Buoyed by his reputation as some sort of foreign-policy savant, the recent events in Syria and his slightly-better-than-terrible poll numbers, Marco Rubio is talking tough.
In a national security speech in Iowa on Friday, Rubio promised to crack down on Russian President Vladimir Putin in a way that the current administration has failed to do. The policies he swore to enact included “lethal assistance” to Ukraine to dislodge the Russian troops that have camped out in the eastern half of the country and new sanctions on the country’s leaders beyond what President Obama imposed after Russia occupied the Crimea Peninsula early last year. He took the de rigueur shots at the president for having failed “the test of leadership” and promised that once elected, he would pass that test.
The remarks positioned Rubio in the sweet spot of the Republican field with regard to foreign policy, putting him somewhere between the overblown jingoism of Carly Fiorina and the goofy “I’ll make Putin love me and then everything will be fine” bluster of Donald Trump. Truthfully, he’s not promising much more than Obama as far as Russia is concerned. More sanctions, diplomatic isolation of Putin, and aid to Ukraine? The U.S. has been moving on all those fronts for years now. The obvious question is what would be so different under President Rubio?
With regard to Syria, this is where the junior Senator from Florida runs into the same vagueness as every other neocon. Pressed by host Martha MacCallum on Fox News’s “America's Newsroom” about whether any military action by the United States now means we’re at war with Russia, Rubio responded with talk of setting up a “safe zone” in Syria. This zone could be used as a sort of base for moderate rebel groups opposed to Syrian president Bashar al-Assad, from which they could continue to wage war. Considering that Rubio had just a minute before stated that Russia is bombing these groups in order to eliminate them and prop up Assad, it’s hard to see how putting these rebels under official U.S. protection would not put our forces in direct conflict with the Russian military.
In his Friday speech, Rubio stated that “we are barreling toward a second Cold War.” And this fight in Syria is something of a throwback to the proxy fights the U.S. used to wage against the Soviet Union. But while there may be other parallels to the Cold War – Putin is a nationalist who wants to make sure his country plays as big a role on the world stage as it did at the height of Communism – Rubio’s statement does not acknowledge the ways in which the world has changed.
For starters, Russia is not the overarching protector of a political system embedded in dozens of countries around the world. It is not engaged in a fight for the hearts and minds of potential Communists everywhere. It is instead a petro-state subject to market whims. Its citizens, though subject to their share of propaganda, still live in a more open society. They can travel freely to other countries. Instead of controlling all aspects of society, today’s leaders of Russia, as exemplified by Putin, have control of the military and not that much else. So Putin is using the military. But can he keep a lid on public opinion if Syria turns into a quagmire that grinds up Russian soldiers, in much the way that Afghanistan did to the Soviet Union in the 1980s?
There are good arguments to suggest that the reason the Obama administration was surprised by Putin’s move into Syria was not incompetence, as Rubio claims, but because it is so irrational and unlikely to succeed, assuming Putin even knows what success would look like. This is where Obama, who is rational to the point of being maddening, has an edge on his Republican foes in general. He seems to know he is dealing with an irrational figure who, when confronted head-on and called a “gangster and thug,” might retaliate in unpredictable ways. Rubio, for all his alleged foreign policy credibility, seemingly does not. Were he to get elected and go the more confrontational route, in word or even in deed, he would be heading down a dangerous path. And Putin, the wily old Cold Warrior, will be happy to see him do so, because that is turf he knows how to fight on.