Don’t tell the other ten candidates vying for the Republican Party’s presidential nomination, but GOP voters appear to be settling on their final four candidates heading into the last months before the first ballots are cast. Among the class of professional politicians, Senators Ted Cruz and Marco Rubio have emerged the top contenders. For outside observers who do not follow day-to-day political machinations, this must be seen as an odd outcome. Viewed from 30,000 feet, these two politicians are remarkably similar in more ways than they are not.
Both are freshman Senators. Both are Cuban-American and in their mid-40s. Both challenged establishment-backed Republicans in their populous home states and owe their political careers to tea party conservatives. Both enjoy substantial appeal among voters who describe themselves as “very conservative” and evangelical. For the right, a showdown between the two candidates is a no-lose proposition. “If it comes down to a Cruz-Rubio race, it’s a huge win for the conservative movement,” former executive director for the Conservative Action Project Wesley Goodman recently told National Review.
Even on policy, the distinctions between these two candidates are relatively trivial. That has led to some rather tortured efforts by both campaigns to either blur or highlight those dissimilarities. While Rubio has attempted to suggest that he and Cruz agree on more than they disagree, Cruz has taken the opposite approach and is elevating their minor disagreements into irreconcilable divisions. For the Texas senator, that has meant sacrificing coherence in the effort to strike a pose. In that process, Cruz seems to be drawing some rather incomprehensible lessons from the failed NATO intervention in Libya. More bizarrely, he has laid that failure at the feet of his fellow Republicans.
“Senator Rubio emphatically supported Hillary Clinton in toppling [Muammar] Gaddafi in Libya,” Cruz recently said. Calling the deceased dictator directly responsible for the deaths of 270 people in the 1988 bombing of Pan Am Flight 103 a “significant ally in fighting radical Islamic terrorism,” Cruz added that Marco Rubio shared as much blame for the 2012 terrorist attack in Benghazi that claimed four American lives as did former Secretary of State Hillary Clinton.
“If you look at President Barack Obama and Hillary Clinton and for that matter some of the more aggressive Washington neo-cons, they have consistently misperceived the threat of radical Islamic terrorism and have advocated military adventurism that has had the effect of benefiting radical Islamic terrorists,” Cruz added. He went on to say that the proposed intervention in Syria is identical to that which led to a disaster in Libya. Just two weeks after an ISIS terrorist cell with a command structure in Syria slaughtered 132 people in Paris, Cruz insisted that the United States “has no dog in the fight of the Syrian civil war.”
Cruz hadn’t gone as far as Senator Rand Paul, who has in the past said it was a mistake for the United States to overthrow Saddam Hussein despite that regime’s abuses and a virtually constant state of war between Hussein’s Iraq and the West from 1990 to 2003. Cruz did, however, offer an alternative to Rubio’s approach to geopolitics. “Ultimately I believe we should always be on the side of a transition to democracy,” Rubio said in 2011 in support of regime change in places where “those in charge of a government are friendly to our interests.” Cruz apparently disagrees.
The Texas senator is, however, misrepresenting history insofar as the Obama administration’s mission while “leading from behind” over the skies of Libya was never regime change. “Of course, there is no question that Libya – and the world – would be better off with Qaddafi out of power,” Obama said in an address to the nation. “But broadening our military mission to include regime change would be a mistake.” In that address, the president noted that regime change in Iraq was not worth the cost in lives or dollars. That’s perhaps why the administration was ill-prepared for the crumbling of Gaddafi’s regime.
That collapse came suddenly. What had been designed as an air war that would degrade Tripoli’s ability to wage a campaign of terror on civilians in Libya’s rebellious west soon transformed into air support mission for anti-government forces. Six months into the air campaign, and after just 64 NATO-led strikes on Gaddafi’s capital, the dictator was forced to go into hiding. Hillary Clinton immediately expressed qualified support for Libya’s ramshackle interim government, even before Gaddafi was captured and murdered by his countrymen – a fate that stiffened the spines of the Arab leaders facing similar unrest in their countries, and cemented their resolve to resist their ouster at all costs.
In the intervening months, Libya became a haven for al-Qaeda affiliated terrorists. As conservatives are well aware, the American diplomatic and CIA outposts in Benghazi had been the target of Islamist attacks on more than one occasion before the coordinated strike on September 11, 2012, that killed three American servicemen and a U.S. ambassador. Any of those attacks should have been a wake-up call for the administration. Libya had become a vacuum where terrorism could be planned and executed with impunity. Those warnings went ignored. Today, Libya is a North African haven for radical Islamist groups including ISIS, which occupies the Libyan port city of Sirte.
It’s easy for some to suggest that Western interventionism is the problem here, and the world would be better off if the cries of the civilians Gaddafi slaughtered went ignored. That’s only an argument that can be made from outside the Oval Office, but it is one that has a broad political constituency. To claim that Libya is a “neo-con” failure, however, is a willful misrepresentation of neo-conservatism. Libya is a disaster today as a result not of Western engagement but withdrawal. Cruz has drawn the worst lesson from the Libyan debacle: half-measures will almost always produce suboptimal results.
The West has a bad taste in its mouth from its experience in Iraq, but to suggest that nation-building is a wholly reckless enterprise is wrong. As our Max Boot observed, to make his case, Cruz is selectively ignoring success stories like Colombia’s. “Colombia has been able to beat back the Marxist guerrilla group known as FARC, which little more than a decade ago controlled an area the size of Switzerland,” he noted. This was only possible with the help of U.S. military advisors and aid investment. Boot also noted that the United Arab Emirates is exporting civil society as well as troops to Yemen as part of its effort to oust an Iranian-backed militia from power. “Paradoxically, the more nation-building we do, the less likely it is that we will be forced to send large numbers of our own troops into harm’s way,” Boot noted. If Ted Cruz is suggesting that interventionism produces terrorist safe havens, he will have to account for his steadfast opposition to intervention in Syria where American detachment allowed for the rise of ISIS.
Cruz has determined that his electoral prospects are advanced by his embrace of a slightly more disengaged approach to foreign affairs than even Barack Obama. His tormented effort to link Marco Rubio’s support for interventionism to Hillary Clinton only highlights that it is, in fact, Cruz who shares the administration’s thinking regarding foreign crises. When it comes to addressing looming disasters abroad before they become disasters at home, only one of these candidates represents a change from the approach preferred by Barack Obama.