WASHINGTON – The Republican establishment appears to have settled on Marco Rubio as the last great hope to save the Republican Party, or at least the elites which dominate the GOP, from Donald Trump. Alas, while the Donald’s shortcomings are manifest, Rubio’s foreign policy judgment is awful. If you want more foolish, costly, and unnecessary wars, vote for Rubio.
After underestimating Donald Trump’s candidacy, virtually the entire political class is scrambling to stop the billionaire businessman. No one knows what he would do as president on most issues since he exhibits no fixed philosophy and seamlessly shifts his positions.
However, the relevant question is Donald Trump compared to whom? On at least one important dimension the Florida senator would be a far worse president than Trump. Despite making blowhard claims about being the campaign’s most militaristic candidate, Trump is not disposed to get America into another foreign conflict.
Indeed, Trump, despite his bluster and exaggeration, gets much right about foreign policy. He recognizes that the Iraq invasion had disastrous consequences, opposed the Libyan imbroglio, and criticizes proposals to fight on both sides of Syria’s hideous civil war. He opposes military confrontation with Russia.
He also has raised the long overdue question: Why are Americans expected to forever subsidize rich dependent allies, most notably Europe, Japan and South Korea? He understands that the Pentagon should not be a welfare agency for foreigners who prefer that someone else pay for their defense.
In contrast, Rubio is almost the polar opposite of Trump. He is prepared to spend his presidency starting wars. A true neocon believer, he sees war as the first resort. Moreover, he believes he is a foreign policy guru despite routinely issuing simplistic policy prescriptions based on ideological illusions.
First, Rubio advocates shooting down Russian planes to enforce a no-fly zone. It is hard to think of a more irresponsible policy: commit an act of war against a nuclear-armed power over an issue of marginal importance to the U.S.
Second, Rubio apparently sees no problem with another Middle Eastern war or two. He believes Iraq was a success, argues that the U.S. should have entered the Libyan conflict earlier, and advocates fighting both the Assad regime and Islamic State insurgents.
The Florida senator apparently believes he is smart enough to fix the divided, failed state of Iraq and sort out the hideous, multisided conflict in Syria. Give him enough time—along with lots of American lives and money—and peace will descend upon the Mideast.
Third, the great GOP hope seeks to add new allies rather like normal Americans collect Facebook friends. Traditionally Washington made foreign commitments to enhance U.S. security. Rubio has a very different vision. America should sacrifice its security to protect other states. His great European initiative is to add Montenegro — with an army of 2,080 soldiers! — to NATO.
Rubio also advocates more military support for the Eastern Europeans, none of whom spend much to defend themselves. The European members of NATO collectively have a larger population and economy than America and vastly larger than Russia. They should shift some cash from their generous welfare states to defend themselves.
Even worse, Rubio would bring Ukraine into NATO. While Ukrainians understandably might want America to defend them from their nuclear-armed neighbor, why should Americans court war on behalf of a nation of little security consequence? Offering to protect Kiev gives Washington no meaningful benefits, only an additional defense obligation, a dangerous one against an angry nuclear power.
There are lots of reasons to fear Donald Trump as president. But he appears to be most threatening in the area where he can do the least harm: domestic policy. If elected, he would be constrained, just as the Founders hoped, by the other branches of government, as well as the “factions” so active in our society.
In contrast, Rubio is most irresponsible, even unhinged, in foreign policy, where his relative powers would be greatest. In this area the courts largely defer to presidents for institutional reasons. Congress generally plays the coward, preferring to allow presidents to promiscuously intervene. Members then applaud if events go well and carp if things turn out badly.
Much is at stake in the election. Candidate Donald Trump is more ostentatiously irresponsible, but President Marco Rubio would be far more dangerous. Americans soon may learn whether the republic created with such great hope and expectation more than two centuries ago is resilient enough to survive today’s turbulent politics.
Doug Bandow is a senior fellow at the Cato Institute.