Senator Marco Rubio, the rising Republican star and 2016 presidential hopeful, weighed in on foreign policy Wednesday, saying he supports giving the Syrian opposition ammunition, but not arms, and increased access to intelligence.
“The best-organized, the best-armed and the best-equipped elements in Syria are the most radical ones, the most anti-democratic ones, the most anti-American ones,” Rubio said in a speech at the Washington Institute for Near East Policy. “There are plenty of weapons in Syria; they’re coming from other countries, they’re being confiscated. What the opposition really needs is access to ammunition… [A] step that I’m prepared to advocate for is the provision of ammunition to opposition groups within Syria. In addition, at the right time, with increased capacity is increased intelligence sharing.”
Providing ammo and intel would go farther than what the Obama Administration is currently considering. The Washington Post reported on Wednesday that the Administration is weighing for the first time in the two-year-old conflict direct aid to the Syrian opposition, including armored vehicles and body armor. Rubio said he supports these moves but wanted to do more. At the same Rubio did not go as far as some of his Republican colleagues, such as Senator John McCain of Arizona who backs arming the rebels. The Syrian opposition has been seeking anti-aircraft weapons for months as the regime’s warplanes bomb them.
In the past, Rubio has tried to find middle ground between GOP realists and neo-conservatives, staking out moderate policies that don’t differ too much from those of President Obama. He made that point himself at times on Wednesday. He has said he supports international organizations and foreign aid; doesn’t believe Egyptian President Mohammed Morsi’s administration is an Islamist regime in democratic clothing; and resists the isolationist tendencies of the Tea Party. “No middle class job is completely immune to global factors, so we should care what’s happening around the world,” he said. “One thing about foreign policy is, by and large, it’s not a partisan issue.”
As a potential 2016 GOP presidential candidate, Rubio has been focusing on his foreign policy credentials, often a weak spot for Senatorial candidates looking to become commander-in-chief. This is the third major foreign policy speech he’s given – the first two were last year before the Council on Foreign Relations and the Brookings Institution. Rubio, who serves on the Senate Foreign Relations Committee, recently returned from an official trip to Israel and Jordan, almost the exact itinerary President Obama is scheduled to visit next month. Rubio said, that while he’s the last person from whom Obama would accept advice, the Israelis made it clear to him that preventing Iran from obtaining nuclear weapons’ capability was their top priority. “I personally believe that the Ayatollah, the Supreme Leader has concluded that he wants a weapon,” he said. “I believe negotiations are nothing but a ploy for more time.”
Rubio also said, “We agree, as the world does, what Iran is working on,” in other words, a bomb. His stances on Iran differ in two ways from the Administration’s: first, the official Pentagon position is that they believe Iran has not yet made the decision to go for a bomb; and second, Obama has said that he wants a diplomatic solution and is allowing time for negotiations to play out. Rubio did say he hoped for a diplomatic breakthrough, but felt it was unlikely given that Iran wants to be more like North Korea, which has the bomb, than Libya, where Muammar Gaddafi was deposed not long after giving up his nuclear program.
Rubio was bearish on the Middle East peace process, saying Israel’s attention is focused on Iran and Syria, rather than on Palestine. “I don’t think the Palestinian issue isn’t important to the Israelis. I just believe it’s gotten a little lost amongst all these other issues,” Rubio said. “If the Palestinian issue were resolved, I don’t think Iran would give up its nuclear ambitions. I don’t believe Iran would stop sponsoring terrorism. I don’t think Hezbollah would close up shop.”
Rubio came out surprisingly strongly, for a Republican, in favor of humanitarian and foreign aid, very much in the mold of George W. Bush. Some of his Senate colleagues, including all four members of the Senate Tea Party caucus, have advocated doing away with foreign aid. “The U.S.’s standing around the world is largely built on our commitment to fundamental principals like human rights and democracy, freedom of religion and freedom of the press,” he said. “And we should always be on the side of that. That doesn’t always mean that we’re going to invade. That doesn’t always mean that we’re going to give weapons or intervene. But as much as we can, we should clearly be on the side of those things.”