of what the nation's character should be. So even if his doctrine spells out caution against interventionism, it doesn't balk at unilateralism.

To "utterly destroy ISIS," for example, he says the U.S. should directly send weapons to Iraqi Kurds, bypassing the local government in Baghdad. Never mind that the Kurds are an ethnic minority in a predominantly Sunni country; borrowing from Kirkpatrick, Cruz said that anyone who is with American interests should reap all the benefits.

"We shouldn't be worried about what Baghdad thinks," he declared.

For Cruz, it all circles back to that one specter, the ideology of "radical Islam," which he kept likening to Communism. In his view, the shooters in San Bernardino were acting as part of a larger movement, not merely drawing inspiration from it via the Internet. He slammed Obama for emphasizing that the shooters did not receive direct orders from ISIS.

Therein lies the true difference between the would-be president and the current one, who used warrantless surveillance to his advantage until the mass surveillance provision of the Patriot Act expired this year. Cruz is worried, on an existential level, about the existence of an ideology that opposes American values abroad and suggests proffering an alternative ideology to the world. Obama's address Sunday reveals a different concern: that anyone could become radicalized online and that attacks on soft targets like the health care institution in San Bernardino could be committed by lone actors without the organization of a regime or an ideological program.

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