Once plastered across the home page of Marco Rubio’s campaign (RIP) website is the question, ‘Are You Ready for a New American Century?’
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Rubio, the first-term senator from Florida, was running in the 2016 Republican primary as a neocon – in its descriptive, not derogatory, formulation, holding the belief that U.S military and diplomatic power should actively work to spread democracy and freedom in the world.
In the foreign policy, and electability and general seriousness vacuum created by Donald Trump and Ted Cruz - what John Avlon in the Daily Beast recently dubbed the GOP’s Crump Cancer - Rubio and his neoconservative revival seemed perfectly poised to make a run for the nomination.
However, something has changed in the GOP. What was once believed to be part and parcel of the party’s base for the last decade and a half – neoconservatism – has clearly become a liability with primary voters. A phenomenon which manifested itself at AIPAC this year as the major Republican candidates addressing the conference had each taken swipes at neocons.
When Donald Trump blamed George W. Bush for 9/11 and declared the war in Iraq one of the ‘worst mistakes in the country’s history’ before the South Carolina primary, a state where Bush has astronomically high approval ratings among Republicans, pundits cried foul and speculated that no one, not even Trump, could get away with such comments. Lo and behold, days later, Trump won the South Carolina primary by ten points.
Max Fisher wrote recently in Vox this about where neocons stand in the Republican Party: “Republican elites might still support them, but the voters do not seem to,” of an emerging dynamic in this election that certainly didn’t help Rubio. Rubio had tried to use foreign policy, especially his pro-Israel positions to blunt the advance of Trump, but to no avail.
Going into the Florida primary, his home state which buried his campaign (and political career ) with a devastating 18 point loss to Trump, Rubio’s campaign had equated Trump to Obama for his ‘neutral’ comment on Israel , declared support for Israel annexing the Golan Heights from Syria and reinforced his position that the ‘time was not right for a two-state solution’ - all positions which were meant to, but failed to, shore-up support before the primary.
The neocons donate, but don’t bring in the vote
The phrase a ‘New American Century’ is a well-known buzz term for neocons and a wink and nod to some of Rubio’s most powerful and influential backers.
The now-defunct think tank, the Project for a New American Century, which lasted from 1997-2006, was influential in crafting and selling the need for regime change in Iraq and was founded by two of Rubio’s most prominent foreign policy advisers, Bill Kristol and Robert Kagan.
Jeb Bush had claimed some of his brother’s old advisers, but the lionshare of well-known neoconservatives had swung in the direction of Rubio, including: former George W. Bush national security advisor Stephen Hadley, former senator Jim Talent, Iran-contra convict Elliot Abrahams, as well as former George W. Bush administration officials Eric Edelman and Eliot Cohen
In the aftermath of Rubio's withdrawal from the race both Abrahams and Talent quickly signed on to advise Ted Cruz, as Cruz quickly pounced on former Rubio donors and supporters . Cruz's ability to snag some of Rubio's neoconservative supporters is surprising as Cruz had explicitly criticized neocons as "crazy" and denounced their "military adventurism that has had the effect of benefiting radical Islamic terrorists." .
Rubio’s campaign, despite consistently lagging behind Trump and Cruz in the national polls , had also won some of the most influential donors and endorsements in the race, particularly from those interesting in foreign policy and U.S.- Israel relations.
Jewish billionaires with clear pro-Israel interests from Norman Braman to Paul Singer and an unofficial endorsement from Sheldon Adelson, had all chipped in and kept Rubio’s campaign alive.
Good for Israel?
In December, Rubio spoke to the Republican Jewish Coalition saying, Israel “stands on the front-lines of our civilizational struggle against radical, apocalyptic Islam. The enemy hates liberal democracy. We must not separate the threat to Jerusalem and Tel Aviv from the threat to Paris or London or New York or Washington or even Miami.”
Neocons have always found ideological resonance with Israelis, both the leadership and much of the population, as they frame terror as a global battle where they are no moral equivalents. George W Bush’s global war on terror was warmly welcomed by Israel, especially as Sharon and Olmert were dealing with the second intifada, while Obama’s current approach to Iran and the Middle East to some is seen as ‘selling Israel out’ as it doesn’t call out terrorism for what it is.
Rubio’s message had already resonated with right-wing politicians in Israel. Habayit Yehudi MK Jeremy Saltan noted that, “Rubio’s strong national security policies are very close to the ideology of many Bayit Yehudi voters.” However, the neocon record on Israel is a mixed one.
Bush offered strong pronouncements of support for Israel from his 2004 letters to Sharon to his famous ‘Masada will never fall again’ speech. But, on the other hand, Bush’s push for Palestinian elections in 2005 led to a disastrous outcome for both Israel and the Palestinians as Hamas took over the Gaza strip, which has led to nearly half a dozen rounds of conflict since and was effectively a vote to end democracy.
Rubio’s strong pronouncements of support for Israel and his tough rhetoric on ISIS and Syria sounded much like Bush’s past statements of support for Israel and sabre rattling in the Middle East.
The fact that this kind of rhetoric didn’t win over Republican voters for Rubio doesn’t necessarily mean those voters are no longer deeply pro-Israel, as all the Republican candidates time and again do battle over who is more pro-Israel, but the distinction between Rubio and Trump (Cruz also) is an important one.
Rubio was the last Republican in the race, Lindsey Graham crashed and burned well before, ideologically tethered to using the American military to promote democracy and freedom abroad – that supports Israel because it is a democratic free society.
Trump and Cruz talk tough on Israel (Cruz mixes in Evangelical support for Israel) and ISIS, but neither outwardly advocates long-term military action, boots on the ground or democratic engineering in the Middle East.
Cruz and Trump have offered a different view of how best to achieve stability in the Middle East, both mixing hardline rhetoric about destroying ISIS, while tacitly accepting dictatorships in the Middle East (supporting Assad’s survival in Syria), while Trump laments the ouster of both Saddam Hussein and Muammar Gaddafi.
While both are equally as hawkish as Rubio, Trump insists he will bring back “worse than waterboarding” and Cruz declares he will carpet-bomb the Middle East and find out whether “sand can glow in the dark” - only Rubio was laying out the groundwork for a generational struggle pitting the ‘good’ of American democracy against the ‘evil’ of Islamic terror.
No New American Century
Trump has successfully played off of American’s war fatigue and their anger that so much time, blood and treasure has been spent in Iraq only to watch ISIS rise out of the country and come to Europe and the U.S. to commit deadly acts of terror.
The failures of the neocons in places like Iraq, Afghanistan and Gaza have left the ideology on life support, at least in terms of popular backing. However, it is unlikely that the movement is soon to die out; Fisher notes that many neocons are likely to move back (having started, historically, on the left first opposing Stalinism, then the Cold War) to the Democrats if Trump is the Republican nominee.
There are many who would argue that Trump’s victories have all been style, or in his case bluster, over substance, which means Rubio’s failed candidacy rests more with the candidate and less with the substance of his message.
The line Rubio infamously and ‘robotically’ repeated multiple times at the debate before the South Carolina primary, was a neocon talking point - the notion that Obama is deliberately weakening the U.S. abroad as a policy goal.
The irony of that moment, is that the actual talking point (which was forgotten in the gaffe), meant to slam Obama to win over base voters, may very well be exactly what they want: an America focused more at home, more isolationist and - as Trump would say, making less 'stupid decisions' overseas - than in the past century.
The Republican primary voters, from New Hampshire to Florida have clearly answered Rubio’s question and they have declared they do not want a new American century – at least not one where America is bogged down in the Middle East.