There is a danger in being as glib as Sen. Ted Cruz, a Texas Republican and the winner of several national debating awards in college. He has utilized his considerable rhetorical skills to put himself in the 2016 discussion. But by both politicizing and trivializing the question of whether to bomb another country, Cruz has shown that he is unready for serious consideration.
Many reasonable people agree with him. According to a USA Today/Pew Research Center Poll, opponents of striking Syria outnumber supporters by a 2-1 margin. To use President Barack Obama’s favorite phrase, let me be clear: Good, reasonable Americans oppose Obama’s plan to hit Syria with cruise missiles.
But there is nothing commendable, patriotic or civilized about how Cruz is mining this crisis for political advantage. Cruz debuted his debatable tactic by making the defensible argument that al-Qaida is fighting alongside the Syrian rebels and the indefensible argument that an American strike would align our military with terrorists.
“We should be focused on defending the United States of America. That’s why young men and women sign up to join the military, not to, as you know, serve as al-Qaida’s air force,” Cruz said. Texas’ very junior senator should take care to note that our troops join the military to serve their country, not to, as you know, further his craven ambition.
Cruz’s claim that Obama wanted the United States military to serve as “al-Qaida’s air force” seems more at home in the John Birch Society than in polite society, but then again, this is Texas. Questioning the patriotism and loyalty of the commander-in-chief is just good business for Republicans, but his choice of words not only violates the quaint rule that politics stops at the water’s edge but questions the patriotism of our commander-in-chief.
For Cruz, that was just Wednesday.
Asked to defend his preposterous accusation, Cruz first threw up a smoke screen (“that actual line initially was said by Dennis Kucinich,” the anti-war liberal) before restating that hitting Syria “would help al-Qaida terrorists.”
The meanest thing you can do to politicians is take them at their word, so let us assume for the sake of a reasonable debate that the Syrian civil war has galvanized Islamic terrorists. Asked what should we do about this hotbed of our mortal enemies, Cruz said that we “should force a vote in the U.N. security council” to “make [Russia and China] veto it on the world stage” to “unify international opinion condemning [Assad].”
Cruz’s newfound support for multilateral international pressure might come as a shock to Texas Republican primary voters. In his 2012 campaign, Cruz touted the unfounded conspiracy theory that George Soros is funding a United Nations effort called Agenda 21 that will “abolish ‘unsustainable’ environments, including golf courses, grazing pastures, and paved roads.”
Cruz then undercut his transparent sop to the United Nations by implying that the Syrian situation was not very serious at all despite the prevalence of our mortal enemies. The real issue, he said, was not the international war crime of using chemical weapons. It was Benghazi.
“One of the problems with all of this focus on Syria is it’s missing the ball from what we should be focused on, which is the grave threat from radical Islamic terrorism. Just this week is the one-year anniversary of the attack on Benghazi,” he said.
Taking Cruz at his word requires an understanding of quantum politics in which alternate truths coexist simultaneously. Using chemical weapons is a distraction, so we should rally world opinion against it. The Syrian rebels are in league with al-Qaida, but focusing on Syria is a distraction from “radical Islamic terrorism.” In fact, attention paid to Syrian war crimes distracts us from Benghazi, the focus of umpteen congressional hearings.
Our checks-and-balances Constitution requires Americans to agree to disagree. In deciding whether to go to war, we should respect those who disagree in good conscience. But by seeking to gain political advantage in the debate over whether to kill Syrians, Cruz has shown himself worthy not of respect but contempt.
Jason Stanford is a Democratic political consultant based in Texas. He writes the Behind Frenemy Lines blog at jasonstanford.org.