Jon Huntsman Favors Faster Afghanistan Drawdown, Calls Axelrod Claim ‘Nonsense’

Jun 22, 2011 8:00am

One day after announcing his candidacy for commander-in-chief, Jon Huntsman told me he would pursue a more aggressive approach than that favored by President Obama and many top Republicans for withdrawing American troops from Afghanistan. 

Huntsman said Obama’s expected plan to bring home 10,000 troops this year and all 30,000 surge troops by the end of 2012 is “a little slow and a little cautious.” 

“I think over the next year there’s room to draw down more… More than 10,000 over the next year,” he said.  “I think we have to see — nine years and 50 days into this conflict, the money that has been spent on both conflicts, well over $1 trillion, I think we have to say, ‘What have we accomplished in Afghanistan?’”

That position puts him at odds with Sen. John McCain, who admonished Huntsman’s cost-conscious war stance in an interview with me yesterday, saying “I hope that all of these candidates as the campaign goes on understands what our national security requirements are, that we are the world’s leader, America has to lead.” 

But on Huntsman’s first day as a candidate, criticism wasn’t limited to within his own party.  The Obama campaign released its first statement directed at a GOP candidate, hitting the former Utah governor for his support for Rep. Paul Ryan’s budget plan.  

“I’m delighted on the day we announce we get dumped on,” he said. “I think that’s a sign we’re relevant.”

He praised the Ryan plan as a “serious proposal” with “a lot there to like, there’s a lot there that I embrace” – but he stopped short of saying explicitly whether he’d sign the proposal wholesale into law. 

“Clearly as we wade deeper into the race we’re going to want to go through it with a fine tooth comb,” he added.

Democrats have also hammered Huntsman for what they say are his shifting positions on key issues he once appeared to support as the Obama administration’s ambassador to China. 

"He was encouraging on health care. He was encouraging on the whole range of issues," senior Obama adviser David Axelrod told CNN on Sunday. "He was a little quizzical about what was going on in his own party. And you got the strong sense that he was going to wait until 2016 for the storm to blow over."

Today Huntsman dismissed Axelrod’s characterizations as “nonsense.” 

“When a group comes to town, as they did once for a state visit, you greet them and congratulate them on what they’re doing… That should not be misinterpreted as a wholesale embrace of what they’re doing,” he said of the encounter with Obama and Axelrod in Shanghai in 2009. 

Huntsman told me his experience as ambassador to China -– both during the George W. Bush and Obama administrations -– is what most sets him apart from the other wealthy, Mormon and former governor in the race, Mitt Romney. 

“I think the idea that we’ve been out in the world, I know the world, I understand the uncertainties of the world.  It’s not going to get any clearer, not going to get any less murky,” he said. “I think it’s important that we have a commander in chief that does understand the complexities of the world, particularly as it relates to who will soon be our largest trade partner and most significant strategic threat on the horizon, China.”

And as for that motocross video that kicked off his campaign, Huntsman called it a “corny commercial” meant to “get people talking.”  

“I think we’ve achieved the intended purpose,” he said. “And here we are a day into it and feeling pretty good about ourselves.” 

Here's the full transcript of my interview: 

GS:  President Obama is likely to say that up to 10,000 troops will come home this year, all the surge troops – 30,000 – by the end of 2012. Does that sound like the right exit strategy to you? Because in the past you’ve said that without that, we’re “wasting our money and wasting our strategic resources.”

 JH:  It sounds a little slow and a little cautious, when you look at one out of every six Defense Department dollars going in support of what we’re doing in Afghanistan. 

 GS: So you would withdraw more now?

JH:  I think over the next year there’s room to draw down more. 
 

GS: How many more?

JH:  Well, we’ll get serious about the numbers at some point, but I think more aggressively than is likely to be on the table. 

GS: More than 10,000 over the next year?

JH:  More than 10,000 over the next year. I think what you want to be left with is a good counter-terror capability, intelligence collection capability, some training capability. I think we have to see — 9 years and 50 days into this conflict, the money that has been spent on both conflicts, well over one trillion dollars, I think we have to say, ‘What have we accomplished in Afghanistan?’

GS: Let’s talk about the economy. You promised yesterday a civil campaign as you address our number one challenge, obviously the economy. But the Obama campaign hasn’t been shy about taking on your ideas right away. The first press release from the campaign was directed at you. This is what Ben LaBolt, the Obama campaign spokesperson said: [Governor Huntsman] “has embraced a budget plan that would slash our commitment to education, wipe out investments that will foster the jobs of the future and extend tax cuts for the richest Americans while shifting the burden onto seniors and middle class families.” He says you’re proposing a return to the failed economic policies that led us into the recession. 

JH:  George, the economy is failed today. First of all, I’m delighted on the day we announce we get dumped on. I think that’s a sign of being relevant. If we weren’t dumped on the day we announced I’d feel a little chagrin quite frankly. We’re in economic dire straits. This country needs a serious conversation about where we go from here. It’s got to be a serious conversation about entitlements on the table, all of them, defense department on the table, about how we revive this economy that today doesn’t carry with it a lot of confidence. And until there’s confidence in where we’re going, you’re not going to get businesses willing to deploy capital investment in the economy, expanding it and creating jobs. 

GS: They’re saying your embrace of the Ryan budget blueprint is going to hurt senior citizens and hurt middle class families. 

JH: There’s a lot of political hyperbole making the rounds today.  What the Ryan plan is is a real proposal. I have yet to see anything from the Democrats that would resemble a serious proposal on the table. I see campaign commercials that go on that use scare tactics. But what Ryan has done is actually put some concrete measures on the table that deal with entitlements, that deal with spending longer term. 

GS:  So you’d sign it into law as president? 

JH: There’s a lot there to like. There’s a lot there that I embrace. Now clearly as we wade deeper into the race we’re going to want to go through it with a fine tooth comb. But from what I have seen there’s a lot there to like. And there’s a lot our economy needs to embrace. 

GS: The president’s team has also been saying you’ve been changing your tune. Of course, you’ve served as the president’s ambassador to China, once wrote that he was a ‘remarkable’ leader. But going beyond that, David Axelrod and others have said that when you were ambassador they had meetings with you in Shanghai where behind the scenes you embraced the president’s economic plans, you encouraged his efforts on health care. When they say that, are they not telling the truth? 

JH:  I think a lot of that is nonsense. Listen, when a group comes to town, as they did once for a state visit, you greet them, you congratulate them on what they’re doing, ‘good work on your legislative victories, congratulations.’ I mean, that should not be misinterpreted as a wholesale embrace of what they’re doing.  I don’t know where it’s coming from.  But the fact that everyone had been working on health care – 

GS:  It’s coming from David Axelrod.

JH:  Well, you’d expect that in a political environment. Listen, I have respect for the president. He’s a good man. He’s earnest and he’s hardworking. We just fundamentally have disagreements on the direction of a country we both love. And I think that’s not a bad thing in our historic cycle. 2012 is going to be a critically important election year because it will have everything to do with resetting our numbers as a country, getting our economy back on track, and I believe resetting our position in the world from a generational standpoint, two critically important things.  

GS: Let me ask you about one of your Republican opponents, Mitt Romney. You’re taking a pass on Iowa to take him on in New Hampshire. And there are so many similarities, at least superficially between the two of you. You’re both Mormon, both wealthy, both former governors with big families. What sets you apart? Why should Republican primary voters choose you and not Mitt Romney? 

JH: We’ll let the voters make that decision.  All they have to do is look at what we’ve done respectively in our elected capacities. I have a record in Utah. I’m running on my record, I’m very proud of it. You’re not ever going to get 100 percent of the people in support of what you’ve done. But I think it’s pretty darn good. It speaks to economic expansion and job creation and health care reform. And I think the idea that we’ve been out in the world, I know the world, I think I understand the uncertainties of the world, and it’s not going to get any clearer, not going to get any less murky. I think it’s important that we have a commander in chief that does understand the complexities of the world, particularly as it relates to who will soon be our largest trade partner and most our significant strategic threat on the horizon, China. 

GS: Finally governor I have to ask you about that first campaign ad. That motocross rider going across the desert. Turns out that rider isn’t you. But what are you trying to say? 

JH:  If it’d have been me, we’d have been going faster. My bike, my riding gear. Sadly, we couldn’t work out the logistics such that I could get out there and ride. It gets people talking. You throw up a corny commercial and it gets people talking and I think we’ve achieved the intended purpose. And here we are a day into it and feeling pretty good about ourselves. 

 

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