Marco Rubio’s Problematic Pillar
His foreign-policy doctrine starts well but ends up a bit too starry-eyed.
By Peggy Noonan in the Wall Street Journal
Hillary Clinton continues her silent glide toward the White House. The Republican candidates make themselves available almost every day, get pressed, grilled and occasionally cuffed around. Since announcing a month ago Mrs. Clinton has not had a single news conference or formal interview. NPR’s Tamara Keith counted 13 questions to which she has responded in that time. The answers include “I’m having a great time,” “It is fabulous” in Iowa, she wants to be “the champion of Americans,” and “I want to hear people.” Wednesday she embarked on a listening tour of Manhattan billionaires.
This is not just a dynamic of the campaign of 2016, it is a scandal of 2016. Democratic operatives think candidates don’t lose support for stiffing the press. I don’t know. Campaigns, like candidates, get reputations. This is less like a campaign than a silent movie with mad organ music.
Marco Rubio, at the Council on Foreign Relations, this week unveiled what his aides call the Rubio Doctrine. Good for him: Candidates ought to be putting their stands into documents that can be inspected and pondered. His foreign-policy vision consists in three “pillars”: American strength, protection of the American business position in a global economy, and moral clarity regarding America’s core values.
The first pillar should be a unifying principle for all Republicans. The world and we are safer when America is stronger, period. We must be known to the world as the possessor of the mightiest military on earth. “Weakness is the friend of danger,” he said. It is. We must spend what we must, and modernize to meet future possible challenges, he argued. We do.
The second pillar is similarly sound. Everything we have comes from what we sell and make. As a nation we must see to our economic security, including supporting free trade and fighting unfair and destructive business practices.
The third pillar is more wobbly. Here Mr. Rubio took a pronounced neoconservative turn. He urged America to “think big,” to “advance the rights of the vulnerable” who are “persecuted.” “The American people hear their cries, see their suffering . . . and desire their freedom.” That sounds anodyne unless it’s not. Certainly our policies should not and cannot be detached from our values. But I would have liked to hear something more steely-eyed: The third pillar is not a statement but a question whose asking has served us well for more than two centuries. “What is in the interests of the American nation?” What actions or endeavors will serve to make us stronger, safer, more able to flourish in the 21st century?
In question-and-answer following the speech, moderator Charlie Rose quickly cut to the chase. “Should we be the world’s policeman?” Mr. Rubio: “I don’t think that’s necessarily the role that I would advocate.” He then pedaled back to the importance of diplomatic leadership.
Here is what is concerning: In our time “moral clarity,” has, as a former member of George H.W. Bush’s White House put it, “tended to stack the terms of a debate without having to address the merits of a policy.” “Moral clarity” tends to start with ringing cries and end with manipulations.
In making his case Mr. Rubio disparaged “nation building at home.” But it is not invalid to say that America needs to become more fully what we say we believe in, and put a priority not on projecting our values militarily but reflecting them more deeply at home. It is true that the world now has less respect for us as a moral actor in the world, but it is not only because of the bad leadership of the past seven or 15 years, take your pick. It is not only because the world knows of our economic problems and the dysfunction and corruption of our governing class. The world is less impressed by us because they’ve been here. Mr. Rubio referred to globalization as a force transforming the world, but it also means a lot of the people of the world—especially the political, military and business elites—have come here to visit, and looked around. They have a sense of our public schools, our culture, our infrastructure (they take Amtrak to Washington), our Fergusons, our fear that our next generation will have it worse.
They no longer see us as their fathers and grandfathers did, as the Great Example. It is not unpatriotic or sissified to want to emphasize strengthening and renewal at home while our foreign policy protects our position and advances our interests.
I wish every candidate who rightly lauds Ronald Reagan’s candor and moral clarity would then note: “And interestingly enough, he never invaded the Warsaw Pact countries.” He used words, diplomacy and other forms of muscle to change the world.
Also, is Mr. Rubio’s position really where GOP base voters are? I find them more hard-eyed than romantic.
That said, Mr. Rubio is an impressive figure in a way that isn’t captured by words like “smooth” and “articulate.” He has in his head a fact-horde, which is immediately accessible to him as he speaks. You get the impression no briefing has ever been wasted on him. And he’s quick. When Mr. Rose asked him about Raúl Castro’s comment that he likes Pope Francis so much he might rejoin the church, Mr. Rubio shot back, “That’s gonna be a pretty long confession.”
Intelligence isn’t judgment. But Mr. Rubio broke through in a new way this week.
Whereas Mr. Rubio was sharp, alive and in the game, Jeb Bush limped shruggingly along. I don’t understand his inability to deal with Iraq. It’s the one question he knew was coming, yet all week it seemed to take him aback. He seemed to see it as an unfair or trick question. He’s something new in politics, the defensive zealot. He can’t let go on certain controversial issues—Common Core, for instance—and is dodgy on inevitable ones. He goes from misunderstanding the question to saying he isn’t sure of the answer to let’s not make soldiers suffer by asking it to OK, I wouldn’t have gone in. He looked hunted when he said that.
He deserves credit for being out there and taking every question, but he’s running for president. His views on Iraq tell us something about his foreign policy predispositions and assumptions. I know he didn’t want to hurt the feelings of his brother, but I don’t care about the feelings of his brother. I know he didn’t want to bring discomfort to his family, but this is not about his family. This is about what is a wise foreign policy for America. It’s about what you’d do as president.
I’m already tired of everyone’s interlocking loyalties, their politesse, their worries about legacies. “Sure, she’s always playing the angles, but I’ve been with them a long time.” “I can’t be disloyal.” “It was a hugely consequential foreign-policy blunder but I can’t say.”
What is wrong with these people and this picture? It isn’t about them. It’s about America. Could someone be loyal to her?