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
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
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
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
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
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.