Syria a risk for Rubio

Sen. Rubio — it’s Sheldon Adelson on line one. 

Just kidding.

Florida Sen. Marco Rubio’s decision to vote against a resolution authorizing a military strike against the Syrian regime has a few things in common with the U.S. challenge of responding to the conflict itself: much confusion, risky political calculations and the sense that, down the road, enemies could be friends, allies could become adversaries and certainly almost any decision could become a regret. 

Presidential contenders like Rubio are preparing to sell themselves to a GOP primary electorate that has turned on former President George W. Bush’s wars in Iraq and Afghanistan. In order to win the nomination, they hope to rise from the smoke of a heated debate on national security that has divided Republicans on deep cuts to military spending, the use of drones, surveillance by the National Security Agency, aid to Egypt and now the Syrian civil war. It’s not possible at this point to predict which way the party will turn in 2016 — toward a traditional “internationalist” candidate or a more libertarian “isolationist” leader who would like to scale back America’s role abroad and reduce our costly attempts to police the world.

Rubio doesn’t agree with GOP Sens. Rand Paul (Ky.) or Ted Cruz (Texas), who are advocating a more restrained foreign policy posture. On Syria, Rubio is in a minority of lawmakers — Republican and Democrat — having characterized the crisis in Syria as a “vital national security concern for the United States.” Indeed, he has vigorously promoted intervention in Syria for nearly two years; he supported arming the rebels, sanctioning the Syrian national bank and working to force Syrian President Bashar Assad from power through means outlined in the Syrian Transition Support Act.

But in opposing the resolution this week, Rubio said he has never supported U.S. military action in Syria because he doesn’t believe it will work. “The only thing that will prevent Assad from using chemical weapons in the future is for the Syrian people to remove him from power,” the lawmaker said.

For Rubio, if he is considering a presidential campaign in earnest, backing strikes — even if they are successful — would likely be a liability, at least at the start of the nomination battle. Siding with President Obama on immigration reform might already be more than Rubio can overcome with conservative activists who dominate GOP primaries. But coming to Obama’s rescue in his badly botched Syrian response could end his bid early. 

Of course there are other pressures, like the money that fuels campaigns, which traditionally comes from Republicans who favor a strong national defense and who won’t be spending a dollar on the campaigns of Paul or Cruz. Should Rubio face New Jersey Gov. Chris Christie, it is likely in the early contests the two men will compete for funding from the same internationalist donors who can often determine the outcome of the nominating process.

Then there is Adelson. His outsized influence is a factor for the Florida Republican whether he likes it or not. After Adelson sponsored former Speaker Newt Gingrich’s (R-Ga.) carnival-act campaign in the 2012 primaries, Mitt Romney and his running mate, Rep. Paul Ryan (R-Wis.), each reached out personally to Adelson to earn his support.

The backer of the Republican Jewish Coalition, Adelson is now siding with the president he loathes, and wants the resolution for force in Syria to pass the Congress. He may or may not hold Rubio’s vote against him in two years, but like so many other factors in the conflict, some of the ramifications could last a long time.


Stoddard is an associate editor of The Hill.