Sen. Marco Rubio (R-Fla.) has been visiting the Middle East. His Thursday press conference from Jerusalem was as solid an appearance (fluid, disciplined, informed) as any senator in recent memory and certainly more coherent than what we hear from the administration. It is worth listening to in full.
He made four critical policy observations during his introductory remarks and the Q & A that followed.
First, he noted that the United States has a significant interest in the Syrian conflict and its outcome. He pointed to the 400,000 refugees that have streamed into Jordan, creating a strain on that country. And he made the case that it is in our interest to identify and aid the “most responsible actors” there and to secure weapons, in contrast to the free-for-all that panned out in Libya.
Second, in using the phrase “two countries for two people,” he made a subtle but important point that trained ears understand. Implicit in his phrasing is the idea that any Palestinian “right of return” will be to a Palestinian state. It is a rhetorical formulation the administration and others would do well to adopt.
Third, he turned “linkage” around. He made the case that Israel makes the most progress toward Palestinian peace when it feels secure and that Israel’s security, not only with regard to Palestinians but also with respect to Egypt, Jordan, Syria and Iran, is the central issue for the region. In making this point he stressed that Iran is not merely Israel’s problem but “a problem for the world.”
And finally, he explained that the “peace process” is aided by Palestinian economic development, improvement in Palestinian security forces and improvement in Palestinian civil society. Praising Palestinian reformer Salam Fayyad (“I was impressed”) he urged that we not raise expectations for a grand peace process breakthrough but instead focus on what can be done now to “improve conditions” politically and economically for the Palestinians. He repeated several times that settlements are an issue to be worked out between the parties.
A few things struck me about Rubio’s press conference. For starters, among the GOP leadership and the crop of potential 2016 candidates, Rubio has, going away, the most sophisticated take on and command of foreign policy. He combines that with steely discipline (not going to talk about Chuck Hagel overseas, not going to tell Israel what to do on settlements). And finally, he makes the case better than most conservatives for why we need to be involved in other places. We don’t want Syria to turn out like Libya. We can’t tolerate a nuclear Iran. We want Jordan to keep on the road to reform. Too often hawks make the arguments for international involvement solely on fuzzy idealism or with no explanation for the cost of not using our influence. In bringing foreign policy down to earth and specifically to American interests he goes a long way toward educating the public and healing the divide between more and less internationalist wings of the GOP.
This trip has certainly continued to raise his stature as one of the top leaders in the GOP. More important, he made the case better than the president ever has (or GOP presidential candidates for that matter) for why the United States cannot retreat and retrench.