As I said on Monday, I was keen to hear how he’d apply his McCainian outlook to the conundrum of how much longer to stay in Afghanistan. In some ways, the question of whether to intervene in Syria is easy: No one’s calling for boots on the grounds or (at this point) planes in the sky and the public likely isn’t paying enough attention to have a strong fixed opinion either way. It’s a question of providing material support to Assad’s enemies, and Americans are usually mellow about material support. But what about Afghanistan? Opinion, including GOP opinion, has tanked and thousands of men are still in harm’s way. Does Rubio support staying the course until the Taliban sue for peace or some form of withdrawal? What about a Gitmo prisoner transfer as a means of rapprochement to get them to the bargaining table? I figured he’d take this subject on if only because America’s decade-long drift there naturally informs any voter’s assessment of the risks and rewards of interventionism these days. When to intervene is a hard question but when to end an intervention once begun is harder, and more relevant than ever now that Obama’s set to start hammering the point that the war is ending. According to Rubio’s prepared remarks, though, he mentions Afghanistan only three times and two of those are in passing. Too bad. A subject for another day, I hope.

In fairness, the point of today’s talk wasn’t to delve deeply into policy specifics but to brand himself as a leader of the next generation of interventionists in the Senate. (He was introduced by Joe Lieberman and, as you’ll see, took care to praise Lieberman’s foreign-policy example, thus leading to this headline.) The most interesting part to me was his Bushian embrace of democracy abroad, notwithstanding the Islamist pandora’s box opened by the Arab Spring:

The spread and success of political and economic freedom in the Middle East is in our vital interest. It will certainly present challenges, as newly enfranchised societies elect leaders whose views and purposes oppose and even offend ours. But in the long term, because governments that rule by the consent of the governed must be responsive to the material needs and demands of their people, they are less likely to engage in costly confrontations that harm their economies and deprive their people of the opportunity to improve their circumstances.

That’s neoconservatism 101, similar to what Reuel Marc Gerecht told NRO during the Egyptian revolution about having to tolerate the inevitable rise of the Muslim Brotherhood at first in order to arrive at a more secular Egypt later. Is it really true, though, that an Egypt — or a Saudi Arabia, or a China — that’s more democratic will be less confrontational on the world stage? I’m a lot less sure than he is that economic self-interest is a reliable trump card against popular nationalist or religious impulses.

Then there’s the matter of red ink:

Faced with historic deficits and a dangerous national debt, there has been increasing talk of reducing our foreign aid budget. But we need to remember that these international coalitions we have the opportunity to lead are not just economic or military ones. They can also be humanitarian ones as well. In every region of the world, we should always search for ways to use U.S. aid and humanitarian assistance to strengthen our influence, the effectiveness of our leadership, and the service of our interests and ideals.

When done effectively, in partnership with the private sector, faith-based organizations and our allies, foreign aid is a very cost-effective way not only to export our values, but to advance our security and economic interests.

He’ll always be on firm ground among Republicans in protecting defense spending but foreign aid is bound to be a flashpoint between him and, say, Rand Paul as they inevitably clash on this subject in the years ahead. In fact, someone really needs to organize that debate — Rubio vs. Paul on interventionism in an age of budget-balancing. Brookings? AEI? C’mon.

Exit question: If this was in fact a job audition for Romney, how’d he do?