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2016 contenders: Why Syria is tough for GOP's Marco Rubio (+video)

Sen. Marco Rubio believes the US must intervene in Syria. But backing Obama on military strikes would have been politically costly. So he found a way to vote no.

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Former Secretary of State Hillary Rodham Clinton – the presumed front-runner for the Democratic nomination – broke her silence Tuesday, backing Obama on limited strikes. On Wednesday another important Democratic voice, former Democratic National Committee chairman Howard Dean, also voiced support for military action. Mr. Dean’s voice matters, because of his anti-Iraq war stance during the 2004 presidential campaign – a view that made him the leading Democratic contender for a period.  

But in 2013, even with more than two years to go until the first primaries, Rubio could ill afford to align himself with the Democratic Obama on a major issue. Rubio’s leadership in trying to enact comprehensive immigration reform, in concert with Obama’s goals, has put him in bad odor with some conservatives and harmed his presidential prospects. Now is his chance to make up some of that lost ground.

“Rubio is definitely shimmying every which way,” says Republican strategist Ford O’Connell. “Part of it is that he has to find a way to project a sense of military might without turning off conservatives who are skeptical of anything that seems like agreeing with Obama.”

In addition, Mr. O’Connell says, Rubio is mindful that the Republican establishment and many of the party’s big donors are concerned about Israel and stability in the region.

In his remarks in the Senate Foreign Relations Committee, Rubio expressed concern that limited military strikes in Syria could prove counterproductive.

“After a few days of missile strikes, it will allow Assad, for example, to emerge and claim that he took on the United States, and survived,” Rubio said.

He called on the US to openly provide lethal support to “properly vetted elements” of the Syrian opposition, and to increase nonlethal support – taking care not to supply groups that might pass weapons to Al Qaeda. Rubio also called for sanctions against those who have helped Assad with weapons or oil.

Then the senator took a swipe at what he called “a movement afoot” in both parties to disengage the United States from issues throughout the world.

“When America doesn’t lead, chaos follows,” Rubio added. “And eventually, that chaos forces us to deal with these problems in the most expensive and the most dangerous ways imaginable.”

But most Americans, and most Republican primary voters, won’t hear the substance of Rubio’s comments. Instead, the most important word he uttered Wednesday was “no.” 


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