The last Republican debate crystallized a divide among the candidates on foreign policy that, at its starkest, centers on whether the United States should seek to undermine the regime of Syrian President Bashar Assad.
Sens. Marco Rubio (Florida) and Lindsey Graham (South Carolina) (who has since ended his campaign) argued forcefully that the removal of the Assad clique is essential to fighting the Islamic State.
Donald Trump and Sens. Rand Paul (Kentucky) and Ted Cruz (Texas) say the opposite: that opposing the Syrian dictator is a distraction at best — and might even empower the jihadists.
Of the latter, Cruz has offered the most detailed explication of this right-wing “realism.” In a lengthy speech to the Heritage Foundation last month, Cruz claimed that the removal of Assad would lead to “radical jihadis controlling Syria.” He also defended Egyptian strongman Abdel Fatah Sissi and inveighed against democracy promotion by the United States.
Cruz is arguing for a stridently anti-American and nakedly genocidal dictator who sponsored terrorism against U.S. troops in Iraq and serves as a willing puppet of Iran. The notion that Assad could be nudged into reforms or compromise with his opposition was tested in 2011 by actors ranging from then-Sen. John F. Kerry to Turkish President Recep Tayyip Erdogan and was found to be delusional.
Cruz claims that Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu shares his view that there is no advantage to intervening in a fight between the Assad regime and the Islamic State. In fact, senior Israeli officials, including Defense Minister Moshe Yaalon, have advocated for the defeat of Assad and the jihadists by a U.S.-led coalition.
Syrian Sunnis as well as Sunnis from other states proved reluctant to fight the Islamic State while the Assad regime remained in power. President Barack Obama has acknowledged that the Islamic State cannot be defeated as long as the Assad regime stays.
Therein lies the greatest flaw of Cruz’s position. In proposing that the dictator be left in place, he and like-minded GOP contenders not only would empower a butcher, war criminal and close ally of Iran but also would preserve the Islamic State.