Republican presidential candidate, Sen. Ted Cruz, R-Texas, listens to a question during a campaign event, Jan. 7, 2016, in Webster City, Ia. 
Photo by Jae C. Hong/AP

Ted Cruz’s foreign policy adviser talks Syria, democracy, and art

Updated

Ted Cruz may have built his campaign on consistent conservatism, toeing his party’s line on social issues, taxes and Obamacare. But on foreign policy, he’s breaking with GOP orthodoxy in a big way.

Rather than uphold the principles that have guided the Republican Party’s approach to international affairs for years, the Texas senator and White House hopeful has a new vision for America’s role in the 21st century world – one that moves away from nation-building and aggressive military expeditions, and instead focuses solely on U.S. national security interests.

Sound different from President George W. Bush’s commitment to “ending tyranny in our world?” It is. But then again, Cruz has a very different sort of foreign policy adviser at his side.

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To her knowledge, Dr. Victoria C. Gardner Coates is the only person in her position – that is, senior staff member for national security at the U.S. Senate and senior foreign policy adviser to a leading presidential candidate – with a Ph.D. in Italian Renaissance art.

“I think that it is unique,” Coates said of her academic background during a wide-ranging phone interview with MSNBC. “There are certainly other historians in the mix [of foreign policy advisers]. However, it’s important to realize that art history is just a specialized form of history.”

Coates’ new book, “David’s Sling: A History of Democracy in Ten Works of Art” (published this week by Encounter Books), seeks to prove just that. It blends politics with art history by examining democratic societies from ancient Athens to 20th-century Spain through the lens of select works of art and architecture. Highlights include the Parthenon, Claude Monet’s Nymphéas, Pablo Picasso’s Guernica and, of course, Michelangelo’s David, from which the book gets its title (not from the Israeli air-and-missile defense Weapon System, also known as David’s sling. According to Coates, “It was a total coincidence”).

“Part of the message of the book is that these 10 objects are as reliable a record of the past as text,” said Coates, who cut her teeth in politics working for former Defense Secretary Donald Rumsfeld and, later, former Texas Gov. Rick Perry. “Those who spend a lot of time studying and thinking about history can be less likely to repeat the mistakes of the past. That perspective is something that has been wonderfully helpful to me in all of my political jobs.”

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Though Coates acknowledges that great art can and has come from all forms of government, her book is in many ways a love letter to democracy – specifically, as she writes in the introduction, “the moral power of a free citizenry, the responsibility of citizens to defend their liberty, the role of the statesman in commissioning works of commemorative art, the benefits of economic competition, and the increasing significance of the independent artist in honoring the polity’s achievements.”

Interestingly, while a lover of democracy, Coates is highly skeptical of democracy promotion – a concept most famously espoused in Jeane Kirkpatrick’s 1979 essay ”Dictators and Double Standards,” which Coates recommends all of Cruz’s interns read. In that piece, Kirkpatrick criticizes the Carter administration for failing to distinguish between right-wing autocracies, which she believes are capable of evolving into democracies given time, and communist totalitarian regimes, which she believes are not. By withdrawing support for right-wing autocrats in Iran and Nicaragua, Kirkpatrick argues, the Carter administration didn’t so much usher in democracy to those nations, as aid in the rise of new regimes that were worse – both for the ordinary people who lived there, and for the interests of the United States. Kirkpatrick went on to become the U.S. ambassador to the United Nations, while her doctrine helped shape President Ronald Reagan’s foreign policy.

Today, Cruz draws on elements of the Kirkpatrick doctrine in his own approach to international affairs – most notably, his assertion that the U.S. should not look to topple all dictators in the Middle East.

“We will not win by replacing dictators, as unpleasant as they may be, with terrorists who want to destroy America,” Cruz said in a lengthy address at the Heritage Foundation last month in Washington, D.C. Later, turning to Syria, he elaborated: “For as bad as [President Bashar al-]Assad was and is, radical jihadis patrolling Syria would be a significant turn for the worse.”

This worldview – which Cruz has described as neither “full neocon” nor “libertarian isolationist,” but Coates would label (if she had to) “neo-Reaganism” – presents a major distinction between himself and fellow White House hopeful Marco Rubio, where arguably few exist. The two senators are close in age, both young, sons of Cuban immigrants, and closely aligned on social and economic policy. Cruz likes to point out that the two differ wildly on immigration based on Rubio’s support for a 2013 reform package that would have created a pathway to citizenship. But Rubio has since disavowed that measure, advocating instead for a piecemeal approach to immigration reform that critics say would ensure a pathway to citizenship never actually begins.

Technically, Rubio is still for a “very long path” to citizenship, while Cruz is now “unequivocally” against legalization. On foreign policy, though, particularly regarding Syria, Cruz and Rubio appear to have significant and indisputable space between them.

“Cutting off oxygen to ISIL [also known as ISIS] requires defeating Assad in Syria,” Rubio wrote in a November op-ed for Politico. He also said he “would build a multinational coalition of countries willing to send troops into Iraq and Syria.”

Cruz, by contrast, would “utterly destroy ISIS” by using “overwhelming air power” and arming the Kurds, whose peshmerga forces have been fighting the insurgents. But he is firmly against a military effort to take out Assad.

Some say this strategy is not realistic. Assad, after all, has demonstrated time again that he considers jihadists useful to his own survival, releasing an unknown number of them from prison back in 2011, as described in William McCants’ book “The ISIS Apocalypse,” and leaving the terrorist organization pretty much alone in the years that followed. According to McCants, a fellow in the Brookings Institution’s Center for Middle East Policy, Assad “has let the Islamic State flourish to make his bloody methods appear less repugnant and to destroy his opposition from the inside.”

All this begs the question: Can ISIS truly be eradicated with Assad still in power? Many analysts say no. In a scathing column last month, The Washington Post editorial board accused Cruz of misusing the Kirkpatrick doctrine to support his position behind leaving Assad in place. In doing so, they wrote, “Mr. Cruz is arguing for a stridently anti-American and nakedly genocidal dictator who sponsored terrorism against U.S. troops in Iraq and serves as a willing puppet of Iran.”

To be clear, Coates bears no affection for the Syrian president. “Assad is a horrible guy,” she said. The issue, for her, is that there are no better options currently available.

“What [Sen. Cruz] is saying is that we shouldn’t depose Assad in the name of democracy when we have no way of creating democracy,” Coates said. “Right now, the options are Assad and ISIS, or other terrorist-related groups… That’s the reality. I know nobody likes it, but that’s what it is.”

Furthermore, she explained, if the fates of Assad and ISIS are truly intertwined, then utterly destroying ISIS – as Cruz has vowed to do – should do the same to Assad’s regime.

“If destroying ISIS leads to Assad’s downfall, that would not keep me awake at night,” Coates said. “My goal is not to keep Assad in power; my goal is to defeat a vicious enemy of the U.S., which is ISIS.”

Coates does not see this willingness to leave certain dictators in place as contradictory to her love of democracy. In fact, she hopes readers take away a moral from her book that is “both cautionary and very hopeful” about what it takes to create and maintain democratic societies.

“There’s a reason a colleague in the Cruz organization said the Rome chapter reads like ‘Game of Thrones,’” Coates said. “Certainly, the French Revolution chapter describes a great deal of failure, chaos, and death that results from attempts at democracy… What the past teaches us is that this is not going to happen automatically everywhere. And if we assume that we must absolutely insist on democracy promotion as a primary goal of foreign policy, I think that has not proven to be effective.”

It a philosophy that seems very much in keeping with Cruz’s current foreign policy prescriptions. As for his knowledge of art history? Coates chuckled. “He’s getting better.”

Ted Cruz

Ted Cruz's foreign policy adviser talks Syria, democracy, and art

Updated