Senator Marco Rubio of Florida, a potential Republican vice presidential pick, outlined a vision of foreign policy that sounded more like President Barack Obama’s than that of Mitt Romney, the presumptive Republican nominee.
Rubio, 40, a first-term senator whose popularity with Tea Party supporters and Hispanics has raised his political profile, used a speech yesterday in Washington to praise international alliances and bipartisanship in foreign policy. His message -- that global coalitions are critical and American leadership is essential -- echoed talking points delivered almost weekly by Secretary of State Hillary Clinton.
Rubio argued for an activist foreign policy that puts a priority on keeping the peace, promoting democracy and trade and investing in foreign aid and global health -- all points that are gospel to the Obama administration. He reserved his criticism for a mild rebuke that also has come from some Democratic lawmakers: that Obama should be more forceful leading coalitions he has built to address problems such as Syrian leader Bashar al-Assad’s violent crackdown on his opponents.
“Global problems do require international coalitions; on that point this administration is correct,” Rubio told foreign policy makers and reporters at the Brookings Institution, a Washington policy research organization. “But experience has proven that American leadership is almost always indispensable.”
No Cuba Mention
Rubio, whose family and many of whose Florida supporters hail from Cuba, didn’t once mention U.S. policy toward the communist island, although it’s one of the most contentious foreign affairs issues in his home state.
His remarks underscore the difficulty the Republican Party may face this year trying to sharpen its differences with Obama over national security. The president has won credit in polls for killing Osama bin Laden in Pakistan, helping oust Muammar Qaddafi from Libya, withdrawing U.S. troops from Iraq and setting a timetable to draw down American forces in Afghanistan.
Obama fared better than Romney on foreign policy in an April 11-17 Quinnipiac University national survey, preferred by 46 percent compared with 40 percent for Romney.
Rubio’s “main message was, ‘Hi, I’m not Sarah Palin,’” said Brian Katulis, a foreign policy analyst at the Center for American Progress, a research group in Washington associated with the Obama administration. “The speech was sober. It was knowledgeable.”
“Rubio seemed to be closer to the Obama administration’s actual foreign policy than to the Republican Party’s rhetoric,” Katulis said. “This speech surprised a lot of people in its tone.”
Robert Kagan, a Brookings scholar who attended the speech, said Rubio “was trying to shore up a broad bipartisan consensus that the U.S. needs to remain engaged in the world. I think the Obama administration, after some initial hesitation, shares this view.”
Kagan, a foreign-policy adviser to the Romney campaign and a member of Secretary Clinton’s foreign affairs policy board, said Rubio made clear that “the administration has not done what is necessary to lead a coalition to remove Assad. But this difference occurs within the broad consensus.”
The main Republican attacks on Obama in this campaign won’t be about foreign policy, Stuart Rothenberg, editor of the nonpartisan Rothenberg Political Report in Washington, said in an interview.
“There is no appetite for picking a fight in that area right now” because of the American public’s fatigue over the military involvements in Iraq and Afghanistan, Rothenberg said.
Most Republican office-seekers this year, Romney included, are devoting the bulk of their time and energy to criticizing Obama on jobs, the economy, the size of government and spending.
“Domestic issues are where they think the president is weakest,” Rothenberg said.
Romney, in his first foreign policy speeches of the campaign last October in South Carolina, attacked Obama and advocated a more military-centered foreign policy than Rubio laid out yesterday. Romney pledged to add 100,000 active-duty troops, boost naval shipbuilding, deploy Navy carriers to deter Iran, boost intelligence cooperation with Israel and review aid to Afghanistan.
‘Weakens Our Hand’
Rubio, by contrast, said he believes in keeping “foreign policy nonpartisan as much as possible. I think it weakens our hand” to show divisions when dealing with foreign adversaries.
Asked after his speech where the “daylight” was between his policy and Obama’s, Rubio said the administration has shown “an over-reliance” on global institutions, such as the United Nations Security Council, to solve crises in Libya and Syria.
After an initial push on NATO to take action to oust Qaddafi in Libya, Rubio said, Obama “backed off and allowed our allies to do most of the work.” If the president had “more energetically” led the NATO coalition, he said, “the engagement would’ve been shorter, cheaper” and may have had fewer side-effects, such as the rise of militias, the destruction of infrastructure and the death of many Libyans in the conflict.
“Ultimately, it worked out fine,” said Rubio, who sits on the Senate Foreign Relations Committee and the Select Committee on Intelligence. He said he was struck during a visit to Libya a month after Qaddafi’s death by the amount of pro-U.S. graffiti and the number of Libyans who approached his delegation to say, “Thank you, President Obama, thank you, United States.”
On ending the bloodshed in Syria, Rubio said the scores of nations that united as the so-called Friends of Syria coalition need “a center of gravity” that only the U.S. can provide.
Rubio advocated “forming and leading a coalition with Turkey and the Arab League nations to assist the opposition, by creating a safe haven and equipping the opposition with food, medicine, communications tools and potentially weapons,” a step the administration has been reluctant to take.
Yet in the question-and-answer portion, Rubio expressed concern that “weapons don’t fall into the wrong hands,” and said nations other than the U.S. “may be willing to step into the void.”
Regarding concerns that Iran is seeking a nuclear-weapons capability, Rubio said he supports a “dual-track” strategy for sanctions and talks, while “preparing our allies” for the possibility that, “if all else fails, preventing a nuclear Iran may tragically require a military solution.”
“No option should be off the table” on Iran, and “the president has said as much,” Rubio said.
Rubio said when he came to the Senate last year, he found “liberal Democrats and conservative Republicans working together to advocate our withdrawal from Afghanistan, or our staying out of Libya.”
At the same time, he wound up “partnering with Democrats” such as Senators Bob Menendez of New Jersey or Bob Casey of Pennsylvania “on a more forceful foreign policy,” he said.
In the Senate, “on foreign policy, if you go far enough to the right, you wind up on the left,” he joked.