Republican presidential candidate Marco Rubio has vowed to use American forces to inflict “high-profile, humiliating defeats” on Islamic State jihadis, to show the world they are not invincible.
In an interview with the Guardian conducted while campaigning across Iowa this weekend, the Florida senator detailed a strategy to fight Isis that left no options off the table – including US ground troops to support a coalition led by Sunni nations.
In a wide ranging examination of US foreign policy, he also:
- rejected Donald Trump’s controversial plan to target all Muslims in America as “not a serious proposal”
- accused Republican rivals Ted Cruz and Rand Paul of taking steps that would weaken American defense and intelligence-gathering capabilities
- signaled that he would not be able to work with Russia as a partner in attempting to resolve the chaos in Syria.
Rubio spoke during a swing through Iowa, one week after the terrorist attacks on Paris that killed 130 people and injured hundreds more. The aftermath of those attacks and the stated threat of similar in Brussels provided a greater sense of urgency to his pitch for a more hawkish foreign policy.
Speaking with the Guardian, Rubio criticized President Obama for having only “components of a strategy” but no comprehensive plan to take on Isis. He nonetheless maintained that “the bulk of the ground work” would rest on the shoulders of Sunni Arabs in the region.
The only way to defeat Isis is for Sunni Arabs themselves to reject them ideologically and defeat them militarily
“The only way to defeat Isis is for Sunni Arabs themselves to reject them ideologically and defeat them militarily,” Rubio said. “They must be defeated on the ground with a ground force that is made up primarily of Arab Sunni fighters from Iraq, from Syria, but also from Jordan, from Egypt, from the Emirates, from Saudi Arabia.”
While the US would need to support that coalition with increased airstrikes and by embedding special operations forces on the ground, he said, Rubio would not specify the number of American ground troops that might be needed, nor would he place a limit on what that commitment might look like.
“I believe it will require some level of special operators on the ground,” he said, “to subject Isis to high-profile, humiliating defeats, to sort of reverse this narrative that they’ve created that they are an invincible force.”
Rubio said the size of such an American special operations force “would depend on our military tacticians to outline a strategy and tell us what the commitment would be.
“Whatever it is we’re going to do that. If you’re going to engage militarily, you have to ensure you have the resources to win, not simply to have a symbolic gesture.
“So unlike this president, our troop strength in an effort like that will be determined by what’s necessary to achieve victory, not some artificial constraint or an artificial number that I make up in my own head.”
Obama has rejected calls for major ground forces in Iraq and Syria, a position he maintained after the Paris attacks.
“It is not just my view, but the view of my closest military and civilian advisers, that that would be a mistake,” the president told reporters at the Group of 20 summit meeting in Turkey last week.
Rubio has also joined calls for the imposition of a no-fly zone in Syria. Asked how this could avoid conflict with Russia, which is also carrying out air strikes in the country, he said: “Russia says it’s there to fight against Isis. Our no-fly zone would not have Isis fighters in it.”
He added: “The problem is, I don’t think Russia’s geopolitical interests overlap ours at this moment. Other than that they now have a motive for some revenge attacks against Isis [after the downing of a Metrojet airliner , an attack claimed by Isis], their goal in this region is to prop up [Bashar al-Assad]. And as long as Assad is in power, there will be no solution to this problem.”
At a campaign rally in West Des Moines on Saturday, Rubio laid into Obama publicly for what he said was a “feckless” approach to the turmoil in the Middle East. He also rebuked the president for “spending more time attacking Republicans than talking about how he would attack Isis”.
Obama has, on a number of occasions over the last week, condemned Republican presidential candidates over their opposition to accepting more Syrian refugees after the tragedy in Paris.
“He accused us of being xenophobes because we want to protect America,” Rubio told the crowd, who had braved the first snow storm of the season in the Midwest to see him speak.
The senator told the Guardian there had been “a fundamental distortion” of what the refugee debate was about.
“This is not about turning away Muslim refugees, this is not about turning away refugees,” he said. “It’s not that we don’t want to accept refugees, it’s not that we’re going to have a religious test. It’s that you may not be able to fully vet everyone and if you can’t vet someone, you can’t let them in.”
Other Republican presidential contenders, such as Cruz and former Florida governor Jeb Bush, have pushed for allowing in only Christian refugees fleeing war-torn Syria.
Cruz even attempted to pass legislation specifically barring Middle Eastern refugees from entering the US for a period of three years, while Kentucky senator Rand Paul pushed bills to ban the resettlement of refugees from 34 “high-risk” countries and strip refugees from those nations of access to social welfare assistance.
Trump has gone a step further with a series of controversial statements in the last week. The real-estate billionaire said his administration would close down some mosques and later backed the idea of creating a national registry for Muslims.
Rubio pushed back on Trump’s suggestions, arguing it was “not a serious proposal”.
We need to focus in on areas where people are being radicalized, but that doesn’t mean you … target centers of worship
“We have a registry of people that come into the country, so that’s not by religious affiliation, it’s a registry of people that are here on visas or people who have immigrated here,” Rubio said.
Rubio reiterated his view that any facility where terrorism was inspired – be it a mosque, community center, or website – should be targeted. But he added that “the enormous majority of mosques in this country have nothing to do with radical Islam”.
“We need to focus in on areas where people are being radicalized, but that doesn’t mean you go around saying you’re going to target specifically centers of worship.”
Ever since Rubio declared his candidacy in April, foreign policy has been a cornerstone of his campaign . The senator routinely indicts the Obama administration’s handling of international affairs into his stump speech, criticisms which have only grown sharper in the aftermath of Paris.
In addition to being a long-time critic of Obama’s policy toward Syria, Rubio ranks among the most vocal opponents of the nuclear deal in Iran and is a staunch defender of National Security Agency surveillance.
The latter distinguishes Rubio from Cruz and Paul, the other first-term senators seeking the Republican nomination. Unlike Rubio, they have sided with civil liberties advocates and backed legislation reining in the NSA’s bulk collection of phone records.
And while Cruz and Paul have escalated attacks on Rubio for co-authoring a comprehensive immigration reform bill in 2013 they claim loosened security at the US border, Rubio has responded in kind by highlighting their votes on issues pertaining to defense.
“They make that argument to distract from their own record on national security,” Rubio said in the interview. “Both Ted Cruz and Rand Paul have voted to weaken the Defense Department … Ted Cruz recently joined with Rand Paul to weaken our intelligence programs.”
Rubio’s willingness to throw punches at his opponents marks a shift from the early months of his campaign, when he repeatedly declined to respond to attacks from other Republicans.
But with a crowded Republican field, the race remains wide-open. As the Iowa caucuses approach, Rubio is seeking to build on momentum gained from strong debate performances. The inching of voter priorities toward national security could prove an asset.
“The national security of our country is the most important issue that the federal government deals with,” he said, “and our next commander-in-chief has to be someone with a strong record on national security.”
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