Ted Cruz is not in a fighting mood. The Texas senator is sitting in a booth at the Capital Grille, an upscale restaurant on Pennsylvania Avenue, about halfway between the Capitol, where Cruz works, and the White House, where many suspect he’d like to end up. His jacket is off, his light blue tie is tucked behind his crisp white dress shirt as he casually picks at the salmon filet on the dinner plate in front of him and sips a glass of Pinot Noir.
Cruz has spent the past several days on the receiving end of a barrage of attacks. That’s not unusual. But what makes the latest fusillade notable is that it comes not from Democrats or the mainstream media or establishment Republicans but from his friend and frequent ally, Senator Rand Paul.
The junior senator from Kentucky is angry—very angry it seems—that Cruz has used Paul’s views on foreign policy as a way to frame his own. It’s hard to imagine Cruz could have been gentler in pointing out the differences. Here’s what Cruz said in an appearance on ABC’s This Week on March 9.
I’m a big fan of Rand Paul. He and I are good friends. But I don’t agree with him on foreign policy. I think U.S. leadership is critical in the world. And I agree with him that we should be very reluctant to deploy military forces abroad. But I think there is a vital role, just as Ronald Reagan did. . . . The United States has a responsibility to defend our values.
Elsewhere, Cruz has suggested that Republican views on foreign policy run from Rand Paul to John McCain—noninterventionist to uber-interventionist—and that Cruz and Ronald Reagan occupy space somewhere in the middle.
Paul wasn’t happy. In a speech to the Heritage Foundation last year, Paul had framed Republican foreign policy thinking in similar terms—isolationists on one end, neoconservatives on the other, with Paul and Ronald Reagan in the middle as advocates of a “balanced” approach to the world.
So Paul, in a series of articles and television appearances, lashed out at Cruz, accusing the Texas senator of “mischaracterizing” Paul’s views on foreign policy, misappropriating Reagan’s national security legacy, and, less directly, “splintering” the Republican party.
Cruz, seeking to quell the controversy, called Paul “courageous,” in a statement acknowledging differences but emphasizing points of agreement and ending with a tribute to his friend. “Substantive policy disagreements are a positive aspect of the political discourse, but in the fight for liberty, I am proud to stand with Rand.”
When I asked Cruz about Paul’s criticism, he paused, then responded slowly and deliberately. “I love Rand Paul. He’s a close friend. He is a passionate voice for liberty. We have agreed on the overwhelming majority of issues, and I fully expect we will continue to do so. On foreign policy, we have not agreed. He’s certainly entitled to his views and I have no intention of characterizing his views. I will allow him to characterize his own views.”
There is a fair amount of irony here. Ted Cruz, a man not known primarily for the subtlety of his critiques, is trying desperately to avoid further antagonizing Paul. And Rand Paul, who counsels restraint on matters of foreign policy and national security, has become quite the hawk, at least towards Cruz.
I reminded Cruz that Paul has already accused him of mischaracterizing those views, an implied charge of dishonesty. “What I have stated is my views,” Cruz says;
I think it would be a wonderful outcome if every Republican across the spectrum followed the model of Ronald Reagan and spoke with a clarion clarity for freedom and against oppression—spoke out against Russian aggression before they march into Ukraine, spoke out against Venezuelan aggression as Maduro murders protesters fighting for freedom, spoke out and called for the freedom of Leopoldo López, the opposition leader wrongfully imprisoned because Maduro is afraid of the desire for freedom of his citizens, and stood resolutely for vigorous sanctions against Iran, for using every tool necessary, including if necessary overwhelming military force, to prevent them from acquiring nuclear weapons. That is a Reaganesque foreign policy, and nothing would make me happier than seeing every Republican in the United States Senate embrace that foreign policy.
Cruz’s critique is all substance. And he doesn’t mention Paul by name. But there’s no question that Paul is the target of his comments.
On Iran, Paul has supported some sanctions but opposed the recent bipartisan effort to reinstate sanctions automatically if Iran violates the terms of the Geneva agreement. Paul was one of only two Republicans to stand with the Obama White House on the issue. On Venezuela, Paul has been quiet. And just days before Russia’s invasion of Ukraine, Paul cautioned against warning Vladimir Putin about the consequences of aggression. Some Republicans, he complained, are “stuck in the Cold War era” and want to “tweak Russia all the time.” Paul acknowledged that relations with Russia would sometimes be adversarial, but he called confrontational talk misguided and urged a more “respectful” approach to Putin.
This isn’t the first time Cruz and Paul have disagreed on these matters. Last fall, Paul criticized the Obama administration for being too bellicose towards Syria. “I think the failure of the Obama administration has been we haven’t engaged the Russians enough or the Chinese enough on this,” he said during a September 1 appearance on Meet the Press. In an argument that fundamentally misunderstood Russia’s interests, Paul went on: “The Russians have every reason to want to keep their influence in Syria, and I think the only way they do is if there’s a change in government where Assad is gone.”
Cruz had something closer to the opposite view. In a Washington Post op-ed, he argued that the administration should force a U.N. Security Council vote on Syria to embarrass Assad’s enablers. “Doing so,” he said, “would unify the world against the regime and expose China’s and Russia’s support for this tyrant.”
Paul thought it foolish to tweak China and Russia and said so. The Dallas Morning News reported on September 10 that Paul “tartly derided the idea of forcing ‘show votes’ in the United Nations to embarrass Russia and China. ‘True leadership,’ he said, would involve finding diplomatic common ground.”
Cruz wasn’t done. In a foreign policy speech at the Heritage Foundation on September 11, he called again for a stronger approach to Russia and China. “We should understand that you don’t deal with nations like Russia and China by embracing arm-in-arm and singing kumbaya. The one thing China and Russia understand and respect is strength, principled strength. . . . We shouldn’t be for a moment naïve that Mr. Putin loves peace and the American way of life.”
In an earlier interview on ABC News, Cruz called for consequences. “If they do veto it, we should respond by, with respect to Russia, we should reinstate the antiballistic-missile station in Eastern Europe that was canceled at the beginning of the Obama administration to appease Russia, and with respect to China, we should go through with selling the new F-16s to Taiwan that again this administration put the kibosh [on].”
Despite their very different approaches, Cruz and Paul, like many Republicans, both opposed authorizing Obama to use force in Syria. And over dinner, Cruz pointed to Syria as an issue on which he and Paul agreed. But Cruz told me that he would have been open to aiding Syrian rebels if the administration had been able to identify nonjihadists among their ranks. Although the two men ended up in the same place, their approaches to the problem were very different.
It’s not hard to understand why Paul reacted so strongly to Cruz’s characterization of his views. Their differences are real, and they are unlikely to help Paul if he were to run for president. While Paul has worked hard to suggest that his views on foreign policy place him squarely in the Reaganite mainstream of the Republican party, others have suggested that Paul’s views are closer to those of a more recent president.
In January, Paul gave a speech at the Center for the National Interest, in which he laid out his approach to foreign policy and national security. He pointed to the agreement on Syria’s chemical weapons as a model for future diplomacy. “The Syrian chemical weapons solution could be exactly what we need to resolve the standoff in Iran and North Korea. By leveraging our relationship with China, we should be able to influence the behavior of North Korea. Likewise, we should be engaging the Russians to assist us with the Syrians and Iranians.”
Steve Clemons, a senior fellow at the New America Foundation who is close to the White House, was impressed. “He identifies himself squarely as a realist in foreign policy, punches neoconservatives and isolationists, and embraces negotiations with America’s rivals and enemies—which puts him on the same page as Obama, Biden, Susan Rice, John Kerry, and Chuck Hagel.”
On the same page as Barack Obama: It’s a statement no one could make about Ted Cruz.
Stephen F. Hayes is a senior writer at The Weekly Standard.