If the GOP field seemed obsessed with repealing the Affordable Care Act in 2012, there’s a good chance that 2016 will be all about undoing President Obama’s foreign policy. With the ACA now firmly entrenched in the American political psyche—not to mention American law—Republican frontrunners have taken aim on Obama’s record on Iran, Cuba, and Syria.
Like the battle over who was more vigorously opposed to Obamacare, Republicans will first use foreign policy as a way to whittle down their own crowded playing field, writes Steve Inskeep at npr.org. Naturally, this strategy is a risky one. Competing to see who can go furthest right on foreign affairs may play well in the primaries, but it can make the GOP nomination that much less palatable come November 2016. If there’s a progressive silver lining in this story, it’s here: the GOP’s rightward turn may open some space for a genuine leftwing alternative.
The candidate leading the GOP’s charge to the right is Florida Senator Marco Rubio, who has fashioned his criticism of the Obama administration’s foreign policy into a cudgel against opponents on both sides of the aisle.
Rubio’s first foreign policy speech of the campaign, which took place at the Council on Foreign Relations in May, exemplifies this approach and lays the groundwork for the issues he seeks to engage his rival Republicans on. It can serve as a sort of foreign policy litmus test for what progressives and Democrats can expect to see from the right in the coming months. The strategy appears to include a heightened emphasis on taking down the Obama administration’s signature foreign policy achievements, such as ending the wars in Iraq and Afghanistan, setting the stage for a nuclear deal with Iran and reinstating relations with former pariah states like Cuba. Rubio also makes a concerted effort to hype up the dangers facing the United States today and tying these perceived failures to so-called legacy candidates—candidates like Jeb Bush and Hillary Clinton with strong familial ties to the office of the president.
Three “pillars”—military strength, economic prowess and advocacy for America’s core values—support Rubio’s attack on the Obama administration. Obama, Rubio notes, “enacted hundreds of billions of dollars in defense cuts,” engaged with “regimes that systematically [opposed] every principle our nation has long championed,” and showed “a disregard for our moral purpose that at sometimes flirted with disdain.”
“The result,” Rubio told a packed room at the Council’s headquarters in New York, “is chaos.”
To highlight this new world disorder, Rubio mainly focuses on trade, the rise of ISIS, relations with Russia, and the Israel-Palestine conflict. But he focuses especially on countries that the administration has prided itself on freeing from isolation: Iran and Cuba. Rubio, one of the signatories of Republican Senator Tom Cotton’s threatening letter to Iranian leaders, advocates an all-or-nothing stance, noting that the Obama administration’s concessions are useless at best, deadly at worst. “Iran does not need nuclear energy,” he says. Echoing similar statements he had made in the past, he notes that Iran is also the main limiting factor behind the U.S. war against ISIS.
“Iran does not want a U.S. presence in Iraq of any kind,” he told Charlie Rose, the moderator for his recent talk at CFR. “They've tolerated airstrikes primarily because they can't do anything to stop them.”
On Cuba, he slammed the Obama administration’s move to remove Cuba from the State Department’s list of State Sponsors of Terrorism. He has also expressed support for reinstating sanctions that could be terminated if the Cuban government took direct action to improve conditions within the country.
“My interest as an elected official is the national security of the United States,” he told Rose. “And embedded in that is the belief that it is not good for our country nor the people of Cuba to have an anti-American dictatorship 90 miles from our shores.”
But Rubio's policy prescriptions on other issues were lacking in everything but rhetoric. On Syria, he noted that the administration should have acted earlier by working with rebels on the ground; on Russia, Obama should have called Putin’s bluff earlier. In both cases, he fails to give a specific timeline for when these actions should have taken place. He sees no possibility for a two-state solution in the Israel-Palestine conflict as it currently exists now but offers no advice on how to change these conditions. Nor does he comment on the specifics of the administration’s renewed focus on the conflict under Secretary of State John Kerry.
Rubio’s bullish foreign policy, while a few years in the making, is increasingly the cornerstone of his campaign.
“If he’s going to win, he’ll do it largely on the back of his foreign policy. It’s where he can differentiate himself from the field at an early stage,” Ford O’Connell, a Republican Party strategist, told The Hill. “The rest of the field is hawkish, but he’s more of a hawk, and that’s music to the ears of Republican primary voters who are older and generally think the world has gone to hell under the Obama-Clinton regime.”
Rubio’s appeal comes from his ability to “pluck at the heartstrings of American national security hawks,” as Tim Mak writes in The Daily Beast. He invokes Truman, Kennedy and Reagan, but also pop culture figures, such as Liam Neeson’s character in the hit action-thriller Taken.
Rubio knows that. “It isn’t the mathematics of defense cuts that stir souls, nor the need to reauthorize Section 215 of the Patriot Act to continue the country’s metadata collection program,” Mak continues. “Instead, it’s the strategic belief in American morality and its link to foreign policy that drives the neoconservative movement.”
Meanwhile, Jeb Bush—whose foreign policy team consists of major league hitters like James Baker, Paul Wolfowitz, John Hannah, Richard Haass and Robert Zoellick—can hardly answer questions on the 2003 Iraq War without tripping up.
Rubio, the self-proclaimed 21st century leader, does need this rhetoric to set himself apart from the two so-called legacy candidates: Jeb Bush and Hillary Clinton.
In addition to Bush’s strong foreign policy team and giant campaign coffers, he and Rubio are competing neck-in-neck for winning the favor of two major age groups of Republican voters. Despite Rubio dubbing himself a 21st century leader, both candidates are representing a more old school, neoconservative foreign policy. If a recent poll conducted by the Pew Research Center is any indication, this approach is winning more favor with the 45-plus crowd. Both candidates are even more strongly appreciated by voters 65 years and over.
The logic of Rubio’s attempt to discredit Clinton by tying her to Obama’s foreign policy legacy is flimsy at best. Republicans have gauged that voters are not thrilled with Obama’s handling of foreign policy. A poll conducted by The New York Times/CBS in late April and early May found that 45 percent of Americans disapproved of Obama’s foreign policy, while only 41 percent approved.
But foreign policy is not a priority for the average voter—economic and domestic issues tend to win out. Likewise, it is unclear how Clinton plays into that equation. The same poll found that a mere 20 percent of Americans disapproved of her work as Secretary of State. She also stepped down in 2013 with an approval rating of 69 percent, a historical high.
It is also unclear the average voter will be at all swayed by these inter- and intra-party attacks. “My sense is that Hillary will not be influenced very much at all by the Republican attacks,” James McAllister, a professor of political science at Williams College, told me in an email. “She is going to run on a program of muscular liberal internationalism that even Robert Kagan loves. She is going to be focused on the broad electorate and will not tailor any specific appeals to either the right or the left of the political spectrum.”
On the bright side, Republicans competing with one another to see who can be the most hawkish, combined with Hillary’s refusal to budge despite pressure from both sides of the aisle, could give progressives the breathing room to carve out a foreign policy of their own. With Republican politicians like Rubio shifting the party even further to the right and Democrats politicians like Clinton making the party’s liberal interventionist wing even stronger, now, more than ever, there is a need for a viable progressive alternative.