In the aftermath of the November jihadist massacre in Paris, I argued that the 2016 election would now be a national security election. While the unexpected passing of Justice Antonin Scalia now adds the issue of the future of the U.S. Supreme Court into the electoral mix—assuming Senators Chuck Grassley and Mitch McConnell can hold the line on rejecting Obama’s nominee(s)—I think this indeed remains the case.
The national security discussion can roughly be broken down into two subparts: (1) What will you do to keep me safe on the home front?; and (2) What will you do to fight the jihad abroad? While border security and illegal immigration have (properly) dominated the discussion on issue (1), there has simply not been enough concrete discussion on issue (2). This is especially tragic for Republican primary voters, because the de facto three finalists have very distinct foreign policy approaches, and because Article II of the Constitution unambiguously makes the Commander-in-Chief prerogative the Executive’s most solemn duty.
Donald Trump, of course, has come as close as one can possibly come to embracing 9/11 Trutherism without publicly bear-hugging Alex Jones, signing up to write on InfoWars.com, and blaming the Osama bin Laden hijackings on Israeli Mossad. He has explicitly embraced the far, far Left’s most astoundingly deceitful defamation about President George W. Bush: that “Bush lied and people died.” In a live debate, he had absolutely no idea what the nuclear triad is. He has declined to recognize Jerusalem as the eternal capital of Israel, and now claims strict “neutral[ity]” between our Israeli allies and the kleptocratic Jew-hating jihad-inciters in Ramallah’s Palestinian Authority government.
Moving on to the two actual conservatives remaining, Senators Cruz and Rubio, we see that there is actually a much larger doctrinal distinction between the two men’s approaches to fighting Islamic jihad than many realize. Put simply, Rubio has much more fully and unapologetically embraced the Dick Cheney/Donald Rumsfeld doctrine from the George W. Bush era. Cruz, on the other hand, subscribes to what Matt Lewis has called “militaristic pessimism“: Cruz starts out from hawkish first principles about American Exceptionalism on the world stage and our imperative to fight the jihad on the jihadis’ shores before they reach our own shores, but those precepts are then duly constrained by a post-Iraq War realist sobriety about the limits of using the U.S. military for nation-building purposes.
The difference between Cruz and Rubio, here, is perhaps most acutely seen on Libya and Syria. On the issue of Obama’s catastrophically failed Libyan intervention, Cruz says it was a mistake to oust the strongman dictator; Rubio supported the intervention and says the reason Libya turned into a jihadi-overrun failed state is because the U.S. did not leave behind a big enough residual force. On Syria, while both men (correctly) opposed Obama’s planned “unbelievably small” feckless strike against Assad back in 2013, they have taken different stances today. Cruz’s wariness of Vladimir Putin’s post-2013 Syrian presence leads him to oppose a U.S. imposition of a no-fly zone and, given Islamic State’s outsized presence in the country, to share Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu’s skepticism of ousting Assad. Rubio, as the more aggressive interventionist, both supports a no-fly zone and supports ousting Assad sooner rather than later.
In April 2015, Philip Klein at the Washington Examiner identified this Rubio v. Cruz distinction as “the most important foreign policy battle of 2016.” It is a deeply important contrast with which American conservatism, and the Republican Party itself, must grapple. As Klein argued ten months ago:
Right now, a broader cross-section of Republicans are torn between the failures of the Bush administration’s efforts to promote democracy in the Middle East and the perils of Obama’s reluctance to project American power. That’s why, ultimately, the debate between Cruz and Rubio is…relevant.
In Donald Trump, we have a cartoonish Michael Moore/Media Matters voice for the conspiracy theory Left. In Ted Cruz, we have a more nuanced anti-jihad hawk sobered by the lessons of the Iraq War. In Marco Rubio, we have more of an unapologetic doubling down on the Bush/Cheney/Rumsfeld nation-building doctrine.
These distinctions matter, and it would be to the race’s benefit for the candidates to more fully flush them out beyond mere televised debate sound bites.