Politics

TheDC Interview: Marco Rubio Opens Up On His Foreign Policy Worldview

Jamie Weinstein Senior Writer

[crscore]Marco Rubio[/crscore] is a big critic of President Barack Obama’s foreign policy — and fellow Republican presidential contender [crscore]Ted Cruz[/crscore]’s.

In an extensive interview with The Daily Caller Saturday, Rubio responded to some critiques of his foreign policy worldview, and leveled some critiques of his own.

Speaking of America’s military intervention in the 2011 Libyan revolution, Rubio said that while it was right for America to intervene, President Obama didn’t do so “decisively.” (RELATED: Why Obama Shouldn’t Get Praise For Libya Quite Yet)

“The [Obama] administration chose to do the worst possible and that is they chose to engage, but not decisively,” Rubio said.

In contrast, he said a President Rubio would have “engaged decisively.”

“We would have ended that conflict quickly and we would have worked with the people that we were working with at the time to ensure that there was a stable national government that could have provided security and governance, as opposed to the chaos that ensued,” he said.

But in order to prevent Libya from turning into a haven for terrorists, as it is today, wouldn’t it have required a significant number of American troops on the ground? (RELATED: 3 Foreign Policy Questions For The GOP Contenders)

“No, it wouldn’t have required American troops,” Rubio argued. Among other things, he said, “[i]t would have required, for example, us freeing up frozen assets of Gaddafi’s that were still being held and not provided to the national government.”

Shortly after entering the Senate in 2011, Rubio issued a press release praising the Egyptian revolution as an opportunity for Egyptians “to chart a new, more hopeful and democratic future.” The revolution, however, soon turned sour, with the Muslim Brotherhood rising to power before ultimately being ousted by Egyptian Gen. Abdel Fattah el-Sisi in a military coup. Given the turmoil that ensued, does Rubio regret not calling for the U.S. to stand more forcefully behind deposed Egyptian dictator Hosni Mubarak in 2011? (RELATED: Reflections On The Egyptian Revolution)

“No, I don’t regret it in the sense that, again, the revolution in Egypt was conducted by the Egyptian people, not by radical Islamists,” he said. “The problem is the people who start the revolution and the people who end up winning it at times are two different people. What happened in Egypt, unfortunately, was that they called elections far too quickly.”

“I would have worked closely with the Army and the Armed Forces with whom we have a very close relationship,” Rubio added, explaining how he would have handled the situation differently than President Obama if he were president at the time. “I would have worked with the Armed Forces of Egypt to ensure that there would have been a peaceful and sustainable transition.”

These two issues are key areas where Rubio and Cruz disagree on foreign policy. Cruz has argued that the United States should have stood behind Mubarak in Egypt and not intervened to oust late Libyan dictator Muammar Gaddafi, prompting Rubio and his campaign to call Cruz an “isolationist.” Some conservative pundits have criticized characterizing Cruz’s foreign policy that way. So how does Rubio define “isolationist?” (RELATED: Ted Cruz Opens Up About His Foreign Policy Worldview)

“The idea that somehow you can ignore problems around the world and isolate your nation from them when it’s America who oftentimes cannot,” Rubio said.

“That doesn’t mean every conflict in the world involves America,” he went on. “There are conflicts in the Western Hemisphere, for example in Venezuela. And we have somewhat of an interest, but I’m not advocating that we do anything militarily there. I’ve just said we should sanction human rights violators and stand strongly with the people there that are seeking democracy.”

“But when it comes to the Middle East, these disruptions in governance that happen not because we start them — they happen on their own — we have a vested interest,” Rubio continued, implicitly making his case against Cruz’s foreign policy worldview. “Because if it leads to chaos, the chaos will create a governing space that jihadists take advantage of and use to organize and target us. You cannot isolate America from those problems. We can ignore them, but they won’t ignore us. Eventually they will come for us. The bottom line is that whether it’s Libya or Syria or Egypt, those are revolutions, civil wars, that we didn’t start. They were started by the people there, but their outcome was going to have a direct impact on our security.”

See TheDC’s full foreign policy interview with Rubio below:

The Daily Caller: You’ve made it clear that your problem with the 2011 Libya intervention was one of implementation, not necessarily one of conception. How would a President Marco Rubio have handled the Libyan intervention in 2011 and how would you have prevented Libya from turning into the terrorist state that it is today?

Sen. Marco Rubio: Well, we would have decisively acted as opposed to dither, like the president did. It’s important to remind everyone that the uprising against [late Libyan dictator Muammar] Gaddafi wasn’t started by United States and we had a decision to make. We could either let it play out and I argued that if we did it would lead to a long and protracted conflict that would be not just a lot of people killed, but a lot of instability. That instability in the Middle East leads to vacuums created that are filled by ISIS or ISIS-like groups. Or we can decide to get engaged decisively, end the conflict as quickly as possible and then do everything we can to work with the people we were working with at the time to ensure that there was a stable government in place that would prevent those vacuums and operating space from opening.

The [Obama] administration chose to do the worst possible and that is they chose to engage, but not decisively. The result is it became a protracted conflict that lasted for months longer than it needed to. Hundreds of militias were formed that later on would refuse to lay down their weapons and vast ungoverned spaces would be created that would be filled by radical jihadists, not to mention weapons stolen and trafficked though the region. I would have engaged. I would have engaged decisively. We would have ended that conflict quickly and we would have worked with the people that we were working with at the time to ensure that there was a stable national government that could have provided security and governance, as opposed to the chaos that ensued.

TheDC: Would that have required American troops to make sure that Libya didn’t devolve into the state it is today? If so, how many?

Rubio: No, it wouldn’t have required American troops. It would have required, for example, us freeing up frozen assets of Gaddafi’s that were still being held and not provided to the national government, that would have provide assistance in terms of the basic governing and help providing them some tools necessary to provide governing mechanisms. It would have provided us creating a coalition of local powers in the region, including the Egyptians and others, that would have lent perhaps some security forces in the short term to prevent the country from devolving into what it did.

But there were actually people we were working with in Libya who were longtime opponents of Gaddafi who were not jihadists, for example, some were even in the West, who were prepared to play a greater role in creating a stable situation. But instead what happened was it lasted for too long and so all of these militias were formed and then once these militias were formed it was impossible to get them to disarm, thereby literally creating dozens and dozens of competing groups. But it would not have required U.S. troops on the ground. We could have ended that conflict quickly with a longer and more aggressive air campaign against Gaddafi, because the Libyan people themselves were doing the job on the ground.

TheDC: Before the Libyan revolution, there was of course the revolution in Egypt that forced longtime Egyptian dictator Hosni Mubarak from power. You issued a press release in February of 2011 praising the revolution and saying Mubarak’s downfall was an opportunity for the Egyptian people to finally seize their liberal democratic rights. In retrospect, what do you think went wrong in Egypt, and do you regret supporting Mubarak’s downfall? Do you think the United States should have stood more firmly behind Mubarak?

Rubio: No, I don’t regret it in the sense that, again, the revolution in Egypt was conducted by the Egyptian people, not by radical Islamists. The problem is the people who start the revolution and the people who end up winning it at times are two different people. What happened in Egypt, unfortunately, was that they called elections far too quickly. The only group capable of fielding candidates and a slate were the Muslim Brotherhood. They took advantage of that situation and they got their people elected and once elected they governed undemocratically, requiring [General Abdel Fattah el-] Sisi and others to intervene. So I would have worked closely with the Army and the Armed Forces with whom we have a very close relationship. I would have worked with the Armed Forces of Egypt to ensure that there would have been a peaceful and sustainable transition.

The absence of Mubarak did not mean you got rid of every leader in the Egyptian government, including those in the Egyptian military whom always remained independent of the Muslim Brotherhood and ultimately had to take steps to remove them from power. But the mistake was in pushing for elections too quickly before Egypt was ready for them. And the Muslim Brotherhood was the only group capable of putting together a campaign basically. They were the only opposition group in Egypt that had any sort of organization. The people in the square who called for Mubarak’s fall and the people who ended up governing the country were two very different people.

TheDC: I’m sure it’s not lost on you that the first two issues that I raised are friction points between you and one of your top rivals for the Republican nomination, Sen. Ted Cruz. You’ve called the senator an isolationist. How do you define that term and how do you think it applies to Ted Cruz.

Rubio: In the case of these two points, in Libya they make it sound like we started the revolution in Libya. We did not. The revolution in Libya was started by the Libyan people. There was going to be a civil war in Libya one way or the other — and if it was in any other part of the world, we wouldn’t have much of a national security interest in it. But it happened to be in a part of the world where civil wars lead to instability and instability leads to vacuums that are filled by radical jihadists, and those radical jihadists then target us. We had a vested interest in the outcome of that civil war. The same with Egypt. We didn’t start that, but the alternative would have been to align ourselves with someone who was governing as a dictator in a brutal way. And had we done that, it would have undermined our credibility…

[At this point in the interview, Sen. Rubio’s phone suddenly disconnects. The interview continues a minute later when he calls back.]

Rubio: My phone dropped. I don’t know where you lost me.

TheDC: How do you define isolationist?

Rubio: The idea that somehow you can ignore problems around the world and isolate your nation from them when it’s America who oftentimes cannot. That doesn’t mean every conflict in the world involves America. There are conflicts in the Western Hemisphere, for example, in Venezuela. And we have somewhat of an interest, but I’m not advocating that we do anything militarily there. I’ve just said we should sanction human rights violators and stand strongly with the people there that are seeking democracy. And we’ve seen the outcomes of the recent elections there that are trending in the right direction. But when it comes to the Middle East, these disruptions in governance that happen not because we start them, they happen on their own, we have a vested interest. Because if it leads to chaos, the chaos will create a governing space that jihadists take advantage of and use to organize and target us. You cannot isolate America from those problems. We can ignore them, but they won’t ignore us. Eventually they will come for us. The bottom line is that whether it’s Libya or Syria or Egypt, those are revolutions, civil wars, that we didn’t start. They were started by the people there, but their outcome was going to have a direct impact on our security.

TheDC: More broadly, what is America’s role in promoting democracy and human rights abroad?

Rubio: First of all, I think our number one role is promoting our national security. You could argue that democracy and human rights are in furtherance of our national security because in nations where human rights are systematically violated or where people are not represented in government, instability ensues. If it happened in the Middle East it becomes the prime operating space for the enemies of the United States to organize and be able to conduct attacks against us. But every country is different. For example, if you look at Bahrain or Jordan, these are two countries in which a majority of the population is not represented in their government leadership. If you push change too quickly in those countries, you’re going to have, potentially, a Muslim Brotherhood-type radical group win an election and then have an outcome that’s not good for our country. If it moves too slowly it creates the condition for an uprising that could lead to chaos and instability, even the overthrow of government. So I think it’s in some ways similar to what we saw during the Cold War where we had undemocratic governments that were allies of the United States and while we always wanted them to move towards democracy because we felt that if they didn’t have steady progress towards freedom they would become vulnerable to left-wing overthrows, you had to push and calibrate it in the right way. So you saw the transitions happen in the Philippines. You saw the transition happen in Latin America. You saw the transition in South Korea from a military dictatorship to a democracy. It didn’t happen in two years though. In some instances it took decades.

So today I’m concerned about allies like Bahrain and Jordan, that if they move too quickly on more political space or people in those countries, it creates the conditions for, in the case of Bahrain, the Shia, in the case of Jordan, Muslim Brotherhood or ISIS-type elements, to take advantage of that discontent. But if they move too quickly those groups could easily win an election and then suddenly they’re governing the country and they’ve become enemies of the United States. So it’s a very difficult balancing act, but one that is tied to human rights and democracy.

TheDC: Syria is another issue where there is some disagreement among the Republican candidates. Let me read you a quote by Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu during a recent visit to the United States. He said about the situation in Syria — and I want to have you comment on whether you agree with him or say where he may be wrong — he said when asked about the situation in Syria: “When two of your enemies are fighting each other, I don’t say strengthen one or the other, I say weaken both or at least don’t intervene, which is what I’ve done. I’ve not intervened.” Is Benjamin Netanyahu right there? Or is he wrong?

Rubio: Yeah, but he’s talking about in the context of Iran versus ISIS that in essence we shouldn’t be aligning ourselves with Iran in order to defeat ISIS. In the context of Syria, Assad is an enemy of Israel’s, but Assad is more than just an enemy of Israel’s, it’s an enemy of the United States. And as long as there’s Assad or an Assad-like leader in power, as long as Assad is in Damascus governing that country or portions of that country, there is going to be a Sunni-like movement resisting him. Whether it’s al-Nusra or ISIS now, there is going to be some Sunni movement that’s going to use Assad’s brutality as a recruiting tool to grow and prosper within Syria and ultimately to attack the West. And that’s what’s happened.

Again, the uprising in Syria was started by every day Syrians, not by jihadists. And then Assad decided to bomb and kill them. Some were killed, many fled, but what it created was a space that ISIS took advantage of. It’s what ISIS used — and the governing vacuum that it left behind — is what ISIS used to flow in. I mean, the majority of ISIS fighter’s leadership in Syria are not even Syrians. They’re Iraqis. They came from outside into Syria to take advantage of the situation Assad created.

The other problem with Assad is Assad is a critical component of Iran’s plans to dominate the region. It is a puppet-state of Iran. It is a forward operating base for Iran. It is the place where Hezbollah receives assistance. It is how missiles are given from Iran to Hezbollah to use against Israel. It is the way Iran was able to get IEDs to insurgents in Iraq to kill and maim Americans. That notion that somehow Assad is someone that provides stability in the region is just false. Assad is the cause of much of the instability. He’s the cause of this refugee crisis. He’s a leading contributor to the rise of a group like ISIS, because of the way he’s governed that country.

TheDC: Like most of the Republican presidential field, you oppose President Obama’s position on the opening of Cuba, but why should we have an embargo on Cuba when we do not have one on China or Saudi Arabia or even terrorist-sponsoring Qatar?

Rubio: Because in geopolitics the reality is you’ve got to treat different countries differently. China’s the second largest economy in the world, has nuclear weapons, the largest populace country in the world. There’s no way you can compare China to an island of 13 million people in the Caribbean. Saudi Arabia’s a military ally to the United States in a part of the world where we chase significant national security threats. Cuba is an anti-American communist dictatorship 90 miles from our shores that from a geopolitical perspective doesn’t have huge importance, but it is not good for the United States to have an anti-American communist dictatorship 90 miles from our shores. It is a country that gives harbor to fugitives of American justice. It is a country that’s a sponsor of terrorism, whether it’s helping North Korea evade U.S. sanctions or even now it’s been discovered that they’re in possession of the Sidewinder missiles that wound up in their possession somehow. It’s a country that hosts electronic espionage, listening stations, for both the Chinese and the Russians. It’s a country that, of course, internally systematically violates the rights of their own people.

So my argument is, I’m not against changing policy towards Cuba. I’m just saying that those changes have to be reciprocal, that the embargo and our sanctions give us leverage to influence the course that country takes down the road. If you look at what’s happening in Burma now, we had a diplomatic opening to Burma, but it was conditioned upon measures that have now led to the election of the once-minority party into a majority of the legislative body. In Cuba, there were not such conditions required of Cuba. In fact, they released 53 political prisoners as part of our deal, allegedly, and all 53 of them have either been rearrested or are being harassed. In essence, we gave Cuba everything they wanted, or much of what they wanted, and got nothing in return. It wasn’t that we did a deal. It’s that we did a bad deal.

TheDC: Do you think the CIA should be prohibited, as they currently are, from assassinating political leaders who are immense threats to America and American interests?

Rubio: Yeah, I don’t discuss covert operations of CIA or any other agency of government. I would just say that there are times when, in the conduct of a military strike, the leadership of a country may be located in a military facility and as a result find themselves in the crosshairs, but I-

TheDC: Would you overturn Executive Order 11905 that does prevent America from attacking political leaders?

Rubio: Again, when it comes to matters involving the intelligence community, I don’t discuss them in this way. Just suffice it to say that one of the things I don’t do, specifically, is discuss what I won’t do as president. I don’t think it’s wise for president to begin to dictate what he will and won’t do in terms of practices of this nature.

TheDC: Is there any area of foreign policy that you think that President Obama got it right? Is there any theater where, despite his failures in other places, that you think that his policies have actually been spot on?

Rubio: A lot of people don’t talk about it, but if you look at what’s happened in Venezuela and the sanctions we were able to impose on individual human rights violators, I think that’s having an impact in terms of internal division among the human rights violating government there. Again, it’s a policy Obama ultimately agreed with, but they resisted us on it for many months until we finally passed a bill that forced their hand on it. I’m pleased that they did it, but it wasn’t easy. For many months they were resisting us, especially at the State Department about doing anything about it.

You look at what’s happened in Burma and by no means is it perfect. There are issues there that I don’t think are moving fast enough and there is evidence of potential backsliding, but we can’t ignore the fact that there was an election in Burma and that new leadership was elected to the legislative body that represented a political party that had at one time been outright banned from even existing. All of those things pale in comparison to his failures in the Asia-Pacific region and what’s happened in the European theater and, of course, what’s happening now in the Middle East.

This interview has been lightly edited for clarity. 

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