WASHINGTON — U.S. Sen. Marco Rubio presented a forceful case for more U.S. engagement overseas, including possible military strikes against Iran, in a speech Wednesday that was notable as much for the way it heightened buzz surrounding him and the presidential race.
"Above all else, the 21st century provides us the opportunity for more freedom," Rubio said at the Brookings Institution, two days after campaigning with Mitt Romney, the presumptive Republican nominee.
"A world where more people are free to grow their economies. Free to pursue their dreams. Free to become more prosperous. This is the promise of this century. But it will not happen if we are not engaged. It will not happen if we do not lead."
It was a 30-minute, detailed speech that cast a hawkish but bipartisan tone. Rubio praised and criticized President Barack Obama, and distanced himself from the growing isolationist streak in his own party.
He injected a bit of humor when he revealed he had misplaced the final page of his speech, grinning awkwardly as he looked for help, the crowd laughing. A replacement was handed to him in seconds and Rubio resumed, concluding that, "The world cannot make it happen without us."
But a meaty policy speech is no match for Washington's appetite for election politics and speculation. That a 40-year-old freshman senator commanded a packed audience spoke volumes about his rising status.
Even before Rubio began, the Democratic National Committee issued a "pre-buttal" accusing Rubio of distorting Obama's record as he auditioned "for a new job" as Romney's VP pick.
There were subtler signs. Rubio is receiving police protection in Washington and home in Miami after being subject to a threat. U.S. Capitol police confirmed an investigation but did not comment further.
"I think some people around whom such VP speculation swirls would choose to remain quiet," said Sen. Joe Lieberman, I-Conn., who introduced Rubio Wednesday. "But I think he's just doing what he would do in any case. He's just saying 'This is what matters to me. These are my values. This is my patriotic vision of America's destiny.' "
Rubio has pursued an interest in foreign policy since being elected in 2010, and he told the audience he had been heavily influenced by a new book, The World America Made, by neoconservative historian Robert Kagan. Rubio met Kagan a few months ago and said he wanted to give a speech expanding on his views, and Kagan, a senior fellow at the Brookings think tank, helped arrange one.
Rubio's speech was framed by the question, "Is the American world order sustainable and necessary in the 21st century?" He answered, repeatedly with an emphatic yes, arguing that the United States has made the world safer and more prosperous and that now is not the time to retreat.
"If we start doing less, who's going to do more?" Rubio asked. "For example, would a world order where China, at least as we know it right now, was the leading power be as benignly disposed to the political and economic aspirations of other nations as we are? …
"We hold out hope for a new China of tomorrow, but for now we must deal with the China we know today. A China which enjoys its closest relationships with countries such as North Korea and Iran."
He said he agreed with the Obama administration that international coalitions are important but said only the United States could form and lead them.
"That is what this administration doesn't understand," he added. "Yes, there are more countries able and willing to join efforts to meet the global challenges of our time. But experience has proven that American leadership is almost always indispensable to its success."
On Iran, Rubio expressed alarm over its effort to assert control over the Middle East, underscored by the threat to develop nuclear weapons. "Certainly we welcome Russia's and China's cooperation in facing this challenge. But the prospect of a nuclear-capable Iran is so unacceptable that we must be prepared to act with or without them."
He said negotiations and sanctions should be considered but said the United States should also prepare the world "for the uncomfortable reality that unfortunately, if all else fails, preventing a nuclear Iran may tragically require a military solution." Later, during a question-and answer-session, Rubio declined to say whether he would back strikes by Israel.
Rubio said the United States and its allies should leverage economic power to force China to address its "disregard for intellectual property rights, gross human rights violations, its unfair trade practices" and other issues.
He criticized Obama's approach to Russia, contending "we have gotten precious little from Russia in exchange for concessions on nuclear weapons."
Of Russian President Vladimir Putin he said, "Putin might talk tough, but he knows he is weak" and called on the United States and its allies to use the same economic leverage to force political change.
Rubio also criticized a movement in the GOP to withdraw from foreign engagement. (Last year, he took heat for backing greater involvement in Libya.)
"I disagree because all around us we see the human face of America's influence," he said. "It actually begins with not just our government, but our people. Millions of people have been the catalyst of democratic change in their own countries. But they never would have been able to connect with each other if an American had not invented Twitter.
"The atrocities of Joseph Kony would be largely unknown. But in fact, millions of people know because an American filmmaker made a short film about it and then distributed it on another American innovation, YouTube."
Alex Leary can be reached at [email protected]