Freshman Foreign Policy

Why Marco Rubio’s claims of foreign affairs expertise may not succeed as well as Barack Obama’s. 

Sen. Marco Rubio speaks with the media on Feb. 9, 2015, in Miami.

Photo by Joe Raedle/Getty Images

A freshman senator says he was right about the foreign policy questions of the day and thinks that makes him qualified to be commander-in-chief. This is the pitch Sen. Barack Obama made in 2008—and Sen. Marco Rubio is making today.

Though America has had 44 presidents, those who want to be No. 45 don’t define the requirements for the job by the 44 who have come before them; they define the job as one that requires skills that only they have. It’s like a Mad Lib:       (best skill)       is what’s required for America to thrive in the world

For Rubio, his foreign policy prescience is what makes him fit for the highest office. Like Sen. Obama, Rubio is a member of the Senate Foreign Relations Committee. He argues that his knowledge about the issues means he won’t need on-the-job training. In an interview with Politico, Rubio said that he was right about arming the Syrian rebels, right about being more aggressive in Libya, and right about Russian President Vladimir Putin’s intentions in Ukraine. When asked about Jeb Bush, who gave a foreign policy speech earlier this week, Rubio said Bush was “certainly capable” of learning about foreign policy, placing him squarely in the training-wheels category. 

Presidents have far more sway over foreign policy than domestic policy, though you’d never know that from the way we talk about it in presidential campaigns. As John Kennedy said, failures in domestic policy can lose you an election. Fail on foreign policy, and it’ll get you killed. So it’s fortunate for all of us that a candidate as popular and talented as Rubio wants the GOP campaign to turn into a contest to show foreign policy mastery. This focus will inform all of us and smoke out other candidates hoping to loaf by with a lot of vague comments about America’s strength and greatness. 

When it comes to foreign policy decision-making, the debate over the attributes required by the next president is going to be fascinating. Is it values, executive experience, or familiarity with the course material that matters most?

Values are a key requirement in the job, but it will be hard to find differences in the value statements of Republican candidates (other than Sen. Rand Paul). It will also be hard to distinguish the GOP calls for strength, peace, human rights, and support for liberty from what Hillary Clinton says. 

So foreign policy distinctions between candidates will turn on judgment: Who has the stuff to make the right call in the moment? That turns on decision making capability and a knowledge of the terrain. Which is more important? 

The executive decision-making skill requires being able to sift through alternatives, build coalitions, and make hard judgments where there are stakes in the game. There are no immediate consequences to the stances you take other than political ones when you’re a senator. There are a different set of questions you ask as an executive who must put a decision into immediate motion than the questions you ask to shape a piece of legislation. Executives also get practice in the post-decision-making stage where implementation can sometimes flag. 

Various foreign policy practitioners from Henry Kissinger to Condoleezza Rice to Robert Gates have made the case for governors, arguing that while no one can be prepared for the presidency, the repeated practice a politician gets as governor is the closest approximation to what a president faces. A president can learn about foreign policy (assuming he has the capacity to absorb complex information quickly), but the muscle memory of decision-making is hard to learn while the stakes are so high. 

This is an attractive idea and is perhaps why in 2008 Hillary Clinton tried so hard to pretend she had executive decision-making experience, when in fact she had none at the time. (Coming to a campaign near you: How much experience has she gained since and in what specific circumstances?)

What Rubio would argue is that if you don’t understand the underlying issues, you can get trapped by your advisers. If presented with options A and B, a president with experience on the foreign relations and intelligence committees can know that option C isn’t being considered or that option C even exists. A decision-making ability between two bad options still leads to disaster. Also, it’s one thing to learn something last week; it’s another thing to know something in your bones after careful study. 

Traditionally Republicans have supported executives and candidates with executive experience—Ronald Reagan, George W. Bush, and Mitt Romney. George H.W. Bush and John McCain were knowledge-based candidates, but since they were both veterans and had been on the job for a long time, that knowledge had some experiential ballast.  

During the Obama years the rhetoric about prior executive experience has increased in Republican ranks. Since Obama first decided to run for the White House as a freshman senator, Republicans have said that his lack of experience disqualified him from the job. They now argue that his foreign policy blunders are proof of that earlier judgment. 

Rubio has to show voters that he has the authority and command on foreign policy issues that will cause them to project commander-in-chief status on him. It can be done. Obama did it in 2008. But there are two differences. First, Obama made his stand on a more front-and-center issue—the war in Iraq—that made him seem prescient on the types of questions that matter most. Second, he came out against the war when plenty of Democrats—including his top 2008 opponents—had supported it. That allowed Obama to set up a bright contrast with the other candidates that Rubio does not have, even though he is more confident, precise, and knowledgeable about foreign policy than any other GOP candidate.

Rubio is also asking voters to make a different bet on him than they did on Barack Obama. In 2008 the country was looking to withdraw from two messy wars. Obama simply needed to clear a low bar of promising not to launch any new adventures. Rubio is promising an engaged and muscular foreign policy. There will be confrontation and moments of tension as he seeks to reassert America’s role in the world. That raises the bar he needs to clear.