Ted Cruz has unveiled his foreign policy team, and things are even worse than you’d imagined.
It’s sad. Throughout this tortured campaign season, conservatives, and not just conservatives, had good reason to put a certain kind of hope in Cruz—hope that he could return America to a stable global role that learned from the failures of the past two administrations.
Yes, this sounds odd. But recall the alternatives. Rubio offered empty hysterics, Trump truculent gibberish, and Graham full-blown interventionism. Sanders never even wanted to talk foreign policy. And Clinton’s response to the excoriation of her legacy as Secretary of State, from Libya to Russia and well beyond, was to double down in characteristically blithe yet brittle fashion.
So at the same time as the GOP has lost its way, many of the Beltway’s sharpest and most experienced foreign policy hands—Democrats included—have given up on President Obama, what with his stubborn preference for contradictory mush and half-measures over the counsel of his established elders.
With Cruz, despite his vow to make the sands of Syria glow from bombardment, here, at least, was a guy who could snap Washington out of the foolishness of Obama and his pet advisors without snapping back into the foolishness of W. and his pet advisers. Here was a guy who sensed the public mood, favoring a realistic freedom agenda as on guard against overreach as underreach.
Such was the hope. This is the reality: In addition to some circumspect and enlightened folks, Cruz has added the likes of Frank Gaffney, a rogue ex-Reagan official who believes Sharia law isn’t just a threat to the United States but a natural outgrowth of Islam.
Set aside the matter of Sharia paranoia; on a deeper level, seeing Islam as inherently prone to literalism, and therefore to caliphate and jihad, misses the most important dynamic driving America’s relation to Islam around the world. Not all Muslims to say the least are practitioners of Koranic literalism. But literalism, as Christianity has long shown, is a distinctively modern phenomenon, not one baked into the cake of the Mideast’s oldest religions.
This is important because it helps us grasp that when globalization and democratization “modernize” the Muslim world in a swift, unfettered way, the lingering premodern habits of figurative religious interpretation are weakened, and violently contemporary absolutism is strengthened.
In that way, Gaffney’s far-right view of Islam actually feeds into the mistaken prejudices of the kindler, gentler form of neoconservatism other Cruz advisors espouse. They correctly grasp that moderate, non-literalist Muslims, in the U.S. and abroad, ought to occupy our conceptual attention and earn our prudent support. But they are too apt to believe, as Mitt Romney suggested while running for president, that Muslim societies are better off the faster they modernize, so the U.S. is better off the more we help modernize them.
The truth is messier and more humbling. Carried out too fast and furiously, modernization doesn’t just breed violently literal Islamist blowback. It also delivers devastating postmodern conflict capabilities into the hands of people who completely lack the enervating postmodern instinct to skeptically view all meanings and interpretations as contingent untruths. As sound as the political principles of the Muslim-friendly neoconservatives may be, they cannot prevail without a clearer theoretical understanding of where our Muslim enemies come from and why.
To Cruz’s credit, the mixed-bag quality of his foreign policy crew reflects a sharp awareness that there just isn’t a Republican consensus on America’s role in the world anymore. As Victoria Coates, his primary national security adviser, put it, the team-of-rivals factor “is by design and not an accident.”
In that sense, Lincoln could relate. Especially in a time of fracture and crisis, elevating any one faction at the expense of all others is not a wise way to consolidate power, build trust, and start fresh.
On the other hand, and here’s where the really bad news comes in, none of us have any way of knowing in advance whether Ted Cruz is personally capable of wrangling his party’s sharply divided factions. That’s no knock on Cruz—although, to be sure, his very limited experience in government, especially as a team-builder, doesn’t immediately arouse great confidence. Any statesman would face a tall order pulling a clear, confident, and effective foreign policy out of the GOP’s egos, ideologies, and delusions. Any optimism around a Cruz reboot of international relations has to be seriously tempered by this daunting dynamic.
Of course, you don’t have to hang any hope on Cruz. You can roll the dice on Donald Trump, whose idea of foreign policy is to muscle all his opponents on money. You can retreat to a happy place and fantasize about President Sanders. Or, courtesy of Hillary Clinton, you can resign yourself to an even more truculent, arrogant, and self-flattering version of today’s failed and failing foreign policy.
Perhaps this year the bad news about Cruz is actually as good as it gets.