Republicans Are Making Foreign Policy The Obamacare Of The 2016 Election

Apr 14, 2015
Originally published on April 14, 2015 1:35 pm

In 2012, Republicans unanimously made a vow. If their party captured the White House, they would repeal President Obama's signature achievement, the Affordable Care Act.

In 2016, they've added something else: the reversal of Obama's signature foreign policy achievements, his outreach to hostile nations.

In his second term, Obama has been working to restore diplomatic relations with Cuba for the first time in more than half a century. His administration has also been negotiating a deal to limit Iran's nuclear program.

A number of GOP presidential contenders have vowed a U-turn on both policies, no matter what may happen between now and the next Inauguration Day.

That's why Obama's foreign policy may shape up to be the Obamacare of 2016. Republicans pledge to erase the president's acts as soon as a Republican is again sitting behind the Oval Office desk.

Sen. Marco Rubio, R-Fla., is among those calling for a reversal. Rubio spoke with NPR on Monday, the day he announced his presidential campaign. Rubio, who is Cuban-American, made the announcement at Miami's Freedom Tower, where Cuban exiles fleeing Fidel Castro's regime once came to receive federal support. Rubio is a fierce critic of Cuba's government and of warming U.S. relations with it.

Would Rubio really re-break diplomatic relations with Cuba if elected?

"Absolutely," he says. He says he wants "free and fair elections" in Cuba and that U.S. policy can provide "major leverage."

This was largely the approach that U.S. presidents took for generations — until December 2014, when Obama said that more than half a century of waiting was long enough.

Rubio is just as definite on Iran.

The U.S., other world powers and Iran have negotiated a framework agreement under which Iran would accept limits on its nuclear program in exchange for the lifting of global economic sanctions.

Rubio contends that what one president gives, the next may take away. "What [Obama] is banking on," Rubio says, "is that he is going to use a national security waiver to lift the sanctions," a move that allows the president to act without a vote in Congress. "We would simply re-impose the sanctions."

Rubio says he would make this move even if other world powers and the United Nations failed to follow suit, though he admits his move "wouldn't be as effective" that way.

Such a move could lead to a new confrontation with Iran. Rubio says he hopes to avoid war and (as with Cuba) buy time until the regime changes.

The prospect of such dramatic foreign policy reversals raises many questions. The simplest is this: Could a President Rubio (or Walker, or Cruz, or ...) really do these things?

Strictly speaking, yes.

A president can break diplomatic relations with Cuba, even if they've just been restored.

Supporters of Obama's Cuba policy, however, expect a different dynamic. The U.S. opening to Cuba may in time bring economic opportunities. American entrepreneurs won't be clamoring to rupture ties again: They will be clamoring to modify the longstanding economic embargo against Cuba that blocks U.S. business deals.

In theory, a president could also tear up an agreement made by his predecessor. George W. Bush did this in 2001, withdrawing from a climate treaty signed by Bill Clinton.

But when Republicans first floated the idea of walking away from the Iran deal — a notion mentioned in an open letter to Iran signed by 47 Republican senators — Iran's foreign minister insisted an agreement would be binding on the United States, withdrawal from it would be a "blatant violation of international law."

Obama is just as scornful. In an interview this month, we asked him about GOP contender Scott Walker, who had promised to break the Iran deal on "Day 1." Obama replied that this was a "foolish" idea, which would undermine the presidency and suggested that Walker would agree "after he's taken some time to bone up on foreign policy."

Republicans are boning up. Most elections don't turn on foreign policy, and by 2016, this one may not either. But there's plenty of discussion of it.

Republicans are running against the retiring president's foreign policy legacy. That means they also get one more chance — one last chance — to run against Obama.

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Shortly before he said he's running for president, Senator Marco Rubio held a breakfast. He met yesterday with financial supporters. The senator wore shirt sleeves. It was in Miami. The donors posed for pictures with him in front of a bank of hotel windows, their figures backlit by the morning sun. Afterword, Rubio sat down with us. I'd never questioned a candidate at just that moment - before he declared he was all in.

And I was thinking that if it were me, there might be a moment the night before where I was lying awake, wondering if I was really ready for this. Did you have a moment of wondering if you're really ready for this?

SENATOR MARCO RUBIO: Not last night - but, I mean, if you've reached the point where you're wondering it the night before you announce, then you probably shouldn't run.

INSKEEP: Rubio is confident. You see that because he's running at all. He's 43, a former speaker of the Florida House and first-term U.S. senator. He's thinking of how much he has to learn.

RUBIO: Clearly, if you see the history of the presidency, people that go into that office grow. The office helps you grow as well as you go through it. And that's - having the ability to learn is a big part of the office as well. But I'm certainly capable from day one. I'm very confident that I have the capability from day number one to lead this country.

INSKEEP: And he's casting off his day job. Rubio says he will not run for re-election to his Senate seat. He will focus on competing in a crowded presidential field.

We're in a moment where you have put up plans proposing to reshape the way the federal government deals with federal assistance to the poor.


INSKEEP: We're at a moment where Jeb Bush, who may also run, has a super PAC called Right to Rise. And this week, of course, Hillary Clinton declared her campaign for the presidency, talking about helping everyday people. What's going on there?

RUBIO: Well, that's a good thing for our country because equality of opportunity has always defined us as a people and as a nation. And the fact that there are millions of people now in America that are starting to have significant doubts about whether we're still that kind of country should be deeply concerning to us. Our identity is at stake.

INSKEEP: What's one way that your approach would be different from Jeb Bush's or Hillary Clinton's?

RUBIO: The truth is that at this moment, most of my opponents in the field, beyond talking about upward mobility, have not clearly outlined what they would do. We have a clear policy outline on each of these issues that people can read about. And if, you know, all of my opponents and other candidates in the Republican field choose to adopt some of those ideas, I'll consider that a victory and as well as flattery. But on the Democratic side, I think, you know, Hillary Clinton is someone who's deeply wedded to the institutions of the 20th century.

INSKEEP: Rubio is seeking conservative approaches to a problem far more often discussed on the left. It's the struggle of people at the bottom of an increasingly unequal society. Should he rise in the polls, his tax and education plans will draw attention and scrutiny. His foreign policy views get attention now. He favors a massive U-turn, undoing President Obama's outreach to hostile nations. He underlined that with the location where he declared his candidacy last night. He spoke at Miami's Freedom Tower. Cubans once received aid there after fleeing Fidel Castro's government.

This brings to mind that you have strongly criticized President Obama's restoration of relations with Cuba. If you're elected, would you reverse that policy?

RUBIO: Absolutely - and I think the reason why is because I'm interested in - my interest in Cuba is freedom and democracy. I think the Cuban people - they are free - have the right to choose any economic model they want to follow. I don't believe these changes will actually further democracy. In fact, I think they will make it harder to achieve. The goal of the Castro regime is to create the impression and the reality that their form of government is a legitimate form of government and set it in concrete.

They know they have a generational challenge. Most of their top leaders are in their 80s. The actuarial tables tell you they don't have much longer. And they want to leave in place global recognition for this form of government so that it can continue in perpetuity. And I think U.S. policy towards Cuba is a major leverage point that we can use to help the Cuban people achieve freedom for themselves.

INSKEEP: But help me think through this. The president made this announcement. They're working on getting an embassy going at some point in the future. He went to a Summit of the Americas, where other countries in Latin America very much welcomed the restoration of relations. You're saying that if you're elected, you would close that embassy, you would break to dramatic ties, you would go back to...

RUBIO: We have an intersection in Cuba, and it will continue to operate. But an embassy - I don't believe this country should be diplomatically recognizing a nation of the nature of Cuba. And I just think that we should've continued with the policy and perhaps looked for new ways of - continue with the policy of not recognizing that regime, not allowing them access to economic growth that would allow them to perpetuate themselves in power and continue to search for ways to provide the Cuban people with more information about the reality of the world so they would be empowered to eventually create for themselves a democratic society.

INSKEEP: You've also said that you would reverse the president's deal with Iran, assuming that that is finalized. You said you would absolutely do that. What would that look like on day one?

RUBIO: Well, we have to understand the deal basically can be what it is on paper. What the president is banking on is that he's going to use a national security waiver to lift the sanctions on Iran - the economic sanctions that now exist. And we would simply re-impose the sanctions.

INSKEEP: Rubio says the president is making a deal without Congress, so the next president can shift course. Iran and some experts have argued that a future president would have obligations to keep a deal, but Rubio dislikes the terms.

RUBIO: Iran is trying to maintain all the infrastructure they need to be nuclear capable without agreeing to any irreversible concessions. And that seems to be what they've achieved if in fact this moves forward.

INSKEEP: But I'm just thinking this through. The deal is made. It's made not just with the United States but with the European allies. Would you move forward with re-imposing sanctions even if the Europeans don't go along with it?

RUBIO: Yes. It wouldn't be as effective, obviously. We would -ultimately, I think the Europeans are going to have a test anyway. Because Iranians are going to violate the sanctions at some point. They're going to evade it either by trying to take advantage of loopholes in the deal, or they'll just flat-out evade it because they've always had a secret component to their program.

INSKEEP: I'm just thinking through further, though. Best part of this deal, assuming it's finalized - the Iranians get rid of a vast amount of enriched uranium - almost all they have. They limit the amount of enrichment that they will have. They limit the number of centrifuges they will operate. And they will allow inspections for decades, actually. So you would say, all that - forget about it. It's done. The Iranians can do what they want...

RUBIO: They would retain all the infrastructure. First of all, they would retain...

INSKEEP: They retain infrastructure - sure.

RUBIO: They retain not only just infrastructure. They retain centrifuges, too. They may not be spinning them, but they will retain them in their possession. They continue to develop their long-range missile capabilities, which are unstopped. Their infrastructure will remain in place. And at some point, they could follow the North Korean model very easily, which is they can cook up an excuse for why they need to have a weapon program and move forward on it.

INSKEEP: Is war inevitable, then?

RUBIO: I hope not. My hope is that we could delay a program long enough. And you would hope that there would be some sort of change in leadership in Iran that would at least allow them to decide that they would rather have an economy than have a weapon.

INSKEEP: That's part of our talk with newly announced Republican presidential candidate Marco Rubio. Elsewhere in today's program, we hear why he says he's done more on immigration than Hillary Clinton. Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.