Former Arkansas Gov. Mike Huckabee is taking heat for saying in an article in Foreign Affairs magazine that the "Bush administration's arrogant bunker mentality has been counterproductive at home and abroad."
Former Massachusetts Gov. Mitt Romney, one of Huckabee's rivals for the Republican presidential nomination, said on NBC's "Meet the Press" that Huckabee should "apologize to the president" for this.
Huckabee, however, was merely using a term Bush himself used to criticize an interventionist foreign policy during his own 2000 campaign.
Back then, a Democrat was president. That Democrat believed America had a nation-building mission. Republicans generally opposed the idea, and then-Gov. George Bush of Texas made repudiating an "arrogant" foreign policy part of his presidential campaign.
In a debate between Bush and Vice President Al Gore, moderator Jim Lehrer asked Bush how other nations should perceive the United States. "It really depends upon how our nation conducts itself in foreign policy," Bush said in part of his answer. "If we're an arrogant nation, they'll resent us. If we're a humble nation, but strong, they'll welcome us."
Bush elaborated on how a "humble nation" would behave. For starters, it would build alliances to contain adversaries rather than sending troops everywhere. "We can help build coalitions, but we can't put our troops all around the world," Bush said.
It was especially important to do this to deter Saddam Hussein. "It's going to be important to rebuild that coalition to keep the pressure on him," Bush said.
Candidate Bush also caustically dismissed the idea that America has a special nation-building mission or a mandate to tell other nations how to govern themselves.
"Maybe I'm missing something here," he said sarcastically. "I mean, we're going to have kind of a nation-building corps from America? Absolutely not. Our military is meant to fight and win war. That's what it is meant to do. And when it gets overextended, morale drops."
"I'm going to be judicious in how to use the military," he said. "It needs to be in our vital interest; the mission needs to be clear and the exit strategy obvious."
"I think one way for us to end up being viewed as the ugly American is for us to go around the world saying, 'We do it this way, so should you.'" said Bush.
After the Sept. 11, 2001, terrorist attacks, Bush did a 180-degree turn on foreign policy. "So it is the policy of the United States to seek and support the growth of democratic movements and institutions in every nation and culture, with the ultimate goal of ending tyranny in our world," he said in his second inaugural address.
This Utopian vision was rejected by some of the most brilliant foreign policy minds of the Reagan era.
"It is a truism that power breeds arrogance," then-International Relations Chairman Henry Hyde told Secretary of State Condoleezza Rice, when she appeared before his committee on Feb. 26, 2006. He rejected the notion that the United States had a mission to use its unprecedented power to spread democracy, and predicted such a policy would backfire. "(I)mplanting democracies in large areas would require that we possess an unbounded power and undertake an open-ended commitment of time and resources, which we cannot and will not do," he said.
In her posthumously published book, "Making War to Keep the Peace," Reagan Administration U.N. Ambassador Jeane Kirkpatrick rejected a foreign policy of democracy-promotion and nation-building in almost the same terms as Hyde. "No one knows how to harmonize hostile elites, end violent behavior or induce respect for the law and restraint in the use of power in another culture without a larger commitment of personnel, money and time than any president or any administration is prepared to make," she wrote.
Neither Hyde nor Kirkpatrick held that the United States should never overthrow a foreign regime or foment democratic revolution, only that such actions must always be subservient to a careful calculation of the national interest. "Moreover, even if such an act were justified," said Kirkpatrick, "the Reagan doctrine did not dictate that such an action was always wise -- rather, it counseled that the long-term costs and benefits of such an action be carefully weighed before taking any steps. Because once we intervened in a given situation, we are accountable for the outcome."
There a many points worth debating in Huckabee's Foreign Affairs article, but probably none as important as his suggestion that the United States not repeat with Iran our mistakes with Iraq.
"Whereas there can be no rational dealings with al-Qaeda," wrote Huckabee, "Iran is a nation-state seeking regional clout and playing the game of power politics we understand and can skillfully pursue. We cannot live with al-Qaeda, but we might be able to live with a contained Iran."
That sounds a lot like the strong but humble approach that helped get Bush elected -- and might have served him and the country better had it guided his presidency.