Marco Rubio Is Not Ready for Prime Time

If the Florida senator wants to save the Republican Party, he's got to come up with a foreign policy for the real world.

In his critique of the president's handling of foreign policy in his State of the Union address last week, Marco Rubio has accomplished something really important. But perhaps not what he had in mind.

Indeed, what the senator from Florida and Time magazine's Savior of the Republican Party has done is to turn the spotlight not on Obama's foreign policy but on a grim ground truth from his own side: Republicans have yet to find a sensible alternative to Obama's admittedly avoider approach to the world or to regain their own footing in the post post-9/11 world that their last standard-bearer helped to shape.

Rubio is way too smart to want to take the country back to the days of George W. Bush. He just hasn't figured out an effective way to move beyond the Bush era on the foreign policy side either.

Getting Out of Bad Deals...

Last week, I wrote my own analysis of Obama's foreign-policy SOTU. FP's managing editor, the inestimable Blake Hounshell, came up with the title -- "The Avoider" -- which was, to quote Marisa Tomei's character in My Cousin Vinny, dead-on-balls accurate.

Obama's first-term foreign policy wasn't pretty. There was the stumble bumble over the Israeli-Palestinian issue; the Afghan surge; Gitmo (I'm going to close it, then maybe not); naively raising expectations about engaging the Russians and Iran; and of course Benghazi.

And even though the foreign policy section of the SOTU might have been set to Engelbert Humperdink's country classic "Make the World Go Away," on balance Obama's record -- no spectacular successes (save killing Osama bin Laden) and no spectacular failures -- has been pretty much on target. No attacks on the continental United States, al Qaeda central dismantled, a better image in parts of the cruel and unfriendly world? I'll take it.

Despite his rhetorical aspirations, Obama wasn't going to be a transformative figure in foreign policy as much as a transitional one. The world's just too complex for grand bargains. And that transition was designed to move the country from a hyperactive foreign policy driven by ideology to an approach grounded more in the way the world actually is, including the reality of America's own financial and economic travails. It was a downsized foreign policy in an age of austerity, fatigue, and impatience with grand plans for saving the world.

You can certainly argue, as Rubio and others have, that Obama overcorrected, moving from doing too much to not enough. But who can argue with Obama's willful extrication from America's longest and among its most profitless wars? Extrication demands a certain leadership of its own kind -- hardly the kind of guts-and-glory, Mission Accomplished type. But one that's essential and particular to the times.

And what would Rubio have done differently? He really doesn't say. I'd love to see a paragraph on that.

...And Not Getting into New Ones

America now inhabits a largely opportunity-less world of diplomatic migraines and root canals. It's a world more likely to be managed and contained than resolved.

If Obama is willful, skillful and above all lucky, this will probably mean smaller deals -- one on enrichment with Iran, perhaps; an interim accord for Israelis and Palestinians -- not big ones. And on the Arab Spring, we'll be trying to navigate the murky middle ground between traditional allies like Egypt, which may well become more adversarial, and old adversaries like Libya and Iraq, which will remain difficult and uncertain partners. Indeed, U.S. options run from terrible to bad to worse. And worst of all, if diplomacy with the mullahs fails, Obama may well have another war on his hands in his second term.

This is reality. And yet the Rubio message is one of leadership based on empty rhetoric with no real approach, let alone strategy to correlate means and ends. On North Korea, he calls for new sanctions; on Syria, he doesn't call for anything, really; on Egypt, he argues for standing up for persecuted minorities; and on Russia he urges us to stand up to "tyrants like Vladimir Putin." Long on rhetoric commitment and very short on operational and practical tactics and strategy, the Rubio plan isn't a plan at all but a disjointed and embarrassing set of bromides.

The Real Problem: Stealing Republican Foreign Policy

I've long maintained that the dividing line for America's foreign and domestic policy shouldn't be between Democrat and Republican but between dumb and smart. Republicans from Rubio to McCain want to be on the smart side. They simply can't manage to find policies that are all that different from Obama's, are workable, and are consistent with what they know to be the new realities of a tough world and an even tougher American economy.

And one of the reasons is that Barack Obama has cornered their market and stolen pages from the GOP playbook. Obama has become a George H.W. Bush realist when it comes to avoiding ideological overreach, and a much more effective and less ideological version of Bush the younger too: willfully surging in Afghanistan, killing Osama, and whacking 10 times the number of bad guys with drones than his predecessor. He may well be the American president who just doesn't talk about containing Iran's nuclear program, but uses military power against it. One reason the Chuck Hagel fight has been so bitter is that former senator is the poster child for a Republican realism that some in the party detest. In many ways, that nomination fight says more about the state of the Republican Party than it does about the Hagel candidacy itself.

Marco Rubio is a very smart guy with a potentially bright political future. But he can't write an article like this and expect to be taken seriously, unless his only objective is to shore up a Republican base and not expand it. Politics is about addition, not subtraction, even on an issue like foreign policy that most Americans don't pay a lot of attention to.

If Rubio's article was intended to be the beginning of his own education on foreign policy and a counterpart to his domestic-focused Republican response to the SOTU, then all I can say is that he's got a lot more homework to do. Perhaps his current fact-finding trip to Israel and Jordan will help. But based on his initial foray into foreign policy, he's not yet ready for prime time, nor are his ideas for how to best advance the nation's interests abroad.


Reality Check

The Avoider

Barack Obama's State of the Union address makes one thing clear: The world is no longer America's problem.

If you want to know what an American president's foreign policy is likely to be, particularly in a second term, don't listen to his State of the Union speech. You'd probably have more luck playing with Tarot cards, or reading tea leaves or goat entrails.

But not this year. Barack Obama's fourth such address left a trail of foreign-policy cookie crumbs that lead directly to some pretty clear, if hardly surprising or revolutionary, conclusions. His first term contained no spectacular successes (save killing Osama bin Laden), but no spectacular failures either. And more than likely, that's what the president will settle for in a second, even as the Arab world burns and rogues like Iran and North Korea brandish new weapons. He's nothing if not a cautious man.

Behold: I am the Extricator in Chief

Afghanistan -- the "good war" -- has been pretty much MIA in Obama's speeches since he became president. He's alternated between spending a few words on the mission there (2009) or a paragraph (2010, 2011, 2012). If his words have been brief, the message has been stunningly clear: It's about the leaving. And tonight was no exception. Not more than two minutes in, the president spoke about America's men and women coming home from Afghanistan.

Obama's signature is indeed that of the extricator. And he broke the code early (the 2009 surge was designed politically to get in so that he could get out with a clearer conscience). He is the president who has wound down the longest and among the most profitless wars in American history, where victory was never defined by whether we can win, but by when can we leave. It is his legacy, and one about which he has reason to be proud. Obama has left himself and his military commanders plenty of discretion about the pace of extrication. But that's fine with the president so long as they're heading for the exits.

Not the Destroyer and Rebuilder of Worlds

Surprise, surprise: There was scant mention of Syria in the president's speech -- just one throwaway line about supporting Syria's opposition. Obama did not disengage from Iraq and Afghanistan only to plunge America into new black holes in the Middle East.

Obama isn't worried about boots on the ground in Syria. That was never on the table. Instead the question is this: Given the uncertainty about the end state in Syria and the risks of providing serious weapons to the rebels (and a no-fly zone) that might alter the arc of the fight against the regime, the president saw and continues to see no purpose in America providing arms of marginal utility. That course would either expose him to be truly weak and ineffectual or lead to calls to do more. So he's going to provide non-lethal support and is apparently prepared to take the hits from critics who see the president's policy as passive, cruel, and unforgiving, particularly now that we know that members of his own cabinet clearly wanted to do more.

The Iranian nuclear issue, the other potential tar baby in the SOTU, followed a pretty predictable rising arc of concern in the list of presidential foreign-policy worries. In 2009, in Obama's address to a joint session of Congress (a speech some regard as a SOTU), Iran wasn't even mentioned. In the 2010 SOTU, Obama threatened that if Iran ignored its international obligations, there would be consequences; in 2011, he did the same; and in 2012, he made it clear that he would prevent Iran from acquiring a nuclear weapon and take no option off the table.

Obama repeated half of what he said in 2012 about preventing Iran from getting a nuclear weapon, but instead of saying all options were on the table, he spoke of the importance of diplomacy. I suspect he'll go to extreme lengths to avoid war, and won't greenlight an Israeli attack either until the arc of diplomacy has run its course. And then Obama would likely act only if the mullahs push the envelope by accelerating their uranium enrichment program and other military aspects of the nuclear enterprise.

Seizing the Nuclear High Road with Little to Lose

Even as he confronts a real bomb in North Korea (very bad options there) and a potential one in Iran (bad options there too), Obama is trying to make good on a longstanding commitment to reduce America's own nuclear arsenal. Backed by the military chiefs and likely by the public too (getting rid of nukes equals saving money), but opposed by Republicans in Congress, Obama will try to work around the political obstacles by seeking a deal with yes ... you got it ... his old friend Vlad Putin. It's worth a try. If Putin balks or Republicans get in the way, the president can always advocate unilateral cuts -- not something he wants to do. But if he can't have his way on nukes, he can always blame it on the Russians and the Republicans with little to lose. The road to getting rid of nukes is a long one. Let the next guy (or gal) worry about it.

A Little Leg on Palestine?

Obama hasn't mentioned the Israeli-Palestinian conflict in a SOTU speech since 2009. And that's no coincidence. His own poorly thought-through initial effort crashed and burned, leaving the president pretty frustrated and annoyed with both Israelis and Palestinians, particularly Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu.

But hey, that was then. A second-term president has committed himself early in 2013 to a trip to Israel and has an Energizer bunny in Secretary of State John Kerry, who wants to do the right thing and keep the two-state solution alive.

Obama clearly kept his distance from the issue again on Tuesday night. He spoke of standing with Israel to pursue peace, but didn't mention Palestinians or the peace process. He mentioned his own trip to the Middle East, but missed an opportunity to give what might be a trip to the region by his new secretary of state higher profile.

It's just as well. The paradox of the Israeli-Palestinian issue is that it's too complicated to implement right now and too important to abandon. It's in this space that Obama will be forced to operate. And while the odds of success are low, Obama will be tempted in his final term to do something bold, perhaps laying out a U.S. plan of parameters on the key final-status issues.

It's the Middle Class, Not the Middle East

Spoiler alert: Barack Obama might still be a consequential foreign-policy president if he's lucky, willful, and skillful. But it's his domestic legacy that will make or break his presidency. Health care -- his signature legacy issue -- will look much better if the economy improves, driven by a revived housing market and rising employment, and of course if some broader deal can be struck on entitlements and taxes. Immigration reform and gun-control legislation driven by a functional bipartisanship would cement that legacy. He'd be an historic rather than a great president.

Two clocks tick down in a president's second term: the drive for legacy and the reality of lame duckery. Obama's political capital will diminish quickly. Where, how, and on what he wants to spend it is critical. The Middle East is violent and volatile and may yet suck him in, but if he can avoid it, he'll try. This was a State of the Union address that stressed fixing America's broken house, not chasing around the world trying to fix everyone else's. The future of America isn't Cairo or Damascus; it's Chicago and Detroit.