During the Thursday night debate, GOP candidate Marco Rubio refused to back away from his often-stated desire to go to war with Syrian-president Bashar al-Assad — a step that even Israel, which has been targeted by Assad, does not suggest. Rubio lamented President Obama’s request for authorization to use force against Assad because the assault would have been “unbelievably small,” according to Rubio as he disapprovingly quoted John Kerry.
This brought to mind a minor but poignant event in Cold War history. When asked to comment on the idea of invading China at a time when most Americans knew our overarching enemy was the Soviet Union, General Omar Bradley said it would be, “The wrong war, at the wrong place, at the wrong time, and with the wrong enemy.”
So too would an American-led war to remove Assad, who deserves a tragic fate, but is increasingly a sideshow in today’s global contest with radical Islam. Unfortunately, removing Assad is symbolic of Rubio’s whole foreign policy.
Realistically, Rubio’s plan to remove Assad would require a multi-front war and open-ended occupation of Syria and Iraq, replete with dreaded “nation building” by the U.S. military. There is no other way to remove the dictator and not create a vacuum that will be filled by violent jihadists like ISIS — something to which one of the moderators ofThursday’s debate alluded.
Rubio wants what he calls “safe zones” in Syria — supposedly to help rally fighters opposed to both Assad and ISIS (whom we hope aren’t some other variety of jihadist), contain refugees, and somehow turn the tide on the long list of bad guys that a half-decade of civil war has attracted.
But establishing safe zones means invading Syria with U.S. ground forces and holding territory, presumably while insurgents try to kill as many Americans as possible. Furthermore, Rubio’s safe zones wouldn’t actually defeat Assad or ISIS, wouldn’t realistically entice back Syrian refugees enjoying a better life elsewhere, and wouldn’t improve the performance of “friendly” Syrian rebels. Recall the CIA program that spent $500 million to train 60 rebels who promptly lost or surrendered on the battlefield. How would this bureaucratic failure be different if it were conducted in one of Rubio’s safe zones?
Unfortunately, this desire to go to war first and worry about a strategy and exit plan later are the hallmark of Rubio and the Republican foreign policy establishment led by Rubio-mentor John McCain. It was McCain who sought no-fly zones in Syria and Libya, and McCain who backed Hillary Clinton’s decision to romance the Muslim Brotherhood during the Arab Spring. This meant going to war in Libya without a plan, while inexplicably embracing the foremost purveyor of our enemy’s ideology next door in Egypt. Once Rubio arrived in the Senate, the elderly senator took him under his wing, effectively making him the inheritor of McCain’s method of statecraft.
Rubio would bog down the United States in a quagmire in Syria and continue the Bush-Obama refusal to see the larger ideological fight the free world faces with radical Islam. This conflict with Islamists is the key struggle of our time — not the gruesome but incidental civil war in Syria.
Islamists want to subvert secular governments and replace them with a theocratic tyranny. The spiraling expansion of ISIS, the killing spree in San Bernardino, the “rape jihad” in Cologne on New Year’s Eve, throwing gays off buildings, and mushrooming anti-Semitism in places like France and Sweden are all part of the same ideological war on the free world. It’s not us versus Islam; it’s secular Muslims and us versus the Islamists.
We should keep our powder dry for this larger struggle rather than getting drawn into a civil war. Beating radical Islam will require reprising nonviolent Cold War efforts we used to undermine communism culturally, politically, and economically. Unfortunately, Rubio and other neoconservatives want to keep using our military as a peace corps with guns.
Aside from poor policy ideas, Rubio has the politics of national security wrong too. Americans are concerned about the rise of ISIS and global expansion of violent jihad, but they remain wary of open-ended foreign commitments, failed adventures in spreading democracy at gunpoint, and throwing more money at dysfunctional Washington bureaucracies.
All of these are Rubio specialties. Furthermore, he wonkishly says he would “return to Secretary Gates’ fiscal year 2012 budget baseline over the course of his first term and begin to undo the damage caused by $1 trillion in indiscriminate defense cuts.” In other words, throwing more money at the Pentagon is the best idea that Rubio has for fixing a conflict we are losing.
Instead, we need a president who will fundamentally reform our national security bureaucracies, and orient them toward an ideological war against radical Islam that uses the military as a last resort. The Pentagon, CIA, Homeland Security, and State Department all require fundamental change and a redirection toward targeting Islamism. This isn’t anti-Muslim; quite the opposite, it recognizes most Muslims oppose unifying mosque and state and would largely depend on those secular Muslims to take on the Islamists.
Realistically, this calls for a candidate like Ted Cruz, who is uniquely willing to tangle with sacred cows in Washington. Reform and a departure from the Bush-Obama failures cannot be accomplished by an understudy of John McCain, especially one who wants to throw more funds at broken agencies and learn nothing from Iraq and Afghanistan.
To paraphrase General Omar Bradley, Rubio is the wrong candidate, at the wrong place, at the wrong time.
Christian Whiton is a principal at DC International Advisory and a was a State Department senior advisor from 2003-2009. He is the author of Smart Power: Between Diplomacy and War.