In the Oct. 28, 2015 Republican debate, former Gov. Jeb Bush delivered an unexpected jab at his one-time ally, Sen. Marco Rubio, remarking that while Florida’s junior senator was on the campaign trail he had missed more votes in the Senate than any of his other colleagues. Bush’s point was that the senator’s presidential ambitions were getting in the way of his legislative responsibilities. The former governor could have said the same about the Sen. Rubio’s responsibilities over foreign policy.
On Jan. 8, Sen. Rubio issued a press release slamming the U.S. Assistant Secretary of State Roberta Jacobson and nominee to be U.S. ambassador to Mexico for not providing detailed explanation about the mystery of how the Cuban government came in possession of a U.S. hellfire missile. The public letter demanded to know when she had known about it, how many times she had raised it in her discussions with the Cubans, among other things, and concluded by asserting that the fact that she had apparently tried to hide this information from Congress and the public discussion was “disgraceful.”
One problem, though: The State Department had provided a confidential briefing for the Senate on the matter on February 13 last year. But the senator must have missed it, as he has the 120 out of 339 roll call votes he missed last year. While possession of the missile by Cuba is troubling and the State Department’s explanation of the episode as a bureaucratic Key-Stone Cops mess up is embarrassing and a little scary, Rubio’s decision to target Jacobson was misguided — it stemmed from a larger organizational mistake and was not under her purview.
But at its heart this was just another thinly veiled excuse to deny Secretary Jacobson a confirmation hearing for her ambassadorial appointment. What Rubio is doing is exacting revenge for the administration’s normalization of relations with Cuba, which Jacobson has become the public face for as the lead negotiator. (In reality, she had nothing to do with the initial negotiations that led to the deal; those were carried out in secret from the White House. But I guess that doesn’t matter if you’re not paying attention.)
Something more at stake here, though, than the injustice of denying a distinguished civil servant a democratic hearing over a petty vengeance. The Senate — or more precisely Rubio and a small cadre of senators — is holding our relations with our second largest trade partner and one of our greatest allies hostage.
Let’s put this in context. Cuba is a country of 11 million people. Mexico is a country of over 100 million people, our second largest trade partner, and with whom we share a number of national interests including security, countering terrorism and controlling the flow of narcotics.
Holding up an ambassadorial confirmation to Mexico over Cuba is roughly equivalent to a senator denying a U.S. ambassador to our important ally Germany over our policy toward Belgium, or holding up the president’s representative to China over, say, a spat involving a single stray weapon that somehow turned up in a third country.
Superpowers don’t conduct foreign policy that way. And leaders of superpowers don’t view geopolitics and national interests through the narrow frame of a single grudge.
For decades, though, this is the way our policy toward the region has been conducted, by partisans on both sides. In 2001, a staffer on then-Sen. Christopher Dodd’s foreign policy staff refused the Bush administration’s nominee, Otto Reich, a full Senate hearing for his confirmation.
The matter: questions over his Cuba policy interests and time as ambassador to Venezuela, charges he was never able to answer. Amb. Reich and I have had our differences, but as I argued then and believe now, policy toward an entire region or a important ally can not be held hostage to narrow, petty policy preferences.
Raising policy criticisms is a legitimate function of the Senate, but hobbling broader and more weighty U.S foreign policy interests to those narrow policy squabbles — especially with small countries — not only makes us look small-minded and non-strategic, but also undermines our national interests. Superpowers and those who aspire to lead them shouldn’t behave that way, on either side of the aisle.
Christopher Sabatini teaches at Columbia University’s School for International and Public Affairs.