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Rubio’s Bankrupt Ideas on Foreign Policy

Marco Rubio delivered another highly ideological foreign policy speech on Friday at a gathering sponsored by the Foreign Policy Initiative (the renamed Project for a New American Century). The section on Iran was predictable but revealing:

First, I will quickly reimpose sanctions on Iran. I will give the mullahs a choice: either you have an economy or you have a nuclear program, but you cannot have both [bold mine-DL]. I will also ask Congress to pass crushing new measures that target human rights abusers and Iran’s leaders involved in financing and overseeing Iran’s sponsorship of terrorism.

Second, I will ensure our forces in the Middle East are positioned to signal readiness and restore a credible military option. This will be bolstered by my administration’s efforts to rebuild our military by ending defense sequestration once and for all.

Third, after imposing crippling sanctions on Iran, I will link any talks to Iran’s broader conduct, from human rights abuses to support for terrorism and threats against Israel.

Rubio’s speech focused entirely on attacking engagement with Iran and Cuba, and as such it is a useful window into how he thinks U.S. diplomacy should work. In short, he doesn’t think the U.S. should seek to engage hostile and pariah regimes except through coercive measures, threats, and intimidation in the mistaken belief that these convey “strength” and produce better outcomes for the U.S. If an agreement is mutually beneficial to both the U.S. and the other country, he will misrepresent it as a giveaway to the other regime, and unless the other regime yields to U.S. preferences on every issue he will refuse to accept progress on any of them. His proposed Iran policy illustrates this very well. He offers Iran no incentives for cooperation, but expects to be able to compel Iran to give way on every front. This not only grossly overestimates the ability of the U.S. to dictate terms to Iran, but it deliberately ignores the reality that almost all other countries in the world don’t share this uncompromising, hard-line agenda and won’t support the U.S. in what Rubio wants to do. Rubio’s desire to link nuclear talks to all these other issues guarantees that the talks will go nowhere, which is presumably the point of tying them together.

Rubio asserts later that his Iran plan won’t backfire:

Iran may not return to the table immediately, but it will return when its national interests require it to do so.

Once again, Rubio fails to understand the limits of applying pressure to another state. Not only does the U.S. lack the ability to force Iran into the capitulation he desires, but in the attempt Rubio would guarantee even greater intransigence from Iran. Iran isn’t North Korea, but the experience with North Korea is nonetheless instructive. When the U.S. tried to pressure North Korea in much the same way that Rubio has in mind for Iran, it led to North Korea’s withdrawal from the NPT and its first nuclear weapons test. Confrontational policies may appeal to certain ideologues, but they frequently produce some of the worst outcomes. Then again, hard-liners don’t think they can or should be judged by the outcomes of the polices they promote. In general, they aren’t actually interested in resolving disputes, but hope to exploit them. The goal of Rubio’s Iran policy is not to limit Iran’s nuclear program or to bring about any discernible improvement in the Iranian government’s external or internal behavior, but it is rather simply to reinforce the mutual distrust and hostility between the U.S. and Iran for the sake of justifying more aggressive U.S. policies in the region.

The audience Rubio was addressing are sure to love what they heard, since FPI is simply the old neoconservative PNAC with a new name. He told them exactly what they wanted to hear, but there is also every reason to assume that Rubio is deeply committed to the same reckless foreign policy views that this group promotes. Rubio boasts about wanting to usher in a “new American century,” and these are the bankrupt, discredited policies he wants to use create it.

about the author

Daniel Larison is a senior editor at TAC, where he also keeps a solo blog. He has been published in the New York Times Book Review, Dallas Morning News, World Politics Review, Politico Magazine, Orthodox Life, Front Porch Republic, The American Scene, and Culture11, and was a columnist for The Week. He holds a PhD in history from the University of Chicago, and resides in Lancaster, PA. Follow him on Twitter.

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