WASHINGTON (AP) — Republican presidential candidate Ted Cruz says the U.S. is more secure with Syrian President Bashar Assad in power, accepting one of the Middle East's most brutal dictators as an unfortunate ally in the fight against the Islamic State.
The tea party favorite said in an interview with The Associated Press that America and the world would have been better off retaining deposed dictators in Iraq, Egypt and Libya — who committed crimes against their own people but also helped prevent the spread of violent extremism.
"If you topple a stable ruler, throw a Middle Eastern country into chaos and hand it over to radical Islamic terrorists, that hurts America," Cruz said.
Cruz sat down to share his views on national security and foreign affairs in an AP Conversation — part of a series of extended interviews with the candidates to become the nation's 45th president.
If elected next November, Cruz vows a dramatic shift in how America engages with the world. 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 said. "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., Cruz also places notable limits on his approach to national security.
While Assad is undoubtedly a "bad man," removing him from power would be "materially worse for U.S. national security interests," he says. 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, Cruz says he would have one goal above all others in the Oval Office.
"The pre-eminent job of the commander in chief is to keep this country safe," he says. "It is the first responsibility."
Cruz says he would keep things "very simple" in taking on the Islamic State, the group of violent Islamic extremists who have taken control of parts of Syria and Iraq.
"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.
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 a U.S. force 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 for a vast intensification of the Obama administration's existing air campaign, citing the "saturation bombing" of the first Gulf War in Iraq.
"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 his just sending our guys over there with no mission, no plan to win."
As a second step, Cruz argues for directly arming the ethnic Kurds who are fighting Islamic State forces in Iraq. "In a very real sense, the Kurds are our troops on the ground," he says. Aid for the Kurds currently passes through the central government in Baghdad at Iraq's insistence.
Pressed on the circumstances under which he might dispatch a substantial U.S. ground force, Cruz demurs, saying only that such scenarios exist in situations affecting "vital U.S. national security interests."
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