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How Marco Rubio Became the GOP's Foreign Policy Candidate

The senator has developed a reputation for wonkishness without the policies to back it up

Andrew Burton/Getty

Having bested Jeb Bush in the last Republican presidential debate, Senator Marco Rubio has emerged as the frontrunner-in-waiting of the 2016 GOP field, the candidate most likely to succeed when the primary votes are counted. And in particular, he wants to be the candidate who is strongest on foreign policy. One can already see the conservative machinery doing for Rubio on foreign policy what it once did for Paul Ryan on the budget: create an aura of wonkish brilliance where it hasn’t been earned. 

This represents an opportunity for Democrats, because Rubio’s foreign policy is actually less than meets the eye.

It's true that the 44-year-old senator presents a different challenge from the rest of the field. He’s polished, well-briefed, and eagerly pushing national security issues to the forefront. When it comes to foreign policy, Rubio is nothing less than the valedictorian in the Republican primary.

Admittedly, it doesn't take much. Consider the alternatives: Donald Trump’s idea of statesmanship is to build a wall and make someone else pay for it. Jeb Bush has tied himself to his brother’s record and now to Dick Cheney’s. Rand Paul offers a substantive alternative, but he can’t seem to get anyone to notice. Everyone else, by and large, either lacks foreign policy experience or evinces the brand of reflexive belligerence that helped elect Barack Obama twice.

Rubio represents something different. He’s less tainted by mistakes of the past. He was a 31-year-old state legislator when Congress voted to authorize the Iraq War. He softens his hawkish views with the language of values and optimism. He speaks Spanish. He’s also fluent in foreign policy debates, having served on the Senate Foreign Relations and Intelligence Committees. And he recently burnished his bona fides by accurately forecasting Vladimir Putin’s military intervention in Syria. One commentator recently dubbed him “the Council on Foreign Relations’ favorite Republican.” 

This spring, Senator Rubio gave a major speech full of clues about what a President Rubio would do in foreign affairs. It began with a full-throated, full-spectrum denunciation of the Obama administration, which, in his view, has invited chaos by doubting and then dismantling America’s leadership around the world. The rest of the speech was devoted to what he called the “Rubio doctrine," which is comprised of three pillars. The first is “American strength,” whose centerpiece is higher military spending. The second is “the protection of the American economy” through free trade and safeguarding international sea lanes and the economic rules of the road. The third pillar is “clarity regarding America’s core values,” a Wilsonian embrace of America’s role as a champion of democracy and human rights worldwide. 

As a piece of political positioning, it works quite well—quote Kennedy, blast Obama, say nothing so belligerent as to evoke the legacy of Bush/Cheney, but also nothing so independent-minded as to raise hackles of the hawks. There were even some parts that liberals could like: a focus on human rights, a robust internationalism that extends beyond military force, an emphasis on the tools of economic statecraft. 

But when you look closer, there just isn't much “there" there. Instead of real vision—an incisive analysis of the world today and actual solutions to its complex challenges—Rubio offers attitudes and platitudes. Scratch the surface and it is difficult to identify a single major new idea or overarching strategy beyond reversing what President Obama has done, shifting the tone toward more forthright condemnation of authoritarians with whom the Obama administration has sought pragmatic and targeted cooperation, and projecting “strength” through a more confrontational approach backed by military spending.

Yes, Rubio’s rhetoric is more nuanced and sensible than his competitors’. But he still sometimes falls prey to the hollowness of what Jeremy Shapiro labeled the “Republican foreign policy manifesto: Obama is weak, and I am strong.” It’s an alternate reality where gestures of hawkishness, toughness, and national self-regard can somehow substitute for the judicious, hardheaded use of American power and the tough trade-offs required to address the complex realities of today’s international politics. 

Consider his policies regarding the Middle East.  

On Iraq, Rubio offers old wine in new bottles: first denouncing Obama’s policies as weak and failed, then offering proposals (empower Iraqi Sunnis, push Baghdad to reform, add U.S. spotters to better target ISIS) that don’t differ a great deal from what Obama is already doing. 

On Iran, Rubio’s proposed path forward would actually lead us backward, in search of a pre-nuclear deal status quo that is no longer viable. People of good faith from both parties are on both sides of the Iran nuclear deal. But Rubio has pushed his ideas in a notably partisan manner. According to a fundraising letter from his super PAC, Rubio was “one of the first senators” to sign Senator Tom Cotton’s letter to the Iranian ayatollahs—a regrettable episode in which 47 Republican senators sought to undercut a sitting U.S. president in the midst of sensitive negotiations. Even now, Rubio appears unchastened, continuing to repeat the Cotton letter's rhetoric ("let me explain to you our system") and the argument that "this is Obama’s deal with Iran, not America’s deal with Iran,” setting a partisan precedent for discontinuity in the conduct of foreign policy that no aspiring president should want. In August, Rubio said that once in office he would tell the Iranians that the whole deal was illegitimate from the start—he'd then reimpose sanctions himself, and ask Congress to increase them.

Left unanswered—because there are no good answers—are some basic and extremely important questions. After unilaterally ripping up the nuclear deal our European and Asian allies signed on to with President Obama, how does President Rubio expect to bring these same allies along to ratchet up sanctions on Iran? And if international pressure can’t be restored and Iran’s enrichment races forward—as would likely be the case—where does Rubio's policy lead us, and where would he go from there?

Then there’s Syria, arguably the most difficult file in U.S. foreign policy today. It’s hard to see any evidence of a guiding “Rubio doctrine” at work in Rubio’s position, which keeps changing. In 2012, Rubio wavered as to how and to what extent the U.S. and its Arab allies should arm rebels. In early 2013, he called for providing the Syrian opposition with ammunition and intelligence, but not arms. Since late 2013, he has fiercely criticized Obama for failing to enforce his “red line” when he didn’t strike the regime of Bashar al-Assad; Rubio said it caused “reputational damage” and labeled it an instance of “presidential malpractice.” But Rubio actually voted against authorizing that strike when Obama asked for it. He has said, “I have never supported the use of U.S. military force in the conflict. And I still don’t.” And now he’s calling for the use of military force to support a “no fly zone” over Syria.

Syria is a bewildering mess with few good answers. But Rubio’s approach to date does not inspire confidence. 

And the problems go beyond the Middle East.  

On Cuba—where Rubio’s family comes from—the self-professed candidate of a new generation offers only to restore a policy that failed for 50 years. Meanwhile, Rubio has called for deeper engagement with the other countries in the Americas. His familial ties would present a meaningful opportunity for a deeper connection with the people of the Western Hemisphere. But his chosen policies—a reversal of Obama's position on Cuba and a more polarizing approach to the region’s ideological politics—would deeply alienate many of Latin America’s governments and people. Plus, Rubio is one of just two Republican senators (the other one is Ted Cruz) blocking a distinguished career diplomat from serving as the U.S. ambassador to Mexico. His call for closer ties with our neighbors is undercut by his standing in the way of basic diplomacy with the United States’s third-largest trading partner.

Nowhere is Rubio’s promise of generational change more hollow than on climate change. It’s hard to pin Rubio down, as his position shifts from flirting-with-denial to artful diminishing of the problem (ongoing) to what seemed like a defiant refusal to act (first Republican debate) to a promise to reverse Obama-era regulations that seek to lessen carbon pollution (campaign fact sheet). What is consistent, however, is a lack of urgency in the face of overwhelming scientific evidence of climate-driven disaster, displacement, and destruction, evidence that has been bolstered by numerous warnings from military and intelligence officials. For such a believer in American leadership, on this issue Rubio is disappointingly meek.

In short, Rubio’s foreign policy falls short of his reputation. It’s less visionary, less concrete, more partisan, and more hawkish.

It didn’t have to be this way. Back in 2012, Rubio positioned himself as a foreign policy moderate. He supported Obama’s action in Libya. He supported the notion of talks with Iran. He warned less hawkish Republican colleagues that “if you go far enough to the right, you wind up on the left.”

But then the political winds shifted. The rise of ISIS, the invasion of Crimea, and the mass migration of refugees created a narrative of fear. And Rubio tacked right

Maybe the political winds will shift again during the general election. And there's certainly time for Rubio to offer a more compelling vision. But now is the time for Democrats to start shining a light on his policies. Rubio can either be a hyper-partisan hawk with neocon tendencies, or he can attempt to steer his party back toward a responsible, bipartisan mainstream. But he shouldn’t be allowed to sell himself as both.

Where Rubio’s policies are nearly identical to the Obama policies he denounces, let’s ask him to explain what he'd do differently. Where his solutions are vague, disjointed, retrograde, or dependent on wishful thinking, let’s ask him to reckon fully with the consequences of what he proposes.  

Now, while Rubio’s image is still being cemented, is the moment to draw him out on the shortcomings and contradictions of his policies.