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The Perils of Huckaplomacy

Don't know much about foreign policy.

Dec 24, 2007, Vol. 13, No. 15 • By STEPHEN F. HAYES
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Just moments into the third Republican presidential debate, last June 5, CNN's Wolf Blitzer asked former Arkansas governor Mike Huckabee about Iraq. "Governor Huckabee, do you have confidence in the government of Iraq, the government of Prime Minister Nuri al-Maliki, that he's going to do what needs to be done?"

Huckabee responded:

I think there's some real doubt about that, Wolf. But I want to remind all of us on this stage and the people in the audience that there's a reason that this is such a struggle. And I think we miss it over here in the West. Today's the birthday of Ronald Reagan. We all would believe that Ronald Reagan is the one who ended the Cold War, and Ronald Reagan is the one who helped bring about the collapse of the Soviet Union. But there's a group of people who don't believe that, and that's the Taliban. They believe they brought about the demise of the Soviet Union because of the way they fought in Afghanistan. And what I want to just mention is that it is not the size of the dog in the fight, it is the size of the fight in the dog.

At another GOP debate in Baltimore, journalist Cynthia Tucker asked Huckabee about Darfur. "Governor," she wondered, "does the U.S. have a role to play in ending the genocide in Darfur? And, if so, what should that role be?"

Huckabee answered:

I think we have some role to play in it, but I guess what disturbs me even more, we have not even addressed the genocide that's going on and the infanticide in our own country with the slaughter of millions of unborn children. And we also have extraordinary poverty in this country. Yes, we ought to be involved. But you know something? There are a lot of people in America that don't think the only poverty is in Darfur--understand, there's poverty in the Delta. There are people who don't have running water, people that don't have access to medical care and don't have a decent school to go to and you don't have to go halfway around the world to find it. We've got it right here in this country.

So much for Nuri al-Maliki and Darfur.

Those two questions are interesting not only because of Huckabee's nonanswers, but because together they represent some of the most determined efforts to get Huckabee to talk about his views on foreign policy and national security. A review of the dozens of questions posed to Huckabee throughout the Republican debates stretching from May through last week finds only a handful seeking to test his knowledge and views on those issues. For much of that time, Huckabee was still a second-tier candidate, and he received questions mostly about social issues and his faith. So striking was the trend that Huckabee himself once joked about it.

Q: Governor Huckabee, you are an ordained minister. What is the most pressing moral issue in this country?

A: Well, it looks like I'm getting all the moral questions tonight. And I guess that's a good thing. That's better than getting the immoral questions, so I'm happy to get those.

Things are different now. Huckabee is leading polls in Iowa and South Carolina. He is picking up support nationally, too. And he is doing this despite the fact that Republican voters consistently tell pollsters that national security remains a top priority for them as they consider presidential candidates.

Huckabee's most extensive remarks on national security and foreign policy came during an address he prepared for the Decision 2008 series at the Center for Strategic and International Studies in Washington, D.C., on September 28. (He borrows heavily from this speech for an article to appear in the January/February issue of Foreign Affairs.) While there were some strong elements in that speech--he spoke out in favor of the surge and made clear that he would be aggressive in targeting al Qaeda operatives in Pakistan--Huckabee often sounded confused and naive.

The United States, he said, is like the exceptional kid we all knew growing up. If only the United States were not such a braggadocio and spent more time encouraging other countries to be their best--helping them with their spelling tests, as it were--these countries would spend less time wishing us ill and more time emulating us. (Does that mean we should be doing more to rebuild Afghanistan and Iraq? Huckabee didn't say.)

Huckabee also curiously suggested he would "beef up our human intelligence capacity" because he would "rather have more people in Langley so we can have fewer in Baghdad."

More problematic for his presidential prospects, when Huckabee did speak clearly he often sounded more like Dennis Kucinich than Dick Cheney, something Republican primary voters are not likely to find appealing.

The Bush administration is guilty of a "bunker mentality," said Huckabee. The war in Iraq has "distracted" the administration from pursuing al Qaeda. Although Iran wanted better relations with the United States, he averred, "when President Bush included Iran in the axis of evil, everything went downhill pretty fast." And according to Huckabee, it was not Saddam Hussein but "the U.S. occupation" that "destroyed Iraq politically, economically, and socially." (Huckabee's remarks won praise as "nuanced and comprehensive" from the host of the event, a senior adviser on Bill Clinton's National Security Council.)

In the 11 weeks since that speech, Huckabee has made several other statements about foreign policy in a Huckabee administration. He favors a comprehensive ban on the use of harsh interrogation techniques to extract information from terrorists, and he has urged the Bush administration to close the prison at Guantánamo Bay. And as the writers at the Powerline blog have pointed out, Huckabee seems to believe the best foreign policy is one guided by the Golden Rule--"you treat others the way you'd like to be treated"--and mutual respect, "showing the kind of respect that other nations would want and deserve."

In November, he told a producer for Pat Robertson's Christian Broadcasting Network that his religious background made him most qualified to lead the war on terror.

In fact I think I'm stronger than most people because I truly understand the nature of the war that we are in with Islamofascism. These are people that want to kill us. It's a theocratic war. And I don't know if anybody fully understands that. I'm the only guy on that stage with a theology degree.

Mike Huckabee says he begins every day by reading a chapter of Proverbs. But one day not long ago--coincidentally the day that Huckabee allowed Zev Chafets, a writer from the New York Times Magazine, to join him on the campaign trail--the former Arkansas governor did not have time for his daily reading. Nonetheless, he knew much of that day's assignment, Proverbs 3, by heart. He quoted for his companion: "Trust in the Lord, and lean not upon thine own understanding."

Amen.

Stephen F. Hayes is a senior writer at THE WEEKLY STANDARD.