Rubio makes the case to run as the foreign policy candidate

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Sen. Marco Rubio staked out hawkish positions in a speech at the Council on Foreign Relations. (Photo: Justin Lane/EPA)

Republican presidential candidate Sen. Marco Rubio of Florida outlined a broad foreign policy approach Wednesday, challenging the qualifications of former Secretary of State Hillary Clinton and staking out hawkish positions on an array of controversial issues, from the Patriot Act to Guantanamo Bay.

His speech sounded many notes embraced by establishment Republicans: unwavering support for Israel, rejection of a nuclear deal with Iran and calls for more military engagement in the Middle East, more military spending and a permanent extension of an expiring controversial Patriot Act provision that allows for widespread domestic surveillance of American citizens.

But the question-and-answer session after Rubio’s address to the Council on Foreign Relations in New York provided an even more interesting glimpse into the thinking of a candidate who is clearly aiming to parlay his brief Senate tenure into a strong foreign policy portfolio. The strategy seems designed to draw a contrast with a GOP field for the 2016 presidential election packed with former and current governors, along with Sen. Rand Paul of Kentucky, who believes in reduced military spending and engagement.

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Rubio (here at a Foreign Relations Committee hearing) is aiming to parlay his brief Senate tenure into a strong foreign policy portfolio. (Photo: Gary Cameron/Reuters)

“A strong military also means a strong intelligence community, equipped with all it needs to defend the homeland from extremism, both homegrown and foreign-trained,” Rubio said. “Key to this will be permanently extending Section 215 of the Patriot Act. We cannot let politics cloud the importance of this issue. We must never find ourselves looking back after a terrorist attack and saying we could have done more to save American lives.”

The declaration is timely: Congress must act before the end of the month to reauthorize the expiring Patriot Act measures. The House advanced a bill Wednesday to reform current surveillance language and rein in the government’s ability to collect data from citizens’ phone calls, but Senate GOP leaders are pushing for an unchanged five-year extension of current law. Many Democrats and conservative Republicans in both chambers oppose the law’s reauthorization on civil-liberty grounds.

In the unscripted part of the event, Rubio was asked two other questions about the overlap of civil liberties and national security: whether he believed the military prison at Guantanamo Bay should remain open, and if that clashed with his vision for expanded human rights internationally.

President Barack Obama, whose foreign policy Rubio repeatedly denounced as “disastrous,” had promised in his first presidential campaign to close the prison on day one of his administration but has yet to do so.

“I believe that innocent people, peace-loving people deserve to have their rights respected. And I think terrorists who plot to kill Americans and actively are engaged in plots to attack America deserve to be in prison and taken off the battlefield,” Rubio said. “And that’s the role that Guantanamo plays. It was also the only place where we were able to gather intelligence. Today we’re not gathering nearly enough intelligence.”

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Camp Delta at the U.S. Naval Base at Guantanamo Bay. (Photo: Bob Strong/Reuters)  

It was not immediately clear what Rubio meant: U.S. military and intelligence officials gather intelligence from a wide range of sources around the world. But the base in Cuba was home to harsh interrogations that meet international definitions of torture.

Rubio also faced more politically oriented questions, including the foreign policy query du jour for the GOP field: Would he have supported the Iraq war, knowing what Americans know now about the intelligence that led then-President George W. Bush to initiate it?

“Not only would I have not been in favor of it, President Bush would not have been in favor of it,” Rubio said. His remarks stand in contrast to those of Bush’s brother, Jeb, another potential 2016 candidate, who has faced criticism this week for saying that he would have proceeded with the war even with current intelligence. Bush later said he did not understand the question that led him to that answer.

But just as the specter of George W. Bush’s time in the Oval Office is looming over Jeb Bush, it’s clear that Clinton will have to defend the record of the president she served as secretary of state.

Rubio repeatedly attacked Clinton’s foreign policy credentials, both in his prepared remarks and in off-the-cuff answers to questions later in the session.

“We simply cannot afford to elect as our next president one of the leading agents of this administration’s foreign policy — a leader from yesterday whose tenure as secretary of state was ineffective at best and dangerously negligent at worst,” Rubio said in the prepared remarks.

When asked directly about Clinton, Rubio said: “First of all, what are the successes of her time as secretary of state?”

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Rubio called Hillary Clinton’s tenure as secretary of state “ineffective at best and dangerously negligent at worst.” (Photo: Keith Bedford/Reuters)

When asked to specify what he would have done differently in dealing with countries such as Russia, Syria and Libya, Rubio didn’t respond directly. “I just don’t believe there’s many successes they can point to during her tenure, and she was his chief architect and spokesperson for [an Obama administration] foreign policy that will go down in history as disastrous,” he said.

Obama administration officials are hoping that history will judge their foreign policy record differently and that a pending nuclear deal with Iran, negotiated by the administration in multilateral talks after Clinton departed, could be the outgoing president’s signature international achievement.

Republicans, including Rubio, have opposed this emerging framework with Iran and have aligned their views more closely with Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu.

Rubio said he is “convinced at some point [Iran] will pursue a nuclear weapon capability.”

On a policy area where the administration has tried and failed — brokering peace between Israel and Palestinians — Rubio seemed to embrace another frequent Netanyahu talking point, that without “unity in the Palestinian government,” a peaceful two-state solution is impossible.

“I don’t think the conditions for that exist today. I think that’s the ideal outcome, but the conditions don’t exist,” Rubio said.

In teeing up the Israel question, moderator Charlie Rose mentioned Rubio’s relationship to Jewish Republican donors like Sheldon Adelson, and Rubio included an unequivocal rebuttal to that insinuation in his response, saying, “My interest in Israel is not about people who will support me politically.”

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