Daniel Larison takes issue with my description of Huntsman and Obama as “owls” – a term I use to describe a realist foreign policy preference that is neither hawkish in the neoconservative sense or necessarily dovish:
I won’t rehearse the litany of all the interventions Obama has supported over the years, but suffice it to say I don’t think he fits the “owl” definition. Huntsman has less of a public record on these issues, which makes it a little harder to judge, but based on what we do know he has flatly opposed last year’s war of choice in Libya, he wants to wind down the war in Afghanistan, but he favors starting a new war of choice in Iran. This last one is so much more important and so completely wrong that it’s hard not to give it more weight. On Iraq, he took no public position on the war between 2002 and today, but he endorsed the most zealous pro-war candidate in the last cycle and criticized the withdrawal of U.S. troops and called for a residual force to remain there apparently indefinitely. Put another way, on the most important foreign policy issue of the last decade Huntsman professes to be agnostic or at least unwilling to revisit the debate, but based on how he is misjudging Iran it is fair to guess that he would have favored invading Iraq as well.
This is all true enough. I think Obama actually started out as an owl and moved in the hawkish direction over the years, culminating his move toward interventionism in the invasion of Libya and the assassination of Anwar Al-Awlaki. This is also what gives me most pause about Huntsman whose positions on Afghanistan and Libya were pretty good but, as Daniel notes, has made very loud noises about Iran.
Beyond the troubling nature of his Iran comments, Huntsman reminds me a little bit of a rightwing version of Obama. Obama seemed much better on matters of war and peace when he was on the campaign trail. In office he’s never stopped disappointing. Isn’t it just as likely that Huntsman will do the same, sounding a cautious note on various foreign threats and then pounding the war drum as loud as ever when the mullahs taunt him?
In any case, Daniel is correct – Obama is no owl, though I think his hawkishness is much less ingrained than many of his Republican rivals. He is a mildly hawkish technocrat who believes we can do small but important things through intervention. His administration also talks tough on Iran, but I don’t worry nearly so much that he’d actually go through with all-out war as I worry about a Romney or a Gingrich administration. Huntsman has too little a record on these issues to say with certainty.
Ron Paul and Gary Johnson are the only candidates who are firmly and reliably anti-war. But Obama, I’d wager, is still a more sober commander in chief than someone like Romney who, so far as I can tell, wants to revamp neoconservatism in ways that the Obama administration, however bad it’s been on continuing Bush-era policies, hasn’t even dreamed of. When it comes to Iran, Obama makes me nervous. The majority of his GOP rivals have me quite literally terrified.
What do we do when confronted with the threat of an Iranian war and the lesser of two evils? I can’t honestly say.