Mike Huckabee, the former Arkansas governor and a possible Republican presidential aspirant, suggested the Iran nuclear deal would return Jews to the Nazi ovens of the Holocaust. He said this on Sunday — twice.
"This president’s foreign policy is the most feckless in American history. It is so naive that he would trust the Iranians. By doing so, he will take the Israelis and march them to the door of the oven," Huckabee told Breitbart News in an interview.
By Monday, outrage over the quote had reached all the way to President Obama's press conference in Addis Ababa, Ethiopia, where he said, "The particular comments of Mr. Huckabee are just part of a general pattern we’ve seen that would be considered ridiculous if it weren’t so sad."
I initially assumed that Huckabee would walk back his statement; I was wrong. Unchastened by the near-universal backlash, or perhaps encouraged that he was getting any attention at all, Huckabee's official Twitter feed turned the quote into a polished little meme later on Sunday:
To be absolutely clear: Huckabee is saying that he believes that striking a deal to drastically limit and then monitor Iran's nuclear program is akin to forcing Jews into a second Holocaust. (A senior adviser to Donald Trump's campaign defended Huckabee's remarks.)
What does it mean to say such a thing? To say it twice? To express an ostensibly "pro-Israel" policy in language that is deeply offensive to Jews? A few brief thoughts:
- To some degree, Huckabee may have said this simply as a cheap ploy for attention. The GOP field is so crowded right now that if you want to get noticed, you have to do something provocative. Huckabee is polling seventh — just high enough that he can at least consider viability within reach, but low enough that he might've thought he needed something drastic to get coverage. (And, sure enough, here we are.)
This might help explain how Huckabee sounds so different now than he did in his January 2008 essay in Foreign Affairs, which was strikingly pro-Iran. Huckabee described something like a flowering Iran-US detente under his leadership:
When we invaded Afghanistan, Iran helped us, especially in our dealings with the Northern Alliance. Hoping for better bilateral relations, Tehran wanted to join us against al Qaeda. ... We might be able to live with a contained Iran. ... We have substantive issues to discuss with Tehran. Recent direct negotiations about Iraq have not been productive because they have not explored the full range of issues. We have valuable incentives to offer Iran: trade and economic assistance, full diplomatic relations, and security guarantees.
- For a variety of reasons, the Republican contest is focusing heavily on foreign policy, and right now that means focusing on the Iran deal. This creates a cycle whereby each candidate, in order to get ahead, has to be more hawkish and more anti-nuclear-deal than his or her competitors. Because there are so many candidates, and because of point 1 above, it was probably only a matter of time until one or two of the candidates veered into insanity.
- Huckabee has been traveling to Israel forever, and in recent years has been meeting a lot with Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu. So it seems plausible that this isn't just a cynical ploy to take the most anti-Obama position possible. Rather, it may be that Huckabee, for all his optimism about Iran in 2008, has since come to earnestly share Netanyahu's somewhat hyperbolic opposition to the Iran deal.
- Huckabee is an evangelical Christian. Like any religious group, evangelicalism is larger and more diverse than any one set of beliefs. But Huckabee is one of a number of evangelists who are quite preoccupied with Israel, and especially since the 1980s have expressed this as support for hard-line Israeli right-wing politics.
- On at least some level, though, political pressures and theological context only explain so much. A statement this extreme at some point reflects on the character of the person who chose to say it — even if that person is a politician whom we expect to take certain rhetorical liberties. In campaign coverage, it is generally frowned upon to look at a candidate's statements and conclude that he or she might simply be insensitive or unintelligent. But that may indeed be what's happening here.
This movement has many reasons for its views, but as a Christian theological movement, ultimately those views come down to Christian theology. Which is to say, it is a preoccupation with Israel that is not primarily about Israel or its inhabitants, but rather is about their place in Christianity. That is how you can have an ostensibly pro-Israel statement that is nonetheless breathtakingly offensive to actual Jews.