Marco Rubio has no shortage of problems with the way President Obama has conducted his foreign policy.
The Florida senator and GOP presidential candidate says the Obama administration left "chaos" behind in the Middle East after withdrawing troops from Iraq in 2011. In an interview with NPR's Steve Inskeep, Rubio says that Russia has gained leverage from the perception that the United States abandoned the region.
Rubio says the United States has failed to be a reliable ally to countries in the region battling ISIS. Therefore, he says, "If left with a choice between Russia and nothing, they're going to choose Russia."
The U.S. has led an air campaign against ISIS in Iraq and Syria, backed by Western and Arab allies. But efforts to mount a ground force to battle the extremists, or hold territory cleared by airstrikes, have flagged.
Rubio has also pledged to scrap the nuclear deal with Iran, if elected, on his first day in office. He does not believe Iran will stick to the deal, despite assurances by Iranian President Hassan Rouhani in an NPR interview this weekend that his country has a "religious obligation" to do so.
Rouhani said statements by Rubio and other GOP presidential candidates that they would like to terminate the deal fuel skepticism in Iran that the U.S. will keep its promises.
Rubio predicts that Iran will eventually claim technicalities to "erode the deal's restrictions on them." Rubio adds, "They'll challenge them, they'll gamble that the West and the United States has so much invested in the success of this deal that we will tolerate those violations."
The nuclear deal was secured on Capitol Hill despite strong opposition from Rubio and other Republicans, who control both the House and Senate.
In the wake of House Speaker John Boehner's surprise resignation, which Rubio announced to cheers at a conference of social conservatives in Washington on Friday, Rubio says of the frustration with the GOP establishment, "It's very real."
"We know people are upset that they elected a Republican-majority Senate, have a Republican-majority House, and yet they seem incapable of getting anything done," Rubio says.
Conservatives in Congress are likely facing another disappointment this week, as the GOP leadership appears capable of keeping the government funded past a Sept. 30 deadline, without stripping federal money for Planned Parenthood.
Rubio says the Republican establishment gave up in the fight against Planned Parenthood, which was sparked by a series of sting videos against the organization that provides a range of health services, including abortions. "They didn't think they could win the public debate, and so they never even tried," he tells NPR.
Attacking the party establishment appears to be smart politics in a campaign season when political outsiders have captured the energy in the presidential race.
Rubio has been in politics since he won a seat on the West Miami City Commission in 1998. He then rose through the ranks of Florida's state Legislature, eventually taking the mantle of speaker in the state House of Representatives, before being elected to the U.S. Senate in 2010 with the backing of the Tea Party.
Rubio has picked up steam recently in the presidential race, both in polls and by inheriting key campaign resources from Wisconsin Gov. Scott Walker, who dropped out of the race last week.
Perhaps there's no clearer sign that Rubio is performing better than the fact that he's come under attack by Donald Trump. In a pair of cable TV interviews last week, Trump called Rubio a "kid" and mocked him for getting "sweaty" during the last GOP debate, where several candidates complained of the heat on stage.
Since then, the two candidates have been engaged in a tit-for-tat. Rubio responded by saying that Trump is "touchy and insecure" in an interview with Kentucky Sports Radio on Thursday.
At the Values Voter Summit in Washington on Friday, Trump called Rubio a "clown" — drawing sustained boos from the crowd of social conservatives.
In response, Rubio tells NPR, "I'm not interested in the back and forth." He then went on to further his criticism of Trump, referring to his presence in the race as a "freak show."
"[Trump] is a very sensitive person. He doesn't like to be criticized. He responds to criticism very poorly," Rubio says. "His poll numbers have taken a beating, and he was embarrassed on national television at the debate by Carly Fiorina and others."
"But this election is not going to be about Donald Trump," Rubio adds. "He thinks it is, but it's not about him. It has to be about the issues confronting our country. And my sense of it is that every time issues become prominent, he will say something outrageous or do something outrageous so that he doesn't have to talk about the issues."
STEVE INSKEEP, HOST:
Let's hear a critique of the latest effort to address the war in Syria. The United States is trying to do something about that disastrous war. It wants to unite world powers to remove Syria's leader. Bashar al-Assad's allies - Russia and Iran - have yet to sign on. And that is sure to be one subject when President Obama meets Russian President Vladimir Putin today. Iran's leader, Hassan Rouhani, told us over the weekend that he would rather keep Assad and focus on that other threat - ISIS.
HASSAN ROUHANI: (Through interpreter) So what is the priority today in Syria? Is it to fight against terrorism or is it political reforms in Syria? Perhaps political reform is needed. However, is that today's priority? We believe that is driving out the terrorists.
INSKEEP: Syria's tangled mess was one subject we raised with Florida senator and Republican presidential hopeful, Marco Rubio.
The United States wants Assad to go. Iran and Russia want him to stay, which leads to a question for you. Which side make sense to you?
MARCO RUBIO: Well, first of all, it's important to understand the instability in Syria began with an uprising against Assad. It wasn't terrorists. It was Syrians who rebelled against him. And the result we see is ISIS and other radical groups on the ground. Obviously, the Russians and the Iranians view Assad as a client state and they want either him to remain in power or someone like him. And so their number one objective in the region is to defeat ISIS first while at the same time maintaining Assad in power. And that's quite different from our view because as long as Assad is in power, you will have an ISIS or an ISIS-like movement, so they're interrelated.
INSKEEP: If you were president this week, meeting at the United Nations with Russia's Vladimir Putin, sending your secretary of state to meet with Iran's foreign minister, how - if at all - would you be able to persuade Russia and Iran to get on the same page as you?
RUBIO: Well, I'm not sure we would, and that's why it's important that American leadership be present. Here's the argument the Russians are making - the United States broke the Middle East. They got rid of Saddam Hussein. They invaded Iraq. Then they left too early and the place collapsed into chaos. And now that they broke it, they're leaving, and they're leaving us with this mess. So we - meaning the Russians - are going to step in and we're going to provide the leadership this region needs. And we're a much more reliable ally than the United States is. And this is the argument they're making to multiple countries in the region. And so this president has fallen into that. He's, in fact, strengthened Putin's hands. If I were president, the argument would be the reverse. We would provide a clear strategy to deal with ISIS. We would've done so already. And those nations would prefer to work with us. But if left with a choice between Russia and nothing, they're going to choose Russia.
INSKEEP: Senator Rubio, let me ask you about something else that we heard from Iran's president, Hassan Rouhani. We, of course, talked about the nuclear deal with the United States. We asked if Iran really was going to comply when the nuclear inspections got tough. And he indicated that he wanted to do that and that Iran would. He, in fact, said Iran has a, quote, "religious duty to keep the agreements it's made" and he said that his administration wants to focus on improving Iran's economy and really not very much else. Do you believe him?
RUBIO: I do not, and their history proves that that not to be true. In fact, he has openly bragged in the past about misleading the West to reach their objective. I think the likelier scenario is a combination of what Saddam Hussein did after the first Gulf War and what North Korea did and that is a series of what they will argue are technical issues with the deal, and, over time, just erode the deal's restrictions on them. They'll challenge them. They'll gamble that the West and the United States has so much invested in the success of this deal that we will tolerate those violations. And over time, basically, they'll change the facts from the ground and the world will have to accept it.
INSKEEP: Senator Rubio, I can't let you go without asking about the giant developments in Congress in the last few days after House Speaker John Boehner announced that he is going to resign. Many people noticed that when you broke the news to a crowd on Friday that Boehner was resigning, it got more than half a minute of sustained applause. What did you make of that?
RUBIO: Well, we know people are upset that they elected a Republican majority Senate, have a Republican majority House and yet they seem incapable of getting anything done or, at a minimum, stopping the things they disagree with. So that frustration was manifested by that response. But I also think you see it manifested in some of the polling and things that are going on in this election. It's very real.
INSKEEP: Well, let's talk about that, though. One of the reasons that Speaker Boehner was under pressure was because of a looming possibility of another government shutdown over a dispute over funding for Planned Parenthood and other issues. Boehner was seen as not being tough enough. Are you saying that you're on the other side of that debate, that you would prefer to see the government shut down if the administration doesn't give in?
RUBIO: No, I don't prefer to see it shut down. In fact, I think that if it does shut down, it'll be because the Democrats and the president have shut it down because they insistent that one organization receive federal funding. But here's the bigger problem among the base and the conservatives in the Republican Party - it's that they never even tried. In essence, they didn't try to make the case to the American people over a sustained period of time. They didn't think they could win the public debate and so they never even tried. And that's the frustration. If ultimately he vetoes it, if ultimately we don't have the votes, that's one thing. But to basically wave the white flag weeks in advance and say we're not even going to try to go out there and make the argument to the American people and try to win this issue in the court of public opinion - that is inexplicable.
INSKEEP: But it is interesting if you go through the motions as you just say - have a vote, see what happens, see if it passes Congress, see of the president then vetoes it and then let the government stay open - isn't someone still going to accuse you of not having gone far enough?
RUBIO: Well, potentially, but that's not my point. My argument is let's try to win the argument.
INSKEEP: One other thing, Senator Rubio. I need to recount some of the political dialogue from the presidential campaign in recent days. Donald Trump said, among other things, quote, "Rubio is like a kid who shouldn't be running." I believe he called you sweaty. You responded that Donald Trump is, quote, "touchy and insecure" and so then Trump called you a clown - his words. So, Senator, it's your serve.
RUBIO: (Laughter) Well, look, I'm not interested in the back and forth to be a member or part of his freak show. I would just say this - he is a very sensitive person. He doesn't like to be criticized. He responds to criticism very poorly. He had a speech in South Carolina to an empty crowd. He got booed on Friday at that Values Voter Summit. His poll numbers have taken a beating, and he was embarrassed on national television at a debate by Carly Fiorina and others. But this election's not going to be about Donald Trump. He thinks it is and - but it's not about him. It has to be about the issues confronting our country. And my sense of it is that every time issues become prominent, he will say something outrageous or do something outrageous so that he doesn't have to talk about the issues.
INSKEEP: Senator Marco Rubio of Florida, thanks very much.
RUBIO: Thank you for having me. Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.