By Gabriel Debenedetti
WASHINGTON (Reuters) - Three likely Republican White House contenders thrust the party's foreign policy divide into the spotlight with their Thursday votes and comments on a measure to arm moderate Syrian rebels.
While Florida Senator Marco Rubio voted in favor of the plan, which passed, Kentucky's Rand Paul and Texas Senator Ted Cruz voted against it, with Paul opposing intervention and Cruz arguing that President Barack Obama had not provided a clear plan to combat Islamic State.
"Intervention is a mistake. Intervention when both sides are evil is a mistake. Intervention that destabilizes the Middle East is a mistake. And yet, here we are again, wading into a civil war," Paul said.
His doubts ran contrary to the thinking of Rubio, who advocated an aggressive response, saying the threat should have been addressed earlier.
"If we do not confront and defeat ISIL now we will have to do so later, and it will take a lot longer, be a lot costlier, and be more painful," Rubio said, using an acronym for Islamic State. "If we fail to approve this, the nations of that region will say America is not truly engaged."
The debate over arming the rebels to fight the spread of Islamic State has exposed long-brewing schisms within both political parties, but the conflict has been particularly public for Republicans.
A divide between proponents of a muscular American foreign policy, like Rubio and Cruz, and advocates of a scaled-back international presence, like Paul, underpins jockeying by likely 2016 presidential contenders - including the three first-term Senators.
None has officially declared any intention to run, but all have admitted considering White House bids.
While Paul has fought his reputation as an isolationist in the mold of his father, retired Representative Ron Paul, Rubio has spent much of 2014 promoting himself as a foreign policy expert through a series of speeches.
"Too many leaders in both parties, including our president and some who aspire to be president, have shown they would rather wait for poll numbers to change than demonstrate the leadership necessary to shape them," Rubio said while advocating increased military investment on Wednesday.
On Thursday Cruz went farther, introducing a measure to block Americans who join Islamic State from returning to the country.
The proposal failed, but while describing it, he criticized Obama's handling of the threat.
"The administration's ISIS policy is also marked by internal confusion that further demonstrates a lack of focus on what should be our clear mission," he said.
Votes to authorize military activity have caught up with presidential hopefuls in recent elections, as then-New York Senator Hillary Clinton saw in 2008 when her bid for the Democratic nomination was hampered by a 2002 vote to authorize the war in Iraq.
Clinton is again considering running in 2016, after losing 2008's contest to Obama and subsequently serving as secretary of state.
Thursday's vote, which was on an amendment to a broader spending bill, passed the House of Representatives on Wednesday. The measure now heads to Obama's desk.
(Reporting by Gabriel Debenedetti; Editing by Caren Bohan and Cynthia Osterman)