Early this morning Sen. Marco Rubio (R-Fla.) appeared on William Bennett’s radio show. In response to a question about Syria he told listeners :
“You know, the U.S. is big enough and powerful enough to walk and chew gum at the same time. I mean, they’re all the same cause. At the end of the day, it’s about people in the Middle East that are tired, Arabs in particular, that are tired of living under corrupt, decrepit, backward regimes, and they’re standing up for themselves. Syria is a place that we can continue to have a voice. I think we’ve taken too long. I think the fact that the administration continues to hold out hope that somehow Assad is going to be a reformer is not the right way to go. I intend, along with a couple of my colleagues this week, to introduce a resolution here in the Senate to act on this issue. And my hope is that this policy will move quickly on voicing support for those on the ground there in Syria who are trying, in a peaceful way, to bring about change to their country. And I think the world has to be so disappointed, I think, that this administration has not been more forceful in speaking out on behalf of freedom and democracy throughout the region, including places like Bahrain.”
That’s what conservatives and human rights activists have come to expect from Rubio — forceful, clear and unequivocal support for a robust American presence in the world. An adviser to Rubio tells me that the senator is preparing to introduce a Syria resolution this week, which we can expect to reflect the sentiments he expressed on the radio.
In an interview in his Hart office following that radio program I asked Rubio about Syria, CIA interrogations, Israel, Cuba and the future of the Republican Party.
Many politicians play better on TV than they do live. In person, many are stiff and, frankly, full of themselves. Rubio isn’t one of them. He’s the rare politician whose presence is more impressive than the hype. He is also atypical of lawmakers, especially freshmen, in his fluency and obvious interest in foreign policy.
He sits in a large armchair that seems to accentuate his trim figure. He talks (again, unlike many pols) in quiet, measured tones without bombast. His humor is dry and not directed toward political opponents. Indeed, although he disagrees with the president on most foreign policy issues, he never used his name, ascribed malevolent motives to him, or, for that matter, made any personal attacks on administration figures.
On Syria he was plainly dismayed by the administration’s response to the regime’s killing of hundreds of demonstrators. “I don’t think the U.S. has a Syria policy,” he begins matter-of-factly. He says in the White House and the State Department, “There is some level of cynicism, unfortunate cynicism about the ability of people in the region to bring about positive change.” Despite Syria’s horrid human rights record and its role as a “satellite of Iran,” Rubio says, “There is a nonsensical fear that what comes after [Assad] will be worse.”
Syria, he says, is part of the larger Arab Spring, which he says “is an extraordinary opportunity.” He is nevertheless realistic about how things will turn out. “It won’t all be the way we’d like it,” he says of the revolutions, and he recognizes “ultimately it is up to the people to establish for themselves their own destiny.” Still, he urges, “We should clearly show we are on the side of the Syrian people, the Libyan people, the Egyptian people, all people” who are working for freer societies. He cautions that the opinion of people in the region “is being largely crafted” by what we do now. He says U.S. inaction or support for tottering regimes plays into the propaganda of America’s enemies. “ ‘See, the U.S. only cares about you if it is in its strategic interest,’ ” he tells me will be the propaganda line of anti-American groups and countries. The notion that we don’t have interests in the welfare of other peoples, he argues, “goes against everything we believe as a nation.” He says that there is “still time” for the administration to be forceful about Syria. That begins when we “finally admit that Assad is not a reformer, but a murderer like his father.” He says we must say, “It is time for him to go.”
I also ask Rubio about the use of enhanced interrogation techniques and whether that subject needs to be explored in the confirmation hearings of Leon Panetta (for defense secretary) and Gen. David Petraeus (for CIA director). He bypasses the opportunity to tweak the president (who decried the use of EITs that were reportedly useful in the killing of Osama bin Laden.) Instead, he explains the issues that one would hope responsible figures in the executive branch are discussing. He says the biggest concern is our current detainee process. Obama wanted to close Guantanamo. But are we sill prepared to keep and question high-value detainees? Rubio asks, “If Osama bin Laden had been captured, where would he have been taken?” In his mind, it isn’t clear that we have a process for detaining and effectively gathering essential information from terrorists we capture. First, he observes, we need to know what the purpose of the detainee policy is: “Is it to gather evidence to prosecute or is it to prevent future attacks? I think it’s the second.” He concedes Panetta may be unwilling to be candid in an open confirmation hearing, but Rubio is emphatic. “The fundamental question with the bin Laden operation,” he contends, “is what are the methods that ultimately allowed us” to find and kill him? In sum, Rubio sounds much more interested in the long-term ramifications of the administration’s EIT policy than a game of finger-pointing. If his colleagues share his concerns, the confirmation hearings could provide a useful starting point for congressional and executive-branch officials to examine what exactly we are and should be doing to gain valuable human intelligence.
He remains very concerned about the ongoing investigation of CIA operatives who employed EITs in the Bush administration. He tells me, “I’ve always been troubled by [the investigations]. These were people acting in service of their country.” The result, he fears, will be a “chilling effect” that will impair our intelligence agencies from doing their jobs. He is plainly dismayed by the continued investigation and the potential for prosecution. “These were not lone wolves,” acting to carry out the administration’s policy, he argues.
In part 2 of the interview Rubio talks about the new Palestinian unity government, Cuba and the threat of neo-isolationism in the Republican Party.