When I saw that Robert Costa had written up an interview with Sen. Marco Rubio on foreign policy, I thought it would be annoying, but I hoped it would be informative. Unfortunately, it was annoying, and not very informative at all. It mostly confirmed my worst suspicions about Rubio, and did nothing to make me think that he knows very much about the subject.
Rubio is for American exceptionalism, which he insists isn’t just a talking point (but I couldn’t confirm that from the interview), but he is against “isolationism” because it has never “worked.” One would have to believe that America had practiced “isolationism” at some point in the past to determine this, which tells me that Rubio doesn’t know as much about U.S. history or foreign policy as he wants everyone to think. Presumably, “isolationism” for Rubio simply means neutrality in foreign conflicts, and by never “working” he means that neutrality has successfully kept the U.S. out of a lot of unnecessary wars. To answer Greg Scoblete’s question, what Rubio seems to mean by “withdrawing” from world is that the U.S. would cease bombing and invading other countries on a regular basis. I suppose you could call that a kind of withdrawal. Other people would call it remaining at peace with other nations.
Rubio doesn’t believe Americans should “go around and settle every dispute in the world,” but as we all know he is one of he leading advocates of recognizing the Benghazi leadership as the Libyan government and he wants to endorse regime change in Libya as U.S. policy in a Senate resolution. If determining the outcome of a civil war in Libya isn’t a sign of a foreign policy dedicated to settling every dispute in the world, I’m not sure what would be. At least he says he isn’t in favor of “confrontation for the sake of confrontation.” Is that supposed to be reassuring? That’s a bit like saying, “Yes, I believe in militarism, but not crazy militarism.”
Finally, we are reminded that Rubio defines his view of the world through the experience of the late Cold War and his Cuban exile background. That’s understandable, but it confirms that Rubio keeps thinking of U.S. foreign policy in outdated terms. More than that, he basically admits that he judges arguments on post-Cold War foreign policy issues on the basis of whether or not they resemble Cold War-era arguments:
Rubio recalls how the U.S. was unabashedly involved in a variety of regions. “We were engaged in Nicaragua, we were engaged in El Salvador, and against Cubans in Grenada. We were engaged all over, even in Poland, when they were standing up to the Russians.”
Remember, Rubio says, “many of the same people who are now asking us to mind our own business, to accept this new order in the world where America is not influential, are the same people who were telling us more than 20 years ago to stop talking about the Soviets, that we had to deal with them as equals, that we cannot be the cops of the world.”
“Well,” Rubio grins, “Ronald Reagan didn’t listen to them.”
Neither will Rubio.
So there you have it. Rubio espouses a view that is almost a caricature of hawkish interventionist foreign policy based on the faulty assumption that if the U.S. did something during the Cold War and if Reagan supposedly did it, it is the sort of thing that the U.S. should be doing now in an entirely different world. It’s as if Rubio’s thinking on this issue remains frozen in the mid-1980s. That might not be so important if Rubio were mostly interested in entitlement reform or tax policy or any number of other issues, but foreign policy issues are supposed to be his main interest, and there is scant evidence from this interview or elsewhere that Rubio has very much to say about them.
Of course, Reagan did deal with the Soviets as political equals on a number of issues, because that is what the situation sometimes demanded. Whatever its other flaws might have been, the Reagan Doctrine is a good example of the U.S. not acting as “the cops of the world.” Not only were American soldiers typically not “policing” foreign conflicts under Reagan (and the one time they were Reagan realized soon enough that it had been a mistake), U.S. policy was aimed more often at stoking civil wars for reasons of anticommunism rather than bringing them to an end. The “cops of the world” probably wouldn’t be doing that. The practical question of whether or not the U.S. should be the “world’s policeman” wasn’t relevant or feasible until after the Cold War and several years after Reagan left office. These people saying that we had to “stop talking about” the Soviets would have had to be around “more than 20 years ago,” because the Soviet Union ceased to exist twenty years ago this December.
There’s no one saying that the U.S. should accept a situation in which America is “not influential.” Even if we wanted America to be entirely lacking in influence, which we don’t, it won’t be happening for quite a while. What many critics of current foreign policy are saying is that America is going to become relatively less influential as other states become more so, and that this is a natural, unavoidable and in some ways useful development. The critics also say that there is no point fighting against this or trying to reverse the process by force, and those who would try to restore U.S. global influence and power circa 1991 or circa 2002 are going to hasten the deterioration and exhaustion of U.S. power through pointless shows of military strength. No one was saying this more than 20 years ago, because the realities to which these arguments refer did not yet exist.
It could be useful to ask any politician who publicly rejects “isolationism” to offer three examples of conflicts in the modern world that they think the U.S. has no significant role in resolving. There are quite a few “frozen” and ongoing conflicts around the world, so it should be easy to name three. My bet is that Rubio’s instincts would prevent him from being able to name even that many.
P.S. I had forgotten to mention that Rubio lists some of his recent reading material, and it included books by Marc Thiessen and Michael Oren, and George W. Bush’s Decision Points. It would have been difficult to make up a list that is more consistent with a caricature of Republican hawkishness than this.
Update: I appreciate Kevin Derby’s response. I take his point that Rubio’s campaign was largely concerned with domestic and fiscal issues, and it is understandable that his office would mostly be sending out announcements about budget matters during the recent and ongoing budget debates. If we take this interview seriously, however, Rubio is claiming that he aspires to have influence similar to that of Jesse Helms, whom he considers his “model.” Costa introduces Rubio’s remarks by saying, “But in the Senate, foreign policy has become his passion.” Later on, Costa adds, “But foreign policy is Rubio’s calling.” Passion and calling are fairly strong words.
Perhaps “main interest” overstated how much time and attention Rubio gives to foreign policy, but since he has been elected he has made a point of co-signing a letter calling for a delay on the ratification of the New START, he has been an outspoken advocate of recognizing the Benghazi leadership as the government of Libya, and he has repeatedly and pointedly, if predictably, criticized administration policy on Cuba. Judging from his first few months as a Senator-elect and Senator, it is fair to say that foreign policy is certainly one of Rubio’s main interests, and he seems intent on making it something he wants to be known for in the Senate.