Rubio’s Hawkishness Could Become a Problem

An exchange with Rand Paul makes clear just how far to the right Marco Rubio is on foreign policy.

Republican senator Marco Rubio of Florida makes a speech in Des Moines, Iowa, October 31
Republican senator Marco Rubio of Florida makes a speech in Des Moines, Iowa, October 31 (Gage Skidmore)

Florida’s Marco Rubio, one of the Republicans who hopes to succeed Barack Obama as president in 2016, clashed with fellow senator Rand Paul in a debate televised by the Fox Business Network on Tuesday.

When he was challenged by Paul on his plan to expand child credits and raise defense spending, without having a plan to pay for either, Rubio dismissed the libertarian lawmaker as a “committed isolationist” and argued, “We can’t even have an economy if we’re not safe.”

There are radical jihadists in the Middle East beheading people and crucifying Christians. The Chinese are taking over the South China Sea. Yes, I believe the world is a safer — no, I don’t believe, I know — the world is a safer and better place when America is the strongest military power in the world.

Rubio didn’t take the opportunity to reveal how he would finance his spending commitments, though. Nor would he explain how radical Islamism in the Middle East or Chinese posturing in the South China Sea has put the American economy at risk. (It hasn’t really.)

Rubio’s characterization of Paul’s policy as “isolationist” and his support for higher defense spending when the United States already has a larger military budget than all potential rivals combined was nevertheless telling.

It showed that Rubio, for all the hype, really isn’t serious about foreign policy.

Political analysts think Rubio is a viable alternative to Jeb Bush as the Republican Party’s establishment favorite. Should the former Florida governor and brother and son of two former president fizzle out, Rubio could emerge as the consensus candidate, the thinking goes, at least once voters recognize that outsiders like Ben Carson and Donald Trump aren’t going to win the presidency.

That logic may hold but it has nothing to do with Rubio’s views on foreign policy. This website has yet to figure out why he is considered a “serious” thinker on the issue. If anything, his foreign policy may be a liability in a general election.

If he is nominated, Rubio would probably have to defeat Hillary Clinton, the Democrats’ former secretary of state, in 2016. She is considered something of a hawk within her own party.

To outflank her, Rubio would have to run so far to the right that he risks alienating the majority of American voters who are starting to lose confidence in the Republican Party’s ability to conduct foreign relations.

The Pew Research Center has found that only 38 percent of Americans believe Republicans run foreign policy better against 41 percent who trust Democrats more. One in two voters also say Republicans are “more extreme” in their positions.

Pew didn’t ask Americans why they trust Republicans less but it isn’t hard to figure out. The party launched an ill-fated invasion of Iraq in 2003 and now disparages a nuclear deal with Iran that President Obama says is the only way to avoid war with that country. Obama’s victory in 2008 over John McCain, a Republican hawk, had much to do with his opposition to the Iraq War from the start.

Rubio has taken the McCain line. Since he entered the Senate in 2011, he hasn’t seen one foreign crisis he wouldn’t like to involve the United States in.

That year, he supported military intervention in Libya. When that didn’t end the country’s civil war, he turned on the Obama Administration and accused it of not committing wholeheartedly. A more robust military intervention, he said, would have done better.

He later took the president to task for ending half a century of Cuban isolation, characterizing his reversal of such an obviously failed policy as “part of a long record of coddling dictators and tyrants” — a record that only exists in Rubio’s imagination.

And he incredulously claimed that the Democrat didn’t want to defeat Islamic State militants in Iraq and Syria because he was afraid to “upset” Iran — even though Iran is fighting the same jihadists.

In Syria, Rubio has proposed imposing a no-fly zone and to help allies Jordan and Turkey carve out “safe havens” on the Syrian border “where the moderate opposition can begin to govern free of the threat of regime (or Islamic State) attacks.”

This is wishful thinking. There is virtually no moderate opposition left. Not because — as Republicans would have you believe — Obama didn’t back them up strongly enough in the beginning of the revolt but rather because Bashar Assad was determined to crush any credible alternative to his dictatorship and battle fanatical Islamists instead so the world would fear the consequences of removing him from power.

Rubio sees the world in black and white. Where there is evil, America must crush it. Where allies are wavering and foes, like China and Russia, are rising, all America needs to do is project strength and determination. Dictators must be overthrown and undemocratic regimes, whether in the Caribbean or the Middle East, isolated indefinitely.

The last Republican president who tried this approach is rightly remembered as a failure.

Paul’s approach isn’t the right one either. He would abdicate American leadership and put the liberal, rules-based world order that the country has so painstakingly built over the last sixty years at risk in favor of a narrow, interests-based foreign policy that could make the whole world a more dangerous place.

But Republicans could do worse than listen to him. Given the choice between Paul’s “isolationism” and Rubio’s bluster, there is little doubt which the majority of American voters would prefer.