HOOKSETT, N.H. — Republican presidential contender Jon Huntsman on Monday called for scaling back U.S. involvement in international conflicts – including Afghanistan – so America can focus on rebuilding the economy.
"America cannot project power abroad when we are weak at home," the former Utah governor said. "The world is a better place when America leads. The world is a safer place when America leads. ... But to lead abroad, we must regain strength at home."
Huntsman, who served as President Barack Obama's ambassador to China before stepping down in the spring to run for president, also castigated his former boss' foreign policy in a speech in the state that holds the nation's first primary for the GOP nomination.
"President Obama's policies have weakened America and thus have diminished America's presence on the world stage. We must correct our course," said Huntsman, who worked for three Republican administrations before joining the Obama administration.
Huntsman, who is struggling to win over voters in the GOP nominating contests, painted himself as uniquely qualified to address foreign policy questions that, so far, haven't been a deciding factor in the race. He has spent the past few weeks trying to contrast himself with Mitt Romney, the former Massachusetts governor who last week in South Carolina called for 100,000 new troops and said Obama's budget proposals were a threat to the country's security.
Huntsman called for spending cuts at the Pentagon, a position that puts him at odds with the GOP field.
"We are risking American blood and treasure in parts of the world where our strategy needs to be rethought," Huntsman said.
He reiterated his support for winding down U.S. forces in Afghanistan, where more than $1 trillion has already been spent. And he suggested "a much smaller footprint" on the ground within the year, "leaving behind an adequate number of counterterrorist and intelligence functions."
But he didn't provide a number. And he didn't talk about an exact timeline.
He said Afghanistan is no longer the center of the terrorist threat to America. So, he said: "It is time to bring our brave troops home."
Huntsman argued that lessening American involvement in foreign conflicts would prevent the military from being stretched too thin. But he made one exception: Israel and its neighbors. He promised to stand "shoulder to shoulder with Israel."
"I cannot live with a nuclear-armed Iran," he said. "If you want an example of when I would use American force, it would be that."
Huntsman, who has some moderate positions on domestic issues that also set him apart from the GOP orthodoxy, defended his time as Obama's ambassador to Beijing.
His wife, Mary Kaye, likened Jon Huntsman's time in Beijing to her two son's military service in the Navy. She said her sons will not able to pick their commander in chief any more than Jon Huntsman could decide which party's president asked him to again serve as ambassador.
"I was raised with the idea that you put your country before party," Jon Huntsman later said in an old train depot in Tilton, N.H. "You stand up and do what's right for your country."