Marco Rubio wants people to know that he's kind of a big deal when it comes to foreign policy. He has bragged about his expertise to Iowans, saying that "few, if any," of his potential Republican competitors "have spent the amount of time on it that I have."
Most recently, Rubio has been passionately defending the enormously unsuccessful, if emotionally satisfying, embargo on Cuba. He is attacking President Obama for establishing diplomatic relations with the Castros, and is making moves to undo their conciliation. It's hard to come up with a more useless foreign policy stance than this. But even if we excuse Rubio's position as an understandable part of his identity — stemming from his background and his loyalty to Florida's expatriate community — there is little other reason to think Rubio has any worthwhile foreign policy expertise, despite years of sitting on important committees.
In March of 2011, Rubio became one of the most vocal Republican supporters of the Hillary Clinton-Obama war in Libya. "If we believe that the rise of this new attitude among young people and others seeking a new life and a new way in the Middle East is a positive thing, and I believe that it is, then it serves our national interest to see that happen," he said.
Among the reasons Rubio cited for supporting Moammar Gaddafi's overthrow was that he "sowed instability among neighbors, plotted assassination attempts against heads of state, and supported terrorist enterprises."
Since the desired knockout of Gaddafi's regime, the terrorist enterprise known as the Islamic State has a stronger foothold in that nation. The war that we exacerbated in Libya has destabilized neighboring Mali. And the Libyan people are risking (and losing) their lives in desperate attempts to emigrate from the "freedom" we helped impose on them.
What Rubio seems to have missed is that a significant source of the "new attitude" in the Middle East is an impatience with authoritarians who accord some rights to religious and ethnic minorities, rather than fully embrace political Islam.
In 2014, he castigated the Obama administration for not enforcing its own "red line" in Syria, and intervening in the civil war there. Rubio claimed that the Islamic State rushed into the vacuum only because the Obama administration didn't intervene, even though all the evidence suggests that Islamists were always a large part of the rebel forces in Syria. The counterfactual history that GOP hawks have maintained — in which a little more muscle would have turned the plausibly non-Islamist Free Syrian Army into a supreme (and supremely moderate) opposition force — is not credible in any case.
But who can expect Rubio to keep the counterfactuals straight when even the factual eludes him? In the same op-ed, Rubio offered the administration advice on how to proceed:
To confront the Islamic State terrorists, we need a sustained air campaign targeting their leadership, sources of income, and supply routes, wherever they exist. We must increase our efforts to equip and capacitate non-jihadists in Syria to fight the terrorist group. And we must arm and support forces in Iraq confronting it, including responsible Iraqi partners and the Kurds. In addition, we must persuade nations in the region threatened by the Islamic State to participate in real efforts to defeat it. [The Washington Post]
And, oddly enough, the Obama administration has been trying almost exactly the policies that Rubio suggested: air campaigns, arms, and encouragement to Iraqis and Kurds.
But in early 2015, Rubio decided that what the campaign against ISIS really needed was stronger adjectives. At CPAC, he said the president should "put together a coalition of armed forces from regional governments to confront them on the ground, with U.S. special operations support, and then provide logistical support, intelligence support, and the most devastating air support possible."
"Devastating." I guess he really means it now.
Rubio concluded, "The reason Obama hasn't put in place a military strategy to defeat ISIS is because he doesn't want to upset Iran."
I don't know how to say this respectfully. But this is dumber than a brick in a tumble-dryer: a clanging, dangerous error. Iran is one of the principal enemies of ISIS. It didn't even need to be persuaded to join the fight. It sees ISIS as another manifestation of the kind of Sunni extremism that threatens Iran's regional allies: Bashar al-Assad in Syria and the Shia-friendly government in Baghdad. If we really wanted to stick it to Iran, we'd be arming Islamic State fighters and providing "devastating air support" to them.
And given the record of Republican hawks over the last two decades, I wouldn't be surprised if a future Rubio administration ends up doing just that, through a mixture of hubris, democratizing enthusiasm, and sheer stupidity — just as the Bush administration cheered on democratic elections that empowered Hamas, and a war that led to a destabilized Iraq where Sunni extremism now flourishes. Bush was not alone: Other GOP hawks cheered on revolutions and civil wars that led not to liberal democracies, but terrorism, extremism, and anarchy.
Rubio has a reputation for foreign policy expertise because he chooses to talk about foreign policy often, promises large budgets to the Pentagon, and mostly pronounces the words correctly. Rubio's foreign policy consists of babyish moralizing, a cultivated ignorance of history, and a deliberate blindness to consequences. This is the same "foreign policy expertise" that led to a misbegotten war in Iraq and empowered Sunni insurgencies across the Middle East.
It will be enormously popular among people who think nothing of wasting money and other people's lives. Or as Rubio may one day call them from the West Wing, "my fellow Americans."