Ted Cruz on Monday offered his strongest denunciation so far of Marco Rubio's foreign policy views, assailing his Republican presidential rival as a proponent of “military adventurism” that he said has benefited Islamic militant groups. He even tied the Floridian to Democratic front-runner Hillary Clinton.

“Senator Rubio emphatically supported Hillary Clinton in toppling [Muammar] Qaddafi in Libya. I think that made no sense,” Cruz told Bloomberg Politics in a wide-ranging and exclusive interview during a campaign swing through Iowa. He argued that the 2011 bombings that toppled the Libyan leader didn't help the fight against terrorists. “Qaddafi was a bad man, he had a horrible human rights record. And yet ... he had become a significant ally in fighting radical Islamic terrorism.”

“The terrorist attack that occurred in Benghazi was a direct result of that massive foreign policy blunder,” Cruz said during a drive eastward from a town-hall event near Iowa City to another in the town of Clinton.

Cruz drew a marked contrast between his foreign policy views and that of his fellow Cuban-American first-term senator, both of whom are rising in the polls as top contenders for the Republican nomination.

The Texan portrayed himself as a third way between the stalwart, non-interventionist views of Senator Rand Paul and pro-interventionist policies in pursuit of spreading democracy and human rights through the Middle East that Rubio espouses. Cruz's belief is that trying to democratize those societies can be counterproductive and that U.S. military power should be focused narrowly on protecting U.S. interests.

“If you look at President Barack Obama and Hillary Clinton and for that matter some of the more aggressive Washington neo-cons, they have consistently mis-perceived the threat of radical Islamic terrorism and have advocated military adventurism that has had the effect of benefiting radical Islamic terrorists,” he said.

'No dog in the fight' in Syria

On Syria, Cruz inveighed against Rubio and Clinton, Obama's former secretary of state, for supporting a no-fly zone and arming “the so-called moderate rebels.” “I think none of that makes any sense. In my view, we have no dog in the fight of the Syrian civil war,” he said, arguing that Rubio and Clinton “are repeating the very same mistakes they made in Libya. They've demonstrated they've learned nothing.”

“The enemy of my enemy is not necessarily my friend,” Cruz said. “If the Obama administration and the Washington neo-cons succeed in toppling [Bashar al-] Assad, Syria will be handed over to radical Islamic terrorists. ISIS will rule Syria.”

As another example, he said the Obama administration's support for overthrowing Egyptian leader Hosni Mubarak—a dictator opposed by his people but longstanding U.S. ally—led to the Muslim Brotherhood government, which fell in 2013.

Cruz said his decision-making test on military action would be about whether there's a “real threat” to American security. On foreign policy, he said he'll employ a simple test: “How does it keep America safe? If it's keeping America safe, we should do it. If it's making America more vulnerable, we shouldn't do it.”

A balancing act

Cruz's position presents a tricky balancing act, at once more and less militaristic than his rivals. On the surface, he and Rubio may seem indistinguishable—both frequently tout their opposition to Obama's diplomatic overtures like the Iran nuclear deal and normalizing relations with Cuba. Both have bashed the president for refusing to use the phrase “radical Islam” to describe terrorist groups like the Islamic State. Like Rubio throughout the primary, a theme of Cruz's rhetoric during this week's three-day swing through Iowa has been to blast Obama as a weak and “feckless” leader who Russia and Iran are “laughing” at.

In the wake of the Paris terrorist attacks, Rubio and his allies have aggressively attacked Cruz as having weakened U.S. efforts to fight terrorism by voting for the USA Freedom Act, which stopped the government from engaging in mass collection of Americans' phone records. (The law passed the Republican-controlled Congress with super-majorities in June.) Cruz dismisses that attack as a distraction from the debate about Rubio's work with Democrats to pass immigration reform in 2013. A running joke in Cruz's stump speech is to tell attendees to keep their cellphones on, “because I want President Obama to hear every word we say.”

Rubio campaign responds 

Asked to respond to Cruz's various attacks, Rubio campaign spokesman Alex Conant ignored most of them and zeroed in on their spat over surveillance and privacy. “While Senator Cruz voted to gut US intelligence programs and make Americans less safe, nobody has shown a better understanding of the threats we face in the 21st Century than Marco,” Conant wrote in an e-mail.

Rubio has dazzled conservative foreign policy hawks with his aggressive positions and knowledge of international affairs, evolving into a full-fledged hawk in recent years. He has used his perch on the Senate foreign relations and intelligence committees to boost his credentials and make national security a central theme of his 2016 campaign.

While Rubio favors a democracy-spreading “Wilsonian” view of foreign policy, Cruz embodies a narrower “Jacksonian” view. In a recent article for The Atlantic, political science professor Peter Beinart explained the Jacksonian philosophy: “They don’t like spending money or sending troops abroad. They don’t see free trade, let alone mass immigration, as unambiguously good. They don’t believe that American security depends on democratizing far-off lands, something they suspect is impossible. And when there’s a crisis in some other part of the world, their first reaction is likely to be: Why can’t the countries over there handle it?” A notable proponent of the Jacksonian outlook, Beinart argued, is Republican front-runner Donald Trump.

At a town hall Monday morning in Coralville, Cruz rejected the “binary” framing of a choice between a foreign policy philosophy where “we want to retreat from the world and be isolationist and leave everyone alone, or we've got to be these crazy neo-con invade-every-country-on-earth and send our kids to die in the Middle East.”

“Most people I know don't agree with either one of those,” he said. “They think both of those are nuts.”

A religion of peace?

In the interview, Bloomberg Politics asked Cruz if he believes Islam is an inherently violent religion or a peaceful religion that's being perverted. “It is not my role to be rendering judgments on religious faith,” he said. “There are indisputably millions and millions of peaceful Muslims across the globe who are horrified at how terrorists are perverting their faith ... But when President Obama stands up and says the Islamic State is not Islamic, that's idiocy.”

Earlier Monday, Trump was asked the same question on MSNBC by Bloomberg Politics' John Heilemann, and he responded, “I don’t know that that question can be answered,” as there's “a lot of hatred coming out of at least a big part of it.”

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