In the end, the major foreign-policy pronouncement felt like a generational passing of the torch from a retiring senator and former vice presidential candidate to a newly minted colleague with apparent aspirations to second Mitt Romney on the Republican ticket. That the two senators came from different parties hardly seemed to matter. Both Sens. Joe Lieberman, ID-Conn., and Marco Rubio, R-Fla., clearly share a vision of a particularly robust brand of American global leadership, one that finds common cause with “freedom fighters” everywhere and is unafraid to confront “evil” anywhere.
Rubio’s foreign policy falls into the proud, bipartisan tradition of Ronald Reagan and Harry Truman, Lieberman said in introducing him at the Brookings Institution in Washington on Wednesday.
That idealistic policy “recognizes that there is evil in the world that we should not be afraid to call by its name, and enemies that we cannot negotiate into peace, but rather must be confronted by strength,” Lieberman said. “And it recognizes that the survival of liberty and prosperity in our country depends on the spread of liberty and prosperity around the world.”
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Coming from a Cuban-American family familiar with Fidel Castro’s tyranny, it’s not surprising that Rubio would form a worldview consistent with the neoconservative school still dominant among the Republican foreign-policy elite. After a decade of conflict and an economic collapse, however, an assertive foreign-policy philosophy closely linked to an unpopular war in Iraq has lost some of its luster with the public and among lawmakers.
“A robust foreign policy was a hallmark of both presidents Bush and Ronald Reagan. Yet, when I arrived in the Senate, I found that the sides and debate had shifted, with liberal Democrats and conservative Republicans working together to advocate a quick withdrawal from Afghanistan and staying out of Libya,” said Rubio.
When he pushed for a more forceful U.S. response in confronting a dictator in Syria and autocrat in Nicaragua, Rubio said, he was thwarted — mainly by Republicans. “Today in the Senate on foreign policy, the further you move to the right, the likelier you are to wind up on the left.”
Inadvertently, Rubio put his finger on Mitt Romney’s main challenge in trying to make an issue of President Obama’s foreign-policy record, whether the charismatic young Floridian is on the ticket or not. With the two major parties flirting with the antiwar left and isolationist right, Obama has largely seized the middle ground, doubling down with the “surge” of troops to Afghanistan (albeit with an exit date), taking out Osama bin Laden and much of the top al-Qaida leadership, and helping oust Libyan dictator Muammar el-Qaddafi.
That has left Romney and his foreign-policy surrogates little choice but to attack Obama from the neoconservative right on matters of tactics and degree, but not so far out to the right philosophically that they remind war-weary voters how the country got into Iraq in the first place. Rubio thus argued that the U.S. should not take a military option off the table in confronting Iran, should hedge against a rising and still potentially belligerent China, support Mexico and Colombia in their fight with drug cartels, and “potentially” give weapons to the Syrian opposition. To which the Obama administration might reply, "check, check, check," and "maybe."
Rubio did criticize the Obama administration for an oversold “reset” in relations with an autocratic Russia, for undue deference to the U.N. Security Council on Syria, and for letting NATO allies take the lead in Libya. Those are all valid points, and Rubio showed a firm grasp of the issues articulated in a serious manner that would make him formidable in debating them. It’s just not clear they will make an effective bumper sticker for these hyper-partisan times.
To his credit, Rubio disclosed that his thinking on foreign-policy issues has been influenced by neoconservative intellectual Robert Kagan’s new book, The World America Made, which argues that frequent talk of a U.S. decline is greatly exaggerated. Tellingly, another prominent politician has recently been holding that book up as a defense of his own ideas and worldview: Barack Obama.