Why Republicans Cannot Have a National Security “Doctrine”

In case you missed it, Marco Rubio delivered a Great Big Foreign Policy Speech yesterday, at the hallowed venue of the Council on Foreign Relations. It was such a big deal that Charlie Rose introduced him. And it even unveiled a proposed “doctrine” for national security, which I am sure the Floridian hopes will soon be known as the Rubio Doctrine.

But as Peter Beinart notes at The Atlantic, the Rubio Doctrine is basically just a collection of banal principles almost anyone could agree with:

The Rubio doctrine, which the Florida senator announced on Wednesday, “consists of three pillars.” Pillar number one is “American strength”: America must “adequately fund our military.” Pillar number two is “the protection of the American economy”: America must pursue “free trade.” Pillar number three is “clarity regarding America’s core values”: America must “support the spread of economic and political freedom by reinforcing our alliances, resisting efforts by large powers to subjugate their smaller neighbors” and “advanc[ing] the rights of the vulnerable.”

These, Rubio told moderator Charlie Rose, “are timeless truths.” But that’s precisely the problem. Historically, foreign-policy doctrines have been the opposite of “timeless.” They represent efforts to further American interests and ideals by offering a specific response to a specific geopolitical reality. Every president wants the United States to be strong, prosperous, and moral. Doctrines are supposed to outline a strategy for achieving those goals. They are not the goals themselves.

The most significant part of Beinart’s critique is this acerbic explanation of why Rubio has to keep his “doctrine” at 40,000 feet above the specific challenges of our era:

Rubio and most of the other GOP candidates want the United States to go on offense overseas after the perceived retrenchment of the Obama years. But Americans have little appetite for additional wars, and the threat that Republicans focus on most—“radical Islam”—lumps together states and organizations that are not only disparate, but bitterly hostile to each other. Truman’s “containment” doctrine and Reagan’s doctrine of “rollback” each had problems. But at least they were aimed at a specific enemy. Rubio can’t lay out a doctrine like that today because the two enemies he and other Republicans talk about most—Iran and ISIS—are only linked in the conservative imagination. On the ground, they’re at war.

That’s a bit of a problem, eh? I’m guessing if Rubio were challenged on this point, he might answer the way Will Rogers once did shortly before World War I when he was asked exactly how he proposed to drain the Atlantic Ocean, which was his “solution” to the problem of German U-Boat attacks: “That is a detail, and I am not a detail man.”

Ed Kilgore

Ed Kilgore, a Monthly contributing editor, is a columnist for the Daily Intelligencer, New York magazine’s politics blog, and the managing editor for the Democratic Strategist.