Foreign Policy

Marco Rubio vs. Rand Paul on Foreign Policy—and Fantasy vs. Reality

Here's a short tutorial on everything that's wrong with interventionists' rationale for war and more war.


Sen. Bob Corker (R-Tenn.) recently called a Foreign Relations Committee to discuss "America's Role in the World." It's pretty riveting stuff, especially coming after at least 15 years of utter incompetence on the part of the United States when it comes to diplomacy and war-making. Whatever else you can say about how George W. Bush and Barack Obama have mismanaged domestic concerns, you've got to admit that they handled foreign policy even more poorly.

Among the guests of honor at Corker's hearings were former Secretary of State James Baker (under George H.W. Bush) and former National Security Advisor Thomas Donilon (under Barack Obama).

Corker, for what's it worth, has expressed confidence in Donald Trump's foreign policy as laid out in the billionaire's recent "America First" speech. Baker, who also served in the Reagan administration and was involved in the managing America's response to the end of the Soviet Union and the first Gulf War, has been widely portrayed as dismissing Trump's foreign policy vision, which emphasizes getting allies to pay more of the costs associated with security ("burden-shifting") and generally being less gung-ho in terms of military intervention.

In fact, Baker's response was pretty mediated, as elements of Trump's plan (such as it is) reflect Baker's own ideas about "selective engagement," which argues for a compelling American interest in all military interventions. Rubio got him to say that anything that reduced NATO's presence in Europe would destabilize the world and Baker also smacked away Trump's suggestion that letting South Korea and Japan gain nuclear weapons would be a good idea. By the same token, Baker embraced the idea that our allies, whether in Asia, the Middle East, or Europe should be footing more of the defense bill in terms of both dollars and bodies.

You can watch the full hearing here (thank you, C-SPAN!) but first check out these two this transcription of Rubio's comments and a short, incredible exchange between Baker and Rubio and then Baker and Paul. Note: These clips are hosted on Rand Paul's YouTube channel, which is worth keeping in mind while evaluating them(New note: The Rubio vid has been taken off line).

Rubio wants to "revisit this Libya-Syria situation." Don't you see that it wasn't the United States causing any sort of chaos in these countries, he says. It was the people rising up against tyrants. We just got involved because it was the right thing to do and because, says Rubio, otherwise the Qaddafi and Assad regimes would be toppled and a power vacuum would develop…and radical Islamists would rush in:

I think it's important when we talk about [these interventions] to remind ourselves these were not efforts by the U.S. government to go in and overthrow dictators. It was the people of those countries…

In the case of Qaddafi, if he had gone into Benghazi and massacred all these people, what you would have seen emerge there would have been all these militias taking up arms, staying in perpuity, leading to the kind of instability we see now anyway….

It was in our national interest to ensure that whatever resistance there was to those dictators would be make up of people more stable and who we could work with, because in the absence of those sorts of developments, those vacuums would be filled by the radical elements that have now filled those vaccums in the absence of our leadership….[emphasis added]

This is where the hawks start chewing their own talons off: "There would have been all these militias taking up arms, staying in perpuity, leading to the kind of instability we see now anyway."

Seriously, AYFKM? Our actions have led to worst-case outcomes and yet that's what exactly proves we did the right thing? Rubio, who still defends the Libya intervention and clearly wishes that Obama had followed through on his idiotic, improvised "red line" comments with massive firepower, is somehow claiming with a straight face that absent U.S. military actions…exactly what has come to pass might have come to pass?

Baker responds bluntly: "But that's not what happened, Senator. We enabled it to happen by using our military." In fact, Baker goes farther and says the same misguided interventionist impulse was at work in Iraq: "Same thing with Iraq…It's a bipartisan problem. Look where we are now in all three of those places: Syria, Iraq, Libya."

Then there's exchange between Paul and Baker. Paul raises the possibilities that either our strategy was wrong in the first place—that our mideast interventions were misconceived at the conceptual level—or that they were simply mishandled. That is, with better planning and devoting more resources, we might have actually succeeded in toppling dictators and creating democracies. He clearly believes that the former scenario is more accurate. "We think we can just blow up Qaddafi and out of that, Thomas Jefferson will be elected," he says. "I think it's a naive notion." Paul continues that in terms of "selective engagement" these were times when we should have passed on using military force. He also suggests that Russia, given its long-time presence in Syria, will need to be part of any endgame.

Baker agrees with all of that, stressing that when it comes to Syria, of course Russia and Iran will need to be part of any solution to the current situation. He also stresses that in the selective engagement paradigm, each specific situation needs to be looked at in terms of vital national interests and correspondence to American values. "You might decide to even go as far as [using] the military. If you don't get to that point, you still have the tools of our political, economic, and diplomatic [resources]."

Rubio and Paul thus represent two very different paths forward for American foreign policy. For all sorts of reasons, I fall in line with Paul's. But here is the question for those who, like Rubio (and Hillary Clinton, for that matter), remain unreconstructed interventionists: What will be different the next time? Under both Obama and Bush, you've gotten your way and you can't pretend that American taxpayers and soldiers didn't give all the money and flesh you needed to succeed in Afghanistan, Iraq, Libya, you name it.

Moving forward, the onus must be on the interventionists to explain why this time things will work out differently.