Republican presidential candidate Donald Trump speaks to reporters while touring the construction site of the Trump International Hotel at the Old Post Office Building, Washington, DC, March 21, 2016.
Photo by Jim Bourg/Reuters

Brussels attack highlights ongoing GOP split on foreign policy

The Republican presidential primary is likely coming down to a battle between Donald Trump and Texas Sen. Ted Cruz. No matter who wins, the party’s foreign policy is in for a major shakeup. 

On Tuesday, the GOP presidential field sparred over the proper response to the Brussels terror attack, with candidates debating whether to crack down on Muslim communities at home, and the importance of America’s alliances abroad.

Scenes of chaos, destruction in the wake of Brussels bombing
Brussels went into lockdown on Tuesday after a series of explosions rocked the city's airport and subway.
Cruz criticized Trump for questioning America’s commitment to NATO in a recent Washington Post interview, saying it was “wrong that America should withdraw from the world and abandon our allies.” Another GOP contender, Ohio Gov. John Kasich, denounced Cruz, who issued a statement responding to the Brussels attack suggesting the US should “patrol and secure Muslim neighborhoods before they become radicalized.” Such rhetoric, Kasich told reporters, creates “divisions.” Trump reiterated his call for a ban on Muslim travel to the US – an idea that each of his rivals have condemned – as well as his plan to torture suspected terrorists.

Tuesday’s conversation highlighted the party’s lack of consensus on America’s role in the world, and its national security posture at home ever since President George W. Bush left office in early 2009. Trump and Cruz each would represent a break from Bush’s neoconservative vision, while candidates more closely aligned with the former president’s views – including Florida Sen. Marco Rubio and Bush’s brother, former Florida Gov. Jeb Bush – are no longer in the race.

Trump and Cruz are highly skeptical of America’s efforts to build democratic institutions in Middle Eastern countries, for example, where they’ve suggested a stable strongman may better serve American interests. The two candidates oppose efforts to oust Syrian dictator Bashar al-Assad and have criticized the Obama administration for intervening in Libya against Muammar Gaddafi. 

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“I don’t think we should be nation building anymore,” Trump told the Washington Post on Monday. Cruz on Tuesday described his position as “overwhelming force, kill the enemy, and then get the heck out.”

In interviews with MSNBC, advisers to Trump and Cruz resisted definitive labels for their candidates’ philosophies, but embraced the idea that each one would look past the usual foreign policy establishment.

“I think he’s very pragmatic,” retired Lt. General Keith Kellogg, a Trump adviser, told MSNBC. “I’m not sure where he got it, but he has a wonderful instinct for what, as we used to call them in the military, the ‘average Joe’ thinks about the world.”

Kellogg described Trump as a “disruptive candidate” who would look to the people for foreign policy direction rather than the usual stable of experts from past administrations, many of whom openly oppose Trump’s candidacy.

Andrea Mitchell Reports, 3/22/16, 12:11 PM ET

Three American missionaries seriously injured in Brussels

Three American Mormon missionaries and one American military member and his family are reported as the first Americans injured from the attacks in Brussels. NBC’s Tom Costello reports.
Responding to Cruz’s criticism of Trump’s position on NATO, Kellogg argued that Trump’s comments to the Washington Post had been misunderstood. Kellogg noted that Trump clarified to the Post he would not “withdraw” from NATO, as Cruz suggested, but instead favored requiring Europe to shoulder a larger portion of its costs, a philosophy he applied to allies like South Korea and Japan as well. Kellogg added that former Defense Secretary Robert Gates had strongly rebuked NATO nations in 2011 for its insufficient military spending and the strain it put on America’s budget.

“If you listen to [Trump], he’s not isolationist, he’s America first,” Kellogg said. “He didn’t say he was getting out of NATO, he was talking about funding.”

Dr. Victoria C. Gardner Coates, a top foreign policy adviser to Cruz, depicted candidate’s views as a hybrid of the GOP’s differing foreign policy strains.

“People keep saying, ‘You’re somewhere between the hawks and doves,’ ” Coates said. “My cute way of responding to that is we think we’re owls: We’re wise enough to know when to intervene decisively and wise enough to know when not to intervene.”

While Trump tends to view America’s relationship with countries and institutions like NATO and South Korea and Japan with a skeptical eye, they’re an important part of Cruz’s platform, Coates said. As a hypothetical, she imagined how key Pacific allies might respond if China provoked a major confrontation at sea.

RELATED: What we know about the terrorist attacks in Brussels

“At some point in the South China Sea, one of these nasty incidents is going to turn into a flashpoint [with China] and boy will we want South Korea, Japan and Taiwan to be singing from the same hymnal and working with us rather than frightened and suspicious of where America stands,” she said.  

Contrast that with Trump’s comments to the Post: “If you look at Germany, if you look at Saudi Arabia, if you look at Japan, if you look at South Korea, I mean we spend billions of dollars on Saudi Arabia, and they have nothing but money. And I say, why?” 

At the same time, Coates said Cruz would take the existing foreign aid structure and “blow it up.” The goal, per Coates, would be to emphasize “national security interests” more strictly when it came to federal spending abroad.

Cruz’s criticism of Trump on NATO would sit easily with veterans of previous GOP administrations, who have emphasized a strong American role abroad. Sure enough, Cruz’s advisers include some recognizable conservative names, like former Reagan official Michael Ledeen and former George W. Bush adviser Elliott Abrams.

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But Cruz’s recently announced advisory team also has an anti-Islam fringe streak that strongly resembles Trump’s views and has drawn condemnations from more traditional Republicans.

The most notable figure is Frank Gaffney, the former Reagan official now known for wild conspiracy theories about radical Islamists infiltrating American government and even conservative leadership. Gaffney officially joined the Cruz campaign last week. Trump has also cited dubious research by Gaffney, who has questioned whether President Obama is a secret Muslim, to justify his proposed ban on Muslim travel last year. Several other Cruz advisers have ties to Gaffney’s Center for Security Policy.

Coates told MSNBC that Gaffney’s position alongside figures like Abrams reflected Cruz’s desire to hear competing opinions.

“That’s precisely the tension we wanted to build into the team,” she said. “These are patriots who support America’s role in the world and will give their best advice on, in this case, radical Islamism, which will be one of the key issues we address.”

Kellogg took a different view on Cruz’s alliance with Gaffney as well as some of the senator’s tougher rhetoric and positions in recent months.

“The term I use is ‘me too-ism,’ ” he said. “He’s piggybacking on Mr. Trump.”

Donald Trump and Ted Cruz

Brussels attack highlights ongoing GOP split on foreign policy