November 20, 2013
Sen. Marco Rubio (R-Fla.) (Joe Raedle/Getty Images Sen. Marco Rubio (R-Fla.) (Joe Raedle/Getty Images

It’s no secret that Sen. Marco Rubio (R-Fla.) has rattled conservative wonks these days. After a valiant effort on immigration reform, he abandoned the effort, jumped on the shutdown bandwagon and came out on the same side as Sen. Rand Paul (R-Ky.) on Syria. Suddenly, the guy who seemed like the future of the party seemed to be erratic and immature.

Therefore, it wasn’t surprising that he announced a “major” foreign policy address at the American Enterprise Institute. The sentiments were solid but not new. Listen, I’ll take platitudes on internationalism whenever I can get them (“[F]orce used with clear, achievable objectives must always remain a part of our foreign policy toolbox. Because, while we always prefer peace over conflict, sometimes our enemies choose differently.”) It’s good to reiterate familiar themes (“On the energy front, the Western Hemisphere needs to establish itself as a democratic, peaceful and stable alternative to the Middle East.”), but a major speech should provide something innovative or apply those broad principles in a specific context.

He announced, “The time has now come for a new vision for America’s role abroad- one that reflects the reality of the world we live in today.” But where was it — and how is it different from anything anyone else in the center-right is saying?

Rubio said, “Diplomacy, foreign assistance and military intervention are tools at our disposal. But foreign policy cannot be simply about tactics. It must be strategic, with a clear set of goals that guide us in deciding how to apply our influence. These goals should be to protect and defend our people, to promote liberty and human rights throughout the world, and to advance the enduring pursuit of peace for all mankind.” I can’t figure out how this differs from, say, Sen. John McCain (R-Ariz.).

It would be one thing if he were a governor, introducing his views to the conservative world for the first time. But this is someone who, in large, part defined himself by his foreign policy views.

He did try to offer an explanation as to how his stated views can be squared with his stance on Syria. He told the AEI audience, “[T]here is no more important use of our influence and power than to prevent rogue regimes and terrorist groups from acquiring weapons of mass destruction.” And he announced, “We can tackle the challenges of these nuclear rogues by maintaining an effective deterrent, not merely hoping that unilateral disarmament will lead the Irans or North Koreas of the world to follow our lead.” Is there a Syria exception to this? Why hasn’t he been for more robust U.S. action and/or for arming non-jihadi rebels? This is what he said:

I voted against President Obama’s plan for military action because he had no strategy beyond symbolic missile strikes. Nor did he explain what would happen following these strikes, which were publicly promised to be “unbelievably small,” when Assad would inevitably emerge to boast that his regime had survived our use of force. Ultimately, the President was forced to abandon these plans and turn to Vladimir Putin to broker a solution.

He abandoned those plans in large part because Rubio and others opposed the authorization of force. And saying the president messed up earlier is no excuse to prefer no action over some action when Assad crossed a red line. It was, to be blunt, weak.

I think Rubio generally has his heart in the right place, but in future speeches there should be more meat on the bones. How does he think democracy works (or doesn’t) in the Middle East? Should we redefine what “promoting democracy” is about? Does he think the current nation states in the region must remain intact? What’s the best way to check Iran’s power? What does Iraq tell us about the prospects of mixed Shiite and Sunni states and whether the Kurds’ desire for autonomy might be worth supporting? Now that we are where we are on Syria, what is to be done?

If Rubio wants to return to a more sophisticated brand of conservatism and be taken seriously again, he can’t recycle old speeches. He will have to lead, show in what ways he’d be different from the last two administrations and bring some original thinking to the table. I hope he does this and gets the input he needs from a wide range of experts.

Jennifer Rubin writes the Right Turn blog for The Post, offering reported opinion from a conservative perspective.