Who is Jon Huntsman? If you plotted the 13 declared candidates for the 2012 GOP nomination on a line graph and labelled the vertical axis "amount of interest in" and the horizontal one "amount known about", Huntsman would be at the top left.
For Huntsman, that's a benefit and a drawback. In a field crying out for someone to break away, he could be that person. Problem is, it's likely to go the other way. The more people know about a candidate, the less likely they are to like him. This explains why he finished second (behind Ron Paul) in the recent Republican Leadership Conference straw poll.
But a close examination of Huntsman's history and what little he has said so far in this campaign about foreign policy gives cause for great concern.
The son of a self-made billionaire, Huntsman's credentials are impressive. Ambassador to China from 2009-2011 (he speaks fluent Mandarin), Ambassador to Singapore under George H.W. Bush, twice elected Governor of Utah in 2004 and 2008 (with 78% of the vote the second time). This is nothing to scoff at.
If Huntsman is an expert in diplomacy, you wouldn't have known it from his announcement speech last week. He barely mentioned foreign policy, allowing only that whilst he does not "wish to disengage from the world," "the best long- term national security strategy is rebuilding our core here at home."
Sneaky, clever language. Behind the photogenic man with perfect hair and the hope-inducing persona is a man who opposes the NATO mission in Libya, has questioned America's role in Afghanistan and whose family company willingly does business with Iran.
Let's start with Huntsman Corp., for which the candidate has worked on-and-off much of until 2001. The group United Against Nuclear Iran (UANI) reports that in November 2009, Huntsman Corp. subsidiary named Polyurethanes Services, located in Tehran, was providing chemicals to the Iranians that are widely used in weapons, weapons platforms and solid-rocket propellants.
Mark Wallace, UANI's executive director, wrote in a letter to Mr. Huntsman Sr. that it could not be confirmed that materials were not eventually transferred to Iran's military, even if the business deals were done in compliance with U.S. law. Wallace wrote: "Even in the case that Huntsman is certain that its use of its polyurethanes is completely harmless, UANI calls on Huntsman to cease doing business in Iran. Jon M. Huntsman, Jr., in his capacity as Ambassador to China, has called on China to act responsibly in its dealings with Iran. The company that bears his name, however, has failed to do exactly that..."
This contradicts a statement made to Polito.com by Huntsman's spokesman that Huntsman "supports any American company's decision to divest from Iran. " If he does, why is his family's business is still operating there?
On Libya, Huntsman says the mission is not in America's interest. That's a question for another day. Leaving now, thus allowing Gaddafi to run rampant over his own people, is simply not an option.
And on Afghanistan, Huntsman is on the record as saying America should "evaluate very carefully our presence." We know what that means: code language for pullout.
Huntsman is also vulnerable on domestic jobs. Huntsman Corp. proudly claims that it created jobs for more than 12,000 people over the years. However, according to Businessweek, no more than 2,174 of those jobs are in America – the rest have all been shipped overseas. So he will have to contend with criticism on the campaign trail when he calls for American job creation that when given the chance, he didn't do so himself.
Economic recovery is an issue on which most Republican candidates will find common ground. The real cleavage will appear on matters of foreign policy. Tim Pawlenty's campaign has already picked up on this, warning against the GOP becoming "isolationist", which many interpreted as a veiled shot at Huntsman, and to a lesser extent Mitt Romney.
Mainstream Republican thinking is not isolationist. Whoever becomes the eventual nominee will be forced to reckon with a party that truly believes in American engagement and leadership in the world. What's clear is that Jon Huntsman is not the candidate to champion those views.