Rubio Echoes Neoconservative Views in Foreign Policy Address

U.S. Republican presidential candidate Senator Marco Rubio of Florida speaks Wednesday at the Council on Foreign Relations in New York. Shannon Stapleton/Reuters

Appearing before an elite foreign policy crowd in New York, Marco Rubio looked and sounded like the recipient of a Rotary Club scholarship reciting his essay—even leading off with a reference to JFK. "President Kennedy, like most presidents before and since, understood what our current president does not," the Florida senator opened. "American strength is a means of preventing war, not promoting it. And that weakness, on the other hand, is the friend of danger and the enemy of peace."

The youthful Republican with the muscular foreign policy appears to be the designated rehabilitator of the neoconservative philosophy, which took a beating after the Iraq War. Although he might be better called a neo-neocon, Rubio is willing to tweak the playbook to suit the times. He flip-flopped on Iraq, saying he wouldn't have supported the invasion knowing the intelligence about weapons of mass destruction was bad. (In March, when asked on Fox, he supported it.)

Rubio has been burnishing his foreign policy credibility with a slot on the Senate Foreign Relations Committee, showing up even at sparsely attended meetings. He has been outspoken on international human trafficking and relations with Latin America. In the midst of the Arab Spring, the rookie senator was an early supporter both of bombing Libya and arming Syria's rebels. And with concerns about national security rising again—particularly among Republican voters—his neo-neocon views have helped him seize the spotlight and boosted his standing in the 2016 presidential campaign.

In New York on Wednesday, the senator called for more American leadership in an address to the Council on Foreign Relations. He made his case in both military and moral terms and denigrated former Secretary of State Hillary Clinton's foreign policy as "a disaster."

"Today, our nation faces a greater threat of terrorist attack than any time since September 11, 2001," he wrote in an op-ed this week supporting the Patriot Act's data collection programs. As a candidate, Rubio is reportedly close to receiving significant financial support from billionaire casino owner Sheldon Adelson, a leading GOP fundraiser and hawk.

In his speech at the Council on Foreign Relations, he presented "three pillars" that he said would be the foundations of his foreign policy if elected. He called for bigger military budgets and an extension of the Patriot Act's bulk data collection program; support for America's economic activity abroad, including the Trans-Pacific Partnership and a promise of military action to back up any challenges to American interests abroad; and third, "moral clarity to back up America's core values"—a nice-sounding if vague goal that includes ensuring repressed minorities and women abroad know that America is aware of their suffering.

He painted the Obama administration's foreign policy as weak and confused. Answering a question from the audience about Clinton's record as secretary of state, Rubio charged that she had "misunderstood Putin," waited too long and did too little on Libya, and had been "negligent" toward Latin America. He called her "the chief architect and spokesman of a foreign policy that will go down in history as a disaster."

Rubio was a vocal presence on the Senate floor during last week's Iran sanctions debate, trying to toughen a bill giving Congress the right to review any nuclear deal. His "poison pill" amendment—requiring Israel to recognize Israel as a condition of any agreement—failed, but it gave him a platform to prove his being simpatico with the hard-line leaders in the Jewish state. He's also been speaking out about the need to reauthorize Section 215 of the Patriot Act, the part of the 2001 law used to authorize the National Security Agency's controversial bulk collection of phone records, first exposed by Edward Snowden. There's bipartisan support for reform of that law, and one of Rubio's 2016 rivals, Senator Rand Paul, has promised to filibuster the reauthorization debate. But Rubio has strongly supported the spy agency.

After his speech, in an interview on stage with Charlie Rose, Rubio exhibited an easy but firm grasp of numerous international complexities, from the shifting national alliances and failed states in the Middle East, to Chinese claims to islands in the South China Sea, to Castro's Cuba. He called Putin's use of military might a fig leaf to cover that country's failed economy.

He passed up a chance to criticize either the man who is likely to be his main foe in the crowded GOP primary, Jeb Bush, or his brother, President George W. Bush. Asked whether he would have invaded Iraq, knowing what we know now, that there were no weapons of mass destruction, Rubio said no—an answer that Jeb Bush couldn't bring himself to utter earlier this week. Rubio managed to throw in a good word for W. too. "Not only would I not have been in favor of it, President Bush would not have been in favor of it," he said.

Rubio tossed off a few dubious claims. One was charging that Obama is holding back on attacking ISIS to avoid challenging Iran. When Charlie Rose pointed out that American drones have reportedly killed two of the self-proclaimed caliphate top leaders, Rubio contended that the U.S. position against ISIS still hasn't been aggressive enough.

The president, Rubio said, had always "viewed American engagement abroad as a cause of friction. The notion was that we had problems around the world because there were grievances against the United States because of something we had done," he said. "Iran's problem with America is not just grievance, it's ideological. It's their belief that they want to be a dominant power in and export their revolution."

Rubio then repeated a contention he made previously—and for which the Washington Post awarded him "three Pinocchios"—that Obama didn't "firmly support" Iranians who wanted democracy during the so-called Green Revolution of 2009, when Iran's leaders rigged the election. In fact, Obama publicly criticized the Iranian electoral process. "Rubio appears to have created a cartoon version of the White House reaction to the Green Revolution," the Washington Post commented when he first made the same claim.

An audience member asked whether his view of Iran matched that of Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu. "I view them as the same threat he does, but the difference is he lives a lot closer to them than I do." Iran's leaders have long publicly called for eliminating Israel, and Rubio noted that one of its leaders even issued a detailed tweet about how to accomplish that.

It was a measure of Rubio's momentum (polls show his numbers up in Iowa, New Hampshire and nationally) and how seriously he is taken that the room was packed with big-name journalists and marquee foreign policy figures. Among those who lobbed questions at him were New York lawyer Zoë Baird, nominated by Bill Clinton for attorney general, but whose bid was withdrawn over unpaid nanny taxes, and conservative British author Niall Ferguson, who asked whether "radical Islam" is the ideological equivalent of the communist threat that Kennedy and Reagan faced.

Communism tried to create nation-states, Rubio replied, whereas radical Islam differs in that it can't govern. "They do a terrible job of picking up the garbage, and providing services, but they are very brutal." He said the key was to deny them safe havens—Afghanistan, Iraq, Syria and parts of Africa. "We cannot allow safe havens to emerge anywhere in the world...where these groups can set up camp and establish themselves," Rubio said.

Journalists were not allowed to ask questions, but as Rubio was shaking hands, one asked him whether he had changed his mind on the Iraq War. Rubio ignored the repeated question, and retreated with a small entourage to a safe haven of his own, an anteroom near the stage.