January 07, 2008

For the first nine months of his presidential campaign, Mike Huckabee was a quaint afterthought, best known for giving considered answers to moral hypotheticals on the cable-news debates. At the very most, it seemed he might emerge as a VP figurehead for Romney or Giuliani to shore up their cred with conservative Christians. Few had taken the time to consider what, say, a Huckabeean foreign policy might actually look like. After winning going away in Iowa, and with a strong lead in many polls in South Carolina, things have changed.

When Huckabee first began to surge in the polls, the Council on Foreign Relations commissioned a major policy statement from the former Arkansas governor for its house organ. Huckabee “€“ who has no foreign-policy experience and no other writings on foreign policy that I could find “€“ dutifully polished up a speech he delivered to the CFR a few weeks earlier (thankfully removing the opening paragraph’s cringe-inducing O.J. Simpson joke.)  
To write for vaunted Foreign Affairs, the approachable Mike Huckabee transformed himself into the academic-sounding “€œMichael D. Huckabee,”€ metaphorically donning a tweed jacket and taking up a pipe. But despite the new persona, there’s little in “€œAmerica’s Priorities in the War on Terror”€ that recommends the former minister to scholars of history or international relations, even to those who sit in the choir to which he preaches. Indeed, Huckabee’s comments should greatly vex traditional conservatives, libertarians, and realists alike. Huck won Iowa as a fresh face “€“ as not Bush, not the establishment but instead a regular guy with wit and charm (and a certain used-car salesman sleaze.) But nothing in his article indicates that the incompetence and incoherence of the past seven years would cease once Huckabee steps into the oval office.        

“€œAmerica’s priorities”€ amounts to a mishmash of non-sequiturs, recommendations equal parts naïve and banal, and awkward metaphors. In the first paragraph, he compares the U.S. to a “€œtop high school student”€ who must be modest and generous so as not to “€œdominate others.”€ By the end of the piece, Huckabee calls the U.S. “€œBrer Fox”€ to Osama bin Laden’s “€œBrer Rabbit.”€

According the Zev Chafets’s profile in the New York Times Magazine, Huckabee still hasn”€™t hired a speech writer, so there’s good reason to think that he wrote this doggerel all by himself. Yes, George W. Bush could not have done better, but then Dubya would have had the good sense to outsource such a project to one of his dad’s friends.

The take-away headline from the article was Huckabee’s reference to the “€œBush administration’s arrogant bunker mentality.”€ Condi Rice struck back; Mitt Romney called the comment “€œan insult to the president.”€ 

But then this little one-liner came from the article’s two-sentence abstract. Washington journalists, of course, can”€™t be expected to digest a whole 4,800 words, and it’s natural that they keyed in on this. But if they had read on, they would have noticed that at least on matters relating to Iraq, Huckabee offers no substantial deviation from the Bush line “€“ nada.

Lacking a coherent strategy, and even recognizable war aims, Huck follows the Republican lead and passes the buck to the GOP’s savior, General Petraeus:

“As president I will not withdraw U.S. troops from Iraq any faster than General David Patraeus, the top U.S. commander there, recommends. I will bring our troops home based on the condition on the ground, not the calendar on the wall.”

While waiting for this last sentence to be immortalized by Bartlett’s, Huckabee might want to consider what it actually means for things to improve in Iraq”€”does a drop in violence mean we”€™re anywhere closer to “€œvictory”€?

At other points, Huckabee offers the most simplistic proposals as if they were bold new ideas; take for instance his call for terrorist cells to be “€œeliminated by the CIA, U.S. Special Forces, and the military forces of the coalition countries united to rid the world of this scourge.”€ Has anyone ever though of this before? Oh, they have… how has it been going?

But then “€œAmerica’s Priorities”€ makes clear that Huckabee lacks the acumen, and even the vocabulary, to think outside the Bushian box. For instance, at one point, Huckabee suggests that the U.S. step up its “€œdiplomacy”€:

“€œWe must intensify our diplomatic efforts with China, India, Russia, South Korea, and the European states. … They must realize that if the United States does end up taking military action [against Iran], they will bear some responsibility for having failed to maximize peaceful options.”€

Putting aside the question of just how “€œresponsible,”€ say, Portugal would be if some neocons in the vice president’s office decided to launch attacks on Iran, Huckabee never even considers explaining what his “€œdiplomacy”€ would consist of. Throughout the article, Huckabee treats diplomacy as a commodity, something one can “€œthrow in”€ like an ingredient in a recipe. A discussion of how Washington could convince other countries that common ground exists between their national interests and ours is missing “€“ outside the threat of “€œgo talk to the mullahs so you won”€™t be blamed after we bomb them.”€

The one bright spot in the piece is Huckabee’s sense that Iran can be “€œcontained”€ and that Tehran, as a state, is qualitatively different from a terrorist organization and thus can be dealt with rationally. It’s nice to see Huckabee willing to go against the administration and the congressionally approved declaration of Iran’s Revolutionary guard as a terrorist organization.
Nevertheless, it hard to take this ounce of realism very seriously when it’s outweighed by tons of hokey, sentimental, and multiculti excess: “€œAmerican foreign policy needs to change its tone and attitude, open up, and reach out”€; “€œgiven how Americans have thrived on diversity “€“ religious, ethnic, racial “€“ it takes an enormous leap of imagination to understand what Islamic terrorists are about”€; etc. etc. etc.

Huckabee’s most provocative claim is that “€œthe Bush administration has never adequately explained the theology and ideology behind Islamic terrorism;”€ the implication seems to be that a Huckabee administration would. This is a reworking of his earlier claim that the war on terror is “€œa theocratic war. And I don’t know if anybody fully understands that. I’m the only guy on that stage with a theology degree. I think I understand it really well.” Huckabee was, of course, forced to recant when it was revealed that, in fact, he lacks a theology degree, having dropped out of Southwestern Baptist Theological Seminary to work for Texas televangelist James Robinson.

At any rate, Professor Huckabee’s sermon on the “€œruthless fanaticism”€ of terrorists and his name-dropping of Sayyid Qutb hardly amounts to anything more in-depth than what we”€™ve learned from Dana Perino or that which can be gleaned from the dust jacket of a “€œwar on terror”€ bestseller sold at the airport.

In the end, Huckabee’s talk of American foreign policy “€œchang[ing] its tone and attitude”€ isn”€™t just cute ornamentation but actually the essence of his worldview. Huckabee wouldn”€™t change a thing about the past seven years, but only avers that the rest of the world would understand our good intentions in invading Iraq if we”€™d only been more upbeat and personable. In this way, the man of the audacity of hope and he of the national attitude change are kindred spirits. Or perhaps I”€™m just not able to grasp the policy implications of “€œreaching out.”€  


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