Appearing at the Council on Foreign Relations for a speech (hyped a tad too much) billed as introducing his “doctrine,” Sen. Marco Rubio (R-Fla.) gave a strong but not novel address on military strength, the U.S. economy and moral clarity. His strongest passage came with regard to the third:
In recent years, the ideals that have long formed the backbone of American foreign policy – a passionate defense of human rights, the strong support of democratic principles, and the protection of the sovereignty of our allies – have been replaced by, at best, caution, and at worst, outright willingness to betray those values for the expediency of negotiations with repressive regimes.
This is not only morally wrong, it is contrary to our interests. Because wherever freedom and human rights spread, partners for our nation are born. But whenever our foreign policy comes unhinged from its moral purpose, it weakens global stability and forms cracks in our national resolve.
In this century, we must restore America’s willingness to think big – to state boldly what we stand for and why it is right. Just as Reagan never flinched in his criticisms of the Soviet Union’s political and economic repressions, we must never shy away from demanding that China allow true freedom for its 1.3 billion people. Nor should we hesitate in calling the source of atrocities in the Middle East by its real name – radical Islam.
As president, I will support the spread of economic and political freedom, reinforce our alliances, resist efforts by large powers to subjugate their smaller neighbors, maintain a robust commitment to transparent and effective foreign assistance programs, and advance the rights of the vulnerable – including women and the religious minorities that are so often persecuted – so that the afflicted peoples of the world know the truth: the American people hear their cries, see their suffering, and most of all, desire their freedom.
It was a refreshing change from the false choice (really, pandering to the far right) between national interest OR human rights posed by candidates like Sen. Ted Cruz (R-Tex.). As Rubio said, defending human rights is in our national interest.
The most impressive part of Rubio’s appearance, by leaps and bounds, was the Q&A. He ignored moderator Charlie Rose’s posturing and distracted glances, his feigned astonishment that anyone could find the Iran deal a bad idea and his inept efforts to interject his opinions. Rubio calmly responded to tough questions on everything from Guantanamo (if you take up arms to kill Americans, we have the right to take you off the battlefield) to his fundamental difference with the president (President Obama sees the United States as the cause of friction and unrest in the world) to Iraq (unlike Jeb Bush, he crisply said he would not have gone to war if he had known about the absence of WMDs and neither would George W. Bush) to his criticisms of Hillary Clinton (Russian reset, allowing Libya to fall into chaos) to his view of the two-state solution (it’s the ideal but circumstances now do allow for it). He has substantive knowledge at a level of detail only Sen. Lindsey Graham (R-S.C.) among the other contenders possesses, but he is also able to speak with clarity and purpose. You know where he stands and why, and he is an effective and civil persuader, even if you don’t always agree.
Rubio clearly passes the knowledge test on foreign policy and aces the “creative domestic policy ideas” part of the extended job interview with the voters (that’s what an election is, after all). If he keeps giving performances like this, he may very well overcome worries about his youth and lack of executive experience. As to the latter, he’d do well to not just show off his knowledge but relate something about his life that demonstrates the sort of decision-making skill, tenacity, sound judgment and refusal to bend to conventional wisdom we expect in a president. Nevertheless, other presidential hopefuls should watch out: He’s likely to catch them trying to fudge their way through the debates. They had better come prepared.