WASHINGTON - Taking on critics in his own party, GOP presidential contender Ted Cruz on Thursday defended Middle East dictators as useful allies against Islamic extremists during a Washington address decrying political correctness and stricter gun laws as an impediment to national security.

The first-term Texas senator described "America under attack" in remarks at a conservative think tank that spanned nearly an hour. He broke no new ground, but reinforced his view that global security depends upon an aggressive and engaged America - with distinct limits. He did not call for additional U.S. ground troops to confront the Islamic State in Iraq and Syria, preferring instead to intensify the U.S.-led air campaign and arm regional allies.

And repeating policy prescriptions outlined during an interview last week, he lashed out at foreign policy hawks in both parties who helped oust dictators in Egypt, Libya and Iraq, and now have the same policy for Syria.

"We've seen the catastrophic results of these myopic policies," he said. "We will not win by replacing dictators, as unpleasant as they may be, with terrorists who want to kill us and destroy America."

Foreign policy and national security have emerged as a central focus in the 2016 presidential campaign following recent terrorist attacks in Paris and California.

Cruz cited border security as a key national security priority, suggesting that violent extremists could easily enter the country simply by swimming across the Rio Grande. There are no publicly disclosed examples of a known terrorist caught trying to cross the U.S.-Mexican border.

"Border security is national security," Cruz said.

He also lashed out at President Obama and others for favoring gun-control measures to help address the rash of mass shootings in America.

"We don't stop the bad guys by giving away our guns," Cruz said. "We stop the bad guys by using our guns."

Cruz also devoted a substantial portion of his speech to attacking Obama's reluctance to call use the term "radical Islamic terrorism." The president, and Democratic presidential candidate Hillary Clinton, avoid the term because they say it unfairly implies Islam itself is an American adversary and could alienate Muslim allies at home and abroad.

"There are many in our country who fear we cannot defeat this enemy, and that to even speak its name labels us bigots," Cruz declared and later added, "They ignore the reality that our nation is under attack."