An economic policy panel discussion sponsored by a Koch-backed free market group turned into a foreign policy debate between Senator Rand Paul (R.Ky.), Senator Marco Rubio (R., Fla.), and Senator Ted Cruz (R. Texas)
“I’m kinda surrounded on this one,” Paul cracked as ABC’s Jonathan Karl opened up a conversation about President Obama’s decision to normalize relations with Cuba, which Cruz and Rubio oppose.
Paul defended his tweets suggesting that Rubio’s preferred policy towards Cuba is a form of “isolationism” and announced his opposition to increasing economic sanctions on Iran at a time when President Obama is trying to negotiate a deal to halt their nuclear program.
Karl kicked off the conversation by asking Paul to defend his tweets suggesting that Rubio was following an “isolationist” foreign policy by defending an embargo against Cuba. It was an interesting moment, especially in light of how Tim Pawlenty was damaged during the 2012 primaries by his refusal to reiterate his “Obamneycare” attack on Mitt Romney during a presidential debate.
Paul didn’t flinch, saying that Rubio’s suggestion amount to “a form of isolationism” because “it would be a policy of isolationism” if the United States put an embargo on every country that abuses human rights.
“In one particular instance, maybe it’s not, but it’s still the philosophy that somehow we shouldn’t trade, that trade is not good with them and I think trade actually would benefit,” Paul said.
Paul suggested that Richard Nixon’s decision to open up China “has made us less likely to go to war and while China is still an oppress regime they’re less oppressive probably than they were in the 70s.”
Rubio, seated next to Paul, reminded the audience that “there is no contemporary example of where an economic opening by itself made a democratic opening.” As for China, he said that the U.S. economic gestures toward the regime had made it “the richest tyranny in all of human history.” Rubio concluded by faulting Obama for making those concessions to Cuba without getting anything in return.
It’s not surprising that Paul would feel surrounded sitting between Cruz and Rubio during a debate about Cuba, but it’s more remarkable that the crowd at the libertarian-sponsored event applauded Rubio’s reply.
Paul reiterated his isolationist argument, pointing out the 25 predominantly-Muslim nations that have human rights abuses, including Saudi Arabia. He also said that the Castro regime emerged as “a reaction, actually, to American foreign policy of supporting a horrible dictatorship” in General Fulgencio Batista.
“I think that isolationism hasn’t worked,” he reiterated.
“We cannot forget that the difference between Cuba and some of those countries is a combination of—we have the leverage to bring about change and it’s 90 miles from our shores,” he said. “What happens there, we will feel immediately.”
On Iran, Karl asked Paul if he would back a new sanctions bill against Iran, which Obama has threatened to veto.
“I’m a big fan of trying to exert and try the diplomatic options as long as we can. If it fails I will vote to resume sanctions and I would vote to actually have new sanctions, but if you do it in the middle of the negotiations, you’re ruining it,” Paul said, after reminding Karl that European allies have suggested that the United States won’t be able to rally an international sanctions coalition against Iran.
“I don’t think unilateral sanctions will work,” he said. ““The other fear is that Iran backs away from the table and then we have two choices, they either get a nuclear option or we have a military option.”
Cruz countered with “a very different perspective,” saying that Obama was repeating Bill Clinton’s mistakes in allowing the North Koreans to obtain a nuclear weapon, right down to using the same lead negotiator with Iran whom Clinton tapped for North Korea.
“The problem with Iran is that Khameini and the mullahs are radical religious Islamic nutcases,” he said. “If Iran ever acquired nuclear weapons, I think the odds are unacceptably high that it would use those nuclear weapons either in the skies of Tel Aviv or New York or Los Angeles.”
When Karl interjected that Paul didn’t support Iran having weapons, simply negotiating with them, Cruz countered that “this is the worst negotiation in the history of mankind” because Obama eased sanctions before getting any compliance from Iran.
“We have to think about what really are the practical results of not negotiating,” Paul said, reminding Cruz that military action
Rubio concurred with Cruz, saying that Iran’s theology militates toward world cataclysm and that Iran is using negotiations to buy time to develop a program.
“In 2003 the world told Iran, you cannot have any enrichment capability,” Rubio said. “Then it became, okay, you can enrich but only up to 20 percent, then it become, okay, you can enrich over 20 percent, but you have to ship it overseas. Now it’s, okay, you can enrich at 20 percent, but you have to use it only [for] a research reactor. At this pace, in five years, we’re going to build the bomb for them. I mean, that’s the direction this is going.”
Cruz concluded the conversation with a line that seemed directed at Obama but might develop be a preview of an attack on Paul during the 2016 presidential season.
“Beyond sanctions, a strong commander in chief would make abundantly clear on the global stage under no circumstances will Iran be able to acquire a nuclear weapons capability,” he said. “Either they will cease or we will stop them.”