Sen. Marco Rubio (R-FL) intends to chart a new foreign policy course for the GOP, and it rejects the policies of both hawks and isolationists within his own party.
“It has become starkly apparent to me that we lack any sort of strategic foreign policy view, and when I say ‘we,’ I mean the country in general but in particular the Republican Party,” Rubio told The Daily Beast in an exclusive interview Wednesday. “There’s this false choice between the labels ‘isolationist’ and ‘hawks.’ I think, frankly, those labels are obsolete in the foreign policy debates we now have. They have no applicability at all.”
Rubio laid out his vision in a detailed speech Wednesday morning at the American Enterprise Institute, a conservative Washington think tank. The senator is advocating an increase in foreign aid, diplomacy, trade, active engagement, and promotion of democracy and human rights abroad.
“The time has now come for a new vision for America’s role abroad, one that reflects the reality of the world we live in today,” he said in the speech.
The Rubio approach, a balanced foreign policy based on various tools, matches closely with what Hillary Clinton set forth as secretary of state in her vision of “smart power,” which was based on the idea that defense, diplomacy, and development should be equal pillars of U.S foreign policy. Rubio acknowledged the similarities but said he would be able to succeed where Clinton and the rest of the Obama team failed to follow through.
“Maybe tactically Hillary gave lip service to that. In terms of how she executed foreign policy, that’s certainly not the case,” Rubio told The Daily Beast. “Tactically speaking, we’re talking about smart power engagement. But what is our strategy at the end of the day? Our strategic aims are the security and well-being of the American people and beyond that the spread of liberty, prosperity, and human rights around the world.”
Over his three years in the Senate, Rubio has steadily amassed foreign policy credentials. He’s now on the Senate Intelligence Committee, ranking Republican on the Asia subcommittee on the Senate Foreign Relations Committee, and he is co-chairman of the Senate’s National Security Working Group. In the past year, he has sponsored legislation to increase to support the Syrian opposition and place restrictions on U.S. aid to Egypt, although his bills have not become law. Rubio traveled to Israel in February and will be in London next week to deliver another major foreign policy speech.
Although he won’t say so outright, Rubio’s approach is a direct rebuke to some of his potential 2016 GOP primary opponents, including Sen. Rand Paul (R-KY), who has been actively pushing his foreign policy agenda, with little success but with major media attention.
Some of Rubio’s positions seem hawkish. He is working with Sen. Mark Kirk (R-IL) on new sanctions for Iran that the administration and some lawmakers fear would upset the ongoing negotiations between Iran and the P5+1 countries.
“I view myself as a realist, and the reality is that what Iran is doing is very simple,” he said. “They are following the blueprint of North Korea. Their goal in these negotiations is clear as day: They want to get as many as possible of these sanctions lifted without giving away any irreversible concessions. Any agreement that allows them to retain any enrichment capability gives them exactly what they want. The only way they will abandon their nuclear program is if they are convinced that if they continue they will fail or it will bring the regime down.”
Rubio also supports keeping thousands of U.S. troops in Afghanistan well beyond 2014 to continue the missions of counterterrorism and training the Afghan security forces.
“It has to be a sufficient number that allows us not only to protect our personnel but also to assist the Afghans increase their capabilities,” he said. “That’s a commitment that’s going to take perhaps another decade.”
On other issues, such as defense spending, Rubio breaks from the hawks in his own party. He does not support rolling back the cuts in defense spending implemented under the sequester policy unless corresponding reforms are made to major entitlement programs.
“The only meaningful reductions in spending that have been achieved in recent memory is the sequester,” he said. “It’s not the best way to balance our budget or reduce our spending, but in the absence of a willingness to engaging in serious entitlement reform… it’s the only reductions right now in place.”
Rubio also supports the administration’s drone policy and defends the intelligence community’s actions on surveillance at home and abroad. On Syria, Rubio is critical of the Obama team for failing to arm moderate elements of the opposition years ago, but now he says he thinks it’s too late and America should focus on humanitarian aid and non-lethal support.
Although many of his policies match the administration’s approach, the senator’s main criticism of Obama is that the president has failed to communicate a clear foreign policy message and then bring the country along.
“This administration has never made a compelling case to the American people as to why we should care about places like Syria, and the result is that the lack of leadership and divisive nature of this administration have undermined an ability to rally and convene the American people behind these causes,” he said. “My view is the Republican Party needs to lead in the regard.”
Looking ahead to the 2016 presidential race, Rubio said he doesn’t believe foreign policy will be the No. 1 issue on most voters’ minds, but he does think his foreign policy vision could have bipartisan appeal. Also, one never knows when a major crisis will put foreign policy in the center of a campaign, as it did Sept. 11, 2012, when terrorists attacked the U.S. mission in Benghazi, he said.
“Politically, foreign policy never matters until it matters, and then it matters a lot.”