WASHINGTON (AP) — Republican presidential candidate Ted Cruz says the U.S. is more secure with Syrian President Bashar Assad in power, accepting one of the Middle East's most brutal dictators as an unfortunate ally in the fight against the Islamic State.

The tea party favorite said in an interview with The Associated Press that America and the world would have been better off retaining deposed dictators in Iraq, Egypt and Libya — who committed crimes against their own people but also helped prevent the spread of violent extremism.

"If you topple a stable ruler, throw a Middle Eastern country into chaos and hand it over to radical Islamic terrorists, that hurts America," Cruz said.

Cruz sat down to share his views on national security and foreign affairs in an AP Conversation — part of a series of extended interviews with the candidates to become the nation's 45th president.

If elected next November, Cruz vows a dramatic shift in how America engages with the world. He condemns the foreign policy of President Barack Obama and his first secretary of state, Democratic front-runner Hillary Clinton, as weak, ineffective and dangerous.

Instead, he suggests, as many Republicans do, that he will follow the lead of Ronald Reagan. A gigantic mural hangs in Cruz's Senate office featuring the Republican icon standing in front of Berlin's Brandenburg Gate, making his famous call for Soviet leader Mikhail Gorbachev to "tear down this wall."

"There is power to speaking the truth on the global stage," Cruz said. "He understood America's strength draws from our people, draws from our values, draws from the beacon of light and hope we provide to the world."

Yet while promising to destroy the Islamic State, beat back aggression from Russia, China and Iran, and ensure extremists don't infiltrate the U.S., Cruz also places notable limits on his approach to national security.

While Assad is undoubtedly a "bad man," removing him from power would be "materially worse for U.S. national security interests," he says. He is unwilling to send more U.S. ground forces into the Middle East and rejects the idea that torture can serve as an appropriate interrogation tool.

"We can defend our nation and be strong and uphold our values," he says. "There is a reason the bad guys engage in torture. ISIS engages in torture. Iran engages in torture. America does not need to torture to protect ourselves."

The 44-year-old first-term senator, trying to cement his place in the top tier of Republicans running for president, outlines a prospective foreign policy that is both broadly ambitious and cautious at times in the specifics.

In an election increasingly focused on national security in the wake of the Paris attacks, Cruz says he would have one goal above all others in the Oval Office.

"The pre-eminent job of the commander in chief is to keep this country safe," he says. "It is the first responsibility."

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For Cruz, any discussion about how best to confront the Islamic State begins with criticism of Obama and a reminder that the president has said the U.S. did not "yet have a complete strategy" to defeat the violent Islamic extremists who have taken control of parts of Syria and Iraq.

Pressed for his own approach, Cruz says he would keep things "very simple."

"We win and they lose. And if I'm elected president, I will make unambiguously clear that we will destroy ISIS — not weaken it, not degrade it but utterly destroy it," he says.

He says there is no room for anything other than outright victory: "ISIS has declared war on America. They are a clear and present danger. They are the face of evil."

While Cruz's goals are definitive, he is unwilling to go as far as several other Republican presidential contenders — among them, retired neurosurgeon Ben Carson and former Florida Gov. Jeb Bush — who have said the battle against the Islamic State must include U.S. troops on the ground.

Cruz lashed out against plans released by the Obama administration on Tuesday to deploy a new special operations force to the region, a move that puts U.S. combat troops in a more permanent role in Iraq and Syria for the first time in the fight against the Islamic State.

He argues instead for a vast intensification of the Obama administration's existing air campaign, which he dismissed as a "photo op foreign policy" that's "not designed to succeed." Instead, he called for "overwhelming air power" and cited the "saturation bombing" of the first Gulf War in Iraq that he said featured roughly 1,100 air attacks a day for more than a month.

"You may need some embedded special forces to direct that air power," Cruz says, "but not the way President Obama is doing it now, which is just sending our guys over there with no mission, no plan to win, and simply over there to be targets."

As a second step, Cruz argues for directly arming the ethnic Kurds who are fighting Islamic State forces. "In a very real sense, the Kurds are our troops on the ground," he says.

Pressed to say under what circumstances he may favor dispatching a more substantial U.S. ground force, Cruz demurs, saying only that such scenarios exist in situations affecting "vital U.S. national security interests."

"If and when we have to use military power, there should be a clearly defined objective at the outset. We should use overwhelming power," he says. "When we're done, we should get the heck out. I don't believe in nation building."

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While conceding that Assad has "murdered hundreds of thousands of his own citizens" in Syria, Cruz is a harsh critic of Obama's desire to remove him from power. He notes with an eye toward the upcoming Republican primaries that Florida Sen. Marco Rubio, a presidential rival, also thinks Assad must go.

The Middle East and the United States are better off with Assad in place, Cruz says.

"If President Obama and Hillary Clinton and Sen. Rubio succeed in toppling Assad, the result will be the radical Islamic terrorists will take over Syria, that Syria will be controlled by ISIS, and that is materially worse for U.S. national security interests," he says.

He doesn't stop there. In another example of limits he would follow as president, Cruz argues the U.S. should not have supported the ouster of former Iraqi President Saddam Hussein, former Egyptian President Hosni Mubarak and former Libyan leader Moammar Gadhafi.

His approach to Assad's leadership of Syria aligns him with Russian President Vladimir Putin. Despite their shared belief that Assad should remain in power, Cruz called Putin "a KGB thug" — although one who is not "explicitly homicidal in the way that Iran and ISIS are."

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Cruz's cites his father's personal story as a major factor in shaping his worldview. The Cuban-born Rafael Cruz fought in the island nation's revolution and was imprisoned before fleeing to the United States.

"It is an incredible blessing to be the child of an immigrant who fled oppression," Cruz said of his father, now a pastor with a passionate following among evangelical Christians. "When you grow up in the home of an immigrant who's seen prison and torture, who's seen freedom stripped away, you grow up with an acute appreciation for how precious and fragile our liberty is."

And yet Cruz is an outspoken opponent of allowing Syrian refugees fleeing the Assad regime to resettle in the United States. He calls the idea "lunacy" and, as have many Republicans, warns that challenges in screening the backgrounds of such refugees make it impossible to determine whether they have links to the Islamic State.

"They ought to be resettled in the Middle East in majority Muslim countries," he said.

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While Cruz defines the job of president first and foremost as ensuring the safety of this country, he's also an advocate for limits on how much authority the National Security Agency should have to conduct surveillance inside the U.S.

Cruz aligned himself with civil libertarians a year ago who fought to end the government's bulk collection of telephone records — taking on security hawks in his own party who warned that doing so would remove a valuable tool that helps protect the nation's security.

Cruz declined to say whether he supports what's known as the PRISM program, which allows the NSA to obtain secret court orders and collect intelligence about foreign threats via U.S. Internet companies. The program is to expire after the next president takes office.

"We will surely debate that in Congress and examine how to do two things at once: protect the constitutional rights of law-abiding citizens and ensure that we have the tools to stop terrorists," Cruz says.

The subject is one that will continue to come up as the lead-off Iowa caucuses draw closer. It's one that allows Cruz to poke at Rubio, who has criticized his fellow senator for his position on NSA surveillance in recent weeks.

"What they're attacking me for is something I'm very proud of," he says. "I disagree with Marco Rubio. I don't think the federal government has to violate the constitutional rights of hundreds of millions of law- abiding citizens to keep us safe."

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