Huckabee's Foreign Policy Faux Pas

This column was written by Dean Barnett.

Since Mike Huckabee's meteoric rise in the polls, questions regarding his gravitas have dogged the latest Man from Hope. Oh sure, he can toss out witticisms with the best of them and he's as likable a politician as we've seen in decades, but many wondered whether he had the policy chops to be a capable president. Those doubts often hailed from magazines like this one; snot-nosed policy wonks, be they writing in journals of opinion or in the blogosphere, were dazzled by neither Huckabee's wit nor his ability to make rhymes like an extremely pale Jesse Jackson.

In an effort to answer these questions once and for all, Huckabee took to the pages of Foreign Affairs to dramatically lay out his foreign policy vision. As its name suggests, Foreign Affairs tends to be a dry read. The notoriously serious Council on Foreign Relations publishes the magazine, so Huckabee's trademark wit would be of no service. Apparently sensing the sobriety of the occasion, Huckabee chose to write the essay under the handle "Michael D. Huckabee" rather than the more familiar and colloquial "Mike."

The essay was a disaster for both Michael D. Huckabee and Mike Huckabee. Their bid to persuade America's most serious foreign policy analysts that Huckabee understands global affairs was equal parts embarrassing and unintentionally comic. In one part of the essay, Huckabee somberly intoned that "Sun-tzu's ancient wisdom is relevant today: 'Keep your friends close and your enemies closer.'" The only problem with citing this ancient piece of wisdom is that it comes not from Sun Tzu, but Michael Corleone. Unfortunately, the rest of Huckabee's essay was silent as to what America should do about Hyman Roth and his Sicilian message boy, Johnny Ola.

Huckabee's confusion regarding Sun Tzu and Michael Corleone obviously didn't reassure Republicans who harbored doubts about his seriousness as a thinker. Other parts of Huckabee's Foreign Affairs opus uncomfortably suggest that the governor isn't just playing at being a rube. Repeatedly, Huckabee clumsily tried to make purportedly serious points in Bumpkin-speak. "When we let bin Laden escape at Tora Bora," Huckabee reminisced, "we played Brer Fox to his Brer Rabbit." At the risk of revealing my lack of bumpkin bona fides, I don't know what that's even supposed to mean.

But that faux pas and the Corleone confusion were hardly the essay's lowlight. Huckabee's opening paragraphs were positively jaw dropping both for their style and their substance:

"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.

"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."

Perhaps I'm a harsh grader, but comparing America to a high school student and geo-political affairs to the interplay between the jocks and the geeks does not reflect a world class intellect at work. Maybe Huckabee dumbed down his essay to make it accessible to the notoriously slack-jawed hillbillies who make up Foreign Affairs' core audience. Or maybe he really thinks that way.

Worse still is his reference to President Bush's "bunker mentality." This comment echoes one of the rhetorical tics that has become so common on the left, its denizens seldom even notice it anymore -- referring to the president with imagery reminiscent of Hitler. We'd expect such rubbish from a Daily Kos diarist. But a presidential candidate? And a Republican?

And then there was the speech Huckabee gave in conjunction with the essay's release. In his speech, Huckabee made certain points that he didn't put in the magazine, perhaps for reasons of space or maybe because some Foreign Affairs editor has a well developed sense of mercy. "The bottom line is this," Huckabee cautioned. "Iran is a regional threat to the balance of power to the Middle and Near East; Al Qaeda is an existential threat to the United States."

Stunningly, Huckabee got it perfectly backwards. Al Qaeda is a menace to American security. But a nation governed by a hostile regime poised to produce a small arsenal of nuclear weapons that its leadership promises to use presents a truly existential threat. We can only conclude that "existential threat" does not mean what Mike Huckabee thinks it does.

The Foreign Affairs essay and its accompanying speech came on the heels of numerous suddenly famous Huckabee comments from the past that painted the picture of someone who not only comes from a small town, but who comes across more than occasionally as its village idiot. In 1998, Huckabee wrote that "a wife is to submit graciously to the servant leadership of her husband." When I bounced this idea off my bride, she responded by bouncing her rolling pin off my head.

1998 was apparently a golden age for Huckabee silliness. That same year, he also took aim at those callow East Coast elites, declaring, "It is now difficult to keep track of the vast array of publicly endorsed and institutionally supported aberrations — from homosexuality and pedophilia to sadomasochism and necrophilia." Institutionally supported necrophilia? There are institutions out there paying people to have sex with corpses? While I would put nothing beyond Congress and its lustful infatuation with pork, this is an obviously ludicrous straw man. In Huckabee's defense, though, the passage does rhyme.

So how is this guy sitting among the Republican front-runners? For one thing, Huckabee obviously has charm to spare. It's tough not to like him. He's the most skilled retail politician in the Republican party by a country mile. None of the other Republican contenders have connected with the Republican electorate with great (or even not-so-great) effectiveness. Huckabee connects.

Huckabee is also a shrewd office seeker. Until the intellectual train wreck he wrote for Foreign Affairs, Huckabee hadn't made a single misstep the entire campaign. It's almost like he knew that parts of the Republican base would come to him after deciding that none of the other contenders set their hearts on fire.

Huckabee's ascent, fueled by those voters, leads us to the most disquieting aspect of his ascendancy. On every major issue save for abortion and gay marriage, Huckabee is dramatically out of step with the Republican Party. He talks a class warfare game that would make John Edwards blush. His foreign policy prescriptions make one yearn for the comparably muscular approach favored by Jimmy Carter. His anti-business rhetoric and his past regard for tax increases have left the Club for Growth types fuming. His leniency towards criminals is rapidly becoming legend.

Huckabee has risen because of identity-based politics. The bottom line rationale for his candidacy is frighteningly close to that of a Jesse Jackson campaign. Addressing a sliver of the electorate, Huckabee in essence says, "Vote for me because I'm one of you."

Of course, Huckabee is more clever than Jackson could ever dream of being. The sliver Huckabee's going after is quite a bit larger than the one Jackson targeted. What's more, Huckabee operates subtly where Jackson had all the subtlety of sledgehammer.

In his first television spot (after his good-timey debut with eager supporter Chuck Norris), the writing on the screen proclaimed Huckabee a "Christian Leader." I know — that doesn't sound particularly subtle. The subtlety was that the phrase popped up when Huckabee was decrying flip-flopping politicians. In other words, the words "Christian Leader" illuminated the screen while Huckabee was attacking the Mormon candidate.

The best thing about this gambit is that it attacked Romney with the same kind of elusive slickness that John Edwards used when he outted Dick Cheney's daughter during their vice-presidential debate. Both Huckabee and Edwards could express shock if anyone called them on their vulgar displays of identity politics. As a consequence, no one made an issue of it.

Just this week, Huckabee revealed a new ad where he did nothing other than wish the voters a "magnificent" Christmas. It was Huckabee at his best. And his worst. On the one hand, it was nearly impossible not to like the nice man on the screen who was taking the time (not to mention the money) to do nothing more than wish the voters a Merry Christmas. On the other hand, it was a not-particularly-subtle reminder that his main contender in Iowa, Mitt Romney, isn't a mainstream Christian.

At least Jesse Jackson's version of identity-based politics made a modicum of sense for his party. Jackson was a pedestrian doctrinaire liberal. Practically the only things separating Jackson and Michael Dukakis were eight inches and 80 pounds. Although Jackson would have been a scandalously unqualified Democratic nominee in 1988, at least he would have made ideological sense.

If the Republican Party nominates Huckabee, it will nominate a man who is both unqualified for the job and ideologically out of step with the party. The Republican Party's main advantage over the Democratic Party the last few decades has been the fact that Republicans were united by principle, while Democrats were a motley pastiche of special interest groups, each looking to tear a little piece off the government's bloated carcass in exchange for their support.

If Huckabee's ascent turns out to be anything more than a personality fueled blip, it will signal trouble for the Republican Party. It will mean the ideology that has defined the Republican Party since the age of Reagan is no longer enough to hold the party together. If Huckabee gets the nomination, it will mean that base identity politics have officially supplanted conservative ideology as the Republicans' uniting principle.

Mike Huckabee may be a sunny guy, but that's a dark prospect.
By Dean Barnett
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