Republican Presidential candidate Jon Huntsman during the foreign policy debate this past week:
His — history will tell. We missed the Persian spring. The president failed on that front. We go into Libya, where, to my mind, we don’t have any definable American interests. We’ve got Syria now on the horizon, where we do have American interests. It’s called Israel. We’re a friend and ally. They’re a friend and ally. And we need to remind the world what it means to be a friend and ally of the United States.
And we have nuclearization in Iran. Centrifuges spinning. At some point, they’re going to have enough in the way of fissile material out of which to make a weapon. That’s a certainty.
We had a discussion earlier tonight about sanctions. Everybody commented on sanctions. Sanctions aren’t going to work, I hate to break it to you. They’re not going to work because the Chinese aren’t going to play ball and the Russians aren’t going to play ball.
And I believe Iran has already — the mullahs have already decided they want to go nuclear.
They have looked at North Korea. They’ve got a weapon. Nobody touches them. They like [sic] at Libya. Libya gave up their weapon in exchange for friendship with the world. Look where they are.
So I say let’s let history be our guide. We saw the end of the Ottoman Empire in 1919. We saw the region transform and make itself into something different. We saw changes in 1947.
I think we do our national interests a disservice by jumping in too soon and taking up sides with people we don’t fully understand, Islamist groups, pan-Arab groups.
Our interest in the Middle East is Israel. And our interest is to ensure that Israel — that Iran does not go nuclear.
Interesting. Several comments and questions:
1. Unfortunately, Huntsman did not have a chance to specify exactly how the U.S. is going to ensure that “Iran does not go nuclear.” He believes sanctions won’t work. So what levers of statecraft would a President Huntsman use to meet this goal?
His earlier comment about missing the Persian Spring suggests he thinks one answer is that the U.S. could meddle more vigorously in the internal politics of Iran, help bring about regime change there, and then we can all live happily ever after. But wouldn’t that require a pretty significant involvement that could seriously backfire? Specifically, intervention along those lines only helps propel the sort of logic that Huntsman understands (with his comment about Libya) is behind Iran’s quest for nukes in the first place? Moreover, Huntsman asks us to appreciate history – and wasn’t it American intervention in Iranian domestic politics that helped (and still helps) stimulate anti-U.S. opinion in Iran in the first place (see Mohammad Mosaddegh and the 1953 coup). And what about his line about being careful not to pick sides with people we don’t fully understand? Lastly, if states have permanent interests regardless of regime type, isn’t it possible that a very different government in Tehran would still wish to acquire nuclear weapons given the geostrategic realities that face Iran?
Fortunately, Huntsman has been more clear about what he’d do about Iran in other forums – including in his October foreign policy address* – so we don’t have to guess. Here, in bold unequivocal language, is what Huntsman said:
I cannot live with a nuclear-armed Iran. If you want an example of when I would consider the use of American force, it would be that.
Hard to see any wiggle room here. He might hope for regime change leading to an end in Iran’s nuclear program. He might hope for diplomacy doing what sanctions cannot. But ultimately a President Huntsman would fight a war to prevent Iran from developing or acquiring a nuclear force. This seems to be a bit incongruous with the rest of the speech, especially shortly after claiming “Simply put, we are risking American blood and treasure in parts of the world where our strategy needs to be rethought.” And unfortunately, his policy position does not leave room for the possibility of living with a nuclear Iran and relying on deterrence and diplomacy to keep the peace.
2. Regardless of what one thinks of our relationship with Israel, Huntsman has an odd way of stating his view of it: “Our interest in the Middle East is Israel.” When I think of interests, I think of homeland security, economic welfare (for Americans), and even the preservation of the American way of life at home (including individual liberty) for lack of a better way of putting it. The American military, diplomacy, alliances, protection of freedom of the seas, etc. are possible ways/means to secure those interests. But they are not interests themselves. Now perhaps he meant that Israel’s security is a means for our other interests rather than an interest itself. It is pretty common to use the language Huntsman did when we discuss our “interests” in a region or country. Nonetheless, this kind of non-specific talk suggests that Huntsman may believe that the security of Israel or any other country is an end in itself. And maybe he thinks that. But otherwise it would be useful for Huntsman to tease out the logic here of how our relationship with Israel fits into our regional ”interests” and how those particular means relate to securing our fundamental national interests. I’m not saying it can’t be done, but since Israel seems to drive a lot of his approach to the Middle East, I’d like to see his argument more clearly articulated.
3. States should change their minds and cut ties when their interests dictate. See President Washington’s sound approach to France here on this point (sorry, fans of Jefferson, but he was bested here by Hamilton and the realists). Nonetheless, I think Huntsman is right that our behavior vis-a-vis Qaddafi and Libya sends the wrong message to the world when he noted: “Libya gave up their weapon in exchange for friendship with the world. Look where they are.” If you really care about non-proliferation and counterterrorism, it was the wrong move to help oust Qaddafi for the ultimately other-regarding or alliance-regarding (at best, and we were chain-ganged anyway) ends of U.S. intervention. Washington dumped France for high gains. We dumped Qaddafi for very little.
*This speech is one of the most interesting and insightful speeches of the primary season. It can be read here in full.
 Similar to how SMU professor Seyom Brown discusses it on page 3-4 of Seyom Brown. The Faces of Power. New York: Columbia University Press, 1994.