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Jon Huntsman stakes out middle ground on foreign policy

Los Angeles Times

Jon Huntsman Jr., far behind in the race for the GOP presidential nomination, outlined his foreign policy positions on Monday, trying to steer a course that was slightly less hawkish than the party’s leader, Mitt Romney, but still forceful enough to attract Republican support.

The former U.S. ambassador to China, Huntsman was also critical of President Obama, his erstwhile boss, saying the president’s foreign policy lacked leadership.

“The world needs American leadership now more than ever. Yet we are struggling to provide it,” Huntsman said in a speech streamed live online. “President Obama’s policies have weakened America, and thus diminished America’s presence on the global stage. We must correct our course.”

Speaking at Southern New Hampshire University, Huntsman, the former governor of Utah, stressed his experience as a diplomat in calling for “right-sizing” the U.S. role abroad. He was more dovish on Afghanistan than Romney, who in a college speech last week outlined his foreign policy objectives, taking a harder line than Obama, who is seeking to wind down U.S. involvement in the 10-year-old war.

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Romney has said he will seek a review of policy and will consult with U.S. military leaders before deciding how quickly to disengage. Huntsman on Monday was more blunt.

“Afghanistan was once the center of the terrorist threat to America. That is no longer the case,” he said, arguing that the U.S. mission should turn from nation-building to counter-terrorism.

“Our nation has done its duty. After 6,000 lives lost and more than $1 trillion spent, it is time to bring our brave troops home,” he said, adding later, “We could go from 100,000 boots on the ground to a much smaller footprint in a year, while leaving behind an adequate number of counter-terrorists and intelligence functions and a facile special forces presence. And I believe we should.”

Huntsman also tried to distinguish himself from Romney on defense spending. In his speech at the Citadel, a military college in South Carolina, Romney called for an increase in shipbuilding for the Navy and increased missile defenses as well as rolling back Defense Department spending cuts.

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“Simply advocating more ships, more troops, and more weapons is not a viable path forward,” Huntsman said. “We need more agility, more intelligence, and more economic engagement with the world.”

Huntsman also called for a transformation in U.S. defense spending. “It may surprise some people to learn that we spend more on defense today than at the height of the Cold War,” he said. “Indeed, we spend more on defense than the rest of the world combined. We still have remnants of a top-heavy, post-Cold War infrastructure. It needs to be transformed to reflect the 21st century world and the growing asymmetric threats we face.”

On foreign affairs, the Republican party is split between a neo-isolationist wing, which includes Texas Rep. Ron Paul, and a traditional sector that favors a more robust role for the United States in world affairs. Huntsman was clearly in the latter camp, despite a softer approach to the Afghanistan war.

For example, Huntsman, like Romney and Obama, was harsh in speaking of Iran’s ambitions to develop nuclear weapons. “I cannot live with a nuclear-armed Iran. If you want an example of when I would use American force, it would be that,” he said.

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Huntsman also called for strong relations with Israel and passage of free trade bills pending in Congress. He said he backed a broader use of free trade, citing the need for more agreements with Japan, Taiwan and a heightened Trans-Pacific Partnership trade accord with Australia, Brunei, Chile, Malaysia, New Zealand, Peru, Singapore and Vietnam.

In recent weeks, Huntsman has concentrated his campaign in New Hampshire, the first primary in the nation.

michael.muskal@latimes.com


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