Mr Rubio and the Syrian Silence

If you go to the 2016 GOP nomination odds on Ladbrokes, the regular coterie of Republican politicians can be found. Senator Ted Cruz finds himself sitting at rather attractive 16/1 odds, Rand Paul at 8/1, and Sarah Palin coming in at 33/1. These three figures of the current GOP party have controlled the airwaves, blogs, and Sunday talk shows for the past three months. They’ve discussed issues ranging from Syria (remember when that was actually a story?) to the economy-debilitating consequences of Obamacare. In the process, they have made themselves ridicule-fodder from people like John Stewart to John McCain, all in the name of brandishing ‘conservative principles’.

Image courtesy of C-SPAN, © 2013, some rights reserved.

Image courtesy of C-SPAN, © 2013, some rights reserved.

While these frontrunners are front and centre, the number one seed according to Ladbrokes is Senator Marco Rubio. He sits at 5/1 odds- but he is being very quiet.

And that is not how he began the year. Just nine months ago, Rubio was the chosen Republican to respond to President Obama’s State of the Union address. He was supposed to be the face of the post-2012 GOP – a Hispanic Republican that still professed to live ‘in the same working class neighborhood [he] grew up in’ – a far cry from Mitt Romney’s opulence.

His pragmatic approach to immigration reform and his powerful position in the ‘Gang of Eight’ gave the impression he was reaching for middle ground. He was one of the main architects of the bipartisan Senate immigration bill that had widespread support in the US business and religious communities. (That naturally led the likes of Glenn Beck to label him ‘a piece of garbage’ – but that is always a good sign that one is moving to the middle of American politics). His stock was skyrocketing. Amidst years of little being done in Congress, here rose Rubio from the ashes of 2012 to reclaim the Republican Party.

However, as per usual, the Republican controlled House had other plans when faced with Rubio’s immigration plan – namely nothing in particular. Since that time, Rubio has stepped out of the spotlight because Tea Partiers (the very group that helped him get elected), became irritated with his conservative credentials. “I’d like to see Marco Rubio, just so I can tell him what I think of his positions — he’s on the wrong track of being a conservative,” Rick Barr, a 60-year-old activist from Indianapolis, said before a speech Rubio gave on his immigration approach.

If there is one iron law of politics, it is not to piss off your base. And so Rubio, like all Republicans in today’s far-right atmosphere, has to either put up or shut up.

Rubio has done the latter. On the issue of Syria, Rubio spent the last two years urging US intervention in that nation’s civil war. However, once Barack Obama signaled that he would seriously consider military intervention, Rubio went silent on the subject instead arguing that he wished Mr. Obama would pursue ‘a more robust engagement’ with the Syrian opposition. Of particular emphasis for Rubio was that a secular, moderate government replace Bashar al-Assad’s despotic regime – an ironic position for him to hold, considering he was one of the keynote speakers at the Faith and Freedom Coalition.

His struggle between conservative isolationism and liberal interventionalism is a microcosm for the Republican Party’s foreign relations conundrum. Ultimately, what their eventual stance comes down to is whatever the opposite of Obama’s stance. This, for a Republican, is a win-win situation. And Rubio has made sure he’s done just that on the Syrian civil war.

When the time came to vote on Syria, he voted no. Two years of banging the war drum to knock out the Assad regime came to an end. Why the sudden change? The only variable that really changed was that Obama was for the intervention. Rubio has repeatedly argued that Syria is ‘vital’ to US interests, but criticised the Obama administration from ‘leading from behind’ in the process. In other words, it’s all or nothing in Rubio’s foreign policy world. So when Obama and Kerry tactfully tried to rally international and domestic support, Rubio saw this as weak. He wanted Reagan-esque gumption, not thoughtful dialogue.

As Rubio said during his war-mongering days from 2011 to 2013, “What we’re seeing here now [in Syria] is proof and an example of when America ignores these problems, these problems don’t ignore us,” Rubio said. “We can ignore them, but eventually they grow and they come to visit us at our doorstep.” But that is exactly what Rubio has decided to do in these last few months. He’s ignoring the issue, and all for future political gain. He knows that when he parades around Iowa in a couple years time, the conservative base that will not accept anyone that has agreed with Obama’s policies. This is not partisan vitriol; it’s merely the truth.

Rubio’s strategy is very shrewd. He knows that in the ever-elongated pre-election stage of American general elections, the earlier you get involved, especially in the fortune-telling of foreign interventions, the more likely it is that you screw up. Apart from his humorous water-bottle incident, Rubio has given us little more to critique. His silence is proving a golden strategy. It might just end up working: let the other wacko-birds talk until they eventually say something irreconcilable and then swoop in for the 2016 nomination.

We are many moons away from the time Americans vote for their 45th president. Can Rubio continue this strategy or will his competitors bait him out into the public arena? If I were you, I’d put a bet on him for good measure.