In a 2012 Republican presidential field with relatively little foreign policy heft, Jon Huntsman has it in spades. The former ambassador and oft-traveled billionaire, heir to a massive chemical conglomerate fortune, is one of the most globally minded candidates in a field of otherwise parochial, or even isolationist, figures within the party.
Talking to his associates from his time in China, one hears near-universal respect for the man and his views of America's role within the world - even to the point of turning his time away from the states in China into a potential political asset, an instance of confronting communists with a case for freedom. They'll tell you Huntsman truly does view his role as one of duty and service to the nation - even to the point of setting aside his Mormon religious views on drinking alcohol to drink the disgusting baijiu liquor which is mandatory at Chinese events (I'm told Huntsman would drink the clear alcohol once and then switch to water, hoping no one noticed after the first round). Huntsman's tenure as ambassador was marked by only one significant public gaffe, a bizarre incident where he attended, then fled, from a Jasmine Revolution protest, attracting attention for the large American flag patch on his arm (he claims he stumbled across the protest by accident).
Yet for someone whose campaign has already adopted a view prioritizing global issues, and whose announcement in front of the statue of liberty this week was purposefully constructed to spark recollections of Ronald Reagan's run against Jimmy Carter, Huntsman's publicly-expressed foreign policy views seem to have more in common with Carter than with Reagan.
Without question, Huntsman is the furthest left of any purportedly serious candidate for the nomination when it comes to forming a response to Afghanistan. His press release on the president's remarks this week emphasized his approval for "a safe but rapid withdrawal," but his critique on NBC's Today show went much further. Asked by host Ann Curry whether he thought a drawdown of 30,000 troops by next year was too much or too rapid, Huntsman responded by saying that "I think that we can probably be more aggressive over the next year" in drawing down troops.
Despite the comparisons to John McCain's 2008 presidential run - and on the campaign and organizational side, there are many - Huntsman's statement could not be more at odds with McCain's views on Afghanistan and the necessity of preventing losses of the gains made in the past two years. Like Obama, Huntsman emphasized the need for “nation building at home” (as if the two goals are inconsistent) - but Huntsman went further, saying it was time to "get serious about what needs to be done on the ground, not a counter-insurgency but a counter-terror effort." While nearly every Republican in the race has emphasized the need to heed the advice of the commanders with on-the-ground experience on the front, Huntsman is purposefully setting himself apart in unequivocally rejecting the advice of Gen. David Petraeus and Admiral Michael Mullen, chairman of the Joint Chiefs of Staff, from afar. More significantly, in supporting a more aggressive drawdown to be replaced by a limited counter-terror strategy, Huntsman is essentially endorsing the view by Vice President Joe Biden - a view which proved too rapid and risky even for President Obama.
Whether you agree with them or not, even supporters must concede that Huntsman's foreign policy views are a clear rejection not just of George W. Bush, but of thirty years of the views of Republican nominees on the proper attitude toward war fighting and engagement. One does not have to accept the view of Washington's neoconservative elite in order to take a view of America's role in the world that has been consistent in the Republican Party since the post-Nixon era. And Huntsman's foreign policy team - which includes former National Security Advisor Brent Scowcroft, CFR head Richard Haass and former Deputy Secretary of State Richard Armitage, the leaker of Valerie Plame's identity - has already sparked concern among Jewish groups that Huntsman's views on America's relationship with Israel could be as out of sync with Republican values as the rest of his portfolio.
Rather than playing games of triangulation, Huntsman may simply be saying what he believes. But perhaps the reason he's caught fire with so many leading media figures is that he's saying things they tend to agree with. This is all well and good, and coherent so far as it goes. It's just not very Republican.