Cage Match

Ted Cruz and Marco Rubio Battle Over Syria Regime Change

The two GOP candidates could not have more different plans when it comes to what to do with Syrian dictator Bashar al-Assad.

12.04.15 6:00 AM ET

Ted Cruz and Marco Rubio have a new thing to fight over: Syria’s brutal dictator.

The two have spent the past few weeks going after each other with increasingly testy language, trading barbs over who is toughest on immigration and whether Ted Cruz’s vote on an NSA surveillance program means a theoretical future terrorist attack is all his fault.

But now, there’s an urgent, pressing, highly specific issue dividing the two candidates: how to handle Syrian dictator Bashar al-Assad. Their opposing views were on full display at the Republican Jewish Coalition presidential forum Thursday and highlight a huge ideological difference between the pair of freshman senators.

The debate represents the two dominant streams of foreign policy thinking in the Republican Party right now: the traditional neoconservativism of Rubio’s wing versus the libertarian-friendly thinking of Cruz’s wing. While Cruz believes in a muscular foreign policy, he has opposed removing Assad from power - his views are more in line with those ex-hawks who have been chastened by America’s experience with war over the past decade and a half. Meanwhile, Rubio says he favors military intervention to depose Assad.

The Syrian uprising erupted in 2011 as part of the Arab Spring protests. When Assad responded with violence, many segments of the population revolted, leading to the displacement of millions of refugees. More than a quarter-million people have died in the ensuing carnage.

“If we are to defeat our enemies we need to be clear-eyed that toppling a government and allowing radical Islamic terrorists to take over a nation is not benefiting our national security interests,” said Cruz, referring to Obama’s Syria policy goals. “Putting ISIS or Al Qaeda or the Muslim Brotherhood in charge of yet another state in the Middle East is not benefiting our national security.”

Rubio’s stance couldn’t be more different. At the event, he argued unequivocally in favor of efforts to take down Assad.

“As long as Assad is in power you’re going to have in place someone that creates the conditions for the next ISIS to pop up, for the next ISIS to emerge,” Rubio said Thursday. “This simplistic notion,” he concluded, “that ‘leave Assad there because he’s a brutal killer, but he’s not as bad as what’s going to follow him,’ is a fundamental and simplistic and dangerous misunderstanding of the reality of the region.”

Cruz’s stance quickly drew fire from both neoconservative quarters and advocates for a more aggressive American role to end the Syrian conflict.

“Supposed ‘realists’ constantly say the U.S. must stop pursuing policies of 'regime change' and accept the 'devil we know.’ … The Syrian President now controls significantly less than half of the country, even with direct Russian and Iranian support,” Evan Barrett, a political adviser to the Coalition for a Democratic Syria, said.

“I think it strikes people here [at the Republican Jewish Coalition's conference] as very puzzling that someone would want to keep the Assad regime, which has armed and funded Hezbollah, and which has hosted Hamas and is one of the worst state-sponsors of terrorism in the world, that Ted Cruz would want to keep him in power,” said Noah Pollak, the executive director of the Emergency Committee for Israel.

During much of the Bush years, Republican orthodoxy started with the premise that U.S. military interventions to topple dictatorships could unleash a universal human longing for representative democracy, and that good nations had a moral responsibility to remove evil dictators -- full stop. A few outlier Republicans and the bulk of Democrats held that sometimes brutal secular dictators were the best-case scenario -- the so-called ‘realist’ school of thinking.

Cruz’s decision to eschew neoconservative pieties about dictators is interesting because it changes the contours of the Republican foreign policy debate. Typically, you would have expected to find stances like his relegated to fringier conservative figures -- think Ron Paul and Walter Jones. Their voices and positions didn’t have much representation or influence on Capitol Hill.

But Cruz’s stance is atypical, because he pairs a single-minded devotion to a no-daylight relationship between Israel and the U.S. with a less dogmatic stance on other foreign policy issues.

For instance, while he has argued for a large, capable military, Cruz is loathe to actually use it. And when Congress debated NSA surveillance reform, the Texas Republican staked out a middle ground between Rubio and libertarian Republican Sen. Rand Paul: a reform of existing intelligence authorities that increased privacy while still maintaining many of the tools that the NSA requires to do investigations.

As the focus of the 2016 presidential primary shifts to foreign policy and defense, Cruz and Rubio’s differences over a dictator could provide their feud with more fodder.

So the competition between the two senators isn't just politics; increasingly, it looks like a tussle between two diametrically opposed schools of Republican foreign policy.