Cruz embraces the dark side of Reagan’s legacy

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Sen. Ted CruzTed CruzJuan Williams: When WikiLeaks leaked my cell number 56 memorable moments from a wild presidential race Is Georgia turning blue? MORE's (R-Texas) continuing infatuation with dictators reflects a long and dangerous tradition among conservative politicians.  Cruz has recently expressed his admiration for Egypt's leader Field Marshal Abdul Fattah al-Sisi’s hardline rule, saying that while al-Sisi "may not be a champion of democracy" he has kept the Muslim Brotherhood in line.  He has also defended the legitimacy of Syria's Bashar al-Assad, pined for the days when Muammar Qaddafi ruled Libya, and regretted the overthrow of Saddam Hussein.  Cruz justifies his endorsement of these odious regimes by claiming that they are a bulwark against terrorism.  

Substitute “communism” for “terrorism” and Cruz’s formulation becomes indistinguishable from Ronald Reagan’s rationale for supporting a long list of authoritarian regimes around the world in the 1980s.    Of course, it was Reagan’s eventual U.N. Ambassador Jeane Kirkpatrick who was the godmother of the authoritarian embrace in her famous 1979 piece “Dictatorships and Double Standards,” which first brought her to Reagan’s attention.   Kirkpatrick argued that the U.S. should work with repressive regimes to combat communism because autocracies could evolve into democracies while totalitarian communist regimes were incapable of that kind of evolution.   Reagan seized on this theory – conveniently in line with his own ideological prejudices – and used it to validate his support for abusive regimes in countries from Chile to South Africa to the Philippines and elsewhere.   Those regimes and their authoritarian rulers are all long gone, of course, as is the incapable-of-change Soviet Union.   Nonetheless, the appeal of authoritarianism remains for politicians like Cruz with an affinity for black and white solutions and a disdain for the grays of foreign policy. 

Cruz defends his embrace of dictators by claiming that “if you topple a stable ruler, [you] hand [the country] over to radical Islamic terrorists.”  This elevation of “stability” above all other values led Reagan to cozy up to violators of human rights and democratic norms like Ferdinand Marcos and Augusto Pinochet.  For Cruz, it leads him to see Muammar Qaddafi as having been an “ally against terrorism” and to advocate for Assad’s regime to remain in power.   In this view, all crimes and abuse can be overlooked if the dictator in question is seen as a help in the fight on terrorism. 

Even if this approach weren’t morally repugnant, it’s clear that it does not yield the expected results.   Authoritarian regimes do not make good allies in the long run.  In the Philippines, for example, the long U.S. embrace of Marcos led to a tide of anti-American political sentiment not long after his ouster that forced the U.S. out of bases there for over 20 years.  Only now is the U.S. able to overcome that legacy and re-establish a vital presence that checks potential Chinese expansion in the South China Sea.  Under Reagan, the affinity for authoritarian regimes reflected a simplistic calculus that saw sponsoring these strongmen as easier than waiting for the unpredictable evolution of democracy in developing countries.  These kinds of political bromances have rarely ended well as the illusion of authoritarian "stability" has crumbled and left American foreign policy on the wrong side of reality.

A corollary to Cruz’s doctrinal belief in the utility of dictatorships in achieving U.S foreign policy goals is his rejection of the value of promoting democracy.    This is a pretty easy sell in the aftermath of George W. Bush’s disastrous attempt to impose democracy by force in Iraq.   But Bush’s misguided approach should not be allowed destroy the democracy promotion business for good.  Helping to build and support democracies is still very much in U.S. interests in the long run.   It requires patience and an understanding of the limits of U.S. influence.   The recognized complex challenges of democracy promotion are not justification to veer to the other extreme and embrace working with dictators, as Cruz would do.  We have been down that road before and it has left our nation morally compromised, complicit in abuses, and no more secure. Cruz’s expressed appreciation for dictators shows he has learned little from our history and will base our security on a disproven illusion. 

Bradshaw is a former Foreign Service officer with the U.S. Department of State and the executive director of the National Security Network.