Politics & Policy

The Neocons Return

(Andrew Burton/Getty Images)
Meet their 2016 candidate, Marco Rubio.

The neocons are back. That is, at least in Marco Rubio’s world. The Florida senator and potential 2016 presidential candidate has, since his election in 2010, regularly consulted with and sought the advice of top neoconservative writers and policymakers, several of whom served in the administration of George W. Bush.

His loose circle of advisers includes former national-security adviser Stephen Hadley, former deputy national-security adviser Elliott Abrams, Brookings Institution scholar and former Reagan-administration aide Robert Kagan, Weekly Standard editor Bill Kristol, and former Missouri senator Jim Talent.

To this group, beating back the rising tide of non-interventionism in the Republican party is a top priority, and they consider Rubio a candidate, if not the candidate, capable of doing so. “I think it’s very important that any isolationist arguments be defeated well and be defeated early,” says a neoconservative foreign-policy expert who talks with Rubio frequently.

Russia’s incursion into Ukraine, a war in Israel, and the rise of the Islamic State in Iraq and Syria have in the course of a few months made the American public, and especially Republican-primary voters, more hawkish. Some argue that these events have dimmed the prospects that Kentucky senator Rand Paul, who has carved out a niche for himself as the leading non-interventionist in the Republican party, could seize the nomination. Unquestionably, the crises have boosted Rubio’s stock.

“We’re in an international crisis of really significant proportions, the likes of which we haven’t seen in decades,” says the Brookings Institution’s Kagan. “We’ve all been very sympathetic to people worried about going crosswise with the Republican base, but I really think we’re past that. From my perspective, I’m only going to be interested in people who are willing to say the hard things.” For Kagan, that includes arguing for an increase in the defense budget and being frank both about the need to use force when necessary and about America’s role as the world’s preeminent power.

But it’s not just current events that have drawn serious foreign-policy thinkers to Rubio. Since his election four years ago, the first-term senator has consistently articulated a robust internationalist position closest to that of George W. Bush. His outside advisers say he impressed them from the beginning as somebody who took foreign affairs seriously; since then he has built up a record of accomplishment during his four years in the Senate, where he serves on the foreign-relations and intelligence committees.

The experts I spoke with made it clear they have not signed up with Rubio, and nearly all speak with, and speak highly of, other potential candidates. But it is Rubio who garners their highest praise.

“From very early on he was clearly someone who was deciding to take foreign policy seriously,” says Kagan, “I thought he spoke remarkably intelligently.”

Elliott Abrams first spoke with Rubio when he was running for the Senate in 2010. “We had a mutual friend who said to me, ‘He has no experience in the Middle East, but obviously it’s a big issue in Florida, would you be willing to talk to him?’” Abrams says. “We got on the phone, and he said, ‘Let’s do it this way: Let me tell you what I think about the Middle East, and then you tell me what I’ve left out that’s important and what I’ve got wrong.’” Rubio, Abrams says, didn’t have anything wrong. “I was really impressed,” he tells me. “I don’t think there are very many state politicians who could have, off the cuff, done a six-or-seven minute riff on the Middle East.”

Rubio’s disciplined and methodical approach to foreign policy — he has articulated his views over the past two years in several speeches around the world — presents a stark contrast, say multiple foreign-policy experts, to that of his tea-party colleague Ted Cruz. A Cruz adviser last week told National Journal that the Texas senator will almost certainly mount a presidential bid in 2016 and plans to run on a “foreign-policy platform.”

“Whereas Rubio clearly has some views that he has considered and articulated, my sense of Cruz is that he is much less formed by conviction,” says one foreign-policy expert who has met with both potential candidates. “His background was really more on the domestic side.”

Cruz has repeatedly said he embraces a Reaganite foreign policy. He made headlines in recent weeks for walking out of an event when a group of Arab Christians booed his vocal defense of Israel, and he has used his seat on the Armed Services Committee to travel abroad during his time in office. But those I spoke with were, across the board, unimpressed. They universally characterized his worldview as shallow, opportunistic, and ever shifting to where he perceives the base of the party to be. 

A former senior Bush administration defense official criticized the Texas senator in particular for his failure, as a member of the Armed Services Committee, to advocate for raising the defense budget. “He’s basically not done anything that I’m aware of to put an end to the hemorrhaging in the Defense Department, so it rings a little hollow,” he says. “It’s one thing to posture, it’s another thing to have a consistent policy. That doesn’t mean he couldn’t develop one. I don’t want to write him up as a lost cause, but he has a long way to go before he could be considered on the same bar as Rubio, considered to have a coherent world view.”

Over the summer, Rubio was briefed on the findings of the National Defense Panel, led by former Missouri senator Jim Talent and former undersecretary of defense for policy Eric Edelman, and the senator used a major speech last month to sound the alarm about the recent cuts to the defense budget and argue for ramping it back up. 

Kagan — the preeminent neoconservative scholar and author who made headlines when President Obama improbably cited his article on “The Myth of American Decline,” and again when his cover story for The New Republic critiquing Obama’s foreign policy zipped through the West Wing — has had a major influence on Rubio’s worldview.

The former adviser to politicians from Jack Kemp to Mitt Romney to Hillary Clinton says he spoke with Rubio on and off during his first two years in office, and Rubio cited Kagan’s 2012 book The World America Made in his remarks at the Brookings Institution later that year. In the book, Kagan argues that world orders are transient, and that the world order that has been shaped by the United States since the end of World War II — defined by freedom, democracy, and capitalism — will crumble if American power wanes. But he also posits that the modern world order rests not on America’s cherished ideals — respect for individual rights and human dignity — but on economic and military power, and that its preservation requires bolstering America’s hard power.  

Rubio has echoed that view over the past two years. “We should start by acknowledging the fact that a strong and engaged America has been a force of tremendous good in the world,” Rubio said in Washington, D.C., last year. “This can be done easily by imagining the sort of world we would live in today had America sat out the 20th century.” He pushed back in December last year, in a speech he gave in London about the lasting importance of the transatlantic alliance, on those he described as “weary from decades of global engagement.” In Seoul, South Korea, a month later, he lamented that many in Congress are “increasingly skeptical about why America needs to remain so active in international affairs.”

Rubio’s views are strikingly similar to those that guided George W. Bush as he began navigating the post-9/11 world. “Foreign policy is domestic policy,” Rubio told an audience at the American Enterprise Institute in November of last year. “When liberty is denied and economic desperation take root, it affects us here at home. It breeds radicalism and terror. It drives illegal immigration. It leads to humanitarian crises that we are compelled to address.” It was Bush who in his 2002 National Security Strategy argued that “the distinction between domestic and foreign affairs is increasingly diminishing,” because “events beyond America’s borders have a greater impact inside them.”

The key difference, according to Kagan, is that Bush, who campaigned in 2000 on a platform of scaling back American involvement in the world, “had a revelation after September 11,” whereas Rubio comes by his position more organically.

However unfairly, Bush’s approach to foreign affairs has become inextricably associated with the invasion of Iraq, and few Republicans are willing to stand wholeheartedly behind it anymore. I asked a Rubio aide if the senator fears associating himself too closely with the Bush clan or with Bush’s foreign policy, and whether Rubio might be making himself vulnerable to an attack that a Rubio presidency would be George W. Bush’s third term. No, the aide replies, adding that “a lot of the foreign-policy issues that the next president is going to deal with are different than they were 20 years ago.”

Regardless, Rubio may indeed become vulnerable to the charge that he is another neocon like Bush, surrounded by some of the same people and informed by essentially the same views.

The day when Republican-primary voters go to the polls is still a long way off, but it feels as if a number of conservative foreign-policy thinkers have already cast their vote.  

— Eliana Johnson is Washington editor of National Review.

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