Huckabee’s Sunday School Foreign Policy

Huckabee’s Foreign Policy Mike Huckabee and Bill Richardson get their turn at having essays, ostensibly written by them, outlining their foreign policy vision in the pages of Foreign Affairs. I’ve addressed Bill Richardson’s vision, which he’s already outlined in similar essays elsewhere, extensively here and here.

Huckabee’s piece, entitled “America’s Priorities in the War on Terror — Islamists, Iraq, Iran, and Pakistan,” is published under his serious scholarly byline of “Michael D. Huckabee” rather than the aw shucks “Mike.” Its thesis statement:

The Bush administration’s arrogant bunker mentality has been counterproductive at home and abroad. American foreign policy needs to change its tone and attitude, open up, and reach out. In particular, it should focus on eliminating Islamist terrorists, stabilizing Iraq, containing Iran, and toughening its stance with Pakistan.

From that, it sounds like he’s running for the Democratic nomination. It turns out, though, that his agenda is much more complicated than that. Some excerpts and reactions follow.

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.

Apparently, Huckabee hasn’t read Machiavelli. While these platitudes sound nice and are befitting a Baptist preacher, they’re almost certainly wrong. Not so much that we ought to be modest and generous, which are worthwhile attributes for their own sake, but that the world’s only superpower is ever going to be loved. The world just doesn’t work that way.

As an aside, one is reminded of George W. Bush’s similar pledges in 2000: “If we’re an arrogant nation, they’ll resent us; if we’re a humble nation, but strong, they’ll welcome us. And our nation stands alone right now in the world in terms of power, and that’s why we’ve got to be humble, and yet project strength in a way that promotes freedom.”

My administration will recognize that the United States’ main fight today does not pit us against the world but pits the world against the terrorists. At the same time, my administration will never surrender any of our sovereignty, which is why I was the first presidential candidate to oppose ratification of the Law of the Sea Treaty, which would endanger both our national security and our economic interests.

As Dan Drezner points out, “Really, you just have to stand back and marvel at the contradiction of sentiments contained in that paragraph.” One either joins the world to find common agreement on issues or one asserts the unilateral right to make rules outside ones borders.

A more successful U.S. foreign policy needs to better explain Islamic jihadism to the American people. Given how Americans have thrived on diversity — religious, ethnic, racial — it takes an enormous leap of imagination to understand what Islamic terrorists are about, that they really do want to kill every last one of us and destroy civilization as we know it. If they are willing to kill their own children by letting them detonate suicide bombs, then they will also be willing to kill our children for their misguided cause. The Bush administration has never adequately explained the theology and ideology behind Islamic terrorism or convinced us of its ruthless fanaticism.

Gee whiz, they’ve been doing this for more than six years now. Does Huckabee really think that Americans need to be convinced that the terrorists want to kill us?

The United States’ biggest challenge in the Arab and Muslim worlds is the lack of a viable moderate alternative to radicalism. […] Although we cannot export democracy as if it were Coca-Cola or KFC, we can nurture moderate forces in places where al Qaeda is seeking to replace modern evil with medieval evil.

No, we can’t.

As president, my goal in the Arab and Muslim worlds will be to calibrate a course between maintaining stability and promoting democracy. It is self-defeating to attempt too much too soon: doing so could mean holding elections that the extremists would win. But it is also self-defeating to do nothing. We must first destroy existing terrorist groups and then attack the underlying conditions that breed them: the lack of basic sanitation, health care, education, jobs, a free press, fair courts — which all translates into a lack of opportunity and hope.

And how do we do this, exactly? Especially as a country “modest about its abilities and achievements”?

I want to treat Saudi Arabia the way we treat Sweden, and that will require the United States to be energy independent.

I’m pretty sure our energy independence would not transform Saudi Arabia into Sweden. Burkino Faso, perhaps, but not Sweden.

The first thing I will do as president is send Congress my comprehensive plan for achieving energy independence within ten years of my inauguration. We will explore, we will conserve, and we will pursue all types of alternative energy: nuclear, wind, solar, ethanol, hydrogen, clean coal, biomass, and biodiesel.

Why doesn’t he go ahead and share the plan now, so we can get started? Of course, we’re already exploring and pursuing all those types of alternative energy. Conserving? Not so much.

Supporting Islamic moderates and moving toward energy independence will not protect us from the terrorists who already exist. These enemies, who plot and train in small, scattered cells, can be tracked down and eliminated by the CIA, U.S. Special Forces, and the military forces of the coalition countries united to rid the world of this scourge. We can achieve a tremendous amount with swift and surgical air strikes and commando raids by our elite units. But these operations demand first-rate intelligence. When the Cold War ended, we cut back our human intelligence, just as we cut back our armed forces, and these reductions have come back to haunt us. I will strengthen both.

We’ve been talking about this for years. Building strong HUMINT in the terrorist arena is a lot more complicated than establishing budget priorities. That said, it’s certainly a worthy goal.

I’m less confident than I once was of our ability to kill terrorists faster than new ones are created. I’m willing to keep trying, though.

Our current active armed forces simply are not large enough. We have relied far too heavily on the National Guard and the Reserves and worn them out.

The Bush administration plans to increase the size of the U.S. Army and the Marine Corps by about 92,000 troops over the next five years. We can and must do this in two to three years. I recognize the challenges of increasing our enlistments without lowering standards and of expanding training facilities and personnel, and that is one of the reasons why we must increase our military budget. Right now, we spend 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. And we must stop using active-duty forces for nation building and return to our policy of using other government agencies to build schools, hospitals, roads, sewage treatment plants, water filtration systems, electrical facilities, and legal and banking systems. We must marshal the goodwill, ingenuity, and power of our governmental and nongovernmental organizations in coordinating and implementing these essential nonmilitary functions.

We already spend more than all the nations on the planet, combined, on national defense and we need to up it by a third? Or, actually, much more sense current military functions will be pawned off to other agencies?

If I ever have to undertake a large invasion, I will follow the Powell Doctrine and use overwhelming force. The notion of an occupation with a “light footprint,” which was our model for Iraq, is a contradiction in terms.

Presumably, not occupying would solve this problem. The Powell Doctrine, though, isn’t about stabilization operations but about major conventional war.

As president, I will not withdraw U.S. troops from Iraq any faster than General David Petraeus, the top U.S. commander there, recommends.

So, you’d delegate your responsibilities as commander-in-chief to your generals? Why do we need you, then?

I support providing the Turks with actionable intelligence to go after the PKK with limited air strikes and commando raids but would prefer to train and equip Iraqi Kurds to fight the PKK and rid themselves of this menace.

Not exactly a rapid solution, given how long it’s taken to train up the Iraqi forces.

The Bush administration has properly said that it will not take the military option for dealing with Iran off the table. Neither will I. But if we do not put other options on the table, eventually a military strike will become the only viable one.

Agreed. What options?

Another way to contain Iran is through diplomacy. We must be as aggressive diplomatically as we have been militarily since 9/11. We must intensify our diplomatic efforts with China, India, Russia, South Korea, and European states and persuade them to put more economic pressure on Iran.

Haven’t we been doing that? And, as you detail in the next several paragraphs, there’s not much hope in the case of Russia.

Sun-tzu’s ancient wisdom is relevant today: “Keep your friends close and your enemies closer.” Yet we have not had diplomatic relations with Iran in almost 30 years; the U.S. government usually communicates with the Iranian government through the Swiss embassy in Tehran. When one stops talking to a parent or a friend, differences cannot be resolved and relationships cannot move forward. The same is true for countries. The reestablishment of diplomatic ties will not occur automatically or without the Iranians’ making concessions that serve to create a less hostile relationship.

This is commonsensical, I think.

Rather than wait for the next strike, I prefer to cut to the chase by going after al Qaeda’s safe havens in Pakistan. As commander in chief, the U.S. president must balance threats and risks in calculating how best to protect the American people. We are living on borrowed time. The threat of an attack on us is far graver than the risk that a quick and limited strike against al Qaeda would bring extremists to power in Pakistan.

Huckabee shares this view with Barack Obama and it’s not indefensible. Given how central he thinks winning the war in Iraq is to our long term security, however, he seems to dramatically underplay the potential fallout of this action. The several paragraphs that follow, detailing the costs of the failed bet on Musharraf, though, are well taken.

Drezner’s objections about the writing style of the essay are spot on. The phrasing is more appropriate for a Sunday school class than a presidential campaign. Overall, though, his policies are not unreasonable.

There’s a lot of wishful thinking here, of course, but when isn’t there? But Huckabee at least dispenses with most of the bluster that characterizes the essays signed by Rudy Giuliani (see here and here) and Mitt Romney. He seems genuinely committed to dialog with allies, regional actors, and adversaries and seems to understand that there are limits to our ability to reshape the world through the use of military force. Those are welcome.

On the down side, though, I’m not sure that a Huckabee foreign policy would be substantially different from an Obama, Richardson, or Edwards administration’s. There’s a bit too much moralizing about good guys and bad guys, as if something other than rational interest were at work, combined with more than a bit too much faith in the power of love in international relations.

Other Reactions:

  • HuffPo’s Libby Quaid calls the plan “long on optimism but short on details.” That, of course, is the ideal campaign platform if one’s goal is winning.
  • PowerLine‘s Paul Mirengoff and John Hinderacker, reacting to stump speech rhetoric along similar lines rather than the essay itself, pronounce it “the kind [of foreign policy rhetoric] you’d expect from DailyKos bloggers” and conclude that “Huckabee simply is not a conservative.”
  • Retired FSO John Burgess “[W]hat Huckabee proposes is not a policy, but a collection of wishes.”

There’s also this delightful observation of NYT’s Zev Chafets (via Andrew Sullivan):

At lunch, when I asked [Huckabee] who influences his thinking on foreign affairs, he mentioned Thomas Friedman, the New York Times columnist, and Frank Gaffney, a neoconservative and the founder of a research group called the Center for Security Policy. This is like taking travel advice from Little Red Riding Hood and the Wolf, but the governor seemed unaware of the incongruity.

Previous Assessments of Candidate Foreign Affairs Essays:

Photo credit: AP via CNN

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James Joyner
About James Joyner
James Joyner is a Security Studies professor at Marine Corps University's Command and Staff College and a nonresident senior fellow at the Scowcroft Center for Strategy and Security at the Atlantic Council. He's a former Army officer and Desert Storm vet. Views expressed here are his own. Follow James on Twitter @DrJJoyner.


  1. bgodley says:

    Very interesting statement by Huckabee. I can’t help but think when reading both the statement and commentary about how misaligned our goals have become.

    Huckabee appears to be pandering to someone, I am not sure. His comments seem very coached compared to the way he used to talk.

    Either way it is a hit on Bush but at the same time professes more war hawkish views on several levels. It seems like he is taking some script from the Ron Paul campaign and trying to mesh it with some views of the good old boy network that is now backing him.

    I thought he was different but he seems to be that same old pandering politician that we have grown to dislike.

    That leaves Ron Paul as the only guy who doesn’t pander and won’t change with the season. I don’t like all his views but he is by far the most consistent and really appears to have our national interests in mind, which by the way includes the security of this country both in its sovereignty and economically.

  2. Dave Schuler says:

    Right now, we spend 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.

    Unless he plans on doing this by lowering our GDP, it means finding an additional $150 billion (depending on how you count it) in the budget. I’d be interested in hearing how he plans to do that.

    Overall I found Gov. Huckabee’s proposals had an intriguing combination of honesety and insanity.

  3. Beldar says:

    I’m not defending Huckabee’s foreign policy pronouncements, and agree that many of them are quite naive.

    But so, too, is this statement above, from Dr. Joyner rather than him:

    One either joins the world to find common agreement on issues or one asserts the unilateral right to make rules outside ones borders.

    It’s profoundly silly (and, not coincidentally, very much like something you’d hear at a Democratic presidential debate) to submit these as mutually exclusive alternatives.

    A nation can — and, I would argue, most American administrations have — both join the world to find common agreement on issues in which the rest of the world is willing to be reasonable, while nonetheless acting unilaterally (albeit at a cost) on other issues if that nation has the practical power to do so. Getting to an agreement for joint action is not the ultimate goal; furthering America’s short- and long-term interests is. Often it’s in America’s short- and long-term interests to make agreements with many other countries; sometimes it’s in America’s short- and long-term interests to make agreements with only a subset (and sometimes a very small subset, e.g., a few on which the U.K. and the U.S. stand alone with one another); and sometimes it’s in America’s short- and long-term interests to say, “We’re going to do our own thing.”

    To use a conspicuous example, the rest of the world would have been delighted to see the United States self-shackle its economy by agreeing to the Kyoto Accords, without regard to whether there’s a genuine scientific justification for them or whether they proposed to treat the United States fairly. Have we paid a price for that? Oh, sure — in whatever way you measure the cost of “derision” from demagogues like Al Gore at home or abroad. But the costs of “going along to get along” would have been vast, and not at all speculative, and would have enormously outweighed those costs — which is why, of course, even the administration of which Gore was a part never bothered to even submit the Kyoto treaty to the Senate for consideration.

    And after the fact, only genuinely irrational actors — those who can’t identify and promote their own states’ rational self-interests — will use the United States’ past examples of self-interestedness as a reason to refuse to make future agreements with the U.S. that indeed are in all of the participating states’ self-interest.

    It is true that there is some degree of credibility that comes from a nation being willing to sometimes — for idealistic reasons — act in ways that are contrary to its own (usually short-term) interests (see, e.g., the Marshall Plan for a conspicuous example). But that’s simply another way of saying that long-term interests may sometimes justify short-term sacrifices. And anyone, anywhere, who argues that America fares badly by comparison to any other country in sacrificing its short-term self-interests for long-term ones is a very poor student of history, badly misinformed, and/or lying for purposes of his/her own self-interested agenda.

  4. Beldar says:

    And while I’m in a quibbling mood, Dr. Joyner:

    We already spend more than all the nations on the planet, combined, on national defense and we need to up it by a third?

    That’s a horrible, horrible standard for judging the appropriateness of American defense spending. Were it not for the effective Pax Americana among major nation-states since 1945 — by which I refer not to the absence of regional conflicts, because some of those have continued, but of world-wide ones like WW1 and WW2 — the traditional pre-1945 “players” in world affairs would doubtless have spent many multiples of their current defense budgets. Their current budgets reflect our combined (but emphatically American-led) victory in the Cold War.

    There are long-term advantages to the U.S. from that comparatively nonmilitaristic state of the world, and we can afford the costs of maintaining the preeminent military in the world on both a short- and long-term basis. Unless you’re content for us to have the power-projection of Belgium, don’t use its military spending as a measure of what’s appropriate for ours.

    We could let our military sink back to “mere deterrent superiority,” enough to deter, say, Iran or Venezuela from not just an outright attack but (far more likely) the lesser sort of complicity in an attack comparable to that which Afghanistan’s Taliban had with 9/11. But if we want to be able to project power more affirmatively and continuously (as we have done in Iraq), Huckabee’s right on this point: We need to spend more than we’re spending now and return to a genuine “two regional wars at once” capability.

  5. Jerry King says:

    I listened to Upper Class media this morning. They agree the “bunker mentality” is a general election mode Huckabee is now moving into. He is the only Republican that thinks out of both sides of his brain sees “green” cares about broken humanity and is endorsed by the NEA. The elite and establishment Republicans despise him! This Republican is cut of a different clothe! This is not Pat Robinson! Elect ability? Well, he beat the Clinton machine in Arkansas four times. We shall see!

  6. NYT says:

    U.S. GDP is 13.2T (2006) so 2.1% of that is about US 277B per year.

  7. Mad Minerva says:

    Among other academic duties, I teach college freshman writing workshops. If Huckabee were one of my students, I’d make him re-write the whole thing. The entire essay is a farrago of writing bugaboos, not the least of which is lack of coherence of thought and argumentation.

    Something else might be of interest: he begins by comparing US foreign relations to high school. This is silly enough, but if working with students (and being a student myself) has taught me anything, it’s that young people’s socializing is nowhere near as simple as Huckabee makes them out to be.

    If I may quote my own post on this:

    “And does Huckabee remember what high school is even LIKE? I’m not so old that I’ve forgotten. High school is full of cliques and clubs and tribes, and very often you can be hated not for being you as an individual, but because of your “tribe.” High school, if anything, is a social minefield. Since Huck refers to a “top high school student,” he *might* mean “nerd” or “geek.” But I remember high school — my friends and I were all top high school students, and I can tell you that high school life did NOT look remotely like the Huckabee Thesis of High School Social Networking. We nerds could be as modest and nice and generous as Huck could want; the “popular” kids were still going to hate, reject, despise, ignore, and belittle us. On the other hand, the star athletes were dominant in all kinds of ways, and sometimes they were jerks, but they most certainly were not despised — and in fact, sometimes they were even more popular. Go back to high school, Huckabee!”

  8. floyd says:

    Your last paragraph sounds like “U.S. foreign relations” to me![lol]

  9. Mad Minerva says:

    You know, Floyd, I think you have a point! 😉

    Maybe the upshot is that in both high school and foreign relations, nobody acts like a grown-up?

  10. Bruce Moomaw says:

    (1) I look forward to Beldar explaining to a landslide majority of American climate scientists why there’s still not a strong case for seriously harmful man-made global warming. (A case which, by the way, has tremendously strengthened since the Clinton Administration, which is precisely what the IPCC’s reports have been about.)

    (2) I also look forward to him explaining how Huckabee’s statement that “I will never surrender ANY of our sovereignty” can be reconciled with any belief in self-restraint through international agreement whatsoever, under any circumstances. Which, of course, was the point that both Joyner and Drezner were (obviously) making. Actually, this is a good place to cite Huckabee’s and Drezner’s ENTIRE comments:

    ” ‘American foreign policy needs to change its tone and attitude, open up, and reach out. The Bush administration’s arrogant bunker mentality has been counterproductive at home and abroad. My administration will recognize that the United States’ main fight today does not pit us against the world but pits the world against the terrorists. At the same time, my administration will never surrender any of our sovereignty, which is why I was the first presidential candidate to oppose ratification of the Law of the Sea Treaty, which would endanger both our national security and our economic interests.’

    “Really, you just have to stand back and marvel at the contradiction of sentiments contained in that paragraph. It’s endemic to the entire essay — for someone who claims he wants to get rid of the bunker mentality, Huckabee offers no concrete ideas for how to do that, and a lot of policies (rejecting the Law of the Sea Treaty, using force in Pakistan, boosting defense spending by 50%) that will ensure anti-Americanism for years to come.”

    As for Huckabee embracing Friedman and Gaffney simultaneously: well, I still remember Jimmy Carter being asked in 1976 who his two favorite national security strategists were and replying, “Paul Nitze and Paul Warnke.” Whether this is a peculiar trait of Southern governors, I don’t know, but it doesn’t bode well for Huckabee.

  11. I’ve quoted you (as a “quote of the day”) and linked to you here.