There is considerable interest in Huntsman’s prospective presidential candidacy, which befits a truly fresh face in a party where many voters are less than overwhelmed by their choices. But with a fresh face come questions, which Huntsman began to confront as he introduced himself. Two broad concerns could determine his success in the nomination battle.
One is: Where does he fit in a Republican Party that moved to the right in the two years since he stepped down as governor of Utah to become President Obama’s ambassador to China? The other: Where does he differ with Obama and how vigorously is he prepared to draw those distinctions as a candidate?
Huntsman arrived back from Beijing barely a month ago and so may be reluctant to offer a full-throated critique of the president’s policies. But in two areas of foreign policy, he carefully expressed disagreements with Obama this weekend — one predictable, the other less so.
He reproached the president for saying Thursday that an Israeli-Palestinian peace settlement should be based on the pre-1967 war borders. That criticism was shared by virtually every Republican presidential candidate. Huntsman’s language, however, was by far the most muted. “If you respect Israel,” he said gently, “we probably ought to ask what they think is best.”
More notable was his critique of the administration’s policy in Libya. He differed not only with the president but also with many in his own party, who have criticized the president for not moving swiftly enough to put in place a no-fly zone to protect rebel forces and civilians. Huntsman said he wouldn’t have intervened militarily at all.
Why? One reason is cost. He says decisions about deploying U.S. forces should be based on “a fundamental question: Can we afford this?” Another is national security. “I felt from the beginning that Libya was not in our core national security interest, and if it’s not, why are we going to go about running the risk of deploying troops there and spending whatever it’s going to cost us over time?” he said.
Asked about Obama’s argument that the United States intervened to prevent a massacre of civilians by Libyan leader Moammar Gaddafi’s forces, he responded, “We could be responding to corners of the world constantly if that were the motivating criteria.”
On a third area of foreign policy, Afghanistan, Huntsman offered a lengthy but more opaque answer to a voter in Hanover on Thursday night. The United States, he said, has “a generational opportunity to reset our position in the world based on affordability” — a broad statement that will require more explanation. He said that a drawdown of troops in Afghanistan is inevitable, though he leapfrogged over the critical question of how quickly that can or should take place.