WASHINGTON — For months, Sen. Marco Rubio of Florida, a possible contender for the 2016 Republican presidential nomination, has struggled to raise his voice above more senior Republicans on foreign policy even as he has offered a third way between older military traditionalists and newly emerging isolationists.
Now, Russia’s use of its military in Ukraine may have given him the opening he was seeking.
Since World War II, “we have led the global fight against tyranny and totalitarianism, and we won. Suddenly, over the last eight to 10 years, there’s been retrenchment,” Rubio said in an interview Saturday. “We do not want to live in a world where the hard-fought gains of the Cold War, we backslide from them.”
On Saturday, Rubio, a rising Republican star in his first Senate term, quickly laid out eight specific steps he said President Barack Obama should take to confront “a grave violation” of national sovereignty that “cannot go unpunished.”
The recommendations, which included expelling Russia from the Group of 8 industrialized nations and provoking a Russian veto on the U.N. Security Council with a proposal to condemn the military intervention, did not include military confrontation. On Sunday, after initially turning down an invitation, Rubio is to appear on the NBC News program “Meet the Press,” a venue that often features Sen. John McCain of Arizona pressing for robust military action or Sen. Rand Paul of Kentucky urging caution and a focus on the home front.
Among the emerging new foreign policy voices of the Republican Party, Rubio favors careful themes. By contrast, Paul once again earned the scorn of his party’s hawks when he told The Washington Post on Tuesday, “Some on our side are so stuck in the Cold War era that they want to tweak Russia all the time, and I don’t think that is a good idea.” On the other side of the party, Rep. Tom Cotton of Arkansas, a hawkish veteran who served in Iraq and Afghanistan and is running for the Senate, let loose a partisan blast Saturday, saying that President Vladimir Putin of Russia was “emboldened by President Obama’s trembling inaction.”
Rubio, whose national security policies are informed by his Cuban refugee parents and his upbringing in the political caldron of South Florida, talks of a different approach, employing foreign policy tools that include trade, economic relations, scientific and cultural aid, and military confrontation as a last resort.
“In the middle of a crisis such as this, I choose to avoid language like that. I don’t think it’s productive,” said Rubio, who planned to discuss the Ukraine crisis with Cotton over the weekend.
But, he added, Putin would not have invaded Crimea without first analyzing the costs and benefits.
“The president’s foreign policy is open to criticism and learning,” Rubio said. “Our job now is to change that calculation.”
Sen. Bob Corker of Tennessee, the ranking Republican on the Foreign Relations Committee, said he consulted Saturday with Secretary of State John Kerry and Sen. Robert Menendez, D-N.J., who heads the committee, about targeted sanctions against individuals in the Putin government and possibly Russian institutions. The proposal could be taken up as early as this week.
Corker was one of the few Republicans in September to support a Senate resolution authorizing airstrikes in Syria, and he said the failure of Washington to follow through on those strikes had emboldened Putin.
“Ever since the administration threw themselves in his arms in Syria to keep from carrying out what they said they would carry out, I think he’s seen weakness,” Corker said Saturday. “These are the consequences.”
After speaking to Kerry, Corker said the administration will need the assistance of Congress to confront Russia, “and I assured him we stand ready.”