Where would Ted Cruz go to war?

W. James Antle III Managing Editor
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It might have been the strangest moment of a bizarre campaign.

Mike Gravel, who hadn’t been in the Senate since 1981, somehow wandered on to the stage of a Democratic presidential debate. He turned to the eventual president of the United States and asked, “Who do you want to nuke, Barack?”

“I’m not planning to nuke anybody right now, Mike,” Obama replied. (It’s one of the few campaign promises he actually kept, but he still has almost three years.)

Rand Paul may soon have to take a page out of Gravel’s handbook — and I don’t mean recording a rap video.

Ted Cruz has been making his case for a more aggressive foreign policy with passive-aggressive swipes at Paul. The latest came in a Weekly Standard interview with Stephen Hayes.

“Cruz has spent the past several days on the receiving end of a barrage of attacks,” Hayes explains, because the “junior senator from Kentucky is angry — very angry it seems — that Cruz has used Paul’s views on foreign policy as a way to frame his own.”

“It’s hard to imagine Cruz could have been gentler in pointing out the differences,” Hayes adds. It’s true. There have been no Neville Chamberlain comparisons yet.

Paul has generally responded by arguing that his views, particularly on Russia and Ukraine, are not so far out of the Republican mainstream — either today or when Ronald Reagan was president.

That’s fine as far as it goes. After all, there’s a big difference between taking on an army of 600 men in Grenada, as Reagan did, and taking on a nuclear-armed Russia, as Reagan — despite his willingness to call the Soviets an evil empire — was more cautious about doing.

But Paul’s critics inside the Republican Party believe the best defense is a good offense. Instead of being defensive about his own foreign policy views, Paul should force his colleague from Texas to flesh out his more fully.

How far is Cruz willing to go to make sure Crimea remains part of Ukraine rather than Russia? Both tea party senators believe Vladimir Putin should be reproached and isolated diplomatically.

But if sanctions and even a reinstated anti-ballistic missile station don’t work or heighten tensions, what’s Cruz’s next move? Cruz has said he does agree with Paul “that we should be very reluctant to deploy military force abroad.” How reluctant?

Iran may be a better example. Cruz has implicitly called out Paul’s position on sanctions. He has also said that if necessary, he would use “overwhelming military force” to “prevent them from acquiring nuclear weapons.”

What does “overwhelming military force” mean? Airstrikes or boots on the ground? If aerial bombing only sets back Iran’s nuclear program a year or two, is an invasion on the table?

How did our last preventive war in that region over weapons of mass destruction go? Many Republicans still think it was the right decision to go into Iraq. But many also judge the intervention a failure.

Cruz wants to balance the budget, even limit federal spending growth to per capita inflation. How to do that with repeated $1 trillion wars?

Yes, Paul faces a risk Cruz would come out of such an exchange looking even tougher to the Republican base. But the alternative is to allow Cruz or some future rival to engage in cost-free hawkishness.

If the Republican foreign policy debate comes down to who will utter the strongest words against Putin or the ayatollahs, the hawks will be hard to outbid. The slightest nuance will be portrayed as Obama-like.

Consider the closing line of Hayes’ Cruz interview. Hayes quotes the New America Foundation’s Steve Clemons describing Paul as a realist “on the same page as Obama” and others. He then concludes, “On the same page as Barack Obama: It’s a statement no one could make about Ted Cruz.”

Perfect line, coming soon to a TV ad near Des Moines. Yet a more interventionist position requires getting on the same page with Obama about identifying non-jihadist elements among the Syrian rebels, foreign aid spending, and possibly even running wars. Unless the gathering storm can wait until 2017.

It may also entail getting on the same page as Hillary Clinton or adopting policies similar to those that cost Republicans control of Congress.

In order to prove he’s not a pacifist, Paul is going to be grilled about his views on every conflict dating back to the First Battle of St Albans. The least he can do is turn to Cruz and ask, “Where do you want to go to war, Ted?”

W. James Antle III is the editor of The Daily Caller News Foundation and author of the book Devouring Freedom: Can Big Government Ever Be Stopped? Follow him on Twitter.