American exceptionalism was an important part of Rubio’s insurgent 2010 campaign, where he topped then-governor Charlie Crist, a Republican turned independent, and congressman Kendrick Meek, the Democratic nominee. In the Senate, it has become his animating idea, the theme that peppers his interviews and legislative interests.
For Rubio, the concept is more than an abstract talking point. “Having grown up around people who were born somewhere else, I recognized that America’s influence in the world is part of who we are,” he says.
Right after he took office, Rubio visited Afghanistan and Pakistan, taking a handheld video camera along with him to document his travels. Last winter, after the campaign was over, he traveled to Israel. All of these journeys, he says, have shaped his perspective. On Afghanistan, for instance, he remains an optimist after his visit, confident that the U.S. is doing the right thing.
“Ultimately, if we can provide a level of security there, the Afghans have a chance to build a functional state for themselves,” Rubio says. “You can read about these things, but I think when you visit these places, you get to interact with people and see things firsthand.”
Read about them he does. The senator keeps two well-thumbed bestsellers at his side: Courting Disaster by former White House speechwriter Mark Thiessen, and Power, Faith, and Fantasy by former Israeli ambassador Michael Oren. The former is a defense of the Central Intelligence Agency’s handling of terrorists during the past decade, as well as a critique of President Obama; the latter is a comprehensive history of the United States in the Middle East, from the days of George Washington to the present.
“I don’t read fiction,” Rubio chuckles. “I’m just not into it.”
Beyond that pair, Rubio has recently read Decision Points, the autobiography of George W. Bush. Bush’s brother, Jeb, the former Florida governor, is one of Rubio’s mentors. The senator also deeply respects 43. In January, Rubio hired Cesar Conda, a former adviser to Dick Cheney, to be his chief of staff.
“I think history is going to be much kinder to George Bush than his contemporaries have been,” Rubio says. “Maybe this year, as we reach the tenth anniversary of the September 11 attacks, it will be a good time to reflect on what the world looks like and the very real challenge we continue to face with terrorism.”
“It is so important that conservatism does not translate into isolationism,” Rubio asserts. “Isolationism has never worked for America. It is not going to work in the 21st century.”
“That doesn’t mean confrontation for the sake of confrontation; that doesn’t mean we go around and settle every dispute in the world,” Rubio says. “But if America is engaged, we have influence, and if we have influence, we can help determine the outcome. We cannot guarantee outcomes, but we can help determine them in a way that is positive for the world.”
Libya was an early testing ground for Rubio. He was the first senator to call on the State Department to “derecognize” the government of Moammar Qaddafi and has actively pushed the Obama administration to “forge a new path” by detailing a comprehensive strategy for the region. The United States, he says, must adjust to the swift tides in the Middle East, encouraging liberty wherever possible.
Rubio argues the U.S. cannot become complacent or duck from leadership, even if global challenges grow increasingly complicated. He thinks back to his childhood when asked to explain why he is so outspoken about sustaining American power.