Senator Rubio peddles muscular middle ground on foreign policy. Will it sell?

In a major foreign policy speech to boost his stature for 2016, Sen. Marco Rubio warned against isolationism and an over reliance on force. Instead he spoke of 'decisive diplomacy' to achieve US global aims.

J. Scott Applewhite/AP/File
Sen. Marco Rubio, R-Fla., addresses the Conservative Political Action Conference (CPAC) in Washington, in this 2012 photo.

Between the hawkish interventionism of a Sen. John McCain and the mind-our-own-business global disengagement of a Sen. Rand Paul, Sen. Marco Rubio is staking out a middle ground for US foreign policy.

The Florida Republican is calling for “decisive diplomacy” and values-based foreign aid as he positions himself for a possible stab at the 2016 Republican presidential nomination.

But it remains to be seen how much a tough line on Iran and calls for America to carry the “torch of liberty” in the world can do to reboot Senator Rubio’s national political fortunes.

After alienating many conservative voters earlier this year with his support for comprehensive immigration reform – and then falling flat with libertarian Republicans over his vision of robust American engagement abroad – Rubio could still face an arduous climb ahead.

In what his staff deemed a “major foreign policy speech” at the conservative American Enterprise Institute (AEI) in Washington Wednesday, Rubio dismissed growing calls for America to turn inward as tempting but dangerous “isolationism.” At the same time, he said that at times in the past the US had been too quick to rely on its unsurpassed military might to address foreign challenges.

Arguing that the extremes of “doves” and “hawks” that have defined American foreign policy tendencies for decades are “obsolete labels” that “come from the world of the past,” Rubio said it is time for “a new vision for America’s role abroad.”

That new “vision” sees America as an unequalled force for good in the world – that “good” being the global advancement of economic and political freedoms, yet the “force” the US deploys being more economic and moral than military.

“While military might may be our most eye-catching method of involvement abroad, it is far from being our most-often utilized,” Rubio said. “In most cases, the decisive use of diplomacy, foreign assistance, and economic power are the most effective ways to achieve our interests and stop problems before they spiral into crises.”

Rubio has been active in recent weeks courting conservative interest groups, focusing on social issues like abortion (as well as his opposition to Obamacare) while leaving immigration unmentioned. The AEI speech was Rubio’s first focus on foreign policy in his recent spate of appearances, and he plans to continue that theme when he speaks to a London policy center next month.

Rubio’s lament of a rising American isolationism may have been aimed at fellow Republican Senator Paul, but there was no doubting the target of his alarm over the need for a “decisive” US foreign policy. President Obama came in for harsh criticism from Rubio, who said that problems ranging from Syria and Iran to Egypt and even rising antidemocratic tendencies in Latin America have been made worse by the president’s indecisiveness and lack of resolve.

“From his first days in office, President Obama has seemed unsure of the role that American power and principles should play around the world,” Rubio said. “He has failed to understand that in foreign policy, the timing and decisiveness of our actions matter almost as much as how we engage.” 

Rubio said Obama failed to sell Americans on his plan for military strikes in Syria because there was no strategy for success behind it, and he said he voted against the Syria intervention because it was so limited that it would have ended bolstering Syrian leader Bashar al-Assad by providing him with bragging rights that he had survived a US military attack.

As for Iran, Rubio said Obama had relied on “kind words” to “dissuade the regime in Tehran from its pursuit of nuclear weapons – and he warned that he and other senators will move to scuttle any deal the international community (including the US) accepts with Iran that leaves Iran with uranium enrichment capabilities.

“We need to make absolutely clear to Iran’s leaders that sanctions will continue to increase until they agree to completely abandon any enrichment or [plutonium] reprocessing capability,” he said.   

Rubio was careful to give a shout-out to particular groups he wants to reach – he noted for example, that Christians are increasingly targeted for repression in countries where they are a minority.

But he also espoused some time-honored ideals about America that risk putting off what appears to be a growing – and particularly young – segment of the conservatives he aims to woo.

Asking who, “if America stops leading,” will “fill the vacuum left behind?” Rubio answered his own question, saying “no other nation” is prepared to battle the forces of “darkness” arrayed against peace and liberty.

“America must continue to hold the torch,” Rubio said, “America must continue to lead the way.”

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