Marco Rubio, American Internationalism, and Islam

May 17th, 2016 | By | Category: Featured

Senator Marco Rubio promotes a continued George W. Bush / Barack Obama interventionism to promote imagined democracies in the Middle East

Rubio Hudson

by Andrew Harrod, PhD. – Exclusive to Religious Freedom Coalition

Senator Marco Rubio is the “most articulate spokesperson today for a kind of conservative internationalism,” stated Michael Doran, a scholar at Washington, DC’s Hudson Institute, during a May 10 discussion there on the Middle East.  Rubio’s appearance before a conference hall packed with over 120 listeners provided an important opportunity to examine the Muslim world’s pitfalls for this internationalism marked by success elsewhere.

Rubio substantiated his fundamental thesis that “if we are not engaged in the world, the price we pay will be much higher in the long run than the price we pay to be engaged.”  He emphasized America’s decisive role in promoting peace and prosperity after World War II amidst Communist Cold War dangers, noting the rags-to-riches success of South Korea, now a net foreign aid donor.  Reflecting previous statements, he speculated whether “there has ever been a period in human history where international affairs has a bigger impact on our economy than it does today.”  He noted that alliance “partnerships have helped us as well confront evil around the world” such as the 1990 Iraqi invasion of Kuwait and the Islamic State.

Yet many Americans today see “this whole international engagement on the part of the United States is a one-way street” benefiting only foreigners, Rubio stated, sentiments strengthened by an uncertain economy.  “You see many periods in our history where Americans are arguing ok, enough is enough, let’s focus on ourselves,” he observed.  Focused on domestic tranquility, Americans want to “run their business, raise their family, go to work, enjoy their weekends,” a description that undercuts his assessment that the “American people are instinctively internationalist.”

Turning to the Hudson Institute event’s topic, Rubio highlighted the Middle East’s centrality in America’s current age of foreign policy discontent.  “We have been involved there for the better part of a decade, nothing ever seems to get better,” he stated of region that, like Afghanistan, has consumed American blood and treasure with little result.  Thereby he discussed the policy complexities of Iraq and Syria, countries riven by sectarianism and facing likely dissolution; Iraq is “like a Rubik’s cube; you get one side right and it throws the other sides off.”

Precisely American policy towards Muslim-majority societies in the Middle East and elsewhere makes Rubio’s foreign policy outlook controversial in the isolationist-tinged era of Donald Trump.  Rubio has consistently embraced the optimistic hope of developing stable democracies in these lands of Islam, the signature issue associated today with neo-conservatism.  He “makes the likes of Dick Cheney, Paul Wolfowitz and Elliott Abrams proud.  Rubio is the neocon man,” writes freelance researcher Daniel R. DePetris.

Accordingly, during the 2011 outbreak of the “Arab Spring” revolts, Rubio praised that the “rise of this new attitude among young people and others seeking a new life and a new way in the Middle East is a positive thing.”  Immediately following the downfall of Egyptian dictator Hosni Mubarak, he wrote on February 11, 2011, of an “opportunity for the Egyptian people to chart a new, more hopeful and democratic future.”  Later that year on October 13 he urged Secretary of State Hillary Clinton to pursue policy in Bahrain that “moves the country on the path to a fully constitutional monarchy.”

Along with Clinton and President Barack Obama’s administration, Rubio supported the 2011 American-led military overthrow of Libyan dictator Muammar Ghaddafi, a regime change with disastrous results.  After disappointing democratization projects in Afghanistan and Iraq, “Rubio supported this third adventure in regime change in the Muslim world since 9/11, perhaps on the principle that practice makes perfect,” wrote columnist George Will.  Given that a chaotic post-Gaddafi “Libya is today a central nexus for training and equipping jihadists across the Middle East” in the words of former House Intelligence Committee chairman Pete Hoekstra, Rubio’s Hudson Institute presentation was ironic.  “Whenever there are vacuums of instability created, particularly in that part of the world, that vacuum is filled by radicals, and those radicals almost always, irrespective of what we are doing or not doing, almost always try to target America,” he stated.

Unfazed by the “Arab Spring’s” failures, Rubio has argued that alternative policies could have achieved better results.  In Libya, a Rubio administration more decisive than Obama “would have ended that conflict quickly and we would have worked with the people that we were working with at the time to ensure that there was a stable national government.”  Rubio’s analysis ignores that extrapolations from the 1995 Bosnian NATO peacekeeping mission suggest that stabilizing Libya would have required 120,000 troops, an operation Americans were unlikely to support after the Afghan and Iraqi operations.

Rubio likewise suggests that a slower Egyptian regime change could have prevented the Muslim Brotherhood’s rise to power, even though Egypt is far less westernized than Tunisia, the “Arab Spring’s” only “fragile success.”  “What happened in Egypt, unfortunately, was that they called elections far too quickly.  The only group capable of fielding candidates and a slate were the Muslim Brotherhood,” he has stated.  He has warned that similarly precipitous change could have parallel results in Bahrain or Jordan.

Last but not least, Rubio has a longstanding wish to find “moderate” elements in Syria’s civil war that, with American support, could force that country’s brutal dictator, Bashar al-Assad, from power.  “I believe that there are elements that we can work with in Syria,” Rubio stated at the Hudson Institute, even though the New York Times reported in April 2013 that the Syrian rebellion contained no significant secular forces.  This belied his cautious optimism expressed in March 2013 that, in Syria, “Islamist forces remain in the minority.  Continued inaction, however, will only empower these anti-American elements.”

Rubio’s statements sometimes betray a naïve understanding of Muslims as people whose hearts and minds desire good governance just like anyone else and who embrace Western notions of societies ruled by ordered liberty.  A 2015 letter signed by him along with other congressional leaders criticized repressive Arab rule without any mention of Islamist threats like those that emerged during the “Arab Spring.”  “As we saw during the Arab Spring uprisings,” the letter stated, “choking off all peaceful and legitimate avenues for dissent coupled with unaccountable institutions fuels violent extremism and increases the likelihood of long-term instability.”


Rubio’s vision of huddled Muslim masses yearning to be free has evoked surprisingly superficial comparisons with the Cold War.  “Just as the Berlin airlift in the late ‘40s,” he has written,

created a generation of Germans who remembered American support in their hour of need, Syrian children suffering today in refugee camps should understand that the U.S. government and American people care about their plight and are taking action to assist them.

Conservative commentator Andrew C. McCarthy, a former federal prosecutor who oversaw the conviction of jihadists from the 1993 first World Trade Center bombing, dismisses would-be Islamic nation builders like Rubio:

Regardless of how many polls, terrorist atrocities, and other demonstrative conduct indicate that Muslims in Islamic countries reject Western principles and would prefer to live under sharia, enthusiasts of Islamic nation-building insist that these Muslims share our values and really just want the same things we do.

Correspondingly, McCarthy was far more pessimistic than Rubio in assessing the “Arab Spring” in 2011.  The “phenomenon we are witnessing,” McCarthy wrote, “is not a spontaneous outbreak of democracy in a region yearning for freedom but an inevitable transition to strict Islamization in a civilization yearning for sharia.”  He echoed Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu’s description of the “Arab Spring” in a November 23, 2011, Knesset speech as an “Islamic, anti-Western, anti-liberal, anti-Israeli and anti-democratic wave.”

Babies of Iraqi Christian refugees from the Islamic State need diapers – Please help!

Among Muslims worldwide, Catholic scholar William Kilpatrick has analyzed, true moderates “are nowhere near a majority and their moderation often reflects a lack of commitment to mainstream Islamic beliefs.”  Rubio’s 2016 Republican presidential primary opponent, Senator Ted Cruz, accordingly criticized Rubio’s proposal to arm supposedly “moderate” Syrian rebels.  Obama, Clinton, and some Republicans are “searching for these mythical moderate rebels.  It’s like a purple unicorn.  They never exist.  These moderate rebels end up being jihadists,” Cruz stated during a debate.

Political commentator David Goldman, himself a self-professed neoconservative who workded for President Ronald Reagan, warns Rubio and others who desire to replicate past American democracy promotion successes.  “You made a Gargantuan error, though,” Goldman has written to his fellow neoconservatives, “when you assumed that the Reagan Revolution could be exported to the Middle East, Russia and China.”  America’s World War II Greatest Generation and the Cold War liberator Reagan most likely inspired a tough talking Texan like President George W. Bush to free captive Muslim nations after September 11, 2001.  Nonetheless, the bitter experience of military campaigns like Operations Enduring Freedom and Iraqi Freedom has demonstrated America’s limited ability to transform Muslim countries.  Precisely for the sake of preserving American support for robust internationalist policies, Rubio and his allies will have to content themselves largely with containing Islam’s demons for the foreseeable future.

About Andrew Harrod
Andrew E. Harrod is a researcher and writer who holds a PhD from the Fletcher School of Law and Diplomacy and a JD from George Washington University Law School. He is a fellow with the Lawfare Project, an organization combating the misuse of human rights law against Western societies. He can be followed on twitter at @AEHarrod.

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