Rubio on National Security: A Candidate of the Past

Republican presidential candidate Sen. Marco Rubio, R-Fla. during a campaign event at Saint Anselm College in Manchester, N.H
Republican presidential candidate Sen. Marco Rubio, R-Fla. during a campaign event at Saint Anselm College in Manchester, N.H., Wednesday, Nov. 4, 2015. (AP Photo/Charles Krupa)

Marco Rubio wants to be perceived as a youthful, forward-looking candidate, but his views on foreign policy are frozen in the Cold War. He fixates on Cold War enemies -- Russia, China, Iran, and Cuba -- and hasn't updated his worldview to account for the changes that have arisen in recent decades. In his speeches, debates, and a recent article in Foreign Affairs, Rubio lays out foreign policy views that borrow the rhetoric of Ronald Reagan and the policies of Bush-era neoconservatives. He sees potential conflicts everywhere and prefers to address them using military force. His critique of the Obama Administration's foreign policy ignores the Administration's intense global engagement and diplomatic successes while offering few specific policy alternatives of his own.

Rubio bases his foreign policy vision, as described in Foreign Affairs, on what he calls his "three pillars:" Strength, prosperity, and freedom. All are worthy goals for American foreign policy, but as described by Rubio they fail to grasp the realities of the current international situation.

To illustrate the need for his "strength" pillar, Rubio claims the Obama Administration failed to threaten Iran militarily during the nuclear negotiations. In Rubio's view, insufficient belligerence by President Obama is part of a "historic reluctance to engage throughout the Middle East." It's hard to reconcile Rubio's perspective with the record of the Obama Administration, which has launched more than 6,000 airstrikes in Iraq and Syria and spent years successfully leading an international coalition to a nuclear agreement with Iran. Rubio sees that agreement as based on dangerous concessions to Iran resulting from a "lack of strength" by Obama. In fact, Iran gave up its existing nuclear program in return for receiving some of its own frozen assets and the lifting of sanctions that were specifically intended to get them to give up that program. They will be mothballing two-thirds of their existing centrifuges, eliminating 98 percent of their enriched uranium stockpile and submitting to an intense monitoring and inspection regime. Rubio would have threatened Iran with military action and "maneuvered forces in the region" to force Iran into further concessions. But the Obama Administration was able to demonstrate the seriousness of the military option without resorting to posturing and threats. Under President Obama's leadership, the U.S. and its P5+1 partners achieved a strong agreement while leaving the option of military action on the table, backed up by deployments of F-22s to the Middle East, the sale of tens-of-billions in arms to Gulf Cooperation Council states who are wary of Iran, and very publicly upgrading munitions like the Massive Ordinance Penetrator to ensure the Air Force can strike any underground targets at will -- including those maintained by Iran.

Rubio's second pillar is prosperity, or the protection of an open international economy. And yet in his Foreign Affairs article he can't get more than a few sentences into his discussion of the global economy before he is back fighting the Cold War with Russia. He cites Russia's actions in Ukraine as an affront to "the global order on which the global economy depends." His primary solution, predictably, is a military one. He calls for greater military assistance to Kiev, including weapons. He calls for U.S. combat troops in Eastern Europe, neglecting the fact that the Administration established a rotational presence of U.S. troops in Poland and the Baltics, reinforced NATO air policing missions in Eastern Europe, and even sent Army units to Ukraine to train Kiev's soldiers. Rubio notes that President Obama has taken "good first steps" in imposing sanctions on Russia but calls for increased sanctions. His proposed policy for dealing with Russian actions in Ukraine is essentially to do what the Obama Administration is doing but do more of it and make it "stronger." In Rubio's discussion of protecting the global economy, that complex and multifaceted challenge reduces to nothing more than a military confrontation with a Cold War enemy in Ukraine.

Rubio's third pillar, "Defending Freedom" is supposed to be about America's core values and devotion to human rights and democratic principles. In reality, he talks about confronting China, another old adversary from the Cold War days. Rubio explains that "supporting liberty" is the best way to "counter China's expansion" in East Asia. While China does indeed have a deplorable human rights record, which Rubio rightly believes should be a key focus of American policy, he unhelpfully ties human rights issues to confronting China militarily. Furthermore, on the military front he fails to recognize that the Obama Administration's rebalancing to Asia is taking hold. The U.S. is moving to deploy 60 percent of naval and air assets to the Asia-Pacific region and has recently demonstrated through a pointed freedom of navigation exercise that attempted Chinese expansion through artificial-island building will not go unchallenged. Rubio also calls for strengthening ties with like-minded nations in the region, again echoing what the Obama Administration is already doing with allies and friends from India to the Philippines.

Central to Rubio's claim that America needs to restore its "strength" is his repeated assertion that the U.S. military has shrunk under President Obama and needs to be rebuilt. In debates, speeches and essays, Rubio uses the same line: "The U.S. Army is on track to be at pre-WWII levels, the U.S. Navy at pre-WWI levels and the U.S. Air Force will have the smallest and oldest combat force in history." These claims have been refuted in detail elsewhere, but Rubio's key mistake is that capabilities, not numbers of troops, ships, or planes are the key to military strength. Today's aircraft carriers, for example, can deliver 40 times more ordnance than the first generation of aircraft carriers, and they can deliver it with precision. More importantly, our Navy is as large as the next seven navies combined -- hardly an indication of a serious shortfall. This is true of the Air Force as well: the current capabilities of the force far exceed the capabilities of the numerically larger Air Force of the 1950s. Although our Air Force remains the largest in the world, the number of planes is not as important as superior training and advanced technology, especially as the Air Force is preparing to recapitalize its fleet with 1,600 F-35s and 80-100 stealthy long-range strike bombers. On overall defense spending, Rubio accuses Obama of not spending enough on the Pentagon when, in fact, FY2016 defense spending is poised to reach $607 billion, the average amount under George W. Bush and nearly $50 billion more than average spending under President Reagan.

Rubio's focus on confronting long-standing adversaries in Iran, Russia and China and putting military power at the center of his foreign policy has blinded him to the challenges of the current era. He fails to mention the security challenges emanating from climate change, pays scant attention to improving cybersecurity and does not recognize the national security dimensions of immigration policy, an issue he once championed. Instead of grappling with these complex 21st century challenges, Rubio finds his comfort zone in citing Ronald Reagan and trying to re-ignite the Cold War. His old school anti-communism extends even to Cuba where opposes the long-overdue diplomatic opening pursued by President Obama. This position puts him out of step with others in his generation, including his fellow young Cuban-Americans.

In Rubio's view, Iran, Russia and China are not seen as countries with which we have long and evolving relationships but as countries that share a "desire for a departure from the postwar order." In 2015, an appeal to maintain the order that prevailed 70 years ago through military force alone indicates that Rubio can't adapt to the world as it is today, or indeed even recognize it. He concludes his Foreign Affairs piece by saying "if we allow the continued erosion of our military, economic and moral strength we will see a breakdown in global order." Claiming that America's strength and values were declining was a hallmark of 1950s anti-Soviet paperbacks; Rubio seems to have read a few. He needs to recognize that today's foreign policy must confront new challenges that are more complicated than those found in paperback novels about the Cold War, and stop trying to chart America's future by looking in the rearview mirror.