Rubio shows foreign policy chops in NYC

NEW YORK — Sen. Marco Rubio (R-Fla.) on Thursday offered a full-throated defense of U.S. foreign aid — a target in the Republican presidential primary debates — warning that “getting rid of it doesn’t solve anything, but it creates a host of problems.”

Rubio’s comments came in a high-profile address to the Council on Foreign Relations in New York, the second foreign-policy speech in two months by a rising GOP star seemingly auditioning for a larger role on the political stage.

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The freshman senator and frequent target of vice presidential speculation called for more U.S. action in Syria, which he said had crossed “a tipping point,” and he said he was prepared for U.S. military action in Iran if necessary because he didn’t expect that negotiations or sanctions would stop Tehran from pursuing a nuclear weapon.

“I don’t want to come across as some sort of saber-rattling person, because I’m not,” Rubio said. “But I am aligning with what the administration has said, which is ultimately military action may be necessary if everything else fails.

“Sadly, I believe everything else probably will fail,” he said.

The event at the august New York institution allowed Rubio a second chance to make a mark on the foreign-policy scene and to improve upon a 35-minute speech he gave last month at the Brookings Institution.

The Brookings speech received some praise for its substance, but it also raised questions from pundits about whether Rubio was ready for the national stage, particularly after he had to momentarily stop the speech when he didn’t have the last page.

Rubio appeared comfortable on the stage Thursday during an unscripted Q-and-A with moderator Richard Stengel, Time magazine’s managing editor, which gave him a new avenue to exhibit his foreign-policy chops.

Max Boot, a senior fellow at the Council on Foreign Relations who has given Rubio foreign-policy advice, said that he thought Rubio had won over some skeptics who attended Thursday’s event.

“He’s really filling a vacuum on the Republican side, where most Republican lawmakers are intrinsically focused on the domestic agenda,” said Boot. “Rubio is staking out a leadership position on foreign-policy issues in a way that really sets him apart from other younger members of Congress.”

While the question-and-answer format was much more free-wheeling than a speech, Rubio still didn’t answer every question thrown his way. He declined to engage about Obama’s record on using drone strikes to target terrorists, admitting that he didn’t know how Obama’s use of hard power would play out in the election before quickly transitioning away from the topic.

On immigration, where Rubio has the potential to play a leading role in the Senate, Rubio hinted at his long-term ambitions when discussing the Republican Party’s difficulty winning over Hispanic voters.

“The argument we Republicans have is we stand for the American free enterprise system,” Rubio said.

That’s a compelling argument that we can give, but this is not an argument for November,” he said. “This is an argument for the next two decades.”

The Council address was the latest in a series of events that are helping raise the profile of the freshman senator, whom some see as a White House contender in future cycles.

Rubio traveled to Guantanamo Bay on Tuesday, setting foot on Cuban soil for the first time, and he announced last week a book tour in June that will travel through battleground states Florida, Virginia and North Carolina, as well as the first-in-the-South primary state, South Carolina.

“People are really paying attention to Rubio because of the VP speculation,” said Ron Bonjean, a Republican strategist. “When they see foreign policy speeches, they think he’s preparing the foundation for a possible selection. It works right in his wheelhouse.”

Foreign policy is not expected to play much of a role in the 2012 election, barring any major events, but it is an area where President Obama has an atypical amount of strength for a Democrat, as he can tout the killing of Osama bin Laden and ending the Iraq war.

Rubio again said he’s not interested in the VP slot on Thursday, and his aides say the foreign policy speeches and trip to Guantanamo are part of his work in the Senate on the Foreign Relations and Intelligence committees.

Like his speech last month, Rubio laid out a foreign-policy vision where the United States plays an active role in the international community, a position that puts him at odds with the isolationist wing of the Republican Party.

“I’m not prepared to cede the conservative label to those who would disengage us to what’s going on the world,” Rubio said. “My role, as someone who was elected with a lot of support from a lot of different people who maybe have a different point of view than I do on foreign relations, is to lead. To go to them and make these arguments and try to convince people.”