WASHINGTON — Some of the hawkish figures who Ted Cruz recently dismissed as “crazy neo-con invade-every-country-on-earth and send our kids to die in the Middle East” … say they’d consider supporting Cruz anyway if he’s the last man between Donald Trump and the Republican presidential nomination.
Cruz, it turns out, hasn’t fully burned his bridges with that set of advisers and supporters of George W. Bush — figures like Weekly Standard editor Bill Kristol and former National Security Council official Elliott Abrams, who aren't closed off to Cruz, especially in the case of Abrams. Indeed, despite some lingering resentment and suspicion, there are even glimmers of rapprochement as the Republican primary looks like it could become a two-man race.
“I would not hesitate to back Cruz as the nominee,” Abrams — who not long ago told National Review that Cruz’s use of the word neocon invoked “warmongering Jewish advisers” — told BuzzFeed News. “If it’s a two man race, it’s really extraordinary to see Republican office holders in some cases or former office holders saying they don’t like Cruz or they would go for Trump, who is from my perspective not a Republican, not a conservative, has no policy views on anything that you can actually describe or get a handle on.”
In an interview on his campaign bus in Iowa last week, Cruz told BuzzFeed News that, despite his jabs at neocons, he has “good relations with a great many foreign policy thinkers.” Cruz has in the past cited Abrams along with former U.S. Ambassador to the U.N. John Bolton and former CIA director James Woolsey as trusted foreign policy experts.
The neocons’ willingness to consider Cruz stands in sharp contrast with a new line of current conventional wisdom in Washington that Cruz, who is the object of particularly intense personal dislike from establishment Republicans, is actually less acceptable to the establishment than Trump. The logic of many of the Republican interventionists: Cruz, according to this argument, doesn’t really mean his criticism, or at least might change his mind; Trump, by contrast, has longstanding, if sometimes incoherent, isolationist impulses. And campaigns don’t always determine foreign policy, they note: George W. Bush promised a “humble” foreign policy free of nation-building, and look what happened.
There are three reasons why Cruz is attracting some soft support from neoconservatives. To start, it’s Cruz's pedigree. With degrees from Harvard and Princeton, some think he can't possibly be serious about some of his more extreme statements. (During his first campaign, he launched a scathing attack on the Council on Foreign Relations as a “pit of vipers,” neglecting to note that his wife had been an active member of the group.)
“What gives people pause is the credentials. That is, wait a minute, this guy went to Princeton and Harvard Law School and you have Alan Dershowitz saying he’s one of the most brilliant students I ever had in 30 years at Harvard Law School, and you’re telling me he sees the world the way Donald Trump does? Is that really credible?” Abrams asked rhetorically.
Cruz also has skillfully kept channels to key neoconservatives open throughout the campaign season. His top foreign policy adviser, Victoria Coates, is a former aide to Donald Rumsfeld and is respected inside the party.
And finally, when compared to Trump's rhetoric about foreign affairs, Cruz is considered the lesser of two evils.
Cruz has sought to position himself as a kind of foreign policy centrist — defined neither by the retreat from foreign entanglement advocated by Rand Paul, nor by the interventionism that brought the Iraq War — though he would compensate with sheer ferocity, promising to “carpet bomb” ISIS to see if “sand can glow in the dark.”
His use of the term “neocon” last year in a Bloomberg interview and on the campaign trail, followed by a Heritage Foundation speech which again criticized hawkish elements and portrayed Cruz as occupying a sensible position in between them and the isolationists, caused a mini-uproar. “Enough with the nutty ‘neocon’ charge, Ted Cruz,” wrote Jonah Goldberg in the New York Post. And one Jewish Republican operative said Cruz’s attack on Trump’s “New York Values” had also rankled. "This New York values thing, I think a lot of right-wing Jews did read that, fairly or not, as he’s talking about the Jews,” the operative said.
But both Abrams and Kristol said they gave Cruz some leeway considering he’s in the midst of a contested primary.
“I‘ve seen people turn out to be somewhat different as president than they said they were going to be when they were running,” said Kristol. “Not because they misled anyone, just because when you’re president things look a little different from when you’re giving speeches in Iowa and New Hampshire and so forth.”
“I think at the end of the day a Ted Cruz administration would follow a foreign policy that I would be pretty happy with,” Kristol said. “I’m more relaxed about Cruz than some of my neoconservative friends.”
Their words represent a real change for a group that has long felt particular warmth for the campaign of Florida Senator Marco Rubio.
“A couple months ago, establishment Republicans were confidently saying, 'No way will we ever support Cruz,’” said a foreign policy-focused conservative operative familiar with the establishment Republican donor and activist world. “But now that they're confronted with reality that Trump could actually be the nominee, suddenly Ted Cruz doesn’t look so bad by comparison."
Ideologically, the GOP foreign policy establishment is more in tune with Rubio or Jeb Bush. Bush, for example, announced a list of heavyweight advisors back when he launched his campaign that includes George W. Bush administration figures such as Paul Wolfowitz and Meghan O’Sullivan. But as both of those candidates struggle in the middle of the pack, a reckoning is underway with reality.
And so Republican foreign policy thinkers are making a serious attempt to understand both frontrunners’ foreign policy views. Some lump Cruz in with Trump when it comes to foreign policy; Max Boot recently argued in Commentary that it’s “possible to detect the outlines of what might be called a Trump-Cruz foreign policy” based on the two candidates’ shared opposition to nation-building, tough rhetoric on terrorism, and immigration hawkishness. But there are key differences that make it an imperfect comparison — Trump, for example, is suspicious of existing American military alliances and is more tolerant of Vladimir Putin. And he has said that the U.S. should be paid for military aid that has long been viewed as strategic.
“But at the end of the day, this should not be a battle of personalities,” Cruz told BuzzFeed News, and added an oblique reference to the Iraq War, and perhaps one to the U.S. intervention in Libya. “The focus should be how do we defend America, how do we keep America safe? We should be willing to learn from the mistakes of the past.”
Earlier that day, former Secretary of Defense Robert Gates had gone on television and obliquely attacked Cruz, saying that anyone who calls for “carpet bombing” doesn’t know what they are talking about and shows disregard for civilian lives.
Cruz brushed off the criticism, telling BuzzFeed News “I will apologize to nobody for the vigorousness with which I will wage war on Islamic terrorism.” Asked to specify how exactly he would change the current air campaign against ISIS, Cruz said he would “increase it to the level of saturation bombing targeting ISIS” and cited Operation Desert Storm as a model.
“Now folks in the media like to twist that to suggest you’re targeting civilians,” he said. “The United States has never targeted civilians and we’re not going to begin to do so.”
Still, Cruz’s combination of tough talk and his shots at “aggressive neocons” have engendered mistrust among the foreign policy elite. "For the more hawkish wing of the party, it's not that he's burned bridges, which implies permanence,” said the foreign-policy focused conservative operative. “What he has done is sown suspicion and mistrust, a sense that he'll say irresponsible things and attack his friends to gain temporary advantage.”
Cruz’s tough rhetoric, in fact, sometimes obscures a more realist attitude toward, in particular, dictators. Cruz, for example, does not support a policy of regime change in Syria, and he thinks Egypt would be better off under Hosni Mubarak. “Bashar Assad is a bad man,” Cruz told BuzzFeed News. “But if Obama and Clinton, with the support of the establishment Republicans like Marco Rubio, toppled Assad, the result will be that ISIS will take over Syria.”
“The conundrum that Ted Cruz has sort of presented to the foreign policy establishment is that he on the one hand can be quite hawkish, talk a lot about the need for American power and American influence around the globe, but at the same time he can be extremely cautious about how he’s actually going to implement that power,” Cruz national security adviser Victoria Coates said.
“If you go back to his Heritage speech in December, heads were exploding all over town because he had the audacity to invoke [Reagan’s U.S. Ambassador to the U.N.] Jeane Kirkpatrick, who was the queen of the neocons,” Coates said. “But at the same time, that term, he used it more to talk about the interventionists of the last 10 years and specifically said Hillary Clinton, so he was using that term a little bit differently.”
“These efforts to make it an anti-Semitic smear tactic or to be overly critical of the Bush administration, I just don’t think it’s borne out by the rest of what he said in that Bloomberg interview,” Coates said.
For Coates, Cruz stands “closer to Reagan’s twin goals of peace through strength” than the other candidates, who, she said, lean much more heavily on the “strength” side of the dictum or on the “peace” side.
Republican politicians often cite Reagan, and Cruz is characteristically on-message on this point. Asked by BuzzFeed News to cite his greatest foreign policy influence apart from Reagan, Cruz cited Reagan anyway.
“If you ask the question, the answer is Ronald Reagan,” Cruz said. “You might not like that answer, but that is the truth.” Cruz then mentioned his Heritage speech about the “Reagan-Kirkpatrick view of foreign policy” and Jeane Kirkpatrick, who wrote an influential 1979 essay in favor of letting pro-American dictatorships remain in place instead of pushing for regime change.
(Reagan himself didn’t hew to Kirkpatrick’s view on this, and pressured dictators like Pinochet in Chile and Ferdinand Marcos in the Philippines to step down.)
But regardless of differences on specifics, while Trump seems at times to just say whatever comes to mind — “Nobody knows,” Cruz said when asked by BuzzFeed News if Trump has a coherent foreign policy — Cruz is well-versed on the issues and can argue, which makes him easier to grapple with.
“I think most neocons think he’s persuadable and he’s shrewd politically, he had to get the libertarian folks, the Rand Paul folks on board,” said a former Bush administration Pentagon official.
Certainly, there is still hope for a Rubio or Bush resurgence.
“That’s where the neocons will be until the bitter end,” said the former Pentagon official. “Foreign policy people have the worst political instincts.”
“The national security, foreign policy elite establishment has gone with Jeb or with Marco,” said Robert O’Brien, a lawyer and former foreign policy adviser to Scott Walker who is now neutral in the race but has informally advised Cruz and other candidates. If it does come down to a two-person race, O’Brien said, “You’re gonna have some people who go to Trump, some to Cruz. I personally think more of the hawks, the neocons, will go to Cruz than will go to Trump.”