The Huckster’s Foreign Policy

by , December 18, 2007

The word-bite coming out of Mike Huckabee’s Foreign Affairs manifesto is "arrogant bunker mentality," this in reference to the Bush administration, a mindset which, the new Republican front-runner avers, "has been counterproductive at home and abroad." Mitt Romney is demanding an apology from Huckabee to the president, but this grasping at straws only confirms Huckabee’s status as the front-runner.

Huckabee appears to have won what Chris Matthews calls "the authenticity debate," in part because of his quick wit and sense of humor – yet he’s also a wily politician who knows that this election is about change. In order to win the nomination, and then the general election, Huckabee must present himself as a credible representative of a new turn in American politics, and that’s what the "arrogant bunker mentality" jab is all about. It is not, however, the most interesting aspect of the Foreign Affairs piece. Get a load of these opening lines:

"The United States, as the world’s only superpower, is less vulnerable to military defeat. But it is more vulnerable to the animosity of other countries. Much like a top high school student, if it is modest about its abilities and achievements, if it is generous in helping others, it is loved. But if it attempts to dominate others, it is despised."

This speaks a truth first uttered by Garet Garrett in 1956, at the dawn of an "American century" frosty with the first gusts of the Cold War:

"How now, thou American, frustrated crusader, do you know where you are?

"Is it security you want? There is no security at the top of the world."

Where, one wonders, does Huckabee imagine the U.S. is embarked on an attempt to "dominate others"? Elsewhere, he abjures the idea that we have to leave Iraq any time soon, but this attack on what Claes Ryn calls "the will to dominate" shows the wily politician at work: polls tell us the majority of Iowa Republican caucus-goers want us out of Iraq within a year. The Old Right "isolationism" (i.e., anti-imperialism) of the Midwest is alive and well. Iowa is crucial for Huckabee: losing it would destroy his momentum going into New Hampshire, where his churchly style of Republicanism is less likely to go over well.

What’s significant here is that Huckabee is trying to steal the "isolationist" thunder of the real guerrilla insurgent in this race, and that is Ron Paul. Paul’s angular antiwar stance is a bit much for the party rank-and-file, who have loyally supported the policy if not the president’s handling of it, but now Huckabee’s attack on the style (if not the substance) of Bushian interventionism provides an out for those Republicans who are beginning to have some real doubts. This is important, and encouraging, because it legitimizes the more substantial critique of interventionism coming from the Paul camp and certain precincts on the Right.

For someone who has supposedly won the "authenticity sweepstakes," however, I have rarely seen a document that represents almost pure political calculation to the extent of the Huckster‘s Foreign Affairs peroration. After the attention-getting "arrogant bunker mentality" phrase, he segues rather clumsily into a reference to the Law of the Sea Treaty (he’s against it), which is surely in the running for non sequitur of the year. Yes, but it gave him an opportunity to throw some Ron Paulish red meat to the right-wing populist base of the party: "My administration will never surrender any of our sovereignty"! (No word yet on how he stands on that NAFTA superhighway.)

Huckabee’s foreign policy pronouncement is a potpourri of ingredients, each aimed at a particular taste and designed to achieve a certain effect. First stop: the Islamic-radical-extremist-terrorist front, where Rudy Giuliani – until now the front-runner – has reigned supreme. How many times and at how many debates has Rudy railed that none of the other candidates seems concerned enough about Islamic-radical-extremist-terrorism? Huckabee answers the call, and raises him one, averring that the Islamic-radical-extremist-terrorists are out "to kill our children for their misguided cause."

If I were, say, David Frum, a top Giuliani adviser, I would immediately jump on this bit of broken hyperbole as less than satisfactory. After all, if the Islamic-radical-extremist-terrorists are out to kill our children, then they’re not just "misguided" – that’s how one would describe errant teenagers playing hooky and stealing cars, but it’s hardly applicable to the perpetrators of the 9/11 terrorist attacks. Huckabee’s prose is filled with these sorts of tin-eared clunkers. Yet the Huckster does his best to out-Giuliani "America’s mayor" on the Islamic-radical-etc.-etc. issue, by declaring "they really do want to kill every last one of us and destroy civilization as we know it."

Gee, they sure are "misguided"!

Huckabee thinks the solution to the Islamic-extremist-etc.-etc. problem is to nurture "moderate" forces, but be forewarned:

"Such moderation may not look or function like our system – it may be a benevolent oligarchy or more tribal than individualistic – but both for us and for the peoples of those countries, it will be better than the dictatorships they have now or the theocracy they would have under radical Islamists."

Ah, just the solution for our simmering Iraq problem: a "benevolent oligarchy"! We may not particularly like it, we may even be a bit horrified, but, what the heck, it’s good enough for those people – they’re used to it, being "tribal" and all. And this segues nicely into an endorsement of the "surge is working" meme currently coursing through elite consciousness and dominating coverage of the war in the mainstream media:

"The potential for such moderation to emerge is visible in the way that Sunni tribal leaders in Iraq have turned against al-Qaeda to work with us; they could not stand the thought of living under such fundamentalism and brutality. The people of Afghanistan turned against the Taliban for the same reason. To know these extremists is not to love them."

Yet the creation of a Sunni force – consisting, in part, of former al-Qaeda-affiliated fighters – 77,000 strong, armed and assisted by the U.S. military, is hardly a stabilizing factor. What we have succeeded in doing is setting up the preconditions for dual power – that is, we have set the stage for a brutal all-out Sunni-Shi’ite civil war.

Huckabee thinks "this development is serving as a model for turning Shi’ite tribes against their militants," but the reality is quite the opposite: by aligning ourselves with Sunni militants, we are turning the Shi’ites toward their own radicals, such as the militia of Moqtada Sadr. U.S. policymakers are repeating the error made by their predecessors during the Cold War era, when American arms and funding went to the Islamist-extremist-etc.-etc. bad guys, who were hailed by Ronald Reagan as "freedom fighters." Again, we will no doubt live to regret the "blowback" from our attempts to be Machiavellian.

Huckabee may be sounding vaguely anti-interventionist themes with a right-wing populist patina, but his world-saving preacher’s voice comes through loud and clear with his call for a suspiciously Marshall Plan-like program to combat the "real causes" of the burgeoning Islamist-extremist-etc.-etc. threat:

"The lack of basic sanitation, health care, education, jobs, a free press, fair courts – which all translates into a lack of opportunity and hope. The United States’ strategic interests as the world’s most powerful country coincide with its moral obligations as the richest. If we do not do the right thing to improve life in the Muslim world, the terrorists will step in and do the wrong thing."

Here we have "heroic conservatism" at its most self-conscious, and if we keep in mind Kara Hopkins’ trenchant summary of this new variant of neoconservatism as "moral fervor meets global ambition," then we have the animating spirit of Preacher Huckabee’s populist campaign. Limited-government conservatives of the old school will cringe at this Great Society-like litany of the globe-spanning tasks President Huckabee would undertake, yet none of this is exactly surprising. An oxymoronic "big government conservatism" long ago co-opted the party of Goldwater and Taft. The Huckster just gives it a preacherly pizzazz.

Huckabee delivers yet another bow to Midwestern "isolationism" with the assurance that

"These enemies, who plot and train in small, scattered cells, can be tracked down and eliminated by the CIA, U.S. Special Forces, and the military forces of the coalition countries united to rid the world of this scourge. We can achieve a tremendous amount with swift and surgical air strikes and commando raids by our elite units."

No more massive invasions, no more occupations – except when, Huckabee says, we must act with "overwhelming force." We have too few troops in Afghanistan, he says (no word on whether the same conditions apply in Iraq) – and our military is too small. Even though our military budget is equivalent to those of the next 18 countries combined [.pdf], Huckabee proposes going over and above the substantial increases proposed by the Bush administration: more, faster, bigger!

Aside from staying the course in Iraq, Huckabee wants us to go after the radical Kurdish guerrilla groups that have launched attacks on Turkey. This, of course, is a prescription for opening up yet another bloody front in the battle to "secure" Iraq, as Huckabee puts it, and will further destabilize an already tenuously united Iraqi polity. The irony is that Huckabee hails Kurdistan and the Kurds as being stable, pro-American, and an all-around success story – but that would change as soon as President Huckabee made heroes out of the PKK.

Playing again into the war-weariness of the American people, who don’t relish another armed conflict involving U.S. troops in the Middle East – or anywhere else, for that matter – Huckabee comes out for "containing" Iran rather than confronting it militarily (although, like all the other "major" candidates, he refuses to take a military strike "off the table"). What does a policy of "containment" entail? Well, we must first "win in Iraq," for one. Because, you see, the alleged "threat" represented by Saddam apparently gave way to a brand new threat, and that is the extension of the Shi’ite theocracy into Mesopotamia and beyond. Having unleashed the tides of Shi’ite militancy, however, it is hard to see how U.S. policymakers can put that particular genie back in the bottle – short of occupying Iraq for the next 50 or so years.

Yet Huckabee’s call for reestablishing diplomatic relations of a sort with Iran represents a major break with neoconservative orthodoxy, which insists that Iran is the epicenter of evil in the world. He tries to ameliorate this faux pas by endorsing stricter economic sanctions and hailing the Kyl-Lieberman resolution describing the al-Quds "revolutionary guards" component of the Iranian military as a "terrorist" group, yet I’m sure other Republican hopefuls will be quick to jump on him for "appeasing" the mullahs.

Perhaps to stave off just this sort of criticism, he borrows a page from the playbook of the Democratic "national security" hawks by training his sights on Pakistan, where, he claims, bin Laden and his cohorts have been given "safe haven." He spins a confused and lengthy narrative purporting to prove that Gen. Pervez Musharraf, our most faithful ally in the region, has really been in cahoots with al-Qaeda and the Taliban all along. The Huckster says air strikes against al-Qaeda targets were called off by Donald Rumsfeld because of Musharraf’s objections, and says he would launch such attacks unimpeded by concern for Pakistani sovereignty.

"If al-Qaeda strikes us tomorrow," declares Huckabee, "the attack will be postmarked ‘Pakistan’" – a truly demagogic statement in no way related to reality. The jihadists who will carry out the next 9/11, if such is to be, are doubtless already on our soil, and they will not be stopped by any action we take in Pakistan. Aside from that, however, the entire premise behind Huckabee’s Pakistan-bashing is that bin Laden and his top leadership are ensconced somewhere in the wild "tribal areas" on the Pakistani-Afghan border, but there is no direct evidence of this. Like most conventional wisdom, it seems wrong to me. At any rate, we don’t know any such thing, and to base a newly belligerent policy toward a nuclear-armed Muslim nation on such weak foundations is little short of loony.

The rise of the Huckster in the polls is a barometer of the absolute bankruptcy of the Republican establishment, intellectually and politically – and the utter emptiness of conservative doctrine, after the neocons got through with it. Huckabee’s brand of interventionism lite is a perfect example of how opportunists fill a power vacuum with rhetoric, "personality," and pure hype. The problem with Huckabee when it comes to foreign policy is that there is not a whole lot of substance there, and what there is isn’t all that appealing – except to the reliably Republican constituencies of arms-makers, foreign lobbyists, and interventionist policy wonks.

Huckabee is attempting to occupy a middle ground somewhere between the all-out militarism and interventionism of the Giuliani camp and the stay-out-of-it, America-first stance of the Paulians. Increasingly, however, it is one or the other: like all "centrist" nostrums, Huckabee’s is bound to be swept away by the for-us-or-against-us imperatives of a world polarized by the realities of American power.

Aside from what he says about foreign policy issues, Huckabee’s attitude toward the president’s warmaking powers is frightening: he has said that even if Congress forbade him to launch a military strike against, say, Iran, he would go ahead and do it, Congress be damned – a stance so unbalanced I’d be surprised if even Giuliani agreed with it. Huckabee’s interpretation of the Constitution is, uh, unique, in this respect, and I think he is temperamentally dangerous. After all, here is someone who attributes the recent success of his campaign to God Almighty. Surely he’ll seek – or see – a similarly divine imprimatur for whatever military actions he takes as president. Even if antiwar dissent isn’t illegal during the reign of the Huckster, it will surely be considered sinful, if not downright blasphemous.

NOTES IN THE MARGIN

Jonah Goldberg has a thoughtful critique of the Paul campaign in the recent dead-tree edition of National Review – and my critique of his critique is featured over at Taki’s Top Drawer. Go check it out.

Read more by Justin Raimondo