"Absolutely it's a realistic goal. It's been achieved in the past," said the senator when asked by "Morning Edition" host Steve Inskeep whether "defeat" was truly possible. "This very same insurgency was defeated during the Awakening in Iraq. This is the same group that was driven out by Sunnis, who then reconstituted itself in Syria when that became an unstable and ungoverned space. ... But no matter how long it takes, we need to do it."
The debate over U.S. counter-terrorism policy is obviously complex, and in the wake of President Obama's speech this week, there are no easy answers. Sen. Marco Rubio (R-Fla.), perhaps inadvertently, helped prove just how difficult the current challenge is.
As Amanda Terkel noted, the Florida Republican has been urging President Obama to be even more aggressive in confronting the Islamic State -- beyond the 150+ airstrikes the president has already ordered -- but in an NPR interview, Rubio seemed to stumble onto the broader problem.
As Simon Maloy explained in response, "There you have it. According to Rubio, we can absolutely defeat a terrorist insurgency because we have already defeated the same insurgency that we now have to defeat. Again."
The point wasn't lost on NPR's Inskeep. "There are connections between this group and earlier extremist groups in Iraq," the host told the senator. "They were battled for years and pushed back, but here they are years later. This could just be something that goes on and on, couldn't it?"
Rubio replied, "It could, but that's not -- I mean, that's just reality."
Well, yes, I suppose it is, but the point is reality isn't as easy as simply deploying the U.S. military to take out bad guys. On the one hand, Rubio believes it's "absolutely" realistic to think we can "defeat" ISIS terrorists. On the other hand, Rubio also appreciates the fact that "reality" tells us violent radicals like these can be squashed temporarily, only to return.
I'm not trying to pick on Rubio, per se, but rather, his rhetoric is a helpful example of the underlying tension in the broader discussion. The Florida Republican is confident that fully defeating ISIS is "a realistic goal," even while the senator realizes that it's "just reality" to acknowledge a complete ISIS defeat may not be possible.
Rubio added that the U.S. mission against Islamic State must continue, "no matter what it takes" and "no matter how long it takes."
And under Rubio's vision, that would almost certainly be a very long time, pursuing an endpoint that remains on a perpetual horizon.