On Defense, Republican Rubio Veers to the Extreme

The Florida senator accuses other presidential contenders of abetting Islamic State terrorists.

Republican senator Marco Rubio of Florida makes a speech in Des Moines, Iowa, October 31, 2015
Republican senator Marco Rubio of Florida makes a speech in Des Moines, Iowa, October 31, 2015 (Gage Skidmore)

Florida senator Marco Rubio is veering to such extremes in his attempt to discredit fellow Republican presidential contenders that he risks undermining the very rationale of his candidacy, which is that he could beat Hillary Clinton in November.

In New Hampshire, the first presidential primary state, Rubio said on Monday that Republicans who voted to limit the surveillance of Americans’ phone conversations were guilty of abetting the Islamic State, a militant and terrorist organization also known as ISIS.

“If ISIS had lobbyists in Washington, they would have spent millions to support the anti-intelligence law that was just passed with the help of some Republicans now running for president,” he said.

Among those Republicans was Texas senator Ted Cruz, one of Rubio’s opponents for the Republican Party’s presidential nomination.

Surveillance

The law Rubio referred to was enacted in June with overwhelming support from Democrats and Republicans in both chambers of Congress — including from members who now support the Floridian’s presidential bid. It restricted the National Security Agency’s collection of phone data.

According to Rubio, the changes have weakened America’s security “by outlawing the very programs our intelligence community and the FBI have used to protect us time and time again.”

Intelligence experts were actually divided on the merits of the program and the reforms do not bar the NSA from collecting information from anyone remotely connected to a terrorist organization.

But then Rubio often leaves no room for nuance in his statements on foreign policy and defense.

Over the top

Also on Monday, he alleged, “We have isolationist candidates who are apparently more passionate about weakening our military and intelligence capabilities than they are about destroying our enemies.”

Which is an absurd accusation.

The American Conservative has criticized Rubio’s “desperate” use of the “isolationist” slur against Cruz and another one of his opponents, Donald Trump.

Neither Trump nor Cruz can be successfully labeled “isolationists” since they both advocate for intervening in some parts of the world and they can’t be portrayed as “weak” on foreign adversaries since both have gone overboard in their “bomb the hell out of them” rhetoric. The fact that Rubio would try to pin these labels on them just reminds voters how reflexively interventionist and out of touch he is.

This website has similar doubts about Rubio’s credibility. From suggesting that Democratic president Barack Obama has balked from fighting the self-declared Islamic State for fear of “upsetting” rival Iran to seeing the group as an existential threat to America — “Either they win or we do,” according to Rubio — his views have bordered on the incredulous.

Bad politics

It’s not only wrong; it’s bad politics.

As The Washington Examiner, a right-wing publication, points out, it is hard to see how Rubio can convince many Republican primary voters, even those who don’t support Cruz, that the Texan is somehow soft on national defense. “And yet that is apparently what Rubio hopes to do.”

Should he succeed, and win the party’s presidential nomination, Rubio’s hawkishness could prove an even bigger liability. Clinton, the former secretary of state and presumptive Democratic nominee, is more hawkish than Obama. To outflank her, Rubio would have to run so far to the right that he risks alienating the vast middle of the American electorate.

The Chicago Council on Global Affairs has found that more Americans now believe Islamic extremism is a threat to their country than at any point since the September 11, 2001 terrorist attacks. But only 38 percent of Republicans and 28 percent of self-declared independents want America to play a “dominant” role in the world anymore. By far most would rather share the burden, which is the Obama policy.

The Pew Research Center, for its part, has found that only 38 percent of Americans trust Republicans to run foreign policy better against 41 percent who would rather have a Democrat in charge.

Neither the 2009 Fort Hood, Texas shooting nor the 2013 Boston Marathon bombings — two of the deadliest Islamic terrorist attacks on American soil under Obama — made Americans more eager for another war in the Middle East. A mass shooting in San Bernardino, California last month, where two radicalized Muslim Americans killed fourteen people, does not appear to have convinced voters either that the sort of warmongering Rubio represents is now called for.