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Islamic State Is A Serious Threat To U.S. Interests, Rubio Says


On this morning after President Obama laid out a strategy against the so-called Islamic State in Iraq and Syria, we're joined by Florida Republican Marco Rubio. He is a member of the Senate Foreign Relations Committee. Senator, welcome back to the program.

SENATOR MARCO RUBIO: Thank you for having me back.

INSKEEP: Is the president doing enough?

RUBIO: Well, first of all, I think we're in a much better place from where he was previously. If you recall, at one point, he called ISIL a JV team. Now he acknowledges that they're a serious threat, and that's good. And the other, you know - just a few weeks ago he said that any effort to really capacitate the rebels in Syria was a fantasy - that these were bankers and pharmacists - and now he wants to move forward in arming them, which I also think is important if done appropriately. So I think we're in a much better place, and by and large, I think the speech last night was effective in that regard.

I do have some observations that I think it was a mistake to try to describe this effort as akin to what's happened in Yemen and Somalia. Those efforts of course have met with some significant success, but they're still very dangerous and unstable places. I think ISIL also poses a much different threat than what we face in those countries. They're not just a terror group, although they certainly are. They're also an insurgency. They're working with people on the ground in Syria and in Iraq, and they're capable, you know - they've got military weaponry; they use military tactics; they control territory; they're well-funded. And they do want to set up a state, which is an ambition that you haven't seen from the groups in Yemen and in Somalia.

And here's my last quibble about it. What I didn't hear last night is that we're going to defeat ISIL no matter what, and I'll tell you why that's important. The cornerstone of the president's strategy is it relies on ground forces from local forces - Iraqis, Kurds, hopefully Syrian rebels that are capable and moderate - and I think initially that's the right place we want to be. That's the ideal outcome. What if that fails? Does that then mean that ISIL gets to stay, that we have to accept them? And that's what I'm worried about. I think it's important for him to have laid out that no matter what we are going to defeat ISIL, no matter what it takes. He didn't do that last night, but by and large, I think we're in a better place with the president than we were a week ago or a month ago.

INSKEEP: Well, let's follow up on some of those observations, Senator Rubio. You said it's important to arm the moderate Syrian opposition. The president now wants to do that, even though he's expressed doubts about getting it done. Are you convinced that it is realistically possible to improve the moderate Syrian opposition? There seems to be plenty of reason to think that this may not work.

RUBIO: It will be difficult. It will be harder to do it now than it would have been two years ago or one year ago. We need to try because certainly what will happen if we defeat ISIL - as I anticipate we will and hope that we will and should - what replaces them? Because if you wipe out ISIL, but you don't have some other group on the ground that's moderate that we can work with, then basically al-Nusra rises or of one of the other radical groups in Syria rises and takes their place.

So it is important from that perspective that there be someone on the ground, and also someone's going to have to confront them in Syria on the ground. And I don't think we should be allied with Assad in doing that. So I think we have to try; it will be difficult; it will not be easy.

INSKEEP: And you wish that there was a stronger goal of defeating ISIL or ISIS or the Islamic State no matter what. Is that a realistic goal, though, Senator? Because insurgent groups like this can go on for years and years and years even if they're weakened.

RUBIO: Well, absolutely it's a realistic goal. It's been achieved in the past. This very same insurgency was defeated during the awakening in Iraq. This is the same group that was driven out by Sunnis who then reconstituted itself in Syria when that became an unstable and ungoverned space. So it is possible, but it's going to take some time. And I think that's the other point that the president should've laid out and that is, you know, we don't know how long this will take, but no matter how long it takes, we need to do it.

INSKEEP: Well, I guess that's my point, Senator. There are connections between this group and earlier extremist groups in Iraq, but they were battled for years and pushed back. But here they are years later. This could be just something that goes on and on, couldn't it?

RUBIO: It could, but that's not - I mean, that's just reality. We wish that weren't the case, but that's the way it is. And the world is not the way we want it to be all the time, and this is unfortunately a reality that we face in the 21st century. We have these groups with the intention of killing Americans and enslaving people, and we have a choice to make; we either accept that or we defeat it, and I don't think we should accept it.

INSKEEP: And let me get your sense of how dangerous you think this group really is. Obviously they've done terrible things - they have beheaded two Americans and put out videotapes of that - but it's been pointed out by some analysts the fact that they beheaded Americans underlined that they really are incapable of doing anything stronger against the United States that would fundamentally threaten the United States at this time.

RUBIO: Well, I think that's a flawed analysis for a couple of points. First of all, this is a group with a clear intention of establishing a Sunni Islamic caliphate that stretches through Saudi Arabia, Israel, the Palestinian territories, Turkey, Lebanon, Iraq and Syria. It would completely destabilize the region - and do we want these people to control the state with this ideology and the way that they operate? That's the first observation, and they've shown the capacity to capture territory and to hold it.

The second point I would make is this is an extremely well-funded group. This is a group that's generating over a million dollars a day of oil revenue from rigs that they have seized in both Iraq and in Syria, so they're very well-funded.

And the third observation is that this is a group, more than any other group in the history of these conflicts, that is replete with foreign fighters - including Americans and Europeans from Visa waiver countries - who have very quick access to the United States. They are - as one of my colleagues stated a few weeks ago, they're a plane ticket away from our own shores. We have underestimated this group's capacity in the past. We cannot afford to do that when it comes to risks to the homeland.

INSKEEP: One of the things, Senator Rubio, you mentioned that it might've been easier to intervene in this situation a year ago or two years ago. Is Congress partly responsible for that delay because it's been difficult for lawmakers to agree on anything and certainly difficult to support anything the president proposes?

RUBIO: No, in fact the Foreign Relations Committee on which I sit on almost unanimously - only one senator voted against it - voted over a year ago to approve arming and training moderate rebel elements. It's just a policy the White House chose not to pursue. I've been calling for that for a significant period of time. The only obstacle the administration has ever faced is when they came for authority to conduct limited, what I thought were symbolic, airstrikes against Assad in Syria. And that certainly was not about targeting ISIL; that was about targeting Assad, which I'm, you know - again I think Assad needs to be removed.

I didn't think a symbolic, limited military engagement as the president had described it was the right approach, but when it comes to getting involved on the side of equipping, arming and capacitating a moderate rebel element in Syria, the Foreign Relations Committee in the Senate in a bipartisan vote - I think it was 15 to 1 - voted to give that president authority. Unfortunately, Senator Reid never scheduled it for a vote on the Senate floor, and then the White House never supported it.

INSKEEP: Just got a few seconds, but two quick questions. Number one, does the president already have, as he says, the authorization that he needs to order airstrikes in Syria? And number two, will Congress be able to support anything he asked for as far as supporting Syrian rebels?

RUBIO: Well, on the first point I believe he does have authority as commander-in-chief to deal with this emergent crisis. I think because it's going to be a long-term conflict it is wise, I think, for him to try to rally congressional support on a bipartisan basis, but he doesn't need that tomorrow to expand and continue this operation.

The second point on the funding is I hope so. I think it is critically important that we do fund and train and equip moderate rebel elements. Now what I think the administration has to do is clearly explain to us how these elements are going to be vetted and what the plan is going to look like. We're not going to just write a blank check, but I do hope that we will support that because I think it's a critical component of success in this endeavor.

INSKEEP: Florida Senator Marco Rubio, thanks very much.

RUBIO: Thank you for having me. Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.

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