Sen. Marco Rubio breaks deafening silence on Syria

From commenting on threatened oyster habitats to the problems with Obamacare, Florida Republican Sen. Marco Rubio has regularly held forth on the issues of the day.

Except one: Syria.

For days, as fellow members of Congress weighed in, the 2016 Republican presidential hopeful remained quiet as members of his party split on whether and how President Barack Obama should respond to what appears to have been the use of chemical weapons by Syrian President Bashar Assad’s regime.

But after the Miami Herald and Tampa Bay Times wrote separate pieces detailing Rubio’s absence on the issue, he issued a press release late Wednesday that bashed Obama but said little about what he would do differently from this point.

“Military action, taken simply to save face, is not a wise use of force,” Rubio wrote.

“My advice is to either lay out a comprehensive plan using all of the tools at our disposal that stands a reasonable chance of allowing the moderate opposition to remove Assad and replace him with a stable secular government,” Rubio said. “Or, at this point, simply focus our resources on helping our allies in the region protect themselves from the threat they and we will increasingly face from an unstable Syria.”

Rubio’s nuanced position stands in stark contrast to the two new Senate Republicans — Texas’ Ted Cruz and Kentucky’s Rand Paul — who have begun to eclipse him in popularity among many tea party groups.

“The United States armed forces doesn’t exist to be a policeman of the world,” Cruz, one of the first Senate Republicans to oppose military action, told Fox News on Monday, “I certainly hope the reaction isn’t simply lobbing some cruise missiles in to disagree with his [Assad’s] murderous actions.”

Paul co-sponsored bipartisan legislation to prevent the Obama administration from arming Syrian rebels.

Meanwhile, pressure is building in the Republican-controlled U.S. House to require Obama to seek congressional approval to attack Syria.

Unlike Rubio, Miami Republican Rep. Ileana Ros-Lehtinen didn’t wait for reporters to ask her opinion when she said in a statement Wednesday that the president should get a congressional sign-off, which she said she would likely give in the case of “multilateral airstrikes.”

“Putting boots on the ground is not an option,” she said. “At this point there’s no easy decision. We’re stuck with the least worst option.”

Following Ros-Lehtinen’s lead, Rubio said “we are now left with no good options.”

“Failing to act would further embolden Assad and his Iranian sponsors, leaving the impression that America is feckless and impotent,” Rubio wrote. “And a limited attack would do nothing to change the dynamics of the conflict, but could trigger a broader and even more dangerous conflict in the region.”

Rubio faulted the administration for recently leaking plans to the press instead of consulting members of Congress.

Rubio also pointed out that, two years ago, he called for more engagement from Obama to arm rebels sympathetic to U.S. interests. He said the president failed to do that, reiterating comments he made in June before going silent about Syria as the conflict escalated and as some conservatives questioned whether going to war was the right option.

Rubio’s silence on Syria stood out in part because he is a member of the Senate Foreign Relations Committee and had made an effort to showcase his foreign-policy chops, impressing long-time senators. Rubio’s neo-conservative, interventionist views generally conflict with those of Sen. Paul, who has been criticized by some foreign-policy hawks as too isolationist.

About the same time Rubio went quiet about Syria, his popularity plummeted among some hardcore conservatives for his decision to back bipartisan immigration reform and thereby break a campaign pledge against supporting so-called “amnesty” for some undocumented immigrants.

After the backlash from the far right over immigration reform, Rubio has been actively making amends with tea party groups back home in Florida. Rubio is scheduled to appear this weekend in Orlando at the Americans for Prosperity’s “Defending the American Dream Summit.”

While Rubio has taken a nuanced position on Syria, his fellow Florida senator, Democrat Bill Nelson, wasted little time this week in calling for an attack against Assad’s regime.

“There should be moral outrage over the use of chemical weapons on innocent civilians in Syria,” Nelson said this week. “At this point I believe it appropriate to take military action with NATO and our regional allies. Inaction would only lead to greater suffering and instability in the region, and would further embolden Assad.”

But Rubio said he wants to hear more from the president

“He must clearly lay out to Congress and the American people why this is in our national interest,” Rubio wrote, “what the goals of this action are, and how the military action he is taking would achieve this objective.”