Michael Huckabee: Foreign Policy Moderate?

For a time former Arkansas Gov. Michael Huckabee appeared to be among the craziest of the GOP candidates, gung-ho for the Iraq war, disdainful of Congress’ role in declaring war, and enthusiastic about torturing U.S. captives. But when he deviated slightly from neocon orthodoxy in his article in Foreign Affairs, which criticized President George Bush, the hawkish Right went berserk.

Where does Michael Huckabee really stand?

The original Huckabee was an ugly creature. Forget his love of tax hikes, paternalistic tendencies, and curious fondness for convicted criminals. On foreign policy he sounded like a neocon clone.

Withdrawal timetables for Iraq were “absurd,” he said. “The quickest way to get out of Iraq is to win,” he explained, and the U.S. should do “whatever it takes to win.”

No doubt, winning is better than losing. But when it isn’t clear what winning is, and even your supposed friends whom you purport to be helping want you to leave, then plotting the best way out makes more sense than chirping about a victory which you can’t define.

As for Iran, Huckabee contended that “A president has to [do] whatever is necessary to protect the American people. If we think Iran is building nuclear capacity that could be used against us in any way, including selling some of the nuclear capacity to some other terrorist group, then, yes, we have a right” to strike, and the president should do so without congressional authorization, which, Huckabee added, “I would do in a heartbeat.” When pressed about his options if Congress said no, he said: “You do what’s best for the American people and you suffer the consequences.”

Of course, no one doubts that the president has inherent authority to respond in exigent circumstances, such as a sudden nuclear attack by Russia. But Iran has no nuclear capability and now, we believe, is not even creating a nuclear capability. Nor has anyone shown anything in Iranian behavior to suggest that the regime would not be deterred, as was the Soviet Union, by America’s overwhelming military might. The fact that President Huckabee believes America has to choose between its democratic freedoms and national survival is frightening.

What of Guantánamo Bay, which has wrecked America’s international reputation? After viewing the facility, he opined: “The inmates there were getting a whole lot better treatment than my prisoners in Arkansas. In fact, we left saying, ‘I hope our guys don’t see this. They’ll all want to be transferred to Guantánamo. If anything, it’s too nice’.”

But Huckabee misses the point. By all accounts today’s Guantánamo is much better than the early Guantánamo. The issue is not general prison conditions, but holding people who may be innocent without providing any procedure to assess their guilt. One need shed no tears for terrorists, but one should recoil at a country dedicated to individual liberty imprisoning innocent people indefinitely. The international cost to America’s reputation has been exceedingly high.

At best, one could write off Huckabee’s potpourri of right-wing sound-bites as reflecting his abject ignorance of foreign affairs. When asked by Andrew Sullivan about the influences on his foreign policy thinking, Huckabee pointed to New York Times columnist Thomas Friedman and uberhawk Frank Gaffney of the Center for American Policy. Huckabee then tossed in Richard Haass, a centrist with the Council on Foreign Relations, as an afterthought. Mixing these three inevitably results in more confusion than enlightenment.

Then came Huckabee’s article in Foreign Affairs, America’s premier journal of international relations. Who actually wrote it, and how responsible Huckabee is for the views it expresses, are unknown. But it is as authoritative a campaign position as a statement issued from his campaign: for the foreign policy establishment, there is nothing closer to holy writ than the pages of Foreign Affairs.

In it Huckabee moved in a couple of decidedly new directions. He opens with words that might have characterized candidate George W. Bush in 2000: “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.”

Huckabee went on to hit the administration, hard. “The Bush administration’s arrogant bunker mentality has been counterproductive at home and abroad,” he intoned. As president, he said he would “recognize that the United States’ main fight today does not pit us against the world but pits the world against the terrorists.”

Huckabee also speaks skeptically of the Bush administration’s attempt to spread democracy at the point of a gun. Holding elections too soon can empower extremists, he rightly worries, though his belief that somehow improving life in the Muslim world is the key to love for America is sadly naive. Abundant foreign aid to countries like Egypt has neither helped average people nor caused them to overlook policies, such as support for Arab dictatorships and Israel, that have generated such hostility against the U.S. government.

Even more profound may be Huckabee’s break with the administration over Iran. He recognizes that the attack on Iraq wrecked the regional balance of power, strengthening Iran. Although he would not take the military option off of the table, he adds: “if we do not put other options on the table, eventually a military strike will become the only viable one. And nothing would make bin Laden happier than this outcome.” While al-Qaeda must be destroyed, “Iran is a nation that just has to be contained.”

In making his case for diplomatic engagement, he points to the experience in Iraq: “Since we overthrew Saddam, we have learned that we invaded an imaginary country, because we relied at the time on information that was out of date and on longtime exiles who exaggerated the good condition of Iraq’s infrastructure, the strength of its middle class, and the secular nature of its society. We would have received better information if we had had our own ambassador in Baghdad. Before we put boots on the ground elsewhere, we had better have wingtips there first.”

While this is much improved over John “bomb, bomb Iran” McCain, for instance, Huckabee remains a hawk at heart. “It is essential to win in Iraq,” he writes. Rather than exercise the independent judgment required of the military’s commander-in-chief, he says he would defer to Gen. David Petraeus on any troop withdrawal. Apparently he is prepared to stay forever: “Those who say that we do not owe the Iraqis anything more are ignoring what we owe our own children and grandchildren in terms of security.”

He is prepared to invade Pakistan, “going after al-Qaeda’s safe havens in Pakistan.” He does not address the feasibility of such a strategy, however. Indeed, though he offers a devastating critique of current policy towards Pakistan, arguing that Washington “has erred on the side of protecting Musharraf,” he does not suggest a coherent alternative. “I will assure the Pakistanis that we are with them for the long haul,” he writes, without explaining what that would mean in practice.

Finally, Huckabee makes two truly nutty proposals. He explains: “The first thing I will do as president is send Congress my comprehensive plan for achieving energy independence within ten years of my inauguration.” President Richard Nixon issued the first of many presidential promises to make America independent of foreign oil and today we import more petroleum than ever. There is no cost-effective alternative to oil, a fact which Huckabee’s bluster cannot change.

Even more bizarre is his proposal for an unprecedented military build-up. Huckabee wants to speed up the administration’s 92,000 troop increase and do so “without lowering standards,” no easy task. Moreover, he contends: “Right now, we are spending about 3.9 percent of our GDP on defense, compared with about six percent in 1986, under President Ronald Reagan. We need to return to that six percent level.”

Apparently Huckabee fell asleep in 1989 and missed the fact that America’s hegemonic competitor, the Soviet Union, disappeared. The Berlin Wall fell. Members of the enemy alliance all joined NATO. China traded Maoist craziness for capitalist success.

As a result, American military dominance has never been greater. The U.S. already accounts for roughly half of all military spending on earth. America is allied with every major industrialized state. As Colin Powell famously said, the U.S. is running out of enemies – there’s Cuba, maybe North Korea, which is now negotiating with Washington, Iran, and perhaps Syria, which was just invited to the Annapolis conference. Precisely what would Huckabee do with the $800 billion that he believes the U.S. should be spending on the military this year? He does not so enlighten us.

Although überhawks should glory in Huckabee’s plan to bankrupt America to build more bombs, they are horrified far more by his apostasies. Apparently the ivory tower warriors believe that with certifiable warmongers like Rudy Giuliani and John McCain – who believe in war against everyone, all of the time – already in the race, why settle for anyone with even a touch of weakness? To them, Huckabee’s concern over America’s image suggests a lack of manliness and toughness. To oppose bombing Iran tomorrow reeks of appeasement and defeatism.

So the assaults came fast and furious. Mitt Romney, himself critical of the president earlier this year, immediately went into suck-up mode, declaring that “The president is a person who is deeply devoted to this country and doing what’s right for this country and protecting American lives” and that “we can be thankful that President Bush has kept us safe.” Dean Barnett of the Weekly Standard declared Huckabee’s comments to be the sort of “rubbish” one would expect “from a Daily Kos diarist.” Columnist David Limbaugh denounced Huckabee’s “betrayal of President Bush, wrapped in a virtual endorsement of Jimmy Carter diplomacy.” Peter Wehner, fresh from the Bush White House, called Huckabee “naive and foolish” and “ignorant,” and said the candidate “has a few things to learn.”

The latter is certainly true, though for reasons very different from those advanced by Wehner. Mike Huckabee has mixed a bizarre policy cocktail, leaving much to criticize. Overall, his positions seem hopelessly muddled: America should be less arrogant but should undertake a massive military build-up. The U.S. should improve its image abroad, but should ignore the counterproductive impact of Gitmo and related issues, such as torture and rendition, on America’s reputation. Washington should stick around Iraq forever but maybe not attack Iran. Governments should treat so-called foreign aid, which has failed to achieve much of anything positive for a half century, as a measure of American generosity. And America should toss more good money after bad in a hopeless quest for energy “independence.”

Still, Huckabee gets one essential point right. Unlike President Bush, Mike Huckabee is sufficiently grounded in reality to recognize that all is not well with American foreign policy. On the Republican side that sets him apart from everyone other than Rep. Ron Paul. Huckabee is no revolutionary committed to overturning interventionist orthodoxy within the Republican Party. But his modest heresies might be another harbinger of a slow shift away from the policy of promiscuous intervention that has come to characterize the conservative movement. Such a transformation can’t come quickly enough.