Senator Marco Rubio, R-FL, wipes his brow as he speaks during a discussion on the American family and cultural values." at Catholic University on July 23, 2014 in Washington, D.C.
Mandel Ngan/AFP/Getty Images

Rubio dismisses the power of American engagement

If Sen. Marco Rubio’s (R-Fla.) goal was to position himself as the top critic of President Obama’s new policy towards Cuba, he’s largely succeeded. The far-right Floridian, after several days of near-constant media interviews, appeared on three Sunday shows yesterday morning. Most of the Republican’s arguments were predictable, but there was one comment that seemed especially noteworthy.
On ABC, George Stephanopoulos reminded Rubio that the United States already has diplomatic relations “with all kinds of countries that don’t meet our democratic standards.” So why isolate Cuba? The senator replied:
“That’s exactly my point. We have those policies of normalization toward Vietnam, for example, toward China. They’re not any more politically free today than they were when that normalization happened. They may have a bigger economy, but their political freedoms, certainly I would not hold up China or Saudi Arabia or Vietnam as examples of political freedom, proving my point – that engagement by itself does not guarantee or even lead to political freedoms.”
When Stephanopoulos asked whether a United States Embassy might “help further that cause of openness,” Rubio rejected the idea out of hand.
There are a couple of key problems with his take on this. The first is that Rubio’s perspective doesn’t offer much in the way of direction – if 54 years of isolation doesn’t improve political conditions in Cuba, and the senator is convinced that engagement also won’t produce positive results, what exactly is the United States supposed to do to have a positive effect?
From Rubio’s vantage point, ignoring Cuba hasn’t worked and talking to Cuba won’t work. That leaves … well, it’s not at all clear what’s behind Diplomatic Door #3.
The second angle to keep in mind is the degree to which Rubio is rejecting his own party’s orthodoxy about the power and influence of American exceptionalism. Indeed, Rubio’s own staff has said, in conjunction with the senator’s recent trip to China, that United States engagement “is sometimes necessary in helping advance our advocacy on a host of foreign policy issues.”
It’s been a staple of Republican thinking for many years: the more the United States engages with the rest of the world, economically and diplomatically, the greater the degree of American influence. Rubio is so eager to reject engagement with Cuba, he effectively argued yesterday that U.S. influence isn’t all it’s cracked up to be.
As for the senator’s spat with Sen. Rand Paul (R-Ky.) over foreign policy towards Cuba, in the same ABC interview, Rubio went on to say, “Well, first of all, Rand, if he wants to become the chief cheerleader of Obama’s foreign policy, he certainly has a right to do that.”
It’s an unfortunate approach to the debate. To hear Rubio tell it, to agree with the president is necessarily to be wrong, merit be damned. It’s substantively weak and rhetorically problematic – Rubio has agreed with the Obama White House on plenty of major foreign policy decisions.
One assumes we’ll hear quite a bit more about this as the 2016 presidential race unfolds in earnest.