Rubio Gives a Smart Speech, But Can He Go Off-Script on Foreign Policy?

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Brendan Hoffman / Getty Images

Sen. Marco Rubio of Florida gives an address on American foreign policy at the Brookings Institution on April 25, 2012 in Washington.

Marco Rubio’s “major foreign policy speech” on Wednesday involved loads of meta-analysis about his vice presidential prospects and political positioning. But it did turn out to be a relatively learned and substantive speech, at least by the admittedly not-high standards of a young U.S. Senator. Rubio outlined a kind of internationalist-hawk vision, spurning both the isolationist and unilateralist streaks within his party while critiquing the left’s realism (in Syria) and aversion to force (in Iran).

On Syria, for instance, Rubio gave one of the most reasoned arguments I’ve seen for an American intervention to help topple the Assad regime. “The fall of Assad would be a significant blow to Iran’s ambitions. On those grounds alone, we should be seeking to help the people of Syria bring him down,” Rubio said. “But on the Foreign Relations committee, I have noticed that some members are so concerned about the challenges of a post-Assad Syria that they have lost sight of the advantages of it.” Read the speech for his full rationale.

Now, giving a nice speech is all well and good. It demonstrates, at a minimum, that he has talented advisers. (Rubio heaps praise on Robert Kagan’s recent book, which President Obama has also cited, and about which I recently wrote a story. I don’t know whether Kagan helped with this speech.) At the same time, any dimwit can pay someone else to write a nice speech for him. So when Rubio says that “Russia’s domestic politics shape its foreign policies. An autocratic Russia tends to be more anti-Western,” I’m left wondering whether this is an insight gleaned from his heretofore unknown reading and reflection on that country’s long history, or whether this snappy line is the rhetorical equivalent of a clip-on bow tie.

The way to know whether someone actually knows what they’re talking about, of course, is to see them discuss it in an unscripted, extemporaneous way. So, give a tip of the cap to Rubio for delivering a fine address. It remains to be seen how well he fares with a sharp inquisitor and no text before him.