Rubio Comes Out Swinging on Foreign Policy

Rubio Comes Out Swinging on Foreign Policy
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NEW YORK—Seeking to establish himself as the foreign policy expert in a crowded presidential field, Marco Rubio on Wednesday unveiled a set of conservative and hawkish guiding principles on foreign affairs, while taking ample shots at Hillary Clinton for perceived failures.

“Today, as never before, foreign policy is domestic policy,” Rubio said in a speech to the Council on Foreign Relations in Manhattan.

Related: Iraq Question Is Not Jeb's Alone to Field

The Florida senator described three pillars of what he called his foreign policy doctrine: a larger, robust and better funded military; economic protections and security in a globalized world; and a “moral clarity” that sharpens and spreads American values of economic and political freedoms across the world.

“This deterioration of our physical and ideological strength has led to a world far more dangerous than when President Obama entered office,” Rubio said, after invoking John F. Kennedy’s peace through strength philosophy, also promoted by Ronald Reagan.

“President Kennedy, like most presidents before and since, understood what our current president does not: that American strength is a means of preventing war, not promoting it,” Rubio said. “And that weakness, on the other hand, is the friend of danger and the enemy of peace.”

Rubio has tried to carve out a foreign policy niche in the primary field, as several of the contenders are governors without the intimacy and resources on the issue that senators have. Rubio, a freshman senator in his fourth year, has also worked to counter Republican concerns about sending a first-term senator to the White House with little experience.

Foreign policy expertise has become Rubio’s calling card, and a way for him to argue he is more prepared on this issue than the current president was when he took office. The focus also comes as Americans rank foreign policy high among their interests and concerns.

As the economy has shown signs of improvement, terrorist threats abroad have escalated. According to a Pew report, the public’s concern about terrorism now equal concerns about the economy. Republicans, with the exception of Rand Paul, are largely unified on the foreign policy front, especially as it offers them a chance to show contrast between themselves and Democrats.

But Rubio hopes voters see him as the most equipped on the issue.

His speech underscored a dramatic rightward shift he has taken on foreign policy over the past few years, as the GOP has reclaimed a more hawkish approach in the wake of national security threats and escalating tensions abroad.

“It is up to the next president to right the wrongs done by our current one. It is up to our next president to properly fund and modernize our military. It is up to our next president to restore our people’s faith in the promise and power of the American ideal,” Rubio said.

The senator, who announced his presidential bid a month ago, also went after Clinton on an issue that has been sensitive and divisive for Democrats. “Those such as Secretary Clinton, who preach a message of international engagement and ‘smart power,’ yet are not willing to stand up to special interests and support free trade, are either hypocritical or fail to grasp trade’s role as a tool of statecraft that can bolster our relationships with partners and create millions of American jobs,” he said.

In a subsequent question-and-answer session with Charlie Rose, Rubio characterized Clinton as the “architect and spokesman” for an Obama foreign policy that he said will go down as the most disastrous in the country’s history.

“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," he said.

In taking aim at Clinton, Rubio, who is campaigning as a “21st century candidate,” also took a not-so-veiled swipe at Jeb Bush and the Bush legacy. Rubio's remark, "The stakes of tomorrow are too high to look to the failed leadership of yesterday," evoked Bush's fumbled responses this week to questions about whether he would have invaded Iraq in 2003, as his brother did.

For Jeb Bush, discussing the Iraq war presents a sizable political challenge, as illustrated by his remarks in an interview Monday with Fox News host Megyn Kelly.

When Kelly asked Bush if he would have invaded Iraq “knowing what we know now,” Bush responded: “I would have, and so would have Hillary Clinton, just to remind everybody,” Bush said. “And so would almost everybody that was confronted with the intelligence they got.”

Bush attempted to clean up that remark Tuesday in a radio interview with Sean Hannity, saying he had “interpreted the question wrong.” But Bush would not discuss what he would have done differently than his brother. “I don’t know what that decision would have been,” he said. “That’s a hypothetical.”

At an event Wednesday in Reno, Nev., Bush further clarified that he had not wanted to focus on the past because it “does a disservice” to the Americans who fought in the war.

Since Bush's Monday interview with Kelly, other Republican candidates have been asked about the Iraq War and said that in hindsight, they would not have invaded the country.

Rubio provided an interesting response when Rose asked him if he “would have been in favor of the Iraqi invasion” had he know that Iraq did not possess weapons of mass destruction. “Not only would I not have been in favor of it, President (George W.) Bush would not have been in favor of it,” Rubio said.

But that remark seems to contradict an earlier statement by Rubio, who said on Fox News in March that invading Iraq was not a mistake.

In the interview on “The Five,” one host asked Rubio, “Was it a mistake to go to war in Iraq?”

“No, I don’t believe it was,” Rubio said. “The world is a better place because Saddam Hussein doesn’t run Iraq.”

Alex Conant, a spokesman for Rubio, said the candidate’s statement Wednesday did not imply he thought the Iraq War was a mistake.

With his inconsistent remarks, Rubio might have missed a prime opportunity, seized in the past day by many other Republicans actively or potentially seeking the presidency, to gain an upper hand on Bush on the issue of national security. 

Caitlin Huey-Burns is a national political reporter for RealClearPolitics. She can be reached at chueyburns@realclearpolitics.com. Follow her on Twitter @CHueyBurnsRCP.

Rebecca Berg is a national political reporter for RealClearPolitics. She can be reached at rberg@realclearpolitics.com.

 

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