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Rubio on Iraq: "It’s not nation-building. We are assisting them in building their nation."

The only thing harder than foreign policy is Middle East policy, and the only thing harder than Middle East policy is Iraq policy. I don't think an American politician exists today who manages to sound politically appealing as well analytically trenchant on Iraq, because doing either of those things, much less both, is just very hard.

Still, even by that low standard the latest quote from Republican presidential hopeful Sen. Marco Rubio on Iraq is not particularly graceful. Here, as flagged by Business Insider's Hunter Walker, is Rubio's quote from his Thursday appearance on the Fox News panel show Outnumbered:

RUBIO: I think we have a responsibility to support democracy. And if a nation expresses a desire to become a democratic nation, particularly one that we invaded, I do believe that we have a responsibility to help them move in that direction. But the most immediate responsibility we have is to help them build a functional government that can actually meet the needs of the people in the short- and long-term, and that ultimately from that you would hope that would spring democracy.

FOX NEWS HOST: That sounds like nation-building.

RUBIO: Well, it's not nation-building. We are assisting them in building their nation. We have a vested interest in doing that. The alternative to doing that is the chaos we have now. Because in fact what happened in Iraq under this administration is they rallied around [former Prime Minister Nouri al] Maliki, a Shia leader who used his power to go after Sunnis, and that created the environment that was conducive for ISIS to come back in and create all these problems.

Rubio's seemingly contradictory statement stems from two issues: a political problem and a policy problem.

The political problem is that Rubio has an obvious political interest in hammering President Obama's handling of ISIS (which is deeply unpopular), but at the same time he has to avoid offering any alternative ISIS policies that would be similarly unpopular. "Let's do less about ISIS" is unlikely to be an appealing policy option among voters, particularly Republican voters. At the same time, "let's re-invade Iraq and put down a bunch of ground troops, even if the Iraqi government doesn't ask us to" is probably not going to win a lot of voters, either. "Nation-building" reminds people of George W. Bush's 2003 Iraq invasion and Obama's Afghanistan surge, so Rubio has to be against nation-building, but he also has to be for doing something more.

That gets to Rubio's policy problem. He has positioned himself as the super-hawk neoconservative true believer of the Republican field, and thus the likely beneficiary of GOP donor Sheldon Adelson's largesse, which requires endorsing the neoconservative position. And the neoconservative position on Iraq, and indeed on the Middle East, is to instill (or install) democracy through massive nation-building enterprises. So Rubio has to be simultaneously for nation-building in Iraq and against it. And that is in fact exactly what he has done here.

Is there a rhetorical needle to be threaded here, of the United States helping Iraq build up its capacity for democracy, without the US doing that nation-building itself? Not in the Iraq of 2015, unfortunately, there is not. The state is so fundamentally broken, not just in terms of security but in terms of its basic political identity, that this is not a problem that could possibly be solved by the US providing some more weapons or funding. (At a recent off-the-record Middle East policy event of bipartisan think tankers and current and former government officials, the only thing everyone agreed on with regards to Iraq was that the nation as we once knew it fundamentally no longer exists.)

That's why you don't hear Rubio saying, "Here's what I mean by helping Iraq to nation-build without doing it ourselves," because such a policy can not exist in today's reality, and everybody knows it. So you get oddball comments like this.

It reminds of the 2012 presidential debate, when Mitt Romney and other Republican candidates hammered President Obama on Afghanistan, but then described an Afghanistan policy that was basically identical to Obama's. They made a lot of vague and contradictory statements like this one. Obama didn't sound much better, offering hollow promises of "handing over" Afghanistan to the Afghans that everyone knew were doomed. But they had to say something.