Marco Rubio Is Not Ready for Prime Time

If the Florida senator wants to save the Republican Party, he's got to come up with a foreign policy for the real world.

By , a senior fellow at the Carnegie Endowment for International Peace.

In his critique of the president’s handling of foreign policy in his State of the Union address last week, Marco Rubio has accomplished something really important. But perhaps not what he had in mind.

Indeed, what the senator from Florida and Time magazine’s Savior of the Republican Party has done is to turn the spotlight not on Obama’s foreign policy but on a grim ground truth from his own side: Republicans have yet to find a sensible alternative to Obama’s admittedly avoider approach to the world or to regain their own footing in the post post-9/11 world that their last standard-bearer helped to shape.

Rubio is way too smart to want to take the country back to the days of George W. Bush. He just hasn’t figured out an effective way to move beyond the Bush era on the foreign policy side either.

Getting Out of Bad Deals…

Last week, I wrote my own analysis of Obama’s foreign-policy SOTU. FP’s managing editor, the inestimable Blake Hounshell, came up with the title — "The Avoider" — which was, to quote Marisa Tomei’s character in My Cousin Vinny, dead-on-balls accurate.

Obama’s first-term foreign policy wasn’t pretty. There was the stumble bumble over the Israeli-Palestinian issue; the Afghan surge; Gitmo (I’m going to close it, then maybe not); naively raising expectations about engaging the Russians and Iran; and of course Benghazi.

And even though the foreign policy section of the SOTU might have been set to Engelbert Humperdink’s country classic "Make the World Go Away," on balance Obama’s record — no spectacular successes (save killing Osama bin Laden) and no spectacular failures — has been pretty much on target. No attacks on the continental United States, al Qaeda central dismantled, a better image in parts of the cruel and unfriendly world? I’ll take it.

Despite his rhetorical aspirations, Obama wasn’t going to be a transformative figure in foreign policy as much as a transitional one. The world’s just too complex for grand bargains. And that transition was designed to move the country from a hyperactive foreign policy driven by ideology to an approach grounded more in the way the world actually is, including the reality of America’s own financial and economic travails. It was a downsized foreign policy in an age of austerity, fatigue, and impatience with grand plans for saving the world.

You can certainly argue, as Rubio and others have, that Obama overcorrected, moving from doing too much to not enough. But who can argue with Obama’s willful extrication from America’s longest and among its most profitless wars? Extrication demands a certain leadership of its own kind — hardly the kind of guts-and-glory, Mission Accomplished type. But one that’s essential and particular to the times.

And what would Rubio have done differently? He really doesn’t say. I’d love to see a paragraph on that.

…And Not Getting into New Ones

America now inhabits a largely opportunity-less world of diplomatic migraines and root canals. It’s a world more likely to be managed and contained than resolved.

If Obama is willful, skillful and above all lucky, this will probably mean smaller deals — one on enrichment with Iran, perhaps; an interim accord for Israelis and Palestinians — not big ones. And on the Arab Spring, we’ll be trying to navigate the murky middle ground between traditional allies like Egypt, which may well become more adversarial, and old adversaries like Libya and Iraq, which will remain difficult and uncertain partners. Indeed, U.S. options run from terrible to bad to worse. And worst of all, if diplomacy with the mullahs fails, Obama may well have another war on his hands in his second term.

This is reality. And yet the Rubio message is one of leadership based on empty rhetoric with no real approach, let alone strategy to correlate means and ends. On North Korea, he calls for new sanctions; on Syria, he doesn’t call for anything, really; on Egypt, he argues for standing up for persecuted minorities; and on Russia he urges us to stand up to "tyrants like Vladimir Putin." Long on rhetoric commitment and very short on operational and practical tactics and strategy, the Rubio plan isn’t a plan at all but a disjointed and embarrassing set of bromides.

The Real Problem: Stealing Republican Foreign Policy

I’ve long maintained that the dividing line for America’s foreign and domestic policy shouldn’t be between Democrat and Republican but between dumb and smart. Republicans from Rubio to McCain want to be on the smart side. They simply can’t manage to find policies that are all that different from Obama’s, are workable, and are consistent with what they know to be the new realities of a tough world and an even tougher American economy.

And one of the reasons is that Barack Obama has cornered their market and stolen pages from the GOP playbook. Obama has become a George H.W. Bush realist when it comes to avoiding ideological overreach, and a much more effective and less ideological version of Bush the younger too: willfully surging in Afghanistan, killing Osama, and whacking 10 times the number of bad guys with drones than his predecessor. He may well be the American president who just doesn’t talk about containing Iran’s nuclear program, but uses military power against it. One reason the Chuck Hagel fight has been so bitter is that former senator is the poster child for a Republican realism that some in the party detest. In many ways, that nomination fight says more about the state of the Republican Party than it does about the Hagel candidacy itself.

Marco Rubio is a very smart guy with a potentially bright political future. But he can’t write an article like this and expect to be taken seriously, unless his only objective is to shore up a Republican base and not expand it. Politics is about addition, not subtraction, even on an issue like foreign policy that most Americans don’t pay a lot of attention to.

If Rubio’s article was intended to be the beginning of his own education on foreign policy and a counterpart to his domestic-focused Republican response to the SOTU, then all I can say is that he’s got a lot more homework to do. Perhaps his current fact-finding trip to Israel and Jordan will help. But based on his initial foray into foreign policy, he’s not yet ready for prime time, nor are his ideas for how to best advance the nation’s interests abroad.

Aaron David Miller is a senior fellow at the Carnegie Endowment for International Peace and a former U.S. State Department Middle East analyst and negotiator in Republican and Democratic administrations. He is the author of The End of Greatness: Why America Can’t Have (and Doesn’t Want) Another Great President. Twitter: @aarondmiller2

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