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A Conversation with Senator Marco Rubio

Speaker: Marco Rubio, Member, U.S. Senate (R-FL)
Presider: Richard Stengel, Managing Editor, Time
May 31, 2012, New York
Council on Foreign Relations

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MODERATOR: But -- is mine ringing? So cellphones, mobile -- (laughter) -- turn them off. Not even on vibrate. They have to be off completely. And if anybody's even vibrates in here, Richard Haass will personally lead you out of the room.

So -- and here's the drill, so the senator and I are going to talk for 25 minutes, and then I'm going to open it up to questions from members for about another half an hour. And we're going to have a great time.

So -- two-second introduction: So the gentleman to my right was elected in a tea party year in Florida. He came from nowhere. (Laughter.) He campaigned, you know, against fiscal irresponsibility. And then what happens? He gets in the U.S. Senate, and he goes on the Foreign Relations Committee and Intelligence, and he becomes the face of enlightened GOP foreign policy.

So welcome, Senator.

SENATOR MARCO RUBIO (R-FL): Thank you. I appreciate it.

MODERATOR: So this is going to be easy because we're going to start with the headlines in the front page, and you're involved in all of these things.

Syria -- is the administration too cautious?

RUBIO: Well, I would always caution, first and foremost, against viewing these issues as, is the administration doing enough or not? I mean, this is a fluid situation that continues to develop.

My view of the Syria situation -- one of the arguments I've had to have, even within my own party, is that it matters. I mean, for a long time, the argument was, why do we care? Why do we even engage? And obviously it matters, from the point of view of American influence in the region. It matters from the point of view of what's happening in Iran. Certainly Syria is an important beneficiary, but also a benefactor of Iran's foreign policy aims in the region. And then it just matters from a human component as well, and maybe I should have put that one first.

That situation has continued to evolve in a direction that I think we've crossed a tipping point, that I've already crossed a long time ago, and that is that the circumstances there are no longer sustainable. We've -- and I think there's a growing number of people around the world that now would reflect that.

We had an argument, over a month ago, on the Foreign Relations Committee where we had a resolution and where, in the resolution that I sponsored with Senator Casey, it said that basically Assad must go. And we had a one-hour argument about whether that line should be in the resolution or not, and quite frankly found some of the opposition -- or all of the opposition mostly -- from my part of the aisle. And it actually split Republicans on the committee, and we ultimately prevailed in that.

I think, at this point, that argument is moot in my opinion. I mean, I think there's no doubt that with -- that they're -- no longer can be there. And now the question is, what is America's role in hastening that and in making that happen? And in that regard, I do believe that there are things we should have done in the past that weren't done that would perhaps have accelerated the downfall of Assad, but I'm also understanding that there's no point in looking back. I mean, it's time to act now. I mean, it's not -- I don't want to score political points on this issue.

I want to see it resolved because it benefits our national interest and it's the right thing to do from a humanitarian point of view as well.

MODERATOR: So in the issue of Time actually out today, Fareed Zakaria writes a piece about the case against intervention. And basically he's dealing with the world as it is, and he's basically saying it's so complicated to actually do anything and the reason -- and why Syria is different from Libya, that it's kind of difficult to do anything, and he advocates really, really strict sanctions like the sanctions against Iran. What's wrong with that?

RUBIO: Well, I think it's part of the solution, but I would argue to you that if you view what's happening in that region through the lens of Iran's regional ambitions, the loss of Assad could be devastating. So on that ground -- on those grounds alone, I would argue that it's in the national interests of the United States that Assad go.

But I also think something else is at stake here, and that is the U.S.'s reputation in the region as a leader. In essence, countries are looking at that as a test case of whether the U.S. is still going to be a significant player in the region or not. And they're very pragmatic in that region. They're going to make decisions based on whatever they conclude. And if they conclude the U.S. is on its way out, no longer willing to engage in the Middle East, they'll make decisions based on that reality. For example, the Saudis may decide, well, we're on our own and that's fine. And that could trigger an arms race in the region. So these are the sorts of things that we have to care about as well.

I would say sanctions is a part of it, but I would go further and I would say that the greatest thing that we can do now is help the rebels and the free Syria army and the political branch of the resistance to organize themselves, because one of the biggest problems we have is there's not a cohesive group here. And I think that in this endeavor we can work with our allies in the region that are willing to provide -- for example, Turkey -- operating space, and the Qataris and others in providing resources for them, that we could provide as well, in terms of communication equipment, food, medicine, the kinds of things you need so they can organize themselves a cohesive unit.

Number one, it will make them more effective, but the second thing it will do is it starts to eliminate this vacuum that exists now, because in this vacuum, in this uncertainty, in this disorganization among the Syrian resistance is the territory where extremists take advantage. This is the place where the bad actors say, we've just identified kind of a vacuum and we're going to fill it; we're going to take advantage of this chaos to establish another place where we can operate from.

Unfortunately, you're starting to see some of that happening in Libya, in northern Libya in particular, where the inability to govern certain spaces there by the transitional government has created an operating space. That doesn't mean that we shouldn't be on the side of Assad falling. It should mean, though, that we should be doing everything we can to help the resistance coalesce and organize itself so we can be more effective.

MODERATOR: So speaking of resistance, you seem a lot more bullish and optimistic about the Arab Spring than a lot of folks in the Republican Party and, by the way, a lot of folks in the Democratic Party. How do you see that changing now and conforming to what American hopes are? And then let's talk specifically about what's going on in Egypt.

RUBIO: Well, I'm a believer in democracy. I believe that democracy ultimately gives us more pragmatic and more accountable leadership. Democracy's not a guarantee of the election of pro- American leaders. I think that's the first thing we have to -- because just because you have a democracy doesn't mean you're going to elect people that are with us all the time.

By the way, that's not just true in the Middle East. I mean, that's true in Europe, that's true in Canada, that's true in the Western Hemisphere. Democracies elect people sometimes that are pro- American and sometimes that aren't pro-American, but I think what we -- or at least see things the way we want them to see, is probably a more accurate way to describe it. But in the long term it's in the national interest of the United States to have democratic societies.

And obviously, what democracy will look like, at least in its infancy in some of these nations, is very -- it's not going to be Canada or Australia, but it's certainly -- as long as it's moving in the right direction it's positive for us, because -- for example, Egypt, which is going -- we were just talking about it before we came out. It's a very curious thing that's happening there, is you're watching basically two very different viewpoints of which direction Egypt should go -- law and order versus kind of the zeal behind the revolution -- and it's working its way through in a democratic process. Irrespective of whoever's elected, whoever's elected -- say it's Morsi -- they may give speeches that we don't like and they may stand for things that we find offensive.

But one of the first things that I -- just if I know human nature and I know politicians, the first thing he's going to start thinking about is, how do I get re-elected? (Laughter.) And one of the worst things you can do to get re-elected is destroy your economy. And the truth is that their economy cannot recover without U.S. assistance and without Western tourism.

And so they're going to have to take pragmatic steps to reinvite Western tourism back into Egypt, which is hard to do if you're part of some sort of radical Islamist government. So you may still -- you're going to hear a lot of things that we find offensive. But ultimately, because they're accountable to their performance and the people that they serve, they're going to have to be a little bit more pragmatic in the decisions that they make.

And here's the other argument: What is the alternative? So what is the alternative to democracy? Is it pro-American dictators? Well, that's an oxymoron, in my opinion, number one. And number two, they're not sustainable. We invest time, energy and resources behind leaders in places that oppress majorities, unsustainable positions that cost us a tremendous amount of credibility and in the long term do tremendous harm to our influence in the region and in the world. And we're seeing that play out somewhat in Egypt now.

MODERATOR: But it somehow seems as though, because we Americans are so optimistic, that the idea, yes, we have this Muslim Brotherhood candidate and we have the candidate from the old regime, and somehow the Egyptian people are going to navigate in between and come to some medium consensus -- I mean, that's not really a reality. And of course, the other problem with democratic elections can be if you elect someone who's anti-democratic, which could happen in Egypt.

RUBIO: Sure. We've seen that in the Western Hemisphere, and we should condemn that. On the other hand, I mean, look what's happened in Argentina. I know the president of Argentina, Kirchner, she's nationalized institutions. She talks very bad about the United States. So should our policy be to get rid of democracy and replace her with an Argentinian dictator?

The point is that it'll work itself through in the long term. Eventually, the consequences of that kind of rhetoric and action play itself out domestically and people replace you. And the other thing I've found is -- or I think we will find through history, democracy is not a guarantee of peace, but democratic societies are more apt to avoid war and conflict because it has impacts on their economy.

Dictators or autocrats are less accountable to their people. They can -- they -- the way they survive these sorts of conflicts is people don't have an opinion; so who cares? You know, we can push the envelope on these issues and be really irresponsible on the global stage because the people of our country have no recourse if they don't like what it means for us domestically.

MODERATOR: So you mentioned that the demise of Assad would also undermine the power of Iran in the region, that the talks between Iran and the great powers are going on. There were just the talks in Baghdad last week, I guess, and I guess there will be talks in Moscow coming up. How do you see that playing out? And again, what is the U.S.' role there, both in terms of what -- how we deal with Iran specifically and also how we deal with Israel?

RUBIO: Well, the U.S. role in the Iranian issue is indispensable. I don't think anyone would dispute that at this point.

I would love for the talks to work. There's nothing -- what I would love more than to open up the newspaper tomorrow and read that the ayatollahs have changed their mind; they're getting rid of all this stuff; they're going to send all the enriched uranium to Europe; we're going to send them 5 percent back; and they're going to have -- you know, do what they gotta do, and they're going to comply with all these conditions. But both everything I know about human nature and everything we've learned from the Iranians over the last two decades and everything we're hearing from both independent organizations and the international organizations is that this is nothing but a stall tactic. And I wish I was wrong; to the depths of my heart, I wish that I was wrong. But everything -- you have to be blind not to see what's happening here.

This is nothing but a delay tactic and a stalling tactic, and they now openly brag about their ability to continue to move the red lines; to continue to move, you know, where the lines are on these issues. And I believe they're doing nothing but delaying and buying for time so that they can -- you know, what they'll do is they'll clean up a site; they'll invite inspectors to come in; see, no program. And then they leave, and then they come back and do it again. They test nuclear components somewhere else.

Here's the bottom line. I am convinced, without a shadow of a doubt, that Iran is pursuing a nuclear weapons program. I am convinced that the costs -- that the price that they're willing to pay is unimaginably high. I want negotiations to work. I hope negotiations work.

I hope negotiations work. I think we need to begin to prepare the people of the country and the world for the reality that negotiations are probably not going to work and ultimately sanctions may also not work.

And at that point -- and you're cautious when you say this because I don't want to come across as some sort of saber-rattling person, because I'm not -- but I think I'm not -- I am in line with what the administration has said, which is ultimately a military option may be necessary if everything else fails. And by the way, everything else should fail before we get to that stage. But sadly, I believe everything else probably will fail, certainly the negotiation component.

And then we have to ask ourselves, are we prepared to live with a nuclear Iran and what that means for the region and for the world? And I think universally, not just in the United States but in almost every society in the world, the answer to that question is no. And then at that point, there's only one country in the world that can do anything about it, and it's us.

MODERATOR: OK, so I'm just going to play it out, because you -- if you think it's inevitable that -- almost inevitable that negotiations won't work --

RUBIO: I hope I'm wrong, by the way.

MODERATOR: -- if you're persuaded that they are making a nuclear device, what does a strike look like? Is that a unilateral U.S. strike? Is that a joint Israeli-U.S. strike? And even if there's a strike -- I mean, there's been so much written about this and I can't claim to be an expert about it, although I did spend some time recently with the prime minister of Israel, nobody can say what a meaningful setback would be. Is that six months? Is that two years? Doesn't that just postpone the inevitable of them making a nuclear device?

RUBIO: Well, I'm not a military planner, and I certainly wouldn't pretend to be one. So I can't tell you logistically what a military strike would look like. And again, I'm cautious about it. I don't want the headlines from here to be, you know, Rubio says let's hit them now, I mean, because that's not -- that's not necessarily what I'm saying. But I think we can be effective in terms of at least delaying the program.

But more importantly, I think raising the cost-benefit -- this -- at the end of the day, there is still a cost-benefit analysis here.

And if history's any judge of it, if you recall what the Iranians were willing to put up with in terms of loss of human life in their war against Iraq, it had to get so atrocious that it actually threatened the regime's future before they backed off that conflict. These are the kinds of people we're dealing with here.

So I think we need to understand that at -- like anything else in the world, they are -- they are going through a cost-benefit analysis, and part of that analysis is how far should they go? Should they build a weapon? Should they show capability for a weapon? Should they just be at the edge of a breakout, but not necessarily have to break out? I mean, there's -- I think they're still trying to make some of these decisions, and we can still influence that --

MODERATOR: Right.

RUBIO: -- through some of the actions that we take. But, ultimately, I think a strike is going to be up to both the technology that we employ and the military planners' view, and I would not -- quite frankly, wouldn't share some of that if I knew it. But, more importantly, I would leave it to the military planners and the commander in chief to decide what a strike looks like.

And let me repeat and be very clear about this: I am not rooting for that. I'm hoping that sanctions will embolden -- that there's somebody in that government that's saying, guys, we don't have to do this; there's a different way for us to be influential in the region and the world and that having a weapon doesn't necessarily have to be the --

MODERATOR: But you would -- just to be straight about it -- but you would sanction a strike before you would tolerate a nuclear Iran?

RUBIO: Yes. And I -- and I think that we need to begin to prepare people for that.

See, I think that the -- not just the people of the country, but the people of the world appreciate when their leaders walk them through this process and explain this is what we're working on, and more importantly, these are the stakes of a nuclear Iran. To a country that's said that its unifying national goal is the eradication of Israel; to a country that very clearly is involved in a very active Shia-Sunni competition in the region; that if Iran gains a nuclear weapon, that means the Saudis will pursue one, and maybe other nations will as well. And you can just imagine -- to a nation, by the way, that actively supports terrorism as a tool of statecraft; who actively supports -- you know, has been implicated in bombings in Argentina; has been implicated, as recently as six months ago, in the attempted murder of two ambassadors or two individuals here in the United States -- these are the kinds of -- this is who we're dealing with here.

And if a nation like that were to access a nuclear capability, what's not to say that from that they're just about a half-step removed from sharing some version of that technology with those who would strike against our interests in the homeland.

I mean, so think about the implications for the region, think about the implications for global security and think about the implications for us. This would be the first time in human history where a nation of this type, with this kind of leadership, would have access to a nuclear capability. Pakistan and India have nuclear weapons because of each other. South Korea has a nuclear weapon for regime survival. Obviously, European powers, United States and Russia was a prospect of the Cold War. This is the first time that you're ever going to have a nation with a -- or a government of this kind of psychology with access to a weapon of mass destruction of this type.

And this is a country that actively shares, you know, IED technology that kills American soldiers. What's not to say they wouldn't share some component of nuclear technology or hold the world, the United States or the region hostage if they're able to develop the long-range missile capability to deliver such a weapon? We need to begin to explain that to people. This is not -- you know, this is not just we don't like them. There's real implications to this.

MODERATOR: So you're sounding a lot like Prime Minister Netanyahu, so let's talk about him for a second. And I'm not saying that's a bad thing.

RUBIO: No -- (inaudible).

MODERATOR: So he now has this supermajority, which he's never had before, and that gives him a platform. We recently called him King Bibi. I've had smart people say to me, you know what this enables him to do? It enablers him to strike Iran and make a deal with the Pakistanians. Do you agree with that?

RUBIO: Well, look, I certainly think that this new coalition gives him more domestic flexibility to pursue a number of aims, including some sort of resolution of the Palestinian issue. It gives him probably more flexibility domestically to negotiate on certain things -- which, by the way, I think the Israelis have been willing to do for some time. And in fact, what we have seen in the Israeli experience is that the more secure Israel feels, and in particular the more they feel secure in our relationship with them, the more willing they've been to give on certain issues in order to get this resolved.

I don't think there's a bigger beneficiary in the world to resolve the Palestinian-Israeli conflict than Israel, and I think they recognize that. I mean, this is a -- but obviously, they're not going to do it at the expense of their security.

The Iranian issue is a different one. I mean, I think that's an internal debate for Israel that is a combination of their capabilities and their consequences of such a strike and what it would mean. And I think they recognize -- again, I'm not an Israeli policymaker. I don't pretend to know everything that goes into their internal debate. But I think the Israelis are very sober in the realization of what the reaction in the Arab world and in the Muslim world and even in Europe is going to be to a unilateral action. I think they're fully cognizant of whatever capabilities they have or don't have and what they could possibly achieve or not. And they've always been very pragmatic decision-makers in that regard.

And I'm not privy to those conversations or to those calculations that they're making, but from a political point of view, I think that having this sort of coalition gives the prime minister flexibility on a number of issues, including the two that you've outlined, but not just those two.

MODERATOR: So let's stay in the region for one more minute and talk about Libya, where I know you've been. Let's look back for a second and let me ask you, was the way the president handled that -- which is a new type of endeavor for the way American foreign policy works -- was that a successful model? And how do you see the future of Libya, which is, in some ways, different than almost the rest -- the whole rest of the region?

RUBIO: So foreign policy is not just about what you do, but when you do it. And my quarrel with the president is not necessarily what he did, but how much of it he did and when he did it. I believe that if the U.S. had acted a little sooner and stayed on aggressively a little bit more on the front end, the conflict would have ended sooner and we would not face some of the issues that we now face.

What happened is the conflict was more protracted than it needed to be, because once -- after the first 72 hours, the U.S. kind of disengaged and left it to the French and the British and others. But they have military limitations in terms of what they're able to carry out.

The result was that the conflict was more protracted. It still ended up being where we wanted it to end, but it took longer.

And because it look longer, a number of things developed. There was more destruction of infrastructure. In essence, there's more to the nation to rebuild. There was more loss of life. There were many young men who were permanently maimed or incapacitated. And this is the backbone of your economy, young men and women that are going to be able to go out and work and rebuild your economy. So they have to do more rebuilding. They have more people to take care of now. More of their infrastructure was degraded.

And probably most troubling of all, because it was protracted these militias sprung up. You have no less than 15 or 16 different militias, all of which govern different parts of the country. And now you've got to convince all these folks that have found how powerful it feels to have weapons and control your own group -- now you've got to convince them to lay down their arms and buy into some sort of national government in a place that really doesn't have a long history of cooperative national government. And those militias, I mean, would not have sprung up and would not have taken root the way they did if it would not have been such a protracted conflict.

And so now comes the second act of this, and that is, as I mentioned a little bit earlier, because you have these militias that refuted -- refused to lay down their weapons, you've got kind of the ingredients for civil war, although I don't think that's where we're headed. You also have, by the way, ungoverned spaces, which is a magnet for Islamist radicals. I mean, that's exactly where they like to operate from, places that are ungovernable, places that don't have any kind of law and order. I mean, that was the experience of Afghanistan.

So I wouldn't pin that all on the president. I would just say that if we had done what we did but just a little bit more of it and a little bit sooner -- not waited until they were in the gates of Benghazi -- I think that conflict would have ended sooner, and I think they would be in a better position -- with still no guarantee. But what I do know for a fact is the world is a better place because Moammar Gadhafi is not there. That I'm pretty sure of.

And here's the other thing, and obviously I don't know if that's changed, but the thing I was most impressed about, when we went to Libya, there was pro-American graffiti on the walls. And there's no way they staged that just for us.

We walked -- we walked up to people -- I mean, young people, especially; a very young country -- people thanking us, you know, people saying, God bless America; you know, we love Obama; we love the United States.

You now have potentially, you know, hundreds of thousands (of ?), if not millions of people in that country that have a kinship towards the United States because we were involved in that endeavor. I'm not guaranteeing that's always going to stay there or that couldn't change. But I just think it's going to be a little bit harder to recruit radical jihadists against the United States in an environment like that.

And the other thing -- you know, so I think that's important. And the other thing I'd point out to you, they were very bitter at the Chinese; they were very bitter at the Russians; they were very bitter at those people in the world who turned their back on them. They have not forgotten -- and they will not forget -- who was with them and who was not. And I think those kinds of things pay dividends down the road as well.

MODERATOR: So, speaking of radical jihadists --

RUBIO: You can tell I'm in the Senate -- these long answers.

MODERATOR: (Laughs.) OK, I'm going to get them shorter now.

RUBIO: (Laughs.)

MODERATOR: And I think we probably have -- how many more? Five more minutes? Uh-oh.

RUBIO: Wow. I didn't mean to filibuster.

MODERATOR: So speaking of radical jihadists -- so you were just in Guantanamo Bay.

RUBIO: Yes.

MODERATOR: I'd love to hear your impressions of that, and also to segue a little bit, obviously one of the -- one of the issues in the presidential campaign is Obama on foreign policy and people -- and a lot of voters are realizing, wow, this guy has, you know, kind of outdone George Bush on drone warfare and on legal issues. I mean, how will that play out in the campaign? Traditionally that's a weakness for Democrats.

RUBIO: Yeah, I -- well, look, I don't -- I don't know about the second part, to be honest with you. I don't know how people are thinking about those issues, and I haven't done the political calculus. I don't know if this is the right thing to say, but it happens to be true: To the extent I possibly I can, I always try to keep foreign policy a nonpartisan issue: A, because the alliances aren't nearly as neat -- I often find myself aligned with people that I don't agree with anything else on, but on foreign policy, we do -- B, because it strengthens our hand.

I don't think it strengthens our hand in international relations when we're quarrelling over something and that's -- you know, obviously there's times when we're going to have to. But I think it strengthens us when we're united or, at a minimum, are not injecting a partisan element to foreign relations.

On the Guantanamo piece, I would -- I would say a couple things.

The first is -- and I think that's a good point, to take a deep breath and remind people that -- you know, like I went to law school, and in law school they teach you about the regular -- you know, the civilian jurisprudence program -- the system. And the way we think of bad people is, we arrest them, we try them, we convict them, and we make examples out of them so other people decide not to do that. And that's how we treat criminals, and that's the way most of the Western world treats criminals and not all the world.

There's a separate judicial system which people just aren't familiar with because it hasn't been employed very often, and that involves a judicial system involved in warfare. And the purpose of that system is very different than the civilian system. The purpose of that system is not to try people for -- although if they commit war crimes, we have done that. The purpose of that system is really twofold. Number one is to remove combatants from the battlefield. It's what POWs were. You're not there to punish them for being soldiers. You're there to remove them from the battlefield so they can't keep fighting against you, and the other reason is so you can gather intelligence.

And that has been the role that Guantanamo really has played for us, is the ability not just to remove combatants from the battlefield -- and it is a battlefield -- but also to be able to gather actionable human intelligence from what they know and what they do. And if I have any concern, it's that we're still not doing enough of that and that in fact, up to 25 to 27 percent of the people who have been freed from Guantanamo have re-engaged us on the battlefield, depending on who you listen to. So that is a concern to us as well.

Now obviously some of the folks in Guantanamo, particularly the high-value detainees -- five of them are on trial right now; they're responsible for 9/11 -- I think that's good for the world and good for the United States, that their crimes be exposed and that they be tried.

So the ones that you can try, you should do so. But understand there are others that -- those -- they're enemy combatants. We don't usually try rank-and-file POWs, but we remove them from the battlefield so they can't re-engage us. When the battle is over, that changes. But I just don't know when this battle against a movement that they're a part of is going to end. It may not end in the foreseeable future.

MODERATOR: I'm going to piggyback on my own question and get to the 2012 race. Why does Governor Romney do so much worse among Hispanic voters than President Obama? And how can the GOP do better with them? There are a lot of pundits who say actually the way the GOP can resurrect itself nationally is to become the Hispanic party.

RUBIO: Yeah. Well, a couple things. The first is, some of the things that -- some of the obstacles Republicans in general face is just historical in generation. I mean, a lot of the Hispanic Americans are Democrats. And they've voted Democrat their whole life. They live in a Democratic community. And a great example's the Cuban- American community. Everybody assumes Cuban exiles and Cuban- Americans are all Republicans, which is true in Miami but it's not true in Jersey City or Elizabeth or -- in New Jersey. They vote Democrat.

And so my colleague Bob Menendez and I have a very similar experience, but he's a Democrat and I'm a Republican. My cousin is the -- my first cousin, whose mom was my mom's sister, we come from the exact same family, the exact same experience -- is the Democratic leader of the Senate in Nevada.

So some of it is where you grew up. And even if Mitt Romney did everything that the Hispanic community supports, they're still going to support Barack Obama because he is a Democrat and so are they.

There is, however, a growing number of Americans of Hispanic descent who are open-minded about who they vote for and are willing to vote for Republicans or a Democrat there. They're swing voters and they vote on the candidate, not the party. And for them I think we have a very compelling message, and that's the message of economic upward mobility, which is the single greatest issue in the Hispanic community: the burning desire to leave your kids better off than yourself.

And I think the argument that we Republicans have is that we stand for the American free enterprise system, which we believe is the single greatest way to accomplish that; that no system in human history has been more successful at upward mobility and economic empowerment than the system that we support. And I think that's a compelling argument that we can make.

But this is not an argument for November. This is an argument for the next two decades. This is not about just running the right commercials over the next six months. This is about a consistent and compelling argument over a sustained period of time, not -- I know everyone wants to do this magic wand and all of a sudden flip people, but it doesn't work that way.

You've got to invest the time and the intellectual energy to make these arguments.

MODERATOR: Speaking of November, how does Vice President Rubio sound to you? (Laughter.)

RUBIO: That doesn't --

MODERATOR: Has a kind of a ring to it.

RUBIO: No. I -- and I appreciate you trying to work that in there, though. (Laughter.)

MODERATOR: I didn't try to work it in, I worked it in.

RUBIO: That you did. OK.

MODERATOR: Well, all right. Questions, please, from members.

Yes, right here.

QUESTIONER: Lucy Komisar. I am a journalist. Considering that the American policy toward Cuba for the last 50 years, the blockade, has been a total failure, have -- do you have any other ideas of what to do? And have you ever looked at how the West Germans sought to promote an opening in East Germany? Which turned out to be successful and partly was helped along by the relationships between East and West Germans that were trying to promote the opening.

RUBIO: First -- I'd say a couple things. Number one is we don't have a blockade on Cuba. Last I checked, there weren't naval vessels preventing trade and commerce with the island. We have an embargo. And I think you can -- some people argue the embargo had no impact on bringing down the government and historically, I mean, they're still there.

I would argue the embargo's effect is different. The embargo gives us leverage, much the same as you're seeing now in Burma. Why is there an opening politically in Burma? Why is there progress? If you watch how the administration is treating the situation in Burma, how every time Burma does a little bit of a political opening, the administration sends Hillary Clinton to visit. They do another opening and something else happens.

I think -- I'm not prepared to commit to that as the model for the way we can view towards Cuba, but I can certainly say it's an interesting case study in how you could use both diplomatic and economic relations with a country to help spur on a change in its politics, which is -- all I care about when it comes to Cuba is political freedoms.

The people of Cuba can choose any economic system they want. That's up to them to choose, not for us. I'll recommend capitalism to them. I'll recommend free enterprise. But they can decide which direction they want to go and which economic model they want. What I want for the Cuban people is political freedom.

And I think that the embargo gives us leverage with a successor government, whatever that looks like, which is really the hardest thing to predict. What does it look like after Raul and Fidel? Who takes over? The think we could -- that will help us negotiate political freedom for the people of Cuba is these relations, both diplomatic and economic.

The last thing I would add is that Cuba trades with every other country in the world. And I'll tell you, if you visit Cuba -- and some of you have -- and certainly for the upper echelons of the government, they have access to any consumer product. The reason why Cuba has no economy is because the people running the economy have no idea what they're doing. I mean, they're not just authoritarian; they're incompetent in terms of running an economy. And we have to understand that that's what's causing the suffering of the Cuban people.

Last point I would make is do not overestimate if we were to open up everything with Cuba that somehow they're going to let everything in. We've allowed people to travel to Cuba, but I bet you I can't go there, and I know journalists that have been barred from going back. Not just anyone can go to Cuba just because the U.S. lifts travel restrictions. There are still Cuban restrictions to who can go and what you can do when you go there. I challenge any of you to apply right now for a permit to travel to Cuba and tell them you want to visit the top five dissidents and Alan Gross in jail, and we'll see how successful you are in getting in.

The same is true economically. If you think you're going to go to Cuba and flood them with about -- a bunch of American capitalism and that somehow is going to change the government, you're wrong. They're going to control everything that gets in, what they allow in, what they don't allow in. I bet you they won't let you set up a wireless Internet in Cuba. I bet you they won't allow you to set up a platform where people can talk to each other independent of the government.

They control everything, and they'll control even a U.S. opening towards them to their benefit and to the detriment of freedom and democracy.

MODERATOR: OK, remember, identify yourself and ask a short question.

Governor Weld.

QUESTIONER: Bill Weld of McDermott, Will & Emery. Senator, when Governor Romney becomes President Romney, do you think he will find after a time that he and Xi Jinping are sitting in the same lifeboat and that he'll have to dial back both the rhetoric and the reality vis-a-vis China, as I would urge George W. Bush did after about 18 months?

RUBIO: Well, first of all, what's happening in China right now is quite interesting, the combination of a political transition which has been less than smooth and continues to be combined with a real slowdown in growth, which, by the way, should be concerning to us, because I think we also have a responsibility to the American people to explain to them that a slowdown in economic growth in China isn't necessarily a positive thing for America. There are a lot of businesses here that are -- benefited from and a lot of jobs in America directly related to the growth of the consumer class in China.

I also, by the way, believe that there are forces within the Chinese government and within Chinese politics that want a very different future for their country. I don't think that everyone in China has this nationalistic view of us versus them. On the contrary, I think there are other voices in China. And what we should be hopeful for is to do everything we can both overtly, covertly and subtly to empower and to give those voices credibility and to discredit those voices that somehow point the portrait of a future where American and -- or America and China have to be in conflict with each other.

I do think we have an obligation as a nation, because it is such a part of our identity, to always speak out on behalf of liberty and freedom. I think we always have an obligation to condemn violations of human rights, whether they're happening here in the United States or anywhere else in the world. And I think we can't ever retreat from that. But that doesn't necessarily mean we're anti-Chinese. On the contrary, I think there are millions upon millions of people in China who value what this country has been able to do politically, value the creativity that comes from a free and open society and would want more of that for their own country.

And I'm hopeful, as I said in my speech in Brookings, that there are voices within the Chinese transition and within the Chinese government itself who want more of that for their future as well, and we should always look for ways to empower that.

And from a pragmatic point of view -- you used the life boat analogy -- there is no doubt that in this 21st century, the United States and China will have to cooperate on a host of issues if the world is to improve and to remain peaceful. I mean, it's just a geopolitical reality that we're going to have to confront.

But by the same token, I am not a believer that somehow the U.S. is set to decline. In fact, I don't think that global growth is a zero-sum game. I think notion that in order for us to benefit, China must be hurt, or vice-versa, is one we should reject. I think we can both grow and prosper together economically, politically, and that the world will be better off for that.

MODERATOR: But is there anything we can do about China's declining growth rate?

RUBIO: Well, I mean, the most important thing we can do for the world is improve our own economic situation here. I mean, certainly that's our number-one responsibility when it comes to economics. We're limited to what we can do of anything, with the European reality. And I think one of the things that may spur -- obviously, you know, China has some of its own issues that it's facing that are internal by nature, but one of the things that -- the uncertainty in the American consumer market and the consumer spending is certainly hurting them, but it's also hurting the rest of the world.

And so I think we do have an obligation to get our fiscal house in order, which I think will be really the biggest challenge of the next 18 months, because while everyone's talking about taxmageddon and all these issues that are going to happen January 1st, they're already going to start to happen. I mean, the businesses and the private sector and the investment class, they begin to long-term plan, like, this month, not in -- December 28th.

I mean, they start planning for what next year's going to look like. For most businesses, the fiscal year begins in October. And if lawyers have anything to do with your planning, they're going to force you to plan for the worst-case scenario.

And the worst-case scenario is a host of, you know, massive government spending cuts combined with massive increases in taxes; the full implementation of the health care bill, if it survives Supreme Court review -- all these things coming to an -- and an unsustainable fiscal path -- all coming to a head over the next 12 to 18 months. And you're going to begin to see the impact of that in the decisions that the private sector makes in terms of buying and hiring, and that's going to have an implication on the global marketplace, including China.

MODERATOR: Jim, you've had your hand since the beginning.

QUESTIONER: Hi, Jim Traub with foreignpolicy.com.

Senator, I was very struck, in almost everything you said, that the differences between yourself and President Obama on foreign policy are very modest. When we listen to Mitt Romney, he says that President Obama is weak and he's irresolute and he's soft on defense and he doesn't believe in American exceptionalism -- that he's categorically different. Is that just because you and Mitt Romney differ on those things or should we think that Romney is just exaggerating for political effect?

RUBIO: I love these questions, you know. (Laughter.)

No, look, I think there is a fundamental -- but my debate is not just with the president. I want you to understand: Those are -- these issues in foreign policy, as you know, because you're much -- you've observed it a lot longer than I have, aren't always neatly Republican-Democrat, conservative and liberal. I have, you know, people in my own party that I've had to argue with, both on the floor of the Senate and privately, about the role of America in the world.

And here's my argument, if I tried to make it as simple as possible, and that is that, yes, we live in an era where none of the problems we face can be solved by any nation alone. And by the way, that's not because America's gotten weaker; it's because these problems that we face have gotten bigger. They -- most of the major issues that the world confronts require a global approach. But global approaches require the formation and the leadership of global coalitions on an issue-by-issue basis, and the debate is who should be leading these coalitions. And it is my position that, as a -- as we speak right now, in the world as we know it, there's only one nation -- quite frankly, there's only one entity in the world capable of putting together a coalition to confront an issue and then leading that coalition.

And that's the United States. And in the absence of the United States stepping up and fulfilling that role, these coalitions don't get formed and obviously these coalitions don't do anything about the issues we confront.

And where I think there's some debate with the White House is in their view that, no, there are other institutions that we should be more reliant on, whether it's the Security Council or some other institutions. Let me tell you, I am not anti-Security Council. I am not anti-United Nations. I think it has a valuable and important role to play, but not an exclusive one.

And we need to recognize that the more difficult an issue is, sometimes the harder it is to get the Security Council to act. And I think we're seeing that in the case of Syria, where the Russians have a very deep national interest in Assad maintaining himself in power, if that's possible. And it runs counter to what we want and what the rest of the world wants. And by the way, it runs counter to what the right thing to do is. And are we now limited only to what the Security Council's willing to do?

And that's a fundamental debate. I'm not saying the administration's position is different; I'm saying at some point I think they put too much hope in that process and in the notion that somehow our actions will have more credibility if they're sanctioned by these organisms. That may be true, but sometimes that's impossible. And the result can't be inaction, because these issues, they just get worse -- as we're seeing over the last 48 hours in Syria.

MODERATOR: Over here.

QUESTIONER: Thank you. Senator Rubio, I'm Laurie Garrett. I work here at the council. And your counterpart in the House, Ileana Ros- Lehtinen, runs the Foreign Operations Committee. Like you, she's from Florida. Like you, she's a Cuban-American. Like you, she's a Republican. She went on the record saying that the worst investment America could make would be in global health and foreign assistance programs. And you gave a speech in which you used her language in the exact reverse and said that investment in global health and foreign assistance was one of the best payoffs.

Given your strong belief that the U.S. has a very critical role to play not only in foreign assistance but also, as you're describing today, in military affairs, how do you reconcile the priority your party places on massive budget reduction and cutback on both revenue to government and the size of government, which will have to include a lot of our foreign policy establishment and defense apparatus, with these commitments that you feel are so important and you say is a unique role that only America can play?

RUBIO: Well, first of all -- and I haven't heard Ileana's speech on -- that comment, so I don't want to comment directly on something I don't know the context of or haven't heard. I would just tell you what I stand for.

First of all, on the budget deficit side of it, for us to argue that foreign aid is the reason why the U.S. is running a budget debt (sic) of this -- of -- is -- it would be like someone who went bankrupt saying it's because they bought too much coffee at Starbucks. I mean, it's not -- it's -- if we zeroed out foreign aid, if we zeroed it out, it would make a negligible -- it would be no -- you wouldn't even notice. It's a rounding error in the big picture.

On the other hand, the payback of foreign aid is extraordinary. Two things it gives us. Number one is it gives us influence. Why does anybody in Egypt even care what the U.S. thinks about their future? Well, because they receive foreign aid and military aid. So it's just -- pragmatically speaking, it gives us leverage to influence the way things go in one direction or another. And quite frankly, it's one of the reasons why we haven't been able to walk away from our foreign aid commitment in Pakistan. Despite the fact that it's -- we're really uncomfortable doing it, because if we did that, we'd have no influence over what happens in Pakistan.

The second thing that I would say is that the dividends it pays from a human element are extraordinary, and you need to look no further than Africa, where millions of people are alive because the United States pays for their antiviral medication. What the dividends that that will pay for the next 20, 30, 40 years -- not just because these human beings are going to be alive and productive members in building their country and their societies, and one day become our trading partners, one day become consumers of the stuff that my kids are going to invent and build, but there's also an element to that that involves their view of the United States and their willingness to engage in an effort against us.

You know, why would you join up against an -- why would you join a movement against a country that kept you alive? Now, there's a pragmatic reality to it.

And last but not least, I mean, it speaks to who we are as a people. The notion that we're somehow going to allow people -- we know our country well. We are the most compassionate people in the world. And we may -- we may not like this role. I think sometimes Americans are generally uncomfortable with the idea that we are the ones that go around the world righting wrongs and taking on human rights abuses and feeding people who are hungry. You know, why can't someone else do that?

But ultimately you know we're not -- both in our private charitable giving and what our government does, we're not going to let it happen. We're just not. The U.S. is not going to stand by and watch images of starving kids or people dying and not do something about it. So we might as well do it through a well-organized and systemic way that has our national interest in mind as well. And that's why I support foreign aid and foreign aid programs, because getting rid of it doesn't solve anything, but it creates a host of -- a bunch of problems.

And by the way, I think it speaks volumes of who we are as a people and as a nation. At the end of the day, all over the world, people have been willing to cooperate with American leadership, not because they fear us, not because they're afraid of what we'll do to them, because they know innately that the U.S., although we sometimes in their minds get some things wrong, are a good and noble people who try to make the world better. I think that's an immeasurable thing that we shouldn't ever walk away from as part of our national character.

MODERATOR: You know, that was an eloquent statement of American values, but I wonder if you feel a little bit out of sync with your party and -- not to say that there aren't eloquent spokesmen for American values in the Republican Party, but one of them, Dick Lugar, was just -- was tossed out of office. And in some way, he is a kind of a template almost for the way you've conducted yourself in Washington. Are you feeling like that perhaps the GOP is embracing too much of an isolationist strain?

RUBIO: There's a debate in the Republican Party about that issue. I don't think it's a majority position. I joked at Brookings that the further to the right you move, you wind up on the left, and -- because it makes strange bedfellows from time to time. But I will say to you I don't think that's a majority position.

But also, you know, the Republican Party or conservatism is not a stagnant concept. They have to constantly be refreshed. And I think may role, as someone who was elected with a lot of support from a lot of 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.

You know, there's a difference between public opinion and public judgment. Public opinion is what people first think when they hear about something. Public judgment is what they come to believe once their leaders come to them and explain to them what the circumstances and the consequences of an action or inaction are. And I think I have an obligation, as all of us do who are involved in Republican politics and in the conservative movement, to argue about what America's role in the world should be and put out a compelling vision of why we should be for this instead of for that.

I mean, what -- which conservative principle are we furthering by advocating disengagement from the world? Which conservative principle does that further? On the contrary, I think those of us who believe America has been a source of good in the world would argue that America needs to continue to play an important role in the world, as would many of our allies and even non-allies. So I don't -- I'm not prepared to cede the conservative label to those who would disengage us from what was going on around the planet.

MODERATOR: OK. Let's -- right over here, in the middle. Yes.

QUESTIONER: Bruce Rabb, PILnet. There is a significant amount of evidence that the flow of guns from the United States has a major destabilizing effect on Mexico, creating many problems for Mexico and the United States. Do you consider that an issue that should be addressed? And if so, how?

RUBIO: Yes, obviously. And that's where I think when we talk about border security -- is really the more pressing issue. Obviously, we're very concerned about illegal immigration, and that's a legitimate issue that all Americans are concerned about.

But the heart-wrenching component of what happens at the border is the human element of it.

There's a -- there's a humanitarian issue at the border where people are dying, where women get birth control injections before they cross the border because they expect to be raped when they make that crossing. This is an outrageous human concern that we should focus on when it comes to border security, and the gun problem is a part of it.

For a society we have -- you know, on the one hand, we have a constitutional Second Amendment protection to the right to own guns that combines with a criminal element that takes advantage of that and obviously has spread to our neighbor in Mexico, and so it's not an easy issue to solve. Obviously, you know, there's been a lot in the press about the -- you know, Fast and Furious Operation; I think that that hasn't helped matters either. And I hope that we'll get -- flush that out completely and really understand what happened there. But I do think that's an issue.

But I -- but I also want to caution you about the Mexico issue. All this bad news about Mexico is -- doesn't give a full picture of what's happening there. Yes, there is a criminal problem in Mexico. Yes, there's evidence of corruption in the army and some of those elements. But there's also good stuff happening in Mexico. There's real growth in Mexico. There's a real growth in the middle class in Mexico. They're going to have elections this year in Mexico, unlike what may or may not happen in Venezuela. You know, there's real opportunity there too.

And one of the reasons why the Pew -- the Pew recently found that there was net-zero migration -- is that economic conditions in Mexico have improved, and an economically prosperous Mexico is really good news for the United States, and we shouldn't just always talk about its problems. There are good things happening in Mexico we need to celebrate.

MODERATOR: Last question and a short one.

Right here -- the pearl necklace -- pearl, OK.

QUESTIONER: Lesley Bain, City. Can I turn your attention to Afghanistan --

RUBIO: Mmm hmm. (Affirmative.)

Q; -- and pose back to you the same questions: What do we do, when do we do it, the importance of the influence in the region, and does it matter?

RUBIO: Afghanistan matters. It matters for a couple of reasons.

Obviously, it was a -- we don't want the recreation of a safe haven for the Taliban or any radical element to reconstitute itself. We certainly don't want the -- those moving out of the FATA back in Afghanistan and using that as their zone of operation. So it matters for that reason. It matters because we've made gains, particularly in the rights of women and young girls and society in that country that we don't want to see lost.

And it matters because of Pakistan, to be quite frank. I mean, we need to be -- if we are not in Afghanistan, if Afghanistan is not strong and stable or it has some level of stability and if the U.S. doesn't have an operational presence there, then our ability to influence what happens in -- happens in -- happens in Pakistan is limited, particularly when you start to think about, for example, securing the nuclear stockpiles that exist in Pakistan.

I bring that up only in this context: I recall during the presidential primaries that -- I think it was Rick Perry that was asked, if you get a call at 3:00 a.m. -- I don't know, why is it always 3:00 a.m. -- (laughter) -- but if you get a call at 3:00 a.m. that Pakistan's government has fallen and radical Islamists are now in control of their nuclear weapons, what would you do about it? Well, the answer to that question depends on whether -- what the situation in Afghanistan is. That's more likely to happen if Afghanistan goes in the wrong direction. That's -- our options are much more limited if we don't have a presence there. So it does matter.

Our goal in Afghanistan is to create as strong and as stable a government or help them to create for themselves as strong as -- and as stable a government as possible. And I think -- from our conversations we've had, I think we can work out a solution where the U.S. could have an enduring logistical presence there that's good for the Afghans without allowing us -- without forcing us to have a long- term exorbitant commitment in terms of money or people.

MODERATOR: I think we've seen today that Senator Rubio is not just an eloquent Republican voice on foreign policy; he's an eloquent American voice on foreign policy.

RUBIO: Thank you.

MODERATOR: Senator Rubio, thank you so much.

RUBIO: Thank you. (Applause.)

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