Marco Rubio's Erratic Foreign-Policy Advice

Does the Florida senator want President Obama to keep the world in the dark about his Iraq plans, or to share them with the American people?
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Senator Marco Rubio evinces no mastery of foreign policy. Yet the Florida Republican often remarks confidently on geopolitics. Like so many hawkish pols, he's winging it.

On Sean Hannity's Fox News show, for example, Rubio critiqued President Obama's forthrightness on Iraq. “I don’t think it’s wise for the commander in chief to step forward and immediately begin to rule options out. Even if he never intends to send a single American soldier, he shouldn’t be signaling that to terrorists,” Rubio said. “You should not be going around announcing what you won’t do.”

This is problematic for several reasons.

Most troubling is the implication that the president should keep his intentions about using military force a secret. Whether or not ground troops will go to Iraq is not a minor matter to be decided quietly. If American democracy is working as it should, a major deployment of that sort would be preceded by a public debate on its wisdom, followed by a congressional vote authorizing or denying it. To keep foreign fighters guessing about whether new troop deployments will occur, you'd need to sometimes order brand new interventions without debate or a vote in Congress. The strategy isn't viable unless you're willing to subvert basic democratic norms. Similarly, if the president has no intention of using force, the public and the Congress ought to be told that, so that they can plausibly deploy persuasion or democratic pressure to change an imprudently dovish defense posture.

Interestingly, Rubio has also argued that Obama should take what amounts to an almost opposite approach. Take his Senate speech on Iraq this week. "We cannot allow a safe haven to develop there that can be used to carry out attacks that can kill Americans, including here in our homeland," Rubio said. "This is why we should care. And this is why it is so important that the commander in chief of the United States, the president, come as quickly as possible before the American people and before this Congress with a plan to address this risk."

Later in the remarks, Rubio hypothesizes, "the only person who can rally this country behind a plan to address it is not a U.S. senator or a member of Congress, not the majority leader or the speaker of the House, not the countless people who write very well-informed opinion pieces in our newspapers. The only person in this country who can rally us around a plan to address this is the president himself."

He adds:

Now, I have my own ideas, as do others, about what that plan should look like, but we want there to be a plan. We’re not asking the president to come forward with a plan because we’re looking for something to attack. We want him to come forward with a plan because only he can, and he must. In my opinion, that plan has to be: We must do whatever we can and everything we can to prevent this group, ISIL, from gaining operational long-term control of these territories in Iraq, and to me that means going after their command and control structure, that involves their ability to transit fighters and weapons and fuel and food and ammunition from their safe havens in Syria to their increasingly new spaces that they have now carved out for themselves in Iraq.

So in one sentence, "only" the president can come forward with a plan, says Rubio. Yet in the next, Rubio himself is coming forward with what sure sounds like a plan. [Update: as I reread this, there's a more charitable interpretation of the "only he can" line: I thought Rubio was going even farther than when he said only Obama could rally Americans around a plan, but it now strikes me as also being consistent with making the same point in shorthand: "only he" can make a plan insofar as only he can rally Americans. I don't actually think there's a need to rally Americans, since I think we ought to stay out of Iraq, but I withdraw the criticism about that line.] In one media appearance, Rubio excoriates Obama for being so foolish as to reveal anything to terrorists about what we might do in Iraq. Yet in another media appearance, it is incumbent on Obama to bring a specific plan before the public. Rubio's foreign-policy advice is too erratic to always be wrong. 

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Conor Friedersdorf is a staff writer at The Atlantic, where he focuses on politics and national affairs. He lives in Venice, California, and is the founding editor of The Best of Journalism, a newsletter devoted to exceptional nonfiction.

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