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Special Report

Sen. Rubio: Nothing in Gates' book surprises me

This is a rush transcript from "Special Report," January 8, 2014. This copy may not be in its final form and may be updated.

BRET BAIER, ANCHOR: Right now we welcome Florida Republican Senator Marco Rubio to our Center Seat. Senator, thanks for being here.

SEN. MARCO RUBIO, R - FL: Thank you. Thanks for having me.

BAIER: I know you gave a big speech today on the war on poverty. We'll talk about that in just a minute. But first we want to talk about the news of the day and the Defense Secretary Gates book. Obviously, the focus, a lot is on Afghanistan and the policy there. I want to ask you about what you think about Afghanistan. The latest polls, Washington Post/ABC poll, says 66 percent of people say that the war in Afghanistan has not been worth fighting, 30 percent saying it has been worth fighting. You look at those numbers, and this is actually -- there are other polls saying that it's actually more people in America are against the Afghan war. If it's a president Rubio, what are you doing in Afghanistan?

RUBIO: Well, a couple things. Obviously, I understand why people feel that way. It's come at a tremendous price in both life and also injuries people have suffered, and clearly money as well. What's important to remember about Afghanistan is it was the premier operational area in the world for jihadist planned attacks on us, our interests around the world, and the West in general. If in fact it becomes that again, and joining Syria in those ranks, by the way, the world becomes an even more dangerous place.

So we have a significant interest in ensuring that the place does not devolve once again into a chaotic place where terrorist organizations can use it to undermine their neighbors and come after us. So we do have an interest in that.

But that's mitigated, it's limited by, at the end of the day, it's the Afghans' responsibility, and they have a president now who increasingly appears unstable and in the direction he wants to take the country. There are questions on whether that election is even going to occur. So I think the U.S. should try to negotiate a deal where we have a presence there. We certainly have to downscale the war at some point. I think that should be happening, as it is now. But at some point you have to negotiate either some sort of long-term stratus of being there that is not overly aggressive.

BAIER: You would do that? You would do that with Karzai? And you would say --

RUBIO: Only, for example, if it's going to protect our soldiers. The numbers have to be at the right level. It can't be too high but it has to be high enough so you're not just their protecting yourself. Otherwise, you're better off not being there at all. And especially if you're dealing with someone who is not going to give you assurances that your servicemen and women that are there are going to be protected. And both being able to defend themselves but also having some level of immunity from rogue prosecutors and others on the ground there.

BAIER: Do you think Secretary Gates should have written this book?

RUBIO: Well, I don't know. Look, he has an opinion about what he wanted to write, he felt strongly about it. And I was surprised, as I said to you before we went on the air, that the book came out. But nothing in the book surprises me in the sense that I have been critical of the president's foreign policy and his views of national country. I think it's made the country less safe largely because it hasn't been driven by a strategic foreign policy view. It's largely been driven by tactics and politics, and that's not a way to conduct foreign policy.

BAIER: George?

GEORGE WILL, SYNDICATED COLUMNIST: In Iraq after eight years, twice as long as the Second World War, we pulled our troops out and things now looks ominous in Iraq. There are people who say it wouldn't look ominous if we had a residual force there. Do you agree? If so, how big should it be, where should they be, and what would they do that would stop this?

RUBIO: Well, the residual force would be helpful in that regard, but ultimately a residual force alone is not enough. You have to have a government in place that is actually able to provide for security and is functional. Many of the problems in Iraq -- not just to the U.S. not being there, but to Maliki and to the decisions they have made internally and the persecutions that have occurred there that have created the space for some of this to happen.

And by the way, some of the stuff happening in Iraq is related to what is happening in Syria. You have now groups operating out of Syria, linked to Al Qaeda that are crossing over and conducting operations in Iraq as well. So these things are all intertwined.

So the answer is to your question is, yes, the U.S. presence there would have been useful, but would not have guaranteed that the situation in Iraq would not have devolved.

WILL: But how would it work?


RUBIO: Look, we have residual forces all over the world. Obviously in different circumstances, but we certainly have been in South Korea for a significant period of time.

WILL: But there's not a civil war going on in South Korea.

RUBIO: And that's the point. That's why I got to the point about saying that the government there ultimately, and that's going to be the case in Afghanistan as well, has to be able to provide internal security on their own. If you don't have a functional government that can provide the basics of government, no residual force is going to ultimately guarantee the result we want. It's just not possible. Ultimately, Iraq belongs to Iraqis and Afghanistan belongs to Afghans. They ultimately have to be responsible for that.

BAIER: Steve?


RUBIO: Of course not. In fact, it's actually spread in ways that makes it even more dangerous. You now see Al Qaeda elements in other terrorist elements creating strongholds in Africa. And Syria has become probably close to what Afghanistan looked like not so long ago. We have issues in Afghanistan, Iraq. I worry about the stability of Jordan. Clearly the stability of Lebanon has never been great. It's even more undermined now.

And I think you look at some of the regional players, and they see the U.S. as an unreliable partner in the region. And I think that is creating a vacuum whereby these individual countries are now pursuing their own agendas in ways, quite frankly, that are not in our national security interests.

HAYES: If you go back to 2008, President Obama said that he would consider sending in U.S. troops back into Iraq if Al Qaeda were to establish that as a base of operations. Given what has happened in Ramadi, given what has happened in Fallujah, is that something you would consider?

RUBIO: I don't think that's a viable option at this point. Now, clearly, if there are elements in Iraq carrying out attacks against the U.S., we would reserve options about being able to target and disrupt them. But in terms of a full-scale invasion in a return to Iraq – I don't think that's --

HAYES: Something short of that?

RUBIO: Again, look, if there's a group out there that's planning and carrying out attacks against the U.S. or our national interests, every option should be on the table, including targeted strikes. We conduct those all over regions of the world now. And so that would have to be an option.

But in terms of a U.S. return on the ground with boots on the ground and an invasion of Iraq, I think at that point that's not really what I think is a viable option. And more importantly, I would just say to you that it goes back to the point I made earlier, George. Iraq, at the end of the day, can't be saved if it doesn't have a government that can function. And there's only so much we can do. At some point, it's up to them. I mean, those are the limits to our power no matter what we try to do.

BAIER: Juan?

JUAN WILLIAMS, SENIOR EDITOR, THE HILL: Senator Rubio, earlier you said that President Obama really doesn't have a foreign policy, that he's responding to political demands being made. So, I was interested in that because I'm thinking to myself, so President Rubio, as Bret Baier described you, has to make a chose because the president needs to respond to the will of the American people. In the poll cited earlier, 54 percent of Republicans say it's not worth being in Afghanistan right now, 60 percent of Republicans say remove most of the troops from Afghanistan. So would you ignore the will of the American people?

RUBIO: Well, first of all, what I said is he didn't have a strategic foreign policy. It was largely based on politics and on tactics. And a strategic foreign policy is one that outlines what our interests are. I give you as an example Syria. The president failed to make an argument to the American people why the conflict in Syria mattered. He failed to make that well before we got to a situation about an authorization of action, et cetera. And you're seeing now why Syria mattered. It has become a premier operational area for terrorist organizations to organize and carry out attacks not just in Syria, in Lebanon, in Iraq, potentially in Jordan. So we have a strategic interest --


WILLIAMS: So you're saying president Rubio would send troops to Syria?

RUBIO: I never called for even U.S. engagement militarily in Syria. What I called for a year and a half ago was for us to try to identify non-jihadist elements on the ground when this was possible and empower them, because I knew that in the absence of powering them, it would create a vacuum and that vacuum would be filled by who it's been filled by now, and that is foreign fighters, jihadists, terrorists who are using Syria now and the chaos there --

WILLIAMS: So you would sent more aid to the rebels even though there were questions as to whether or not, picking up on Steve Hayes question, they had ties to terrorist organizations?

RUBIO: But early in the conflict, that was not the case. The foreign fighters and the Al Qaeda elements began to stream into Syria well into the conflict. In the initial stages of the conflict, there was the possibility, not the guarantee, but the possibility of identifying elements there who were not jihadists, who were Syrians, by the way. Many of these terrorists that are operating in Syria are not Syrians. They're foreign fighters coming in from Europe in addition to other parts of the world, and by the way, are going to go back to Europe one day and the Europeans are worried about it.

And we had an opportunity early on to do that. That didn't happen. And as a result, you created this vacuum. And what is going to fill a vacuum? These terrorists. They realize there's this ungoverned area where there's chaos. That's a place we can set up terrorist camps, that's a place we can set up training operations. That's a place we can operate from. And that is what's happening in Syria right now.

BAIER: Senator, stand by if you would. We'll talk domestic policy, unemployment, the war on poverty. More with Senator Rubio in the Center Seat after a quick break.

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