Marco Rubio Is No Jack Kennedy – and We Don’t Need One, Either

Why America is better off without a “pay any price, bear any burden” president.


Marco Rubio, the Republican presidential hopeful from Florida, opened his remarks to the Council on Foreign Relations (CFR) earlier this week by quoting from the last speech President John F. Kennedy gave before his assassination. Kennedy had insisted that by making America stronger he had advanced the cause of world peace. By contrast, Rubio observed, President Barack Obama had entered office believing that “America was too hard on our adversaries,” and that the world would benefit if “America took a step back.”

It was a deft bit of oratory. Kennedy, after all, was, like the 43-year-old Rubio, young, brash, optimistic — and a member of the U.S. Senate. Citing a Democrat allowed Rubio to imply to CFR, a nonpartisan body whose centrist internationalism constitutes a heresy for Republican ideologues, that he represents an older, bipartisan tradition. Republican presidential candidates don’t go to CFR to win votes, after all, but to acquire a sheen of elite legitimacy. The boyish Rubio knows he needs that.

If that was the goal, Rubio succeeded. Though the crowd listened to his prepared remarks in dead silence, the consensus afterwards was that he had addressed a wide range of subjects with a high degree of fluency, and had said nothing he would later need to retract. Rubio has made himself CFR’s favorite Republican candidate — though I doubt he’ll note that on the stump in South Carolina.

I am not convinced, however, that John F. Kennedy — the Kennedy who famously promised in his inaugural address to “pay any price, bear any burden … to assure the survival and the success of liberty” — is the right metaphor for our time.

Kennedy was wrong even for his own time. In his blithe self-confidence, Kennedy utterly miscalculated the effect that his military build-up and zest for geopolitical competition would produce on the Soviet Union, and thus brought us to the verge of World War III. Only thanks to the wisdom and restraint of a generation “tempered by war,” as he also put it, did Kennedy see his way past his own triumphal pieties to a less cocky and combative stance. Those historians who argue that Kennedy would not, in fact, have enmeshed the United States in a land war in Vietnam, assume that by the time of his death JFK had assimilated hard lessons about the limits of U.S. power.

I am tempted to quote Lloyd Bentsen: “Senator, you’re no Jack Kennedy.” Our presidential candidates are no longer tempered by war; if only for this reason, we should wish them to err on the side of peace. Both in his speech and in the subsequent Q&A with Charlie Rose, Rubio argued for a more interventionist stance everywhere. He favors embedding Special Forces in Yemen to help with the Saudi-directed air war there, providing weaponry to the government in Ukraine, stepping up aid to the rebels in Syria, and expanding airstrikes over Iraq. He would re-impose sanctions on Cuba, and end discussions of a two-state solution in Israel. Rubio hasn’t yet discovered a “missile gap” with Russia, but he does argue that the United States is unilaterally disarming in the face of growing threat.

Strictly as a matter of political calculus, I don’t see how “rollback,” to use the old Cold War phrase, holds wide appeal. It’s Republican audiences, not Democratic ones, who are taxing Jeb Bush with his brother’s ill-fated decision to intervene in Iraq. Rubio has a perfectly sound answer to this critique — I wouldn’t have gone into Iraq knowing what we know now, and President Bush has said that wouldn’t have either — but the persistence of the issue reflects ongoing skepticism about military adventures abroad. Where is the groundswell, outside the Weekly Standard, for deeper American military engagement in the Middle East?

I very much doubt that the growing anxiety over America’s loss of influence in the world, and the rise of competitors like China and Iran, constitutes the sort of crisis that makes foreign affairs a first-order electoral issue. But even if it does, I suspect that the sweet spot will lie elsewhere. An effective anti-Obama agenda, even if it’s substantively wrong, would stress traditional statecraft, managerial competence, sober oratory — Bush I rather than Bush II. be a good moment for Colin Powell, but he’s not running. It’s not such a bad moment for Hillary Clinton, who is.

Whatever its political merits, Rubio’s chesty worldview would make the world less safe rather than more. He would have the United States throw in its lot with Saudi Arabia in its growing proxy war with Iran by putting boots on the ground in Yemen. President Obama is trying to use the current Camp David summit to assure Gulf States that the U.S. fully recognizes the threat of Iranian adventurism while at the same time restraining the headlong rush to confrontation. That requires a degree of balance and prudence to which our budding Kennedy seems immune. Rubio would encourage Ukraine to join NATO, though he argued that the American failure to bolster Ukrainian military capability over the last few years has left it currently unsuitable for membership. That kind of brinksmanship would only provoke reciprocal aggression from President Vladimir Putin of Russia. The actual, as opposed to cartoon-version, John F. Kennedy, made just that mistake.

Rubio is quite prepared to say perfectly inane things for perceived political advantage — most notably, his proposal to require Iranian recognition of Israel as a condition for Senate approval of a nuclear deal. (He did not repeat that formulation before the CFR.) Nevertheless, it’s obvious that he thinks seriously about policy issues, foreign as well as domestic. He asserted that early intervention on behalf of the Syrian rebels might have stemmed the rise of the Islamic State there, which is at the very least an arguable proposition. Intriguingly, he mocked Obama’s preference for “nation-building at home,” implying that he sees at least some merit to nation-building abroad — a neoconservative shibboleth that few of Rubio’s rivals would endorse. He advocated “transparent and effective” foreign assistance, whatever that means.

Rubio has positioned himself to be the champion of the “pay any price, bear any burden” wing of the GOP. It will be highly entertaining to watch him spar with Rand Paul, the isolationist standard-bearer, or with halfwits like Rick Perry. And nothing will beat watching him torture Jeb Bush, his former mentor, over the failures of brother George. Should Jeb falter, Rubio would have a good shot at the Republican nomination. Given his youth and his “story” — child of impoverished Cuban immigrants — he might match up quite well against Clinton.

Rubio is adroit enough that he could tone down his bellicosity in order to mount an effective attack against Obama’s foreign policy, as embodied in Clinton’s tenure as Secretary of State. That, too, would be fun to watch. Nevertheless, the world of 2016, with its emerging powers and disintegrating international order, its sub-state actors and transnational problems, does not need John Kennedy circa 1960. That would not be fun to watch.

 Joe Raedle/Getty Images

James Traub is a regular contributor to Foreign Policy, a fellow at the Center on International Cooperation, and author of the book "John Quincy Adams: Militant Spirit."

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