Politics & Policy

The Holiday Inn Express Candidate

Mike Huckabee’s extraordinary rise in the polls means he deserves to be taken seriously as a presidential candidate in a way he hasn’t been all year long. Serious candidates have well-formulated views on foreign policy. What are Huckabee’s?

He hasn’t been asked about them much — reporters prefer to inquire after his views on evolution–but Don Imus, on his resurrected radio show, queried Huckabee the other day about his foreign-policy experience. Huckabee not so humbly invoked Ronald Reagan, who also, according to the former Arkansas governor, ascended to the presidency with no foreign-policy experience. As Powerline’s Paul Mirengoff has pointed out, this is — to say the least — an inapt analogy. Ronald Reagan lived and breathed the global fight with the Soviet Union for decades, and had been an important voice on the right on foreign policy long before he was president.

Mike Huckabee, by contrast, cut his teeth on typical state-level fare in Arkansas and on weight-loss and wellness programs. This is probably why he felt compelled to quip to Imus, “And the ultimate thing is, I may not be the expert that some people are on foreign policy, but I did stay in a Holiday Inn Express last night.” (Powerline also points out that he used the exact same line on Imus a year earlier when foreign policy came up.) This won’t do.

Huckabee did give a long speech on foreign policy at the Center for Strategic and International Studies in September. It combined a superficial rendering of conventional foreign-policy wisdom — which of course included many unfair criticisms of President Bush — with Huckabee’s inimitable folksy delivery. The former governor’s bottom line was that we should be nicer to other countries.

It is true that, especially in the first term, the Bush administration undervalued diplomacy. And as the most powerful country in the world (or as Huckabee put it in a long childhood analogy, the kid who is “just good at everything”), we have to be careful to avoid stoking unnecessary feelings of envy. But Huckabee is off the mark in accusing the administration of having a “bunker mentality.” We have maintained good relations — in a difficult balancing act — with both India and Pakistan, and with both China and Japan. Relations have warmed with “Old Europe” following the election of leaders in France and Germany who are less vested in anti-Americanism. For better or worse, we have cut a nuclear deal with North Korea, and have had an offer on the table with Iran to break with 30 years of U.S. policy and directly negotiate with them if they fulfill their international obligation and quit enriching uranium. This isn’t the stuff of a “bunker mentality.”

On Iran, Huckabee is at his most troubling. He accuses the administration of “proceeding down only one track with Iran: armed confrontation.” This is false, and the kind of rhetoric you’d expect from DailyKos bloggers, not a Republican presidential candidate. Huckabee thinks it has been a lack of diplomatic engagement that has soured our relations with Iran: “We haven’t had diplomatic relations with Iran in almost 30 years, my whole adult life and a lot of good it’s done. Putting this in human terms, all of us know that when we stop talking to a parent or a sibling or a friend, it’s impossible to accomplish anything, impossible to resolve differences and move the relationship forward. The same is true for countries.”

This is the kernel of Huckabee’s foreign policy. He wants to anthropomorphize international relations and bring a Christian commitment to the Golden Rule to our affairs with other nations. As he told the Des Moines Register the other day, “You treat others the way you’d like to be treated. That’s to me the fundamental issue that has to be re-established in our dealings with other countries.”

This is deeply naïve. Countries aren’t people, and the world is more dangerous than a Sunday church social. Threats, deception, and — as a last resort — violence must play a role in international relations. Differences cannot always be worked out through sweet persuasion. A U.S. president who doesn’t realize this will repeat the experience of President Jimmy Carter at his most ineffectual.

Other than the general impulse to be nicer, Huckabee’s views are the uneven grab bag to be expected from someone who hasn’t thought much about foreign policy.

‐ To his credit, he supported “the surge” in Iraq and has spoken forcefully about the threat of Islamic extremism.

‐ He wants to wean us from our dependence on foreign oil, as do the other candidates. Huckabee is unique in his unrealistic estimate of how fast this will happen — by the end of his second term — and in his overestimate of the importance of oil in international relations. (“Why did Iraq and Iran fight?” he asked in his CSIS speech, referring to the war that started in 1980 and that he clearly knows little about. “Oil.”)

‐ He wants to boost our intelligence, but seems to think intelligence analysis from afar can be a substitute for combat power on the ground: “I’d rather have more people in Langley so we can have fewer in Baghdad.”

‐ He also has twisted priorities when it comes to maintaining warm relations with the rest of the world: He just came out for shutting down Guantanamo Bay to placate international critics of it, but rejects free trade, which not only helps us economically but is an important way to develop close ties with other countries.

In sum, conservatives should have worries about the depth and soundness of Mike Huckabee’s foreign-policy views. And staying at a Holiday Inn Express is not going to be enough to allay them.


The Latest