Huntsman v. Romney: Which GOP Foreign Policy Vision Will Prevail?

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Matthew Cavanaugh / Getty Images

Republican presidential candidate Jon Huntsman shares his views on foreign policy at Southern New Hampshire University, Oct. 10, 2011 in Manchester, New Hampshire.

Jon Huntsman laid out his foreign policy vision with a speech in New Hampshire on Monday, further establishing himself as a skeptic of ambitious U.S. military commitments abroad. Huntsman has touched on these themes before: Scaling back the war in Afghanistan and turning it into a primarily counter-terrorism mission; containing the defense budget; relying more on “competitiveness and engagement” overseas; and generally taking ” a more judicious approach toward foreign entanglements.”

(One striking exception: Huntsman did say he would consider a pre-emptive strike on Iran’s nuclear program. “I cannot live with a nuclear-armed Iran,” Huntsman said.)

Huntsman’s vision may have been familiar, but Monday’s speech did serve as a useful contrast just a few days after Mitt Romney’s own big foreign policy address in South Carolina on Friday. The speech made clear that Romney has thrown in his lot with his party’s hawkish wing. In it, he called for reversing Obama’s “massive defense cuts,” rattling a saber at Iran by stationing aircraft carrier task forces nearer to its soil, and pledging to “secure our gains and complete our mission successfully” in Afghanistan.

Given Huntsman’s feeble poll numbers, it’s tempting to infer that Republicans just aren’t too interested in rethinking their foreign policy stance. But the question isn’t settled yet. Rick Perry has been a bit murky on his foreign policy thus far, and could look to snap up war-weary (or at least war-spending weary) conservative voters. Herman Cain barely talks about foreign policy–he’s admitted that he has no plan for Afghanistan–and yet he’s soaring in the polls, suggesting that the GOP’s national security litmus tests are changing, or at least far less important than they have been in recent history.

To some degree, I think Republicans simply aren’t thinking a lot about foreign policy. Obama has done a strong job of hunting terrorists and preventing attacks, and beyond his much maligned Israel policy, he’s left Republicans without a lot to complain about. Coupled with the dismal state of the economy, foreign policy may be less important in this election than it has been in more than a decade.