Small Wars Journal

An Analysis of the Candidates on National Security and Defense Issues: Marco Rubio

An Analysis of the Candidates on National Security and Defense Issues: Marco Rubio

Gary Anderson

This is the fifth in a series of analyses of the candidates’ national security positions based primarily on information gleaned from their web sites. Part 1, Bernie Sanders, can be found here, Part 2, Donald Trump, can be found here, Part 3, Hillary Clinton, can be found here, and Part 4, Ted Cruz, can be found here.

Overall Evaluation. During the past week, Senator Rubio has been accusing Senator Cruz of being soft on national security due to several Cruz votes on defense funding. The reality is that that Cruz and Rubio hold remarkably similar views on national security, and differ only on specifics. Both have websites that have detailed and specific proposals and plans for rebuilding the U.S. military from what both see as seven years of neglect under President Obama. Cruz is more specific on how he will pay for his proposals while Rubio is somewhat more detailed on ships, aircraft, and weapons systems.

Both Rubio and Cruz are much more specific on national security and defense than Mr. Trump.

Iraq and Afghanistan. Senator Rubio would not have invaded Iraq in 2003 knowing what we know now, but he gave a spirited defense of George W. Bush in the South Carolina debate. Rubio has stated that we should continue to help Iraq with improving governance if it is to survive the current ISIS crisis which threatens to permanently fragment the country. Rubio stresses strengthening governance and is careful not use the term “nation building” which connotes a return to large scale development rather than mere governing.

Senator Rubio is more definitive than Senator Cruz on the subject of Afghanistan. He believes that the 10,000 American troop level is barely enough to do the job, and would likely reverse any decision by President Obama to go below that level whereas Mr. Cruz has been more ambiguous.

Dealing with the Islamic State. Although he has not specifically said he would commit combat troops, Senator Rubio has been careful not to rule out that option. Like most candidates he stresses a coalition approach, but he is nearly unique in identifying any anti-ISIS approach as needing to be a unified effort in both Iraq and Syria; most other candidates have not made that connection.

Russia, China, Libya, and North Korea. Senator Rubio takes a tough line on Russia and China; like Cruz he sees the need for a revived military as part of that approach.

Cruz has criticized Rubio for supporting the Obama-Clinton decision to intervene in Libya in 2011, but that issue does not seem to have much traction with primary voters. Rubio would likely see stopping ISIS in Libya as part of his overall anti-Islamic State strategy.

Senator’s Rubio and Cruz have virtually the same positions on North Korea. Both would toughen sanctions and restore North Korea to the list of state sponsors of terror as well as bolster South Korea’s missile defense capabilities.

Iran. Senator Rubio would re-impose sanctions on Iran from day one and renegotiate the Iran agreement. He would also use military force if he believed that the Iranians were moving forward with pursuit of a nuclear weapon.

Counter-terrorism and Homeland Defense. Senator Rubio had initially been open to allowing Syrian refugees into the country until terror attacks in Paris and San Bernadino. At that point in time, he reversed his position and called for better vetting of all people coming into the country. His website does not specifically address homeland security, but his senate voting record on the subject has generally been strong.

Pentagon Reform and the Size of the Military. Senator Rubio’s plan to rebuild the military is as detailed as that of Senator Cruz. They differ in some specifics, but Rubio will likely plan on spending less than Cruz. He plans to return to the Secretary Gates 2012 baseline budget. Senator Cruz would build the Navy up to 323 ships and return to a level of 12 aircraft carriers as well as increase amphibious lift for the Marines to 78 ships from 70. He also plans for Air Force modernization as well as modernizing the attack and ballistic missile nuclear submarine force. Rubio plans to raise Army and Marine Corps ground force size back to pre-911 levels. Modernization of the missile forces and improvement of cyber warfare capabilities are also high on his list.

Like Senator Cruz, the Rubio plan is to shrink the Pentagon bureaucracy, but no specifics are offered. Like Cruz, Senator Rubio hopes to reassure Americans worried about the decline of our military power and our will to use it - restored and that Obama era strategic ineptitude will be reversed. Unlike Cruz there is not a blueprint on how these improvements will be funded.

Immigration. Senator Rubio appears to have the most realistic plan for getting a handle on Immigration reform and border security of the three top tier Republican candidates (Trump and Cruz being the other two). He has a plan for securing the border, and only then will he address existing illegal immigrants. He intends to deport all criminal aliens while offering a difficult but doable path to citizenship for those who have shown themselves to be productive members of society. Like Trump and Cruz, Senator Rubio will abolish sanctuary cities and rescind Obama executive orders on immigration.

The Republican Primaries. Assuming that there are any moderate Republican voters left going into Super Tuesday, Senator Rubio will be the most viable candidate in the top tier from a national security standpoint, but moderation is not a key theme this year. Of the bottom three, Mr. Bush and Governor Kasich have acceptable moderate national security plans as does Dr. Carson; however, they will have to survive the brutal South Carolina primary to have those plans receive serious consideration.

Essentially, national security will likely not be critical to Senator Rubio’s shot at the nomination. The soul of the Republican Party is in play, and no Republican candidate is so soft or hard on defense for national security to be a critical factor.

The General Election Campaign. Marco Rubio probably has the best chance of the three Republican front runners in the general election to sway defense minded independents and Blue Dog Democrats who might be distrustful enough of Ms. Clinton or Senator Sanders to vote Republican. He is moderate enough on domestic issues to sway the non-Republican fence sitters. His robotic performance in the New Hampshire debate was a near death experience but he appears to be recovering. Senator Rubio should take the advice given to anyone going to military training. When asked a question that you can’t answer, the only correct response is: “I don’t know sir, but I’ll find out.”