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The ‘Isolationist’ Smear


The Washington Post’s Jennifer Rubin writes that Ted Cruz “outdid himself last night in his courting of the Trumpkin base,” sinking “further into the far-right brew of isolationism and xenophobia.” And to prove this contention, Rubin grabs hold of two words Cruz used, “America” and “first,” to claim that the Texas senator is signaling support for 1930s/40s-style isolationism.

This is a pretty popular accusation on the hawkish Right. Having watched the debate, though, this seems to be, as Trump might put it, unfair. What I heard wasn’t 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 Middle East entanglements doesn’t make anyone a potential America First Committee recruit. Yet, here’s 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, Pat Buchanan opposed the first Gulf War while 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” ISIS (and what isolationist doesn’t support massive, indiscriminate bombing of foreign lands, right?), he answered:

What it means is using overwhelming air power to utterly and completely destroy ISIS. To put things in perspective, in the first Persian Gulf War, we launched roughly 1,100 air attacks a day. We carpet bombed them for 36 days, saturation bombing, after which our troops went in and in a day and a half mopped up what was left of the Iraqi army.

I’m skeptical that saturation bombing will solve the ISIS problem, or make the Syrian situation more agreeable in the long run. But I leave any policy certitude on the topic of beating ISIS 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 to smear anyone who is unconvinced that trying to engineer democracies in Islamic societies through military power is a good idea.

This isolationist fiction is part of a broader set of false choices that dominate foreign policy debate on the Right these days. During the CNN debate, for instance, Wolf Blitzer asked Cruz this question:

So would it be your policy to preserve dictatorships, rather than promoting democracy in the Middle East?

As Cruz pointed out, the choice is almost never between “democracy” or “preserving” dictators, but rather 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 that fleshed 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 did not always work in America’s best interests. The United States, Cruz argued, “cannot treat democracy promotion as an absolute directive; but rather as a highly desirable ideal.” He also pointed out that the progress of liberal democracy was not an “inevitable, linear evolution in human affairs.”

Disposing of autocrats in an effort to push democracy and protect human rights did not always work 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 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 titled “Ted Cruz Is Wrong About Cozying Up to Dictators.” Schmitt points out that, “When push came to shove, President 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 might have a moral duty to make the case for freedom and avoid “cozying” up to theocratic regimes like Iran, who 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, we would be having a very different debate.

arab springBut Iraq is not Germany, 1945. Syria is not Japan. Libya is not South Korea. Asking the theocratic thugs in Saudi Arabia or the strongman 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 many (not all, but 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 liberalism for a reason.

I could be wrong. But worrying about these conditions does not make a person an isolationist or a xenophobe.

Now, Rubin offers other ways—some more persuasive than others—in which she believes Cruz is embracing chauvinism for votes, including his malleable position on immigration and opposition to National Security Agency metadata-gathering. Though I’ll never understand how the latter has anything to do with isolationism, she claims that Rand Paul’s views, “rejected soundly” by the American people, are now being embraced by Cruz. (Thought: If Paul’s ideas about metadata collection have been rejected soundly, does that also mean that Lindsey Graham’s positions on Middle East intervention have suffered a similar fate?)

Now, I’m no political scientist, but I wonder why a cynical, Ivy League-educated candidate who cares about nothing more than winning the presidency would embrace ideas that have been soundly rejected by so many? Could it be, perhaps, that there’s still a debate to be had on some of these issues?

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.