Sen. Ted Cruz, R-Texas, is enjoying momentum in the 2016 campaign of late, hot on Donald Trump’s heels and fresh off of a Wednesday morning keynote address at the Heritage Foundation. He’s tapped into American anxiety in the wake of the attacks in Paris and San Bernardino, from calling for the U.S. to bar Muslim refugees — “There is no meaningful risk of Christians committing acts of terror” — to introducing legislation on Tuesday that would grant states the power to reject refugees. Cruz was absent from Wednesday’s ISIS hearing with Defense Secretary Ash Carter and Vice Joint Chiefs Chairman Gen. Paul Selva in the Senate Armed Services Committee but he consistently triangulates the anti-interventionist strains of his party with the hawkishness currently in vogue. Cruz calls for “carpet bombing” Islamic State fighters, which Selva said “isn’t now, nor will it ever be” U.S. strategy given the likely civilian casualties and the propaganda win it would hand ISIS.
Defense One caught Cruz in the bowels of Capitol Hill the day before the hearing for an exclusive walk-and-talk interview about his counter-ISIS strategy, while navigating through the hallways and up an escalator, before elevator doors brought it to a close.
Defense One: You said the true and direct solution to the refugee crisis is to defeat the Islamic State. You quoted [President Ronald] Reagan saying the answer is simple: we win. It’s obviously not that simple. So what would you specifically do that would be different than the Obama administration to defeat the Islamic State.
Cruz: Well, let’s start with the statement that it’s obviously not that simple. We didn’t win the Cold War —
Defense One: Rather than what you wouldn’t do, what would you specifically do to defeat the Islamic State?
Cruz: If you’re gonna ask the question then let me answer it.
We didn’t win the Cold War until we had a president who stood up and led and set the objective which was no longer detente, which was no longer accepting the domination of Soviet Communism, but rather the objective was defeating the Soviet Union.
Likewise, we’re not implementing a military plan to defeat ISIS. Because —
Defense One: What should that plan look like?
Cruz: But it has to start with the commander in chief setting the objective. That is what is missing. Once that objective is set, we should immediately be implementing overwhelming airpower and we should be arming the Kurds on the ground. The Peshmerga, the fighting forces of the Kurds, are longtime allies of ours, they are effective fighters.
They are fighting ISIS right now, ISIS is using U.S. military equipment that they have seized in Iraq. The Kurds have outmoded weaponry, but the Obama administration refuses to arm them because of political concerns that it would dismay Baghdad. That doesn’t make any sense, the Kurds are boots on the ground, and we need to combine overwhelming airpower — carpet bombing ISIS — with arming the Kurds and doing whatever else is necessary militarily to utterly defeat ISIS.
Defense One: What do you believe is necessary otherwise to defeat ISIS? If the military has said that even overwhelming air power wouldn’t be sufficient, would you support boots on the ground?
Cruz: We should do whatever is necessary and that should be driven by military judgment. I spend a great deal of time consulting with generals and admirals and military leadership, both active and retired, and the counsel I am getting is that overwhelming air power and arming the Kurds would make a dramatic difference in turning against ISIS and winning.
Defense One: Would you be willing to have more civilian casualties with the overwhelming air campaign?