No presidential campaign guru ever posted a sign in headquarters warning the warriors that “it’s foreign policy, Stupid.” Americans are so pleased to be where they are they have little interest in what’s going on anywhere else. Americans had zero interest in the gathering storm in the Pacific on Dec. 6, 1941, and on Sept. 10, 2001, nobody gave the Muslims, angry or otherwise, a second (or even third) thought.
This makes it tough sometimes for candidates who shun the provincial and the shortsighted. “Foreign policy” just doesn’t compute in the brains of most voters, who typically have more important things to worry about: Can Tom Brady and the New England Patriots inflate anew the respect of football fans? Will Don Draper die in the final installment of “Mad Men?”
Nothing is more important than the survival of the nation — everybody understands that — and it’s a given that presidential candidates are expected to know the difference between Albania and Alabama. When they don’t, or when they mangle the names of foreign leaders, they can expect a strafing from the merciless Gaffe Patrol.
Jeb Bush could show you the scars he got after a speech to the Chicago Council on Global Affairs in February, when he mispronounced the name of Boko Haram and couldn’t remember the size of ISIS or the name of the bearded terrorist who runs it, or did. Under airstrikes, ISIS has lately become a gang of lost leaders.
Mr. Bush fumbled a dumb question only the other day, probably because he didn’t hear it correctly. He might have been distracted by the close-up view of Megyn Kelly, his interviewer from Fox News, who asked whether, with the benefit of hindsight, his brother should have gone to war in Iraq.
The question was odd because with hindsight almost no one would make a disastrous mistake twice. A man who sits down on a hot stove would with hindsight surely be more considerate of his hindquarters the second time around. Mr. Bush, no doubt eager to defend his brother’s reputation (wouldn’t anybody’s brother?), nevertheless told Miss Kelly that yes, he would do it again. He recognized the error at once, but saying later he had misheard the question hardly repaired the damage.
Marco Rubio got the same question this week when he spoke to the Council on Foreign Relations in New York City, and later in an interview with Charlie Rose of NPR. He gave the question the short shrift it deserved: “Not only would I not have been in favor of it, President Bush would not have been in favor of it.” The best and the brightest live and learn.
Reuters, the British news agency, called Mr. Rubio’s sharp, crisp performance at the Council on Foreign Relations “a master class on foreign policy,” an hour with the imagined peerless in foreign policy in which he showed himself “to be a peer.”
He said some things that are out of fashion, certainly among the “experts” in Barack Obama’s White House and in the salons of the wizards. Such things make up the common sense of fly-over country. Mr. Rubio summed up his worldview in a sentence to warm hearts sickened by six years of presidential ineptitude and stumbling from behind: “America,” he says, “plays a part on the world stage for which there is no understudy.”
Men and women everywhere feel afflicted, frightened and alone. “Vulnerable nations still depend on us to deter aggression from their larger neighbors,” he said. “Oppressed peoples still turn their eyes toward our shores, wondering if we can hear their cries, wondering if we notice their afflictions.”
As president, he would “advance the rights of the vulnerable — including women and the religious minorities that are so often persecuted — so that the afflicted people of the world hear their cries, see their suffering and most of all, desire their freedom.”
This is linking American morality to foreign policy, which many wary Americans decry as just the link that has put the country in trouble on earlier occasions. But as a member of the Senate Foreign Relations and Intelligence Committees, Mr. Rubio has access to information that others don’t have, frequent top-secret briefings and conversations with some of the best sources in the world. He has obviously made the most of his opportunities.
God and guns loom large in Republican imaginations, and grits and gravy, like a little sugar, can make the medicine go down. But we live in an interconnected world full of evil men and deceitful women, and only the unwary write off foreign policy as dull and boring. This is Marco Rubio’s strength. He carries himself well.
• Wesley Pruden is editor emeritus of The Washington Times.