2016 contenders: Why Syria is tough for GOP's Marco Rubio

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.

J. Scott Applewhite/AP
Senate Foreign Relations Committee member Sen. Marco Rubio, R-Fla., joined by fellow committee members, Sen. Ron Johnson, R-Wis. (c.) and Sen. Jeff Flake, R-Ariz., questions Secretary of State John Kerry during committee's hearing on President Barack Obama's request for congressional authorization for military intervention in Syria.

Of all the presumed contenders for president in 2016, both Republican and Democratic, none is in a tougher spot over Syria than Sen. Marco Rubio.

The Florida Republican spent two years urging US intervention in that nation’s civil war, but now, he says, the Obama administration has got it all wrong in calling for a military strike. On Wednesday, Senator Rubio voted against granting President Obama limited authority to take military action. The resolution passed, 10-7.

“While I have long argued forcefully for engagement in empowering the Syrian people, I have never supported the use of US military force in the conflict. And I still don’t,” Rubio said after the Senate Foreign Relations Committee vote. “I remain unconvinced that the use of force proposed here will work.”

Rubio voted no alongside fellow committeeman Rand Paul (R) of Kentucky, another likely 2016-er who, like Rubio, was elected to the Senate with strong tea party support. But the two men hold sharply differing views on foreign policy: Senator Paul hails from the libertarian/isolationist wing of the Republican Party (as does fellow GOP Sen. Ted Cruz of Texas, who also appears to have the 2016 bug).

Rubio sees vital US interests in Syria, given its connection to Iran, and argues that America’s exceptional status in the world dictates that it lead – just not militarily. In his remarks, Rubio said he had wanted Mr. Obama to pursue “a more robust engagement” in the hopes of helping the Syrian people replace their president, Bashar al-Assad, with a secular, moderate government. In the past two years, more than 100,000 Syrian civilians have died in the nation’s internal conflict. Last month, President Assad allegedly used chemical weapons against his own people, spurring Obama’s call for airstrikes.

Obama will not face voters again, but for those hoping to replace him, Syria represents the first big foreign policy test. All the governors jockeying for position have an easy dodge: They don’t have to cast a vote. If asked how they would vote if they had to, they can say they’re busy running their states, and (in some cases) running for reelection. That was Gov. Chris Christie (R) of New Jersey’s response Tuesday when asked about Syria. Others, like Gov. Martin O’Malley (D) of Maryland and Gov. Andrew Cuomo (D) of New York, have stayed mum.

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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