Republican rising star Sen. Marco Rubio (R-Fla.) departed for the Middle East on Saturday, beginning a journey that could do much to burnish the possible 2016 presidential candidate's foreign policy credentials.
His trip comes as Secretary of State John Kerry prepares to visit the region in his inaugural trip in his new position, and ahead of President Obama's first trip to Israel in March.
“America's friendship with Israel is a truly special one, and we must continue to do all we can to support this beacon of democracy, religious freedom and free enterprise in the heart of an unstable region,” Rubio said in a statement announcing his trip.
Obama's nominee for defense secretary, former Sen. Chuck Hagel (R-Neb.) has come under fire for statements critical of Israel and lobbyists for Israel, as well as for voting against tough economic sanctions against Iran.
“As Iran continues its pursuit of a nuclear weapon, we must continue to apply pressure through every possible means in order to prevent a nuclear Iran,” said Rubio, who this week delivered the GOP response to Obama's State of the Union address.
Rubio also highlighted that he will be visiting the United States embassy in each country. Republicans, including Rubio, voted to filibuster Hagel's nomination on Thursday in part to pressure the White House to release more information on an attack on the U.S. Consulate in Benghazi, Libya, which resulted in the death of the U.S. ambassador and three other Americans.
Rubio serves on the Senate Foreign Relations and Intelligence committees. His star status was marred slightly this week by his awkward State of the Union response in which he gulped from a bottle of water.