On Tuesday, after a Hamas rocket exploded about a mile from Tel Aviv's Ben Gurion International Airport, the US Federal Aviation Administration announced it was suspending all US flights to Israel for 24 hours. While perhaps understandably motivated by fears of a US plane meeting MH17's fate, the decision came in for some criticism, particularly after the FAA announced it would continue the ban for another day. Israeli officials insisted the airport was safe, Michael Bloomberg called the ban "an overreaction," and AIPAC said it "sends the entirely wrong message."
Yet Senator Ted Cruz (R-TX) saw something even darker at work. "The facts suggest that President Obama has just used a federal regulatory agency to launch an economic boycott on Israel, in order to try to force our ally to comply with his foreign-policy demands," he said in a Wednesday afternoon statement. During an appearance on Fox News hours later, Cruz went further (they start discussing Israel at 3:04):
"The Obama administration is the most anti-Israel administration this government has ever had," Cruz said. He asked why air traffic to Israel, rather than Pakistan, Yemen, or Ukraine was cut off. "The timing was at the exact moment Kerry was there trying to strong-arm Israel into stopping their efforts to shut down Hamas’s rockets and tunnels," he continued. Essentially, Cruz argued, Obama was trying to choke off Israel's tourism industry until it consented to a Gaza cease-fire.
When host Sean Hannity showed him video of a State Department spokesperson calling his accusations "ridiculous" and "offensive," Cruz fired back, saying: "What is ridiculous is the Obama Administration refusing to answer simple questions about whether this was dictated by politics." Never mind that, seconds earlier, the video showed the State spokesperson saying safety was the FAA's only consideration. Cruz announced that he'd place a hold on all State Department nominees until he got the answers he wanted. ("Good for you," Hannity said.)
It's only the latest example of Cruz's particular genius for inventing ways to position himself as the most conservative major figure in the Republican Party. To wit:
- Every Republican opposed Obamacare — but it was Ted Cruz's hard-line strategy against it that eventually led to last fall's federal government shutdown.
- When President Obama asked for more money to address the child migrant crisis last week, Cruz proposed linking any new funding to ending Obama's deferred deportations program for young unauthorized immigrants. Stopping the deferred action program, Cruz's spokesperson said, was the senator's "top priority."
- During a period where Paul Ryan, Rand Paul, and Marco Rubio have been attempting to burnish their centrist credentials as poverty-fighters, Cruz has shown no interest whatsoever in doing the same.
- When the House Republican Study Committee fired its staunchly conservative executive director Paul Teller, saying he leaked conversations with members of Congress, Cruz soon hired Teller as his deputy chief of staff.
In foreign policy, though, what it means to be "conservative" isn't quite clear right now, as the GOP base contains impulses both toward hawkish interventionism and skepticism of foreign entanglements.
Back in March, clearly wary of being characterized as a warmonger, but eager to set himself apart from the doves, Cruz characterized his views as follows: "You can point to two points on the spectrum, where Republicans lie. On one side you have the views of John McCain. The other end of the spectrum, you have the views of Rand Paul. Now, with respect, my views are very much the views of Ronald Reagan, which I would suggest is a third point on the triangle."
But while wrapping oneself in the flag of Reagan is a nice rhetorical trick, it's one that's hardly unique to Cruz — Rand Paul and Rick Perry had a Reagan-off just last week. Cruz's FAA comments are much more creative. They're a unique way to bash Obama, a conspiratorial argument that more "respectable" Republicans would shy away from making — and they don't actually require the US to escalate its involvement abroad in any concrete way.
Late Wednesday night, the FAA — earlier than expected — announced it wouldn't extend the flight ban further. The Washington Post's Jennifer Rubin wrote that this was a "win" for Cruz, since by removing the flight ban so soon after Cruz's comment, "the administration wound up reinforcing the conclusion that [the FAA flight ban] had been a strong-arm maneuver." (Israel's government had also lobbied to lift the flight ban; the FAA says it lifted the ban because its security concerns had been addressed.) But whether Cruz's remarks contributed to the FAA's decision or not, he successfully managed once again to position himself as the most conservative contender.