The hawkish bits of VP hopeful Marco Rubio's foreign policy speech

Senator Marco Rubio's foreign policy speech yesterday, taken by many as part of a campaign to be Mitt Romney's running mate, points to a politician who favors foreign interventions.

Jacquelyn Martin/AP
Senate Foreign Relations Committee member Sen. Marco Rubio (R) of Fla. speaks about foreign policy, Wednesday, April 25, 2012, at the Brookings Institution in Washington.

Marco Rubio stepped into the spotlight yesterday, with a foreign policy speech at Brookings that almost screamed out to Mitt Romney "pick me, pick me!"

The Florida Senator, whose parents immigrated to the US from Cuba in 1956, a few years before the revolution that brought Fidel Castro to power, focused on US foreign policy more broadly, not touching on Cuba. While pundits and watchers of US politics generally deemed Romney's potential running mate as not overly hawkish (here's a roundup of opinion), I see plenty of evidence he favors more military intervention abroad in his speech, at least when I focus on the areas I know best.  

His first point was to complain that the US didn't play a "more active role" in the NATO air campaign in Libya that helped bring down Muammar Qaddafi last year. It's true that the Obama Administration stressed that it was part of a broad group of actors in the effort, which involved seven months of sorties in aid of the Libyan uprising against government forces (in deed, if not in word, going far beyond their UN Security Council mandate only to protect civilians).

But if the unstated goal was regime change, it's hard to imagine more bang for the US buck than Libya. The total cost to the US was under $1 billion. There were no US (or any other foreign) casualties, and the mission wrapped up in less than a year. Could Qaddafi have been toppled a few months faster if the US was more active? Perhaps. Would that have also led to more civilian casualties at the hand of US airpower? Also perhaps. The Iraq war, a much more ambitious undertaking, will ultimately cost the US taxpayer about $4 trillion when replacement of equipment and total medical claims for veterans are factored in.

Senator Rubio would also appear to favor military action against Iran, and perhaps in Syria. "The goal of preventing a dominant Iran is so important that every regional policy we adopt should be crafted with that overriding goal in mind," he said. "The current situation in Syria is an example of such an approach. The fall of Assad would be a significant blow to Iran’s ambitions. On those grounds alone, we should be seeking to help the people of Syria bring him down."

He continues: "But on the Foreign Relations Committee, I’ve noticed that some members are so concerned about the challenges of a post-Assad Syria that they’ve lost sight of the advantages of it. First, Iran would lose its ally and see its influence and ability to cause trouble in the region would be correspondingly reduced, but Hezbollah would lose its most important ally too along with its weapons supplier. And the prospects for a more stable, peaceful, and freer Lebanon would improve."

Well, that's one possibility. But skeptics of arming Syria's rebellion, or of direct US military involvement, are worried about unintended consequences. The sectarian powder in Syria is as dry and ripe for ignition as it was in Iraq. The country has been ruled by the minority Alawite sect (an offshoot of Shiism) for decades, and there's a history of militant Islamism amongst the country's Sunni Arab majority. Israel is worried about a flood of Alawite and Syrian Christian refugees if Assad falls, as is Lebanon. That country's own troubled sectarian history has been fed by refugee waves in the past, most notably of Palestinians, and Hezbollah remains Lebanon's most dominant military force.

So there's also the chance of a much less stable, peaceful Syria in the wake of Assad's fall. That's just one of the factors that gives many policy makers pause as they weigh the undoubted savagery of Syria's Baathist dictatorship against the question of what comes next.

He also said he's been "relying heavily" on Robert Kagan's book "The World America Made," in arguing "how good a strong and engaged America has been for the world." It's hard to argue that the US had a major, and generally positive influence on world affairs after WWII (the central point of Mr. Kagan's book). But Kagan is a militarist who favors extensive US direct intervention in global affairs. A full-throated supporter of the Iraq war, he continues to insist that war was a good idea. He told Salon in April that the Iraq war "probably" led to the Arab uprisings that began at the start of 2011. "There were repeated free elections in Iraq and that undoubtedly had some effect on how neighboring people views their government. I think Egyptians said. ‘If the Iraqis can have elections, why can’t we have elections?’”

I covered the Iraq war for about half of the time between 2003-2008 and spent the rest of my time living in Egypt. My personal experiences then, conversations with hundreds of people in the region over the years from senior politicians to shopkeepers, and later experience covering the uprisings in Libya and Egypt last spring, convinced me that the Iraq war, if anything, only slowed the inevitable uprisings against those aging authoritarian regimes.

The first major Egyptian protest for years, against the US invasion of Iraq in 2003, was in many ways the spark of a protest wave that bred the new generation of political activists who formed the core of the protest movement that toppled Mubarak last year. Across the region, there was revulsion at the invasion, the human costs (at least 200,000 Iraqis died in the ensuing war), and disgust for the sectarian civil war that raged from 2005-2008 in Iraq.

To be sure, President Obama has also professed admiration for Kagan's book, as have many other policy makers on both sides of the aisle. But his pronouncements and recommendations on the Iraq war over the years have been consistently wrong. In 2004, he and Bill Kristol pronounced the new Iraqi Constitution would guarantee the rights of women and minorities in that country (in practice, the position of Christians and women in Iraq have worsened as a consequence of the war), and wrote that "while no sensible person would claim that Iraqis are safely and irrevocably on a course to liberal democracy, the honest and rather remarkable truth is that they have made remarkable strides in that direction."

They went on to complain the "perpetually sour American media focus on the tensions between Shiites and Kurds" but that "the difficult negotiations leading up to the signing, and the continuing debates over the terms of a final constitution, have in fact demonstrated something remarkable in Iraq: a willingness on the part of the diverse ethnic and religious groups to disagree – peacefully – and then to compromise." Even then the country was sliding into pit of sectarian warfare.

Today? The Kurds complain the Constitution has been ignored by the central government and some of their politicians are muttering about independence; the Sunni Vice President Tariq al-Hashemi is in exile, hiding from a politically motivated arrest warrant. And Shiite Islamist Prime Minister Nouri al-Maliki continues to accrue more power, frightening his ethnic and confessional opponents.

As someone who lived the Iraq war, I find high praise for Kagan's wisdom in foreign affairs troubling.

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