By Alexander Bolton - 06/06/12 09:00 AM EDT
Sens. Rob Portman (R-Ohio) and Marco Rubio (R-Fla.) are showcasing their foreign-policy credentials at a critical juncture in Mitt Romney’s search for a running mate.
The two lawmakers used the Memorial Day recess to take high-profile trips abroad in what is seen as an effort to tout their knowledge on foreign-policy issues, an area that is not Romney’s forte.
Romney has primarily focused on President Obama’s handling of the ailing economy, but Republican officials say international policy matters will become more important as the campaign grinds on, especially with Syria, Egypt and Yemen attracting more U.S. news coverage in recent weeks.
Still, the timing of the trips has been noticed widely, partially because the senators have publicly highlighted them.
Portman’s staff on Monday posted pictures of their boss’s recent trip to Israel, Jordan and Afghanistan on Flickr, a photo-sharing website. The snapshots showed the senator shaking hands with Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu and Defense Minister Ehud Barak.
Portman, the ranking Republican on the Armed Services Committee’s Emerging Threats and Capabilities subcommittee, said he met with Israeli leaders to discuss a missile defense program.
“In Israel, Iron Dome is something I’ve been pushing. I got to see Iron Dome firsthand,” he said of the missile defense program. “I also got to meet with Defense Minister Barak and Netanyahu and others. It’s really the oversight responsibility of Armed Services.”
Meanwhile, Rubio’s office on Monday circulated a Miami Herald article, headlined “Sen. Marco Rubio’s foreign policy work is earning respect in Congress,” which included a quotation from Senate Homeland Security Committee Chairman Joe Lieberman (I-Conn.) praising the Florida lawmaker as a “workhorse” and not a “show horse.”
Rubio aides also posted on his website a slideshow of a trip he took over the recess to Cuba, including pictures of him touring the Guantánamo Bay prison camp and meeting with U.S. military officials surrounded by fencing and concertina wire.
“The most notable takeaway is the amount of time and energy and money that the United States spends on complying with our international obligations in terms of how we hold prisoners of war and enemy combatants, but it’s important that we do that in the right way, because our credibility is on the line,” Rubio said of what he learned on the trip.
Rubio said he is “very concerned about the president’s plan to close Guantánamo” because it “would be counterproductive to both our intelligence and our national-security efforts.”
Portman met with a U.S. special-forces team in Afghanistan, which he said also falls under his oversight jurisdiction. Portman visited Fort Bragg, N.C., home of the U.S. special forces, several weeks ago.
“This was a follow-on to go in theater and see what the special forces were doing,” he said.
The federal government paid for Portman’s trip to Israel and Afghanistan.
Some Republicans have urged Romney to visit Israel, since Obama has not done so since being sworn in as president.
Portman said he did not speak with Romney about his trip beforehand.
“It’s a very difficult time right now in the Middle East; every one of Israel’s borders is under increased pressure, [with] the possible exception of Jordan, and even there, having gone to Jordan after Israel, they’ve got challenges,” he said. “It’s an important time to be there.”
Rubio says he would like to visit the Middle East before the election. He had tentatively hoped to do so this summer, but his schedule became too busy.
“It will be hard to do at least until after the conventions,” said Rubio. “I’d like to get back to Israel — I haven’t been there since October of 2010 — and haven’t been to Afghanistan [since] January of 2011.
“I would love to go to Israel as soon as possible,” he said.
Rubio delivered major foreign-policy speeches in recent weeks at the Brookings Institution and before the Council on Foreign Relations in New York.
Portman has more foreign-policy experience than the 41-year-old Rubio, who was elected in 2010. The Ohio legislator, 56, was elected to the House in 1993 and left the lower chamber to serve as President George W. Bush’s trade representative in 2005.
Danielle Pletka, vice president for foreign and defense policy studies at the American Enterprise Institute, said it’s important for prospective vice presidential candidates to show national-security expertise.
“I think that any would-be vice president needs to affirm that he’s not a one-trick pony,” said Pletka. “While I’m not suggesting Sen. Rubio or Portman are — to the contrary — it certainly can’t hurt.
“Particularly as Romney has taken on the president on the question of foreign policy, he will need whomever he chooses to carry that argument forward as well as the economic argument,” she added.
Sen. Lamar Alexander (R-Tenn.) said foreign policy will become more important as the campaign progresses because of the escalating conflict in Syria and mounting tensions over Iran’s nuclear program.
“The truth is every president intends to be a domestic president and ends up being a foreign-policy president, because the issues of war and peace are so exclusively a part of the president’s job,” he said. “The world’s in a lot of turmoil right now, so I think it will be an important part of the presidential debate.”
In the 2008 presidential race, Republicans zeroed in on Obama’s lack of foreign-policy experience while extolling Sen. John McCain’s (R-Ariz.) expertise on international issues. Obama selected then-Foreign Relations Committee Chairman Joe Biden (D-Del.) as his running mate, shoring up a perceived weakness before the general election.