Former Utah Gov. Jon Huntsman's stepping into the presidential ring today is sure to bring notice of his foreign policy cred. Coming off his tenure as U.S. ambassador to China, Huntsman has the experience that others in the current GOP field seem to lack. But with the economy driving the political cycle, will foreign policy experience even matter?
On its own, foreign policy probably won't give any Republican, Huntsman included, a huge advantage, especially given there are no new surprises in the global landscape before next November. But as far as the president's foreign policy decisions affect the national economy, contenders who take a distinct stance against the administration could use the issue to their advantage. [Read additional coverage on national security, terrorism and the military.] "The economy is the most important issue," says Whit Ayres, a GOP pollster who's signed onto team Huntsman for the 2012 race. "But it's not the only issue, particularly when it comes to America's fiscal solvency and our role in the world."
Unlike in midterm elections in 2002 and 2006 which hinged on the Bush administration's "war on terror" efforts, the elections in 2010 demonstrated that voters are generally more concerned with the economy and jobs than anything else. So, according to Brian Katulis, a senior fellow at the left-leaning Center for American Progress, rather than "national security," voters can expect to hear calls for "economic security" from Republican campaigns this time around also.
On some issues, like Libya and Afghanistan, for example, foreign policy is already being used a tool for Republicans to highlight Obama administration. By voicing support for withdrawal of troops and U.S. military force in these countries, like some candidates have done recently, they can appeal to some of the more fiscally conservative Republican voters. "You get the sense that a lot of the Republicans are taking foreign policy positions just because they think with the debt and deficit that people are just tired of foreign engagement," says Gary Schmitt, director of advanced strategic studies at the conservative American Enterprise Institute. "So, a lot of underlying rationale for the foreign policy drawback that you're hearing is really probably economic in its origins."
Katulis argues that even before the 2010 election, fissures had begun to show in the Republican Party on foreign policy issues. Without a clear party line, GOP candidates now have the challenge of developing their own strategies around the world. Beyond basic support for the American troops themselves, Republicans's positions on national security issues have been across the board, and in the case of some candidates—like Texas Republican Rep. Ron Paul—they are even to the left of President Obama. Paul, for example, has advocated for a more isolationist approach, preferring to lessen the U.S. military role in the rest of the globe. [Read more about the Republican Party.]
According to Schmitt, some of the more careful foreign policy positions, like the economic argument for troop withdrawal in Afghanistan made recently by Huntsman, may work politically leading up to the GOP primary, since Republican voters are not likely to use them as deciding issues. However, he says, a candidate may have to make his or her stance clear when he or she is up against Obama in the general election. "It will depend on who the candidate is, and then once they're a candidate, they'll have a much harder time being flippant about the U.S. role in the world," says Schmitt. "It's too easy a line now to say, 'Think how much money we'll save to get out of Afghanistan.'" [See our roundup of Afghanistan cartoons.]
As for Huntsman, his foreign policy experience could actually hurt him in the primary, as others will be eager to relate him to Obama, his erstwhile boss. "It would be interesting to see how he squares what he achieved on the ground in China for the United States as Obama's ambassador there, with the general criticisms of the Republican party about Obama being weak in the face of China and not having an effective response on China's role in the global economy," Katulis says.