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Rubio’s Foreign Policy of Constant Meddling

Michael Brendan Dougherty summarizes Rubio’s Foreign Affairsarticle from last week:

He wants to strengthen America’s military, involve it in more missions, humiliate and box in multiple great power rivals, and foment pro-American ideological change wherever possible.

The article more or less restates the “three pillars” of what Rubio initially called his foreign policy “doctrine” when he delivered a speech on the subject to the Council on Foreign Relations, and like the speech it is predictable and ideological. While he claims not to want to promote conflict, Rubio has a remarkable knack for advocating policies that would raise tensions in almost every region of the world. He imagines that this is necessary as “a means of preserving peace,” but in practice it is a recipe for confrontation and costly entanglements.

Like most hawks, Rubio often exaggerates the threats that he thinks the U.S. ought to be countering. He refers to “Iranian expansionism” as if it were something real, and he warns about “resurgent despotism in South America,” for which there is scarcely more evidence. While some South American governments may have become more illiberal and semi-authoritarian in the last decade, they are hardly threatening to dominate the continent. The hawks’ preferred regional bogeyman, Venezuela, is such a basketcase that no one would suggest that it is “resurgent.” Then again, a hyper-active foreign policy needs as much threat inflation as possible to justify its constant meddling.

On the nuclear deal, Rubio describes what he would have done differently, which amounts to increased hostility to Iran throughout the region:

As president, I would have altered the basic environment of the talks. I would have maneuvered forces in the region to signal readiness; linked the nuclear talks to Iran’s broader conduct, from its human rights abuses to its support for terrorism and its existential threats against Israel; and pressured Tehran on all fronts, from Syria to Yemen.

In other words, he would have stoked tensions with Iran whenever possible, helped to fuel the region’s conflicts, embroiled the U.S. more deeply in all of these wars, and added in deal-breaking provisions that Iran would never have accepted. Rubio acknowledges that in response Iran “may have broken off negotiations or even lashed out in the region,” but then assures us that in the end “increased pressure would have eventually forced it to back down.” This is a statement of ideological conviction in the efficacy of “strength” to compel other states to yield to our preferences, but it is very unlikely to work in practice. If Iran were going out of its way to harm us and our allies and clients as much as it could, we would not respond to this behavior by becoming more accommodating to their position, but we would instead react in kind and become more intransigent and hostile. Why would we expect Iran to react any differently to our provocations?

Rubio displays the magical thinking that Stephen Walt criticizes here when he says the following:

By rescinding the flawed deal concluded by President Obama and reasserting our presence in the Middle East, we can reverse Iran’s malign influence in this vitally important region and prevent Iran from developing nuclear weapons.

There is no attempt to explain how rescinding a deal that limits Iran’s nuclear program will make it more difficult for Iran to be able to develop nuclear weapons. Rubio simply asserts that this is what will happen after the deal is rejected. It isn’t obvious that “we can reverse” Iran’s influence in the countries where it has influence, because that influence is tied to Iran’s support for allied governments and proxies that is beyond our control. The U.S. could become more involved in all of the region’s conflicts at considerable cost to us, but U.S. interests aren’t served by facilitating gains for jihadists, who would be the ones most likely to benefit from the actions that Rubio wants the U.S. to take. Rubio wants it to be true that spurning diplomacy and meddling more in the region will produce the outcomes he wants, but he can’t explain how that will happen because it makes no sense or comes at too high a price. He wants the U.S. to be meddling everywhere, but he doesn’t want to own up to the dangers that he would be courting.

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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