Republican presidential hopeful tells Council on Foreign Relations only US can lead resistance to Islamic State, Chinese expansionism and Russian aggression
Marco Rubio filled a lecture hall at the Council on Foreign Relations with imagery about warships, fighter jets and weapons shipments in an appearance on Wednesday to lay out his vision for a significantly more muscular US foreign policy – one that he said would prevent a global descent into “chaos” but stop short of making America the “world policeman”.
“America plays a part on the world stage for which there is no understudy,” the senator and Republican presidential hopeful told a standing-room-only crowd on New York’s upper east side. “When we fail to lead with strength and principle there is no other country, friend or foe, that is willing or able to take our place. And the result is chaos.”
While most of the policy prescriptions Rubio made Wednesday – arm the Ukrainian military, pull back from negotiations with Iran, increase air strikes in Iraq, increase naval activity in the China Sea, reverse the “normalization” of relations with Cuba – were hawkish in nature, on the most hotly contested foreign policy issue of the last decade – the Iraq war – the candidate seemed to reverse himself in the direction of restraint.
During his run for the US Senate in Florida in 2010 Rubio was asked whether the Iraq war had made the United States “safer and better off”. “I think ultimately yes,” Rubio said , “because Saddam Hussein is no longer in charge.”
Rubio seemed to contradict that view on Wednesday when moderator Charlie Rose asked whether he would have been in favor of the Iraqi invasion “after finding out that there were no weapons of mass destruction”.
“Not only would I not have been in favor of it, President [George W] Bush would not have been in favor of it,” Rubio replied. “And he said so. President Bush has said that he regrets that the intelligence was faulty. I don’t think Congress would have voted in favor of the authorization if they didn’t know that.”
Likely Rubio presidential opponent Jeb Bush had told a questioner days earlier that “knowing what we know now”, he still “would have” authorized the 2003 invasion of Iraq had he been president. Bush later said he had misunderstood the question.
The relatively measured talk on Iraq was the exception, however, in Rubio’s appearance Wednesday, which he otherwise used to sharply condemn a White House foreign policy that he characterized as too passive and “unhinged from its moral purpose”. The speech fed perceptions that Rubio, who recently backed an amendment that would have crippled the Iran nuclear negotiations and who vehemently opposes the “normalization” of relations with Cuba, has raised the temperature of his foreign policy views in recent months, possibly with an eye on the proclivities of Republican primary voters.
In the world view Rubio outlined Wednesday, which he billed as a new doctrine, certain regional conflicts that look very difficult – the ongoing war in Syria, the failed state of Libya – in fact began as tractable problems that spun out of control due to tragic US negligence. Other regional conflicts that look very difficult, meanwhile – the demise of a two-state solution for Israel-Palestine, for example – Rubio presented as every bit as confounding as they seem, with the United States powerless to act.
“Most threatening of all,” Rubio said, “we have seen Iran expand its influence throughout the Middle East, and threaten to annihilate Israel, as it moves closer to a nuclear weapon capability. The president’s proposed deal with Iran will likely lead to a cascade of nuclear proliferation in the Middle East, and it could force Israel to take bold action to defend itself, making war with Iran even more likely.”
Rubio offered a similar prescription for flashpoints in Ukraine, the Gulf and the Pacific, describing a need for gestures that would demonstrate a US willingness to defend its interests with military might. Such a gesture might be directed at China, which Rubio accused of arrogating territory near Japan and the Philippines.
“We should never accept it as a truth that they control that,” Rubio said, referring to artificial islands built by the Chinese. “And I would in fact take all sorts of naval actions – not military actions, per se – but military naval vessels transiting through that zone, to clearly show this is international waters, open to transit to anyone who wants to go through there.”
Rubio called for increasing airstrikes against Isis militants in Iraq, to be supported on the ground by a “pan-Arab Sunni force” including troops supplied by Egyptian President Abdel Fatah al-Sisi, who to many eyes appears to be the kind of “pro-American dictator” that Rubio dismissed as an “oxymoron” in his last outing before the council on foreign relations, in 2012.
“I still think that it’s good we’re conducting air strikes – the truth is that we probably need more” in Iraq, Rubio said Wednesday. “But I really think it’s critical that a Sunni force confront them on the ground, and part of that can be Iraqi Sunnis, and I see today that they’re starting to train some, but I also think it’s important to go to our allies in the region – the Jordanians, the Egyptians, the GCC countries – that are willing to also put forces on the ground to help stabilize that country.”
Rubio took particular aim at Hillary Clinton, the former secretary of state and presidential contender on the Democratic side, calling her the “chief architect and spokesperson of a foreign policy that will go down in history as disastrous”.
“We simply cannot afford to elect as our next president one of the leading agents of this administration’s foreign policy,” Rubio said. “A leader from yesterday whose tenure as secretary of state was ineffective at best, and dangerously negligent at worst.”
Rubio denied an assertion by Rose that his intensifying proximity as a presidential candidate to mega-donors such as Sheldon Adelson, the staunch supporter of Israel and opponent of a two-state solution, had pulled him in a hawkish direction.
“My interest in Israel is not about the people who will support me politically,” Rubio said. “It’s a longstanding belief.”
Asked whether he considered Iran as dangerous as Israeli prime minister Binyamin Netanyahu seems to, Rubio replied: “I view them as the same threat he does. The difference is, he lives a lot closer to them than I do.”
After Rubio concluded his prepared remarks, Rose asked him: “Should we be the world’s policeman?”
“I don’t think that’s necessarily the role that I would advocate,” Rubio replied. “The title is not world policeman.”
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