War Stories

Whose Foreign Policy Is Scarier: Cruz’s or Trump’s?

One guy listens to a wild-eyed paranoiac. The other guy listens only to himself.

Cruz Trump
Ted Cruz and Donald Trump

Photo illustration by Lisa Larson-Walker. Photos by Joe Raedle/Getty Images and Brian Snyder/Reuters.

If you want to watch foreign-policy mavens gulp in horror, ask them which team of Republican advisers they’d prefer to see in the White House next year: Ted Cruz’s brain trust or Donald Trump’s brain?

Trump, you may have read, doesn’t have any national security advisers. He announced the names of a few (all of them nonentities) in an interview with the Washington Post editorial board, but it turns out that he’s never talked at length with any of them. In at least one case, it seems he hasn’t met the guy. (He said of retired Rear Adm. Chuck Kubic, “Very good, nice, supposedly.”)

The truth remains what he said in mid-March: “I’m speaking with myself, No. 1, because I have a very good brain. … I have a good instinct for this.” The only thing more dangerous than a know-nothing is a know-nothing who thinks he knows a lot, and by that measure, there’s never been a more dangerous front-running presidential candidate than Donald Trump.

Trump may regard his recent, long interview with two New York Times national security reporters as affirmation of his gravitas (certainly the reporters treated him with respect), but read the transcript. It’s an incoherent babble reminiscent of a Samuel Beckett monologue. Think Krapp’s Last Tape, without the humor.

The late Daniel Patrick Moynihan once said during a debate, “You’re entitled to your opinion but not to your facts.” Trump would dispute the distinction. In the Times interview, he said, “We’re not a rich country,” despite a GDP amounting to $17 trillion and rising, by far the world’s largest. He then contradicted himself moments later, claiming, “We have tremendous economic power over China.” He also said, “We have a military that’s severely depleted” (wrong); “nuclear arsenals which are in very terrible shape” (very wrong); “We’re so obsolete in cyber. … I don’t think we’re as advanced as other countries are” (so off-base that it’s beyond wrong). He also said, four times: “Iran is the No. 1 trading partner of North Korea.” When the Times’ David Sanger interrupted, “With all due respect, I think it’s China that’s the No. 1 trading partner of North Korea” (though Sanger didn’t say so, Iran’s share is in fact negligible), Trump replied, “I’ve heard that, certainly, but I’ve also heard from other sources that it’s Iran.”

To the Times, he said, “NATO is obsolete,” but to the Post he said, “NATO is a good thing to have,” though adding the allies should pay for our troop deployments. He said nuclear proliferation is the world’s No. 1 problem, then said it would be a good thing if we withdrew from Japan and South Korea, even if the two countries reacted by building their own nuclear arsenals. He denounced President Obama for pulling out of Iraq (ignoring the fact that President Bush set the date for withdrawal), then said we derive no benefit from U.S. bases around the world.

Does he believe anything he says? Does he just make stuff up as he goes along? Earlier this week, he said, “The problem is we have the Geneva Conventions, all sorts of rules and regulations, so the soldiers are afraid to fight.” Find an American officer who agrees with either sentiment—that the Geneva Conventions are a problem or that our troops are afraid to fight—and you’ll find an officer who should be hounded out of the force.

Trump thinks that all the world’s problems can be reduced to the level of real estate deals. In the Washington Post interview, he made the point explicitly: “I deal with China, you know. … I’ve done some great deals with China. I do deals with them all the time on, you know, selling apartments, and, you know, people say, ‘Oh, that’s not the same thing.’ The level of, uh, the largest bank in the world, 400 million customers, is a tenant of mine in New York. The biggest bank in China!”

In this view of the world, when things don’t work out well or spin out of control, it’s not because the post–Cold War world is a fragmented, fractured place; it’s because America’s leaders and negotiators are “idiots.” Trump seems to think that because he’s done some clever deals in Manhattan rentals (never noting the disastrous deals he’s also done, including four that led to his firm’s bankruptcies), he can do the same to blunt Iran’s nuclear program, China’s naval expansion, Russia’s annexation of Crimea, and the Islamic State’s barbarism. After the Easter Sunday terrorist attack in Pakistan, Trump tweeted:

The only real question: Is he a charlatan or a psychopath?

With Trump revealing, and oddly reveling in, the full depths of his delusional cluelessness, Cruz has caught a break, even though his ideas about foreign policy are nearly as bad and perhaps more dangerous because they’re more coherent. Cruz does have a real foreign-policy team, but it’s as quirky as the rest of this race. Anyone who hires Franklin Gaffney for his advice, as Cruz did (along with three of Gaffney’s think tank associates), should have his head examined. When Gaffney worked in the Pentagon during the Reagan presidency, he proved so hawkish and conspiratorial about the Russians—far outflanking his mentor, Richard Perle, on the right—he was booted out, his possessions boxed up by security. When the Cold War ended, Gaffney shifted his paranoia to Islam and now routinely rants that one-fifth of American Muslims support the use of violence to establish sharia law.

The intellectual on Cruz’s team, Elliott Abrams, the most fervent neocon in George W. Bush’s White House, seems moderate by comparison because he believes that most Muslims—here and in the rest of the world—are not radical and need to be courted, not rounded up, in the fight against extremism.

Cruz seems to be siding with Gaffney. He differs little from Trump’s insistence on banning Muslims from entering the country. He’s called for constant police patrols of Muslim neighborhoods, and he advocates “carpet bombing” ISIS-occupied territory—possibly with nuclear weapons (“I don’t know if sand can glow in the dark,” he once said, “but we’re going to find out”).

This is the man whom establishment Republicans are now embracing—albeit with a tinge of vomit in their mouths—as the best chance to stop the disaster to their party that Trump’s nomination would unleash. Many Republicans, departing from a lifetime of voting patterns, say they’d pull the lever for Hillary Clinton in a contest against Trump or Cruz. Max Boot, the Commentary columnist and senior fellow at the Council on Foreign Relations who’d been advising Marco Rubio before he dropped out, told the New York Times that he’d vote for Josef Stalin over Trump.

By all measures of sanity, it should be smooth sailing for Clinton. But the Democratic Party has its own record of self-destruction. Everybody’s stomach is rumbling with nausea these days. It was improbable enough that the Republican front-runners would be an egomaniacal, bigoted TV-reality host and the most widely despised man in the Senate. It’s not entirely out of the question that one of them could go all the way. Then we’re really in trouble.

Read more Slate coverage of the 2016 Republican primary.