AP Conversation: Cruz’s ambitious foreign policy has limits

Republican presidential candidate Sen. Ted Cruz, R-Texas, speaks during an interview with the Associated Press in Washington, Tuesday, Dec. 1, 2015. Cruz outlined an approach to foreign policy inspired by Ronald Reagan, saying he would restore the American leadership missing from the world under President Barack Obama. But pressed on how he would address specific hotspots of today, Cruz places limits on American action, including refusing to back ground troops to combat the Islamic State. (AP Photo/Andrew Harnik)

WASHINGTON — Ted Cruz says the question follows him into the hallways of foreign capitals around the world. In whispered tones, heads of state pull the Texas senator and Republican candidate for president aside to ask: “Where is America?”

“We need America,” Cruz says they tell him. “The world doesn’t work without America leading.”

And so if he’s elected president next November, Cruz vows a dramatic shift in how America engages with the world. With fiery rhetoric befitting his hero status within the tea party movement, he condemns the foreign policy of President Barack Obama and his first secretary of state, Democratic front-runner Hillary Clinton, as weak, ineffective and dangerous.

Instead, he suggests, as many Republicans do, that he will follow the lead of Ronald Reagan. A gigantic mural hangs in Cruz’s Senate office featuring the Republican icon standing in front of Berlin’s Brandenburg Gate, making his famous call for Soviet leader Mikhail Gorbachev to “tear down this wall.”

“There is power to speaking the truth on the global stage,” Cruz says. “He understood America’s strength draws from our people, draws from our values, draws from the beacon of light and hope we provide to the world.”

Yet while promising to destroy the Islamic State, beat back aggression from Russia, China and Iran, and ensure extremists don’t infiltrate the U.S. homeland, Cruz also places notable limits on his approach to national security.

While Syrian president Bashar Assad is undoubtedly a “bad man,” removing him from power would be “materially worse for U.S. national security interests.” He is unwilling to send more U.S. ground forces into the Middle East and rejects the idea that torture can serve as an appropriate interrogation tool.

“We can defend our nation and be strong and uphold our values,” he says. “There is a reason the bad guys engage in torture. ISIS engages in torture. Iran engages in torture. America does not need to torture to protect ourselves.”

The 44-year-old first-term senator, trying to cement his place in the top tier of Republicans running for president, outlines a prospective foreign policy that is both broadly ambitious and cautious at times in the specifics.

In an election increasingly focused on national security in the wake of the Paris attacks, however, Cruz says he would have one goal above all others once in the Oval Office.

“The pre-eminent job of the commander-in-chief is to keep this country safe,” he says in an interview with The Associated Press. “It is the first responsibility.”

Cruz sat down to share his view on national security and foreign affairs in an AP Conversation — a series of extended interviews with the candidates to become the nation’s 45th president.

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For Cruz, any discussion about how best to confront the Islamic State begins with criticism of Obama and a reminder that the president once said the U.S. did not “yet have a complete strategy” to defeat the group of violent Islamic extremists who have taken control of parts of Syria and Iraq.

Pressed for his approach, Cruz says he would keep things “very simple.”

“We win and they lose. And if I’m elected president, I will make unambiguously clear that we will destroy ISIS — not weaken it, not degrade it, but utterly destroy it,” he says, using one of the several acronyms for the group.

He says there is no room for anything other than outright victory: “ISIS has declared war on America. They are a clear and present danger. They are the face of evil.”

While Cruz’s goals are definitive, he is unwilling to go as far as several other Republican presidential contenders — among them, retired neurosurgeon Ben Carson and former Florida Gov. Jeb Bush — who have said the battle against the Islamic State must include U.S. troops on the ground.

Cruz lashed out against plans released by the Obama administration on Tuesday to deploy a new special operations force to the region, a move that puts U.S. combat troops in a more permanent role in Iraq and Syria for the first time in the fight against the Islamic State.

He argues instead for a vast intensification of the Obama administration’s existing air campaign, which he dismissed as “photo op foreign policy” that’s “not designed to succeed.” Instead, he called for “overwhelming air power” and cited the “saturation bombing” of the first Gulf War in Iraq that he said featured roughly 1,100 air attacks a day for more than a month.

“You may need some embedded special forces to direct that air power,” Cruz says, “but not the way President Obama is doing it now, which is just sending our guys over there with no mission, no plan to win, and simply over there to be targets.”

As a second step, Cruz argues for directly arming the ethnic Kurds who are fighting Islamic State forces. “In a very real sense, the Kurds are our troops on the ground,” he says.

Pressed to say under what circumstances he may favor dispatching a more substantial U.S. ground force, Cruz demurs, saying only that such scenarios exist in situations affecting “vital U.S. national security interests.”

“If and when we have to use military power, there should be a clearly defined objective at the outset. We should use overwhelming power,” he says. “When we’re done, we should get the heck out. I don’t believe in nation building.”

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While conceding that Assad has “murdered hundreds of thousands of his own citizens” in Syria, Cruz is a harsh critic of Obama’s desire to remove him from power. He notes with an eye toward the upcoming Republican primaries that Florida Sen. Marco Rubio, a presidential rival, also thinks Assad must go.

The Middle East and the United States are better off with Assad in place, Cruz says.

“If President Obama and Hillary Clinton and Sen. Rubio succeed in toppling Assad, the result will be the radical Islamic terrorists will take over Syria, that Syria will be controlled by ISIS, and that is materially worse for U.S. national security interests,” he says.

He doesn’t stop there. In another example of limits he would follow as president, Cruz argues the U.S. should not have supported the ouster of former Iraqi President Saddam Hussein, former Egyptian President Hosni Mubarak and former Libyan leader Moammar Gadhafi.

“If you topple a stable ruler, throw a Middle Eastern country into chaos and hand it over to radical Islamic terrorists, that hurts America,” he said, arguing that the U.S. has no place litigating civil wars abroad — especially those rooted in religious disputes among Muslims.

“It is not the job of America to cause the Sunnis and Shiites to suddenly get along,” he says. “It is the job of America to prevent jihadists from murdering innocent Americans.”

His approach to Assad’s leadership of Syria aligns him with Russian President Vladimir Putin. Despite their shared belief that Assad should remain in power, Cruz called Putin “a KGB thug” — although one who is not “explicitly homicidal in the way that Iran and ISIS are.”

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Cruz’s cites his father’s personal story as a major factor in shaping his worldview. The Cuban-born Rafael Cruz fought in the island nation’s revolution and was tortured and imprisoned before fleeing to the United States.

“It is an incredible blessing to be the child of an immigrant who fled oppression,” Cruz said of his father, now a pastor with a passionate following among evangelical Christians. “When you grow up in the home of an immigrant who’s seen prison and torture, who’s seen freedom stripped away, you grow up with an acute appreciation for how precious and fragile our liberty is.”

And yet Cruz is an outspoken opponent of allowing Syrian refugees fleeing the Assad regime to resettle in the United States. He calls the idea “lunacy” and, as have many Republicans, warns that challenges in screening the backgrounds of such refugees make it impossible to determine whether they have links to the Islamic State.

“They ought to be resettled in the Middle East in majority Muslim countries,” he said.

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While Cruz defines the job of president first and foremost as ensuring the safety of the country, he’s also an advocate for limits on how much authority the National Security Agency should have to conduct surveillance inside the U.S.

Cruz aligned himself with civil libertarians a year ago who fought to end the government’s bulk collection of telephone records — taking on security hawks in his own party who warned that doing so would remove a valuable tool from authorities that helps protect the nation’s security.

Cruz declined to say whether he supports allowing what’s known as the PRISM program, which allows the NSA to obtain secret court orders and collect intelligence about foreign threats via U.S. Internet companies. The program is set to expire soon after the next president takes office.

“We will surely debate that in Congress and examine how to do two things at once: protect the constitutional rights of law abiding citizens and ensure that we have the tools to stop terrorists,” Cruz says.

The subject is one that will undoubtedly continue to come up as the lead-off Iowa caucuses draw closer. It’s one that allows Cruz to poke at Rubio, who has criticized his fellow senator for his position on NSA surveillance in recent weeks.

“What they’re attacking me for is something I’m very proud of,” he says. “I disagree with Marco Rubio. I don’t think the federal government has to violate the constitutional rights of hundreds of millions of law abiding citizens to keep us safe.”

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This AP Conversation is the second in an occasional series of extended interviews with the presidential candidates on a topic of interest in the 2016 campaign.