Marco Rubio's foreign policy disaster: Why he's very confused about ISIS and Iran

When you see Iran as the mothership of all evil, you're going to run into some logical problems

Published March 12, 2015 6:03PM (EDT)

  (Reuters/Yuri Gripas)
(Reuters/Yuri Gripas)

The Senate tried ever so briefly to turn its foreign policy gaze away from Iran yesterday by holding a hearing with Secretary of State John Kerry about the White House's AUMF proposal for the war against ISIS. The prospects for an AUMF continue to look disappointing. Though it's not perfectly split along partisan lines, the basic breakdown remains that Republicans want to broaden the authorization and Democrats want to constrict it. And if they can't reach a bipartisan agreement, the White House is perfectly fine with that: it will continue waging war on the shaky legal foundation of the post-9/11 AUMF, and it will get away with it. It's not a great situation.

But the senators didn't just fail to develop a path forward on the AUMF. They also failed to avoid saying stupid nonsense about Iran.

It was expected that the Iran negotiations would come up, since you don't get the point man, John Kerry, in a Senate Foreign Relations Committee hearing every day. Kerry, obviously, had some not nice things to say about Sen. Tom Cotton et al.'s "letter to Iran." But Kerry was also dumbfounded by a question from Senator Marco Rubio that tried to link what he perceives as the administration's lackluster military effort against the Islamic State to the nuclear negotiations with Iran.

But when Sen. Marco Rubio (R-Fla.), potential 2016 presidential candidate and leading light of the Republican Party, took the mike, he directed the conversation away from the Islamic State to the dominant foreign policy issue on Capitol Hill in recent weeks and what is quickly developing into the dominant foreign policy issue of the presidential race: America's relations with Iran.

"I believe that much of our strategy with regards to ISIS is being driven by a desire not to upset Iran so that they don't walk away from the negotiating table on the deal that you're working on," Rubio said to Secretary of State John F. Kerry. "Tell me why I'm wrong."

"Because the facts completely contradict that," Kerry replied. "But I'm not at liberty to discuss all of them here for a lot of different reasons."

This is a bizarre belief of Rubio's that he continues to bring up well beyond the point that advisers should have stripped it from his repertoire. He raised the same concern during his Q&A at CPAC last month: the Obama administration is somehow holding back against ISIS because it doesn't want to disrupt negotiations with Iran. (At CPAC he used this as gateway to another unusual argument: What the Obama administration should do is provide the aerial bombing campaign against ISIS while leaving the ground fighting to regional troops. This happens to be... exactly what the Obama administration is trying to do? Is Marco Rubio aware of what's going on in Tikrit, right now?)

Iran and ISIS are Enemies. Shia, Sunni. Iran is fighting the Islamic State and is happy that the United States is fighting the Islamic State as well. Iran does not want the Islamic State to take over its neighbor, Iraq. Iran and the Iraqi government are great friends now -- some even call the Iraqi government an Iranian puppet government! -- ever ever since the United States deposed Saddam Hussein.

"Rubio was suggesting," the Washington Post explains, "that the Obama administration is stinting in its airstrikes against the Islamic State in order to allay Iranian anxiety about a new American military incursion into the region." It's unclear what logic Rubio uses to determine that 2,700+ airstrikes thus far -- including the 13 in Iraq just yesterday -- represent some sort of hesitancy. More unclear is why he thinks Iran would be anxious about the United States working to defeat Iran's enemy in Iraq. (Iran would be upset if the United States mission turned towards deposing Assad in Syria, but that's not the administration's near-term objective in Syria, and that's not because it's following Iran's orders.) When it comes to Iraq, the last "American military incursion" there worked out quite well for the Iranians, so why wouldn't they want another to fortify those gains?

These are the sorts of problems that hawks who orient their entire foreign policy around Iran inevitably run into. They see Iran as the mothership of every bad thing in the region, and they twist themselves into pretzels trying to connect it all. It's the same dynamic that got John McCain in trouble in 2008, when he suggested that Iran was training Al Qaeda in Iraq, even though Iran and Al Qaeda were Not Friends and had very different visions for the future of Iraq.

There is a way to avoid this pitfall: you can suggest that Iran and Sunni terrorists are both bad, but in different ways! If that requires adding nuance to the narrative that Evil is a monolithic force, oh well.

By Jim Newell

Jim Newell covers politics and media for Salon.

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