Politics & Policy

Rubio’s Foreign-Policy Proposals Recall Bush’s Second Term

(Gage Skidmore/Flickr)

Marco Rubio appears to believe that Republicans yearn for George W. Bush’s second-term foreign policy. Such is the implication of his recent attacks on Ted Cruz, as well as his foreign-policy positions over the past five years.

Rubio and his surrogates’ chief grievance against Cruz is that he advocates caution in using our military to try to implant or impose democracy abroad. Indeed, Cruz is guilty as charged — thankfully — preferring to target ISIS while avoiding quagmires.

Rubio insists we have an obligation to depose Bashar al-Assad in Syria, but he has no clear strategy to handle what might come after the dictator — just vague promises of a negotiated diplomatic solution. Optimism for this doesn’t jibe with facts on the ground. At the beginning of the uprising in Syria, with Iran suffering under strict sanctions, it might have been possible to replace Assad with a pro-Western or at least neutral Alawite regime, and have the Sunni parts of Syria run by anti-ISIS tribes with whom we can cooperate. But now, with the rise of ISIS and the Russian presence in Syria, we have no such option.

Unfortunately, we have only a limited ability to effect or even conceptualize a political situation in Syria that will aid American interests. We’re mediocre imperialists at best. Bush in his second term, for instance, let America-hating Islamists such as Muqtada al-Sadr run political organizations under our noses in Iraq. Obama and Hillary in their turn ignored the potential of Iran’s Green Revolution, then completely disregarded Libya’s political crisis after they removed Qaddafi. Would Rubio manage better? His long cooperation with John McCain, who romanced the Muslim Brotherhood during the Arab Spring, isn’t reassuring.

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Rubio’s second accusation against Cruz — that he wants to “gut” intelligence collection — doesn’t bear scrutiny either. Cruz supported the law that retained the government’s ability to investigate phone data and that made telecom companies the custodians of that data instead of the NSA. This step, which affirms the Fourth Amendment’s protection against search without probable cause, didn’t “gut” intelligence — it reformed a tool that probably would have been ruled unconstitutional otherwise.

The disagreement over the role of intelligence gathering suggests that Rubio is focused on Bush-era debates. As al-Qaeda has given way to ISIS, the nature of the Islamists’ war on the West has changed. Attacks like the one in San Bernardino last month require no centralized planning. While intercepting enemy communications is still vitally important, it is no longer the silver bullet that worked well after 9/11 to disrupt the complex, highly coordinated plans favored by al-Qaeda.

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Curbs on Islamists at home and abroad are more important than where phone records are stored. Such curbs might entail banning Islamists from getting visas and updating the Cold War–era laws used against Communists. We could also revive political warfare on the West’s foes by bringing back the U.S. Information Agency. That was the organization established by President Eisenhower to wage a battle of ideas, both overtly and through secret means, against our ideological enemies and the tyranny they espoused.

#share#None of this will happen without significant political will on the part of the next president. Liberals, the media, and grievance pimps such as the Council of American-Islamic Relations will freak out, and many Beltway Republicans seemingly cherish inaction. Is Rubio up to this challenge?

Rubio’​s positions on security issues usually boil down to sending more money to the Pentagon.

His positions on security issues usually boil down to sending more money to the Pentagon. But throwing funds at broken bureaucracies is dubious management and won’t appeal to voters. A better candidate would prioritize reform: Pentagon procurement of new weapon systems is broken, no president in generations has trusted the State Department, and the CIA politicizes its intelligence reports and is focused more on drone wars than on stealing secrets.

Fixing these problems means challenging the entrenched bureaucracies populating these institutions and their allies in both parties on Capitol Hill. It was Bush’s unwillingness to do this that led to the decline of his presidency in its second term, especially his deference to Foreign Service officers who produced disastrous policies for Iraq, Iran, and North Korea.

#related#Who, then, will offer voters the best new course for American foreign policy? Speaking at a fundraiser for Jeb in October, George W. Bush all but gave Rubio a standby endorsement should his brother fail. While saying that Rubio was too junior to be president, Bush nonetheless added: “Of course, if he wins [the nomination], I’ll be back here next year telling you that doesn’t matter.” The former president probably sees some of himself in Rubio — an agreeable practitioner of governance who leavens tough talk with deference to establishment tradition.

At the same fundraiser, Bush said of Cruz, “I just don’t like the guy.” Last week, the Wall Street Journal reported about this sentiment more broadly, in an article titled “Ted Cruz: Republicans Love Him in Iowa, Loathe Him in D.C.”

I can think of no finer pair of accolades for Cruz — the candidate who offers fresh thinking, and who is brave enough to take on the Washington institutions that have failed us.

— Christian Whiton was a State Department senior adviser during the George W. Bush administration. He is the author of Smart Power: Between Diplomacy and War

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