Republican Marco Rubio, a potential 2016 White House contender, urges the projection of US global power in the name of liberty — an interventionist strategy at odds with isolationists in his party.
Back home he spearheaded comprehensive immigration reform earlier this year, infuriating hardliners who helped elect him to the Senate in early 2011.
But since then the lawmaker and hip-hop aficionado from Florida has mostly hewed to the right, voting the Tea Party line on social issues and fiercely opposing President Barack Obama’s health care reforms.
In essence the 42-year-old Rubio is threading the conservative needle, regaining stature with his base while seeking to placate a more moderate Republican establishment desperate to find the right candidate to topple the likes of Democratic juggernaut Hillary Clinton, if she runs for president.
To help accomplish the latter he is honing his message that American exceptionalism is not dead — and that most democracies around the globe would not exist today but for the United States carrying the torch.
In an interview with AFP Wednesday, Rubio laid out a foreign policy vision less obsessed with military force than the Bush/Cheney era, but projecting more strength than the Obama administration, including diplomatic and economic power that reflect US interests and values?.
“Americans are clearly weary of the costs of engagement internationally in the last 10 years,” he said after giving a foreign policy speech in Washington.
“I’m concerned that as Americans look to our domestic problems, they are susceptible to the argument that we should just be focused on them and let the world take care of its own problems.”
A gifted orator and son of Cuban immigrants — a crucial asset for drawing Hispanic votes away from Democrats — Rubio was swiftly seen as made of presidential timber.
“He’s got a charisma about him,” said Senator John McCain, who lost to Obama in the 2008 election.
And Rubio has wisely sought to fill a foreign policy “vacancy” in the Republican Party, McCain added.
“There’s not a lot of voices there, and anybody who wants to be president has got to establish those credentials.”
But Rubio’s critics seek to portray his early push for intervention in Libya in 2011, and for sending lethal weaponry to Syrian rebels in 2012, as rushes to war.
With isolationists such as his possible future Republican primary rival Senator Rand Paul gaining popularity, Rubio acknowledges that “voices that seek to isolate us from the world… have always been a part of American debate.”
But unlike Paul, Rubio insists that foreign aid is crucial to US global influence.
“At the end of the day, once you explain to Americans (that) prosperity and security that we find in the 21st century is a byproduct of American international leadership and engagement… I think you can convince people to come around to that view.”
NSA fears ‘exaggerated’
Another position setting him apart from Paul: Rubio, a Senate Intelligence Committee member, defends the National Security Agency surveillance operations that recently have come under the spotlight and drawn sharp criticism at home and abroad.
He waved off as “exaggerated” the concerns expressed by European and Latin American allies over revelations of spying on their citizens and leaders.
Rubio supports increased transparency, but not if it “announces to the world how the US conducts its surveillance programs.” And he is opposed to ending the NSA’s controversial bulk collection of phone metadata.
“The challenge,” he said, “is to build in place enough safeguards from the political branches to ensure that it’s not being abused and have the American people have confidence in it.”
Rubio insisted his leadership on immigration reform, which is dead for 2013, was not done for “political advantage” but “to do something meaningful for the country.”
He has suffered a far-right backlash — “Rubio Lies, America Dies” read one poster at an anti-immigration reform rally at the US Capitol this year. But he dismissed talk about his need to earn back support from spooked core conservatives as mere “political chatter.”
Rubio remains silent about his presidential ambitions, reiterating that “we’re ways away from that.”
But he quickly pointed out the party’s need to speak optimistically about overcoming uncertainty regarding unemployment and boosting skills to thrive in the globalized economy.
And “we need to recognize societal breakdown, the fact that too many Americans in childhood are not acquiring values like hard work and sacrifice and self-control,” he added.
“Our party has positive answers for those things, and I think that the next Republican president will be someone who can articulate these things and inspire people behind them.”