Florida Senator Marco Rubio joined me to begin today’s show:
HH: I begin today’s show with United States Senator Marco Rubio. Senator Rubio, welcome back to the Hugh Hewitt Show, it’s great to have you.
MR: It’s great to be on, thank you.
HH: You know, my tradition, I always start with a couple of sports questions with you.
HH: The Heat are at 33-37…
HH: The Dolphins are drafting 14 after an 8-8 year. The Marlins only won 77 games last year. The Gators lost five games. I mean, are the sports gods auspicious for a presidential run for you this year?
MR: (laughing) It’s been a good year, I mean, a bad year, but I think that’s always the beginning of a good one. So the Marlins have actually put together a Major League roster. I mean, so they’re excited about that. The Heat is struggling, of course, because they’ve had a lot of injuries. But they’ve made some, you know, Dragic, the Dragon, who they’ve just added, is a real point guard and gives them, they hadn’t had a point guard on that team in ten years. So the combination of that and Bosh coming back next year hopefully from the blood clot, I think they’re one good scorer away from being a very legitimate contender. And the Gators just had a tough run, but they’ll be back.
HH: All right, then a second question, the MVP debate is hot. Westbrook-LeBron, you do remember LeBron, right?
MR: I remember LeBron. We beat him last week, actually.
MR: We beat him for the second time this year. I do remember.
HH: Westbrook-LeBron-Curry-Harden, who’s the MVP, Senator Rubio?
MR: You know, I think Westbrook’s had a great year. LeBron can be the MVP any year, but you know, Kyrie Irving has really been more of, has kind of really stepped up and taken leadership on that team in ways that no one had anticipated. Now you could argue that that’s LeBron opening up the floor for him, but you know, it’s interesting. I just think Westbrook means more to his team right now.
HH: All right, now to the serious stuff. I see that you and Senator Cotton have co-authored an amendment. I have been talking about Defense spending for the last two weeks on this show. Tell us about the amendment and about the prospects for a serious return to serious funding limits for the Pentagon.
MR: Well, let me begin by saying that the fundamental obligation of the federal government, beyond almost anything else, is the national security of our country. That doesn’t mean you just throw away money on programs that don’t work. But I do believe that when you put together a federal budget, your number one object should be how can we protect the country from foreign adversaries, threat of terrorism, etc.? And once you’ve funded that, then I think you begin to fund the other things. But it should not, it is not an equal part of the budget when it comes to the federal government, and we’re not doing that now. We are well below, you know, $487 billion dollars over ten years are the cuts that have happened under this administration. It’ll add up to over a trillion over the next decade as you move forward. These, this is just an incredible decline in spending at a time when the risks are continuing to grow. This country has tried to take peace dividends in the past, after Vietnam, after the Cold War. But at least, that was not a good idea. We had to come back and reverse all that, and it costs more money. But at least at that time, there seemed to be some sort of prospect for peace. This is not in any way a peaceful time. This is a time of increased threats, whether it’s the Asia Pacific region with China’s growth and militarily, in the Middle East with the threat of both an Iranian nuclear weapon and also the threat of ISIS/al Nusra/al Qaeda and all these other related jihadist groups in the region. And of course, NATO needs to be reinvigorated as well. So these cuts couldn’t come as a worse time. So we just want to take it back to the numbers proposed in the Gates budget that was offered up in 2012. And it reflects what the bipartisan, Congressionally-mandated National Defense Panel stated was the minimum required to reverse course and set the military on a more stable footing.
HH: Do you have the votes for that, do you think, on the Senate side? The House will be different. There’ll be a conference. But first, you’ve got to get serious funding out of the Senate to at least get to the conference to get to serious Defense funding?
MR: Well, we hope we do. Obviously, it’s going to be a heavy lift, because we’ll need some Democrats to come on board, and we’ll need all of our Republicans. And we do have some fiscal hawks in our conference that don’t want to see anything that isn’t paid for. My argument is I wan to balance the budget, too. But we can only balance our budget through entitlement reform. You can’t do it by cutting Defense spending. There’s just not enough money there when you’re talking about an $18 trillion dollar debt, and it’s a very dangerous thing to do in terms of putting us at risk. So it’s unlikely we’ll get to 60 votes. Maybe we can convince some people, and of course, Democrats, some even the pro-Defense ones, are insisting on a commensurate increase in domestic spending to support any increase in Defense spending. So that proves to be problematic. But we at the very least have to lay down, we need to know who’s who around here when it comes to making Defense spending a priority.
HH: All right, now you mentioned NATO as well, and I asked Dr. Ben Carson this last week, I want to ask you as well. Putin does not appear to be checked by anything. There is a threat to the Baltic states. Do you believe NATO would back up their commitments to their Baltic members if Putin made an aggression there, and ought they to?
MR: Well, a couple points on that front. The first is that I think we’ve got some European partners that quite frankly are not excited about the prospect of having to have someone invoke the common defense agreement, the collective defense part of NATO, and they’re worried about that to begin with. You’ve seen some of that already, although Ukraine is not a NATO member. You’ve seen some reluctance there to do things like arming the Ukrainians, beyond just the capability argument. I mean, almost all of our NATO allies have significantly reduced Defense spending over the last few years. Virtually none of them except Poland, and I might be mistaking one other country, is meeting at the threshold number that’s been set for NATO membership. So part of it is just a capacity argument. And the notion that America, there’s never been a NATO without America. You really can’t have it. We’re still the cornerstone of it, and we have our own capacity issues that we’re facing. So I would hope that NATO would live up to its defense agreements. It certainly, I think, says it would. But the question is one of capacity, and cost benefit analysis for a lot of these countries. And I think that it’s a challenge, because Putin has made a very clear decision, and that is he wants to rewrite the European order in the aftermath, and he wants to rewrite post-Soviet Europe. And I think Moldova is the next target, and you’re already starting to see moves in that direction in terms of supporting separatist groups in Transnistria and other places.
HH: Now today, the President announced that he is going to delay the departure of at least half of the 9,800 troops that remain in Afghanistan. Did he make the right decision today? And ought he to extend that decision through 2016 as it seems the Afghan president is asking for?
MR: Yeah, I think he made the right decision, but I think the better decision would have been to follow some of the military advice that he’d gotten in terms of troop strength. And I hope he’s learned from the mistake of Iraq, where the rapid exit of American troops left behind a vacuum that was ultimately filled by these radical elements that now find themselves there, these, through ISIS and others, and has created basically an Iranian invasion of Iraq in terms of being on the front lines of controlling these Shiia militia, which they do, and have an increasing and exorbitant influence over Baghdad and over the Iraqi government. And you could make the argument that had the U.S. remained, it would have been a check on Maliki’s abuse that certainly occurred when his abuses of the Sunnis in the country, which created the conditions for a lot of what we’re facing. So back to Afghanistan, absolutely, I think it’s important. And by the way, something that’s not being covered enough, there is a growing ISIS presence in Afghanistan. They are actively fighting with, not warfare, but they’re actively competing with al Qaeda and Taliban elements for influence in a post-U.S. Afghanistan. And you worry about where some of the mid-level Taliban officers are in terms of their true allegiance at this stage.
HH: Well now, speaking about the ISIS threat, I spent an hour yesterday with Benjamin Hall, who wrote Inside ISIS: The Brutal Rise Of A Terrorist Army. He spends a lot of time talking about the fact that Qasem Soleimani, the head of the Iranian Quds Forces, actually got operational control over the Shiia militia. Petraeus mentioned this, General Petraeus mentioned this last week in the Washington Post. It appears as though we’ve lost Baghdad, Marco Rubio, and that in fact, it’s already under the operational control of Khamenei. So if that is in fact the case, why in the world are we negotiating with them in Switzerland?
MR: Yeah, and that’s the argument that I’ve made. I mean, first of all, I believe a lot of what’s happening in terms of U.S. strategy against ISIS and Iraq is being driven by our desire not to turn off the Iranians, because they certainly don’t want us there at all. And I know John Kerry testified to the opposite. He’s wrong, and he knows he’s wrong. They don’t want us there at all. They’re suspicious of what we’re doing there now. And they foster all sorts of conspiracy theories and lunacies about who we’re really helping, and accuse us of double playing and so forth. So I think that’s a big problem. And the second problem is the one you’ve outlined, and that is that the Iranian influence over the government in Baghdad has grown exponentially in the absence of a stronger American presence on the ground. I still think there are elements of the Iraqi government that are distrustful of Iran, and would want to work with us. But we don’t have the footing to do it. And I think long term, our personnel there are in potential danger from the Shia militia, who aren’t fans of the United States, and could easily turn on us at any moment.
HH: Should we walk away from these negotiations in Geneva right now because of the conduct of Iran in other places than that negotiating room?
MR: Well first of all, we need to remember what’s not being covered by these negotiations, which are just as important as their nuclear ambition, and that’s the intercontinental ballistic missiles that they’re developing. And it’s very reasonable that before the end of this decade, Iran could possess a long range rocket that could reach the United States, the Continental U.S. They’re rapidly, that’s not even being covered by these negotiations. They’re not even the subject of sanctions. And I think that alone is a reason to be imposing sanctions on Iran, not to mention their state sponsorship of terrorism. That being said, any agreement that allows Iran to retain enrichment capability, leaves in place the infrastructure they will need in five, ten, eight, whenever they decide to ramp up enrichment and produce a weapon, if the only thing standing between them and a nuclear weapon becomes, and the ability to deliver it through a long range rocket becomes the ability to enrich at a higher level, that’s the easiest switch to flip. And you saw the North Koreans follow a model such as this. So I just think the deal is premised on an agreement on something that is totally unacceptable, and quite frankly, abandons almost a decade of sanctions built on the idea originally that they would not be allowed to enrich. And by the way, the Saudis, the Turks, the Egyptians, even the Jordanians have made very clear that whatever Iran is allowed to do under this agreement, they will expect the same. So if Iran is allowed to enrich up to 5%, 20% for research, the Saudis are going to insist on the same capability. And you suddenly are going to have region awash with nuclear infrastructure.
HH: Then let me ask you the three ifs. If that deal is in fact signed by President Obama that allows them to retain enrichment, and if you run for president, and if you win, would you revoke that deal?
HH: Would you go on record and just let them know that’s not going to…
MR: Absolutely, and I already have. And the point, because it’s not, first of all, it’s not an enforceable deal as we made clear in the Cotton letter. It won’t survive this president in terms of you know, a future president will have to decide whether to live by it or not. It’s not enforceable. It doesn’t have the force of law. Now if he brings it to the Congress and can get it passed, that’s a different story. He’s indicated that he prefers to take it to the United Nations instead of the U.S. Congress. The second point I would make is that I think it’ll be difficult to reassemble the international sanctions if this falls apart, but nonetheless, we should be willing to lead unilaterally. And I think others will ultimately see it. And the third is I anticipate the Iranians will take advantage of any loopholes they can find in the deal, and I think they’ll flat out try to violate portions of it. You know, Iran has other challenges ahead. They’re going to have a succession fight fairly soon when the Supreme Leader passes from the scene. And it’s very possible that the new leader of Iran, after the current leader vanishes, could be someone even more radical, as hard as that is to imagine. And that’s something to keep an eye on as well.
HH: Now Senator Rubio, next hour, I’ve got Dan Balz coming up. Last night, he was honored with the Toner award for excellence in political journalism. And when he accepted, he looked out and he saw former Secretary of State Hillary Clinton sitting there, and here is what he said.
DB: Please, thank you very much. Secretary Clinton, thank you for continuing to sit here through this. I didn’t expect that you were going to be here. I’m happy to yield my time back to you if you want to take some questions.
HH: And Senator Rubio, she shook her head and she took no questions. Now she tweets occasionally. Is it admissible, is it acceptable for the former Secretary of State and probably Democratic nominee to say nothing about these Iranian negotiations as they unfold right now?
MR: Well, I don’t think it is, but ultimately, as of today, she’s still a private citizen that has no formal obligation. The minute she enters the race for president, she’ll have to answer plenty of questions. And she’s the chief architect of the failed foreign policy. I mean, in essence, during her time as Secretary of State, the U.S. has no measurable real achievements in terms of making the world a safer place. And in fact, many of the causes, the root causes of what is global instability from a U.S. perspective were put in place during her leadership at the State Department. The reset in Russia was a failure. The inability to follow through and complete the mission in Libya left behind a vacuum that’s now turned into one of the premiere operational spaces in the world for global jihadists to operate from. The list goes on and on.
HH: I asked your colleague and friend, Jeb Bush, a couple weeks ago if he would be hampered if he became president by the legacy of Bush War I and Bush War II in Iraq. And that actually is for all Republicans. Republicans carry that burden of having to prosecute war in the face of what is alleged war worriedness. What would Marco Rubio say about having to persuade people to go abroad again in defense of interests that may not be so obvious to people?
MR: Well, part of the leadership is explaining what the interest is. And certainly, the American people are not a war-loving people. We really don’t want to be in war, and we would prefer these things not to exist. I would prefer ISIS never to have existed. I would prefer for Assad never have to govern Syria. I would prefer for Iran to by governed by normal people and not a radical jihadist cleric. But that’s the world we have, and we have to confront it. Now here’s the question. If we don’t lead the world in confronting it, who will lead the world in confronting it, because the truth is, no one can. The United Nations can’t do it, the Russian obviously are in many ways supportive of some of the things that are happening. China has no interest in it. There is no substitute for American leadership on the global stage. And you can ignore our foreign adversaries, but they won’t ignore us. And eventually, you’re going to have to deal with them. So more often than not, the choice before us is do we deal with them now, earlier, when they are easier, not easy, but easier to confront, or do we wait for this problem to grow bigger, costlier, more expensive, and more difficult to confront? And that’s one of the lessons of foreign policy. When you do something is almost as important as how you do it, in many instances. And again, we’re not looking for wars to be engaged in. We’d prefer not to. And in some instances, we don’t have to be involved in war in the traditional sense. As an example in Iraq today, I mean, we should have really taken a lead early on in putting together a Sunni coalition in the region to confront ISIS on the ground with U.S. air support. Instead, we’ve outsourced it to Shiia militias under the control of Iran, and I think we’re going to pay a terrible price for that in the years to come.
HH: Do you still see the opportunity to find people left in Syria under the banner of the Free Syrian Army or any that would stand both against Assad and al Nusra and ISIS?
MR: I still think there are individuals that are capable of that. I think it’s harder than ever. They’ve been decimated by attacks from both the regime and competing other groups on the ground. My argument always was that we wanted to get in front early and in power some group that would not be a radical group, and make them the strongest and best-armed group, because if we didn’t, that vacuum that it left would be filled by a more radical group. That’s exactly what happened. ISIS is a result of that vacuum, stepped in, flooded the region with foreign fighters, and as a result, we’ve seen what’s happened. I think it’s more difficult than it’s ever been. It’s still worth trying, but it’s no longer the lynchpin of our strategy in the region, because those groups have either folded up under the groups that actually have guns, or are dead, or have left the battlefield.
HH: Last question, Senator Rubio, your speech about Israel last week, I replayed most of it, it was warmly received by most people. Today, the President got a question about his relationship with Benjamin Netanyahu. This is what he said.
BO: I have a very businesslike relationship with the Prime Minister. I’ve met with him more than any other world leader. I talk to him all the time. He is representing his country’s interests the way he thinks he needs to, and I’m doing the same. So the issue is not a matter of relations between leaders. The issue is a very clear, substantive challenge. We believe that two states is the best path forward for Israel’s security, for Palestinian aspirations and for regional stability.
HH: Senator Rubio, do you believe him on the businesslike relationship?
HH: And what about this two-state solution at this time in this place?
MR: No. First of all, he’s wrong on both counts. Number one, he can’t say he has a businesslike relationship or that it isn’t personal when his entire political machine, virtually, some of the top people in his political operation were in Israel, on the ground, trying to defeat Netanyahu, which is unprecedented. You know, he didn’t send anyone in any other country to try to influence the outcome of those elections. And from Jeremy Bird down to others that were deeply and intricately involved in his campaigns in the past, he sent them down there to start the equivalent of a superPAC to try to oust Netanyahu. So I mean, what he’s saying is absurd in terms of it not being personal. That sounds pretty personal to me. As far as the two-state solution, I would say what many Israelis say, which is yeah, that’s the ideal outcome. It’s also the least likely. And here’s why, because you don’t have the conditions today for that to happen. You have a Palestinian Authority that has no interest at this point. Certainly Hamas has none, but the Palestinian Authority has no interest at this moment on being a serious partner for peace. They continue to reward and elevate people they call martyrs, who we call terrorists, who have killed Israelis and even Americans. They’ve walked away from very generous offers over the last, at least twice over the last 15 years that have been made by the Israelis. The conditions just do not exist at this point. They teach their children to hate Jews, that it’s a glorious thing to kill Jews. These are the sorts of things that make it impossible at this moment to have an agreement. And in fact, if you’re standing from the Israeli perspective, what you see is the possibility that that second state that some are calling for would be nothing more than a launching pad for further attacks against Israel in the future.
HH: Senator Marco Rubio, always great to talk with you. Quick, do we have a drop dead date, yet, for your declaration on running?
MR: Well, no drop dead date, but we are very close to making a final decision and an announcement in the next few weeks. And I guarantee you, you’ll know all about it.
HH: Marco Rubio, always a pleasure, Senator.
MR: Thanks, Hugh.
End of interview.