Marco Rubio says he’s the most qualified of the crowded 2016 field to be commander in chief, given his national security experience and bold ideas for a new generation of leader. Yet in a Wednesday address at the Council on Foreign Relations billed as his “first policy speech” as a presidential candidate, the Florida senator recycled much of the same foreign policy platform that’s failed to win his party the White House two elections running.
“Those are the three pillars of my doctrine – American strength, the protection of our global economy, and a proud advocacy for America’s core values,” Rubio said, arguing they will, “restore America’s status as a nation that shapes global events rather than one that is shaped by them.”
Rubio began by quoting former President John F. Kennedy’s last speech before his assassination, calling it “a testament to the bipartisan tradition of strong American leadership,” but the speech quickly devolved into familiar talking points against President Obama.
They go something like this: Obama’s “leading from behind” by defunding the military, retreating from the global stage and apologizing for America. He’s responsible for a more dangerous world, as evidenced by the unprecedented array of foreign policy crises the U.S. is currently facing. He’s been wrong — and politicians like Rubio have been right — on: Russia, China, North Korea, the Islamic State, Iran, etc.
The answer for most of the GOP candidates vying for the nomination is a defense platform built almost entirely on bashing Obama and boosting military spending, and Rubio is no exception. It is a race to show more “American strength” by throwing more money at the Pentagon and relying more on military action than diplomatic tools.
The strategy is risky for Rubio. His brief time in Congress since his election in 2010 and serving on the Senate’s Intelligence and Foreign Relations committees is a double-edged sword, burnishing credentials but also establishing a record that opponents can pick apart to put him on the defensive or mine for evidence of hypocrisy.
The Pentagon itself asked Congress to help it curb spending as the wars in Iraq and Afghanistan drew down, making the claim that Obama has routed the Pentagon coffers problematic. And behind the boogeyman of sequestration are the budget caps enacted by members of Congress such as Rubio. The senator voted against a deal in 2013 that sought a solution to automatic, across-the-board cuts that would be enacted without a budget compromise.
The White House also requested a Pentagon budget for fiscal 2016 that intentionally busted the caps, a forcing mechanism intended to make Congress find a solution to sequestration. But instead the Republican majority in both chambers is seeking to skirt the issue by simply boosting the Pentagon’s war fund, Overseas Contingency Operations funding, which isn’t subject to the caps. Rubio offered an amendment to utilize this strategy without any offset for the spending, though he’s also said adding to the deficit is dangerous.
Defense Secretary Ash Carter slammed this “budget gimmick” last week, calling it a “road to nowhere” that in fact does the opposite of what Rubio claims he would do — allow the military to engage in the long-term strategic planning that is urgently needed to modernize the force.
At times during the speech, Rubio also exhibited a slippery grasp on the military that has inspired a lack of confidence in lawmakers’ capability to oversee national security strategy.
When the topic turned to China building islands and airstrips in the South China Sea, Rubio praised recent reporting that Carter would pursue a response to curb Chinese aggression disruptive to international commerce and the region. But then the senator continued, “I would take all sorts of naval actions, not military actions, per se.”
He also doubled-down on his argument that Obama is going easy on ISIS because of the ongoing negotiations over Iran’s nuclear ambitions. “Once ISIS began to emerge I did not consider them the JV team,” Rubio said. But a number of experts and officials have soundly rejected this claim for the obvious reason that Iran also wants to see the Sunni extremist terrorist group defeated.
“The president’s proposed deal with Tehran will likely lead to a cascade of nuclear proliferation in the Middle East and could force Israel to take bold action to defend itself, making war with Iran even more likely,” Rubio said.
But a procedural move by Rubio and Sen. Tom Cotton, R-Ark., after less than two days of debate on the Iran deal review bill to force consideration of amendments widely viewed as “poison pills” is broadly seen as a misfire. Instead, Rubio was caught on the losing side while other lawmakers claimed credit for a bill that reasserted Congress’s authority on national security over White House opposition.
For all the time Rubio and other candidates spend bashing Obama’s leadership, he doesn’t get a third term. The Republican nominee’s likely opponent is Hillary Clinton, the former secretary of State, on whom Rubio spent only a few lines.
“We simply cannot afford to elect as our next president one of the leading agents of this administration’s foreign policy – a leader from yesterday whose tenure as Secretary of State was ineffective at best and dangerously negligent at worst,” Rubio said.
He continued later, “I just don’t believe there’s many successes they can point to … she was the chief architect and spokesperson for a foreign policy that will go down as a complete disaster.”
But would a greater emphasis on military action as a forcing mechanism better export American values to the world? When both Clinton and Obama were running for president in 2008, they prioritized diplomacy as a means of restoring international relationships that had suffered under President George W. Bush, due in large part to the invasion of Iraq.
The former president’s brother Jeb has taken flak in recent days for saying, knowing what we now know, he would’ve also authorized the invasion (though he has since walked back his comments.) Rubio, who has a close relationship with Jeb from his days in Florida government, answered: “Not only would I not have been in favor of it, President Bush would not have been in favor of it, and President Bush has said so … I don’t think Congress would’ve voted for it if they knew the intelligence was faulty.”
But Rubio stated his support for another controversial Bush-era initiative, as Congress is currently embroiled over extending section 215 of the Patriot Act. “We must never find ourselves looking back after a terrorist attack and saying we could have done more to save American lives,” Rubio said. Many in the Republican leadership support the extension, but the party is divided on the issue of surveillance, with the conservative grassroots that come out in droves in the primary often leaning libertarian on the controversial practice, and the House passing reform legislation on Wednesday.
Rubio also called for keeping Guantanamo open. “I believe that innocent people, peace loving people, deserve to have their rights respected,” he said, while terrorists, “deserve to be in prison and be taken off the battlefield.” He continued, “Today we’re not nearly gathering enough intelligence,” adding, “and many of the people who have been released have returned to battlefield.” The Intelligence Community says that the so-called “recidivism” rate among former Guantanamo detainees was far higher under Bush and has come down significantly, and that the prison poses a greater risk open than closed.
It is early in the campaign, and this was one speech. But given his claims to be frontrunner for commander in chief, the onus was on Rubio to not only acknowledge the anxiety many Americans currently feel about global security, but moreover articulate his vision for a path out of it. More money for defense, greater economic freedom and “moral clarity” is one already well-tread.