Since his stunning election victory last November, Florida’s 40-year-old, Cuban-American Senator Marco Rubio has been held aloft as the future of the Republican Party, a sharp-as-a-tack son of immigrants who can bring both youth and Latinos to a GOP that’s not too popular with either. After his debut speech on the Senate floor last week, which radiated a Reaganesque belief in American exceptionalism and the need for the U.S. to project its heroic superpowers ever farther afield – the world “still needs another American century,” he asserted – Rubio even emerged as a new standard bearer of the Republicans’ neoconservative hawks.
Yet, in that respect, has the precocious Rubio finally made his first misstep on the national stage? After so shrewdly reading the Tea Party leaves from the moment he announced his Senate candidacy in 2009, has the conservative former Florida House Speaker missed what looks increasingly – especially after last week’s presidential candidates debate – like the GOP’s return to isolationism? It’s too early to know if the internationalism that’s held sway among Republicans for the past decade is on the outs. But Rubio, who insists the U.S. must be “the watchman on the wall of world freedom,” has certainly thrown his foreign policy lot in with Senate colleagues like John McCain and Lindsey Graham, whose interventionist voices don’t seem to set the GOP agenda the way they used to. Their declining clout in turn could be a drag on Rubio, who is widely considered a 2012 vice-presidential prospect.
In reality, Rubio doesn’t have much of a choice. As a conservative Cuban-American – and especially as a hard-liner on U.S. Cuba policy – he wouldn’t have the luxury of softening his pro-active principles even if he wanted to. When he became a Senator, Rubio didn’t just carry the fiscal fury of his Tea Party backers; he also inherited the mantle of a Cuban exile leadership that still believes in cold war-style regime change in Havana, even after strategies like a 49-year-old U.S. trade embargo have utterly failed to dislodge the communist Castro brothers.
That siege philosophy regarding Cuba tends to dictate that Cuban-American politicos like Rubio bang the drum for the eradication of oppression anywhere else in the world. That’s evident in Rubio’s strong criticism of President Obama for not leading the charge in Libya (even as many Republicans now blast Obama for getting too involved there) and in his threats this month to put the kibosh on Obama’s nominee for Ambassador to Nicaragua, Jonathan Farrar. Rubio feels that because Farrar showed himself too soft on the Castros while recently serving as the U.S.’s top diplomat in Havana, he would therefore be too soft on Nicaragua’s authoritarian leftist President, Daniel Ortega. (Rubio’s assertion that Farrar didn’t adequately engage Cuban dissidents, however, is fairly disingenuous given how long Cuban-American leaders once dismissed those dissidents as sell-outs because they didn’t advocate violent government overthrow.)
To his credit, Rubio is at least being more honest than the Beltway types who cynically call for tightening the squeeze on Cuba in order to win votes in Florida, while in the same breath they insist it’s OK to engage even more repressive, but commercially valuable, regimes like China. But Rubio’s one-solution-fits-all foreign policy – especially one inspired by a Cuba policy that most Americans and even Cuban-Americans don’t agree with anymore – doesn’t account for all the different types of diplomatic and military arrows the U.S. or any nation has to keep in its quiver when acting abroad. Even coups in our own hemisphere today aren’t immune to practical politics. When Honduras’ democratically elected President was exiled in 2009 by a military coup, Obama originally declared – a la international idealists – that such retro-putsches should no longer be allowed to stand in America’s backyard. But he eventually acquiesced and, rather than exert superpower muscle to compel the coup regime to restore the ousted Honduran President to power, the U.S. recognized the results of a new presidential election as the way to defuse the crisis.
It wasn’t the best solution, but in the end the Administration decided it was the best solution available – just as it’s decided, with America already hemorrhaging lives, money and patience in Iraq and Afghanistan amid a severe recession, that riding shotgun is the better U.S. approach in Libya. And a growing number of Republicans, including Tea Partyers, not only feel the same way; they think the U.S. needs to rein in the adventurist “wars of choice” for now if not always. If that return to the GOP’s isolationist past materializes more broadly, it could leave Rubio, the young face of the party’s future, just plain isolated.