On David Petraeus, Jon Huntsman and Service

During the July 4th weekend, discussions about patriotism are par for the course.

And as the 2012 GOP presidential campaigns ramp up, there have been some whispers–some louder than others–within Republican circles that one candidate, former Utah Gov. and Ambassador to China Jon Huntsman, starts off with a liability because he served in a sensitive diplomatic post under President Barack Obama.

Some conservatives went so far to deride Huntsman as unpatriotic and imply that he was somehow a traitor.

Huntsman’s post atop the American diplomatic mission in China will still be used by his opponents to diminish his candidacy, but that criticism’s stock may have plummeted last Thursday when the Senate unanimously confirmed General David Petraeus to lead the Central Intelligence Agency.

Petraeus had previously served as the commanding General in Afghanistan under Obama, and Republicans and the chattering class have endlessly speculated about whether Petraeus, who owns land in New Hampshire, would run for President against Obama.

Say, for example,  Petraeus had stepped down and decided to run against Obama. Would there be whispers that he was unpatriotic? Would his service have been considered a liability? 

According to one presidential candidate, former Minnesota Gov. Tim Pawlenty, the answer would be no.

When conservative talk radio host Hugh Hewitt asked if Petraeus’ service in a Democratic administration would disqualify him on a Republican presidential ticket, Pawlenty said last week the four-star general was a “remarkable leader, exemplary leader.”

Further, Pawlenty added that Petraeus’ experience “would be enhancing.

The Huntsman team immediately jumped on Pawlenty’s comments, which set in motion stories that speculated about whether Pawlenty thought Huntsman’s service would be a similar asset.

In a commencement speech to the graduates of the University of South Carolina, which were Huntsman’s first public remarks since coming back from China, Huntsman explained his reasons for serving under Obama.

He told the graduating Gamecocks to “work to make America great” and “serve her if asked.”

“I was — by a president of a different political party,” Huntsman later said. “But in the end, while we might not all be one party, we are all part of one nation — a nation that needs your generational gift, energy, and confidence.”

Like Petraeus, Huntsman sailed through his confirmation hearing. Further, like Petraeus, Huntsman has been lauded by a broad coalition of groups.

For instance, human rights watchdogs, leaders of the global business community, and fellow diplomats have had sterling reviews of Huntsman’s service.

“He was virtually uniformly liked and respected,” Stephen Oris, president of the National Committee on United States-China Relations, told Politico. “He articulated U.S.-China policy to the Chinese in a way that they could grasp, and to American audiences in a way that made sense to them.”

Huntsman’s critics can rightfully take aim at him for his praise of Obama, though Huntsman later explained that he called Obama “remarkable” because Obama considered a Republican, as he did with Petraeus, in a top national security post.

His critics can slam him for his moderate position on climate change, though Huntsman has indicated that due to the country’s fiscal situation, initiatives dealing with climate change should be nowhere near the country’s top priority.

Further, his conservative critics can also criticize him because while he does not support gay marriage, he supports civil unions. They can criticize him for his civility and refusal to throw red meat to a salivating conservative base. Or they can criticize him for his more realist positions on foreign policy, as Tim Pawlenty seemed to implicitly do last week in a major foreign policy address.

With Petraeus’ recent confirmation and service, though, criticisms about Huntsman’s similar service, which moderate Republicans and independents may actually find appealing, may have a dimished sense of potency going forward.