NR Digital

Strategy and Principle

by Mario Loyola
The foreign-policy wisdom of Marco Rubio

The success of Ronald Reagan’s foreign policy was predicated on three qualities: He tried hard to be morally consistent; he had an innate sense of strategy; and he was a great communicator. It may be too soon to tell whether Florida senator Marco Rubio is walking in Reagan’s footsteps, but he certainly seems to be headed in the right direction.

The test will be how Rubio deals with the perennial dilemmas of American foreign policy, specifically the long-running tension between realism and idealism that Henry Kissinger describes in Diplomacy (1994). Rubio believes that the two are not necessarily in conflict. “I’m still new enough here,” he told a recent gathering hosted by the Foreign Policy Initiative, “and I hope quite frankly I never lose this — where I do believe that the best-case scenario is still possible.”

He’s on to something. Foreign policy should be both morally right and straegically sound. But as the Bush years showed — and as the years before World War II showed — popular support for a strategically sound foreign policy can be hard to come by. Rubio seems to have given the problem some thought already. At the end of a recent speech to the Federalist Society, he made this remarkable observation:

Oftentimes the popular thing to do is the wrong thing to do. And often that’s where leadership comes into play. And that’s why the difference between public opinion and public judgment is so critical. Public opinion is what people think the first time you tell them something. Public judgment is what people come to believe when responsible leaders explain to them the consequences of the choices before them.

Rubio’s emphasis on the role of leadership in shaping “public judgment” is a vital piece of what Max Boot, of the Council on Foreign Relations, describes to me as Rubio’s “very Reaganesque vision of strength and engagement in the world.”

Rubio insists on a morally consistent foreign policy. “I do believe that it is in our best interest to stand for principles like human rights and democracy,” he explained at the FPI forum. “We can’t impose that, we can’t always guarantee it, but we should certainly be on the side of it every opportunity that we get, because the American example is our most powerful export.” He is fiercely anti-Communist, but thinks that overlooking the human-rights abuses of anti-Communist regimes was wrong. For Max Boot, that consistency makes Rubio a more coherent — and therefore more effective — critic of Obama’s foreign policy than many conservatives.

Rubio thinks the strength of America’s example starts at home. “If our economy is crumbling,” he tells me, “if there is no upward mobility, how are we going to go extolling economic freedom around the world?” Without economic success, we can’t sustain our military strength — and both are vital to America’s exceptionalism. That is why, last year, he slammed the deficit-reduction “super committee” for “completely unacceptable, completely unsustainable” defense cuts. Earlier this year, he publicly complained that the Pentagon’s announcement of further cuts “directly signals to our friends and adversaries America’s diminished ability to project power on a global scale and defend our interests during a very uncertain time.”

Rubio understands that protecting America’s vital interests around the world means staying engaged around the world. “There is virtually no major issue facing the world that can be solved without America’s involvement in it,” he told the FPI gathering.

Rubio was already well-versed in foreign policy when he ran for the Senate. Elliott Abrams, a veteran of two presidential administrations who has advised Rubio on foreign policy, remembers their first conversation. Then-candidate Rubio offered to give his view of the Middle East, so that Abrams could point out anything he was missing. “Rubio proceeded to give a terrific tour d’horizon of the Middle East, and when he was done, I said, ‘I don’t think we even need to have this conversation,’” Abrams says.

When he got to the Senate a year ago, Rubio moved fast to secure positions on the Foreign Relations and Intelligence committees. According to Abrams, “most freshmen avoid those committees and seek assignments dealing with the economy or the budget, so Rubio’s choices demonstrate a real seriousness about our place in the world.” He seems adept at foreign relations, too. Max Boot tells me, “I’ve been really impressed by how good his instincts are and how good his knowledge of the world is.”

Soon after his election victory in 2010, Rubio traveled to Israel with his wife, and as a senator he has traveled to Pakistan, Afghanistan, Libya, and Haiti. When Moammar Qaddafi started bombing protesters with fighter jets in Libya, President Obama dithered, but Rubio instantly called for intervention. Rubio applauded Obama’s ultimate decision to intervene, but has insisted that it could all have been done more quickly and with far less loss of life.

Obama wanted to be “on the right side of history” when protesters took to the street against Hosni Mubarak in Egypt and quickly shunted him from power. But he stood silent as Bahraini forces fired on protesters. Rubio did not. In a letter to Secretary of State Hillary Clinton, he urged the delay of U.S. weapon sales to Bahrain: “I believe the government’s response to the disturbances actually threatens the country’s long-term stability, jeopardizes the United States’ standing in Bahrain and the Middle East, and plays into the hands of Iran.” The letter was characteristic Rubio, couching a moral imperative in terms of strategy.

Still, publicly admonishing one’s allies is risky business, because most governments would rather go hungry than swallow their pride, especially when the admonishment comes from the United States.

Rubio counters that championing human rights gives us credibility and helps us assume a mediating position in a country’s peaceful and orderly transition to democracy. “Our currency is the human-rights agenda at the core of our foreign policy,” he tells me. “It is the basis of our moral credibility all over the world.” 

Convictions so firmly stated are perhaps the firmest foundation for a lasting legacy in foreign policy — but a capacity for long-range strategic thinking is no less important. For Rubio, “peace through strength” is the backbone of a proper diplomacy. He seems to understand that an effective diplomatic strategy rests not on atmospherics or trust-building measures, but on negotiating leverage — and that means starting from a position of strength.

At the FPI event, Rubio addressed Iran’s nuclear program by asking, “Are they willing to build a bomb or get access to nuclear capability at any price?” Before we retreat to a containment strategy, which carries its own risks, Rubio thinks we should find out whether some price mightn’t be too high for the mullahs. That’s the right first question to ask: The U.S. should be upping the ante on Iran’s nuclear program, rather than assuming at every turn that they’re not bluffing, as our strategy has done so far. 

Still, the Arab Spring poses a nettlesome challenge to Rubio’s belief that idealism and strategic interest can be reconciled. The democracy agenda is hardly served when efforts to promote it pave the way for obscurantist, Islamist governments that play to their peoples’ worst instincts, as seems to have happened in Egypt. Moreover, for the foreseeable future, decidedly undemocratic Arab kingdoms along the Persian Gulf will remain vital ramparts of our security architecture in the Middle East, particularly against the Iranian threat. The stability of those regimes is a vital strategic interest of the United States.

Now that presents a dilemma. Rubio tackles it head on. “The first question you’ll get in the Middle East,” he told the FPI forum, “is, ‘You guys say you’re for democracy, but then you look the other way in Saudi Arabia, Bahrain, and places like that.’ And the answer is, those countries are not going to go from what they are now to constitutional republics in 48 hours or in two years. But what we hope is that they’re on a road towards, progressing towards, a more sustainable political climate.”

Rubio is optimistic, but he doesn’t think we can afford to wait around for our allies to become democratic. “Those regimes are unsustainable,” he tells me. “In the 21st century, with widespread access to mass communications, those governments are unsustainable. Do we assist the transition, or let the transition happen in a chaotic way, laying the seeds of anti-Americanism?”

That’s a compelling strategic argument for the pro-democracy agenda. During the Bush years, Condoleezza Rice tried to convince Hosni Mubarak to embrace democratic reform. He brushed her off, insisting that Egyptians “need a strong hand.” Look where that got him.

Marco Rubio seems to think that such tangles can be unwound, and indeed many of them can. The first step is remembering Margaret Thatcher’s famous admonition, “First, win the argument.” And that’s a challenge Rubio seems to relish.

– Mr. Loyola is former counsel for foreign and defense policy to the U.S. Senate Republican Policy Committee.

Send a letter to the editor.