Pawlenty Finds His Hawkish Voice

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Tim Pawlenty looked to turn the page on his summer slump Tuesday morning with a speech to the Council on Foreign Relations bashing Barack Obama — and elements of his own party — over the course of U.S. foreign policy.

Titled “No Retreat From Freedom’s Rise,” Pawlenty’s speech aspired to be a Reaganesque declaration of American strength and leadership, perhaps most notably criticizing the growing conservative sentiment against expansionist U.S. foreign policy. “[P]arts of the Republican Party now seem to be trying to out-bid the Democrats in appealing to isolationist sentiments,” Pawlenty said. “This is no time for uncertain leadership in either party.  The stakes are simply too high, and the opportunity is simply too great.”

Whereas plenty of Congressional Republicans want to end U.S. operations in Libya, Pawlenty urged Obama to “stop leading from behind,” and “commit America’s strength to removing Ghadafi.” To Republicans who say it’s time to wind down the war in Afghanistan, Pawlenty said David Petraeus’ voice “ought to carry the most weight on that question.”

But the core of the speech wasn’t about military force; it was about Obama’s diplomacy in the Middle East. Obama “has failed to formulate and carry out an effective and coherent strategy” in response to the Arab Spring, he said. “He has been timid, slow, and too often without a clear understanding of our interests or a clear commitment to our principles.”

Pawlenty smacked Obama for a timid stance towards repression of the 2009 Green Movement in Iran. He denounced Obama’s cuts to pro-democracy funding for Egypt before the Tahrir Square uprising, and mocked Hillary Clinton’s initial defense of an embattled Hosni Mubarak. He knocked the administration for being unforgivably slow to call for the ouster of Syrian autocrat Bashar Assad. (“Even as Assad’s regime was shooting hundreds of protesters dead in the street, President Obama announced his plan to give Assad ‘an alternative vision of himself,” Pawlenty said. “Does anyone outside a therapist’s office have any idea what that means?  This is what passes for moral clarity in the Obama Administration.”)

And, when it came to Israel, Pawlenty called Obama’s policy “stunning,” saying that Obama “thinks Israel is the problem. And he thinks the answer is always more pressure on Israel.”

The ideas here are not new; they’re drawn largely from the worldview of Dick Cheney and Bill Kristol and will be familiar to readers of, say, the Weekly Standard. The core theme is that America should pursue an Israel-centric Middle East policy, one in which the American President should err on the side of tough rhetoric and active involvement in the internal affairs of churning Arab states.

In some cases, Pawlenty’s prescriptions were either vague or not actually so different from Obama’s current policies. In Syria, for instance, Pawlenty says Obama should be pulling more diplomatic and economic levers to topple Assad. But it’s not clear how much more Washington can do to influence events in Damascus. Likewise, Pawlenty said the U.S. needs to build more trust with Saudi Arabia, in part by assuring the Saudis that “we share their great concern about Iran and that we are committed to doing all that is necessary to defend the region from Iranian aggression.” But Obama has worked hard to develop a good rapport with the Saudis — it’s not easy! — and it seems doubtful that the Saudis think Obama isn’t taking Iran seriously enough. (If Pawlenty thinks Obama should make the threat of military action against Iran more explicit, he doesn’t say so; there are apparently limits to his hawkishness.)

Right now, few GOP primary voters are likely to dwell on such details. At this point, Pawlenty is likely hoping they take away two themes: One is strength. With questions lingering about Pawlenty’s toughness, it may serve him well to be known for promoting a strong American foreign policy. The other is a clarity of vision. As a governor with no true foreign policy experience (yes, he has traveled extensively, as he never stops reminding us), Pawlenty needs to establish himself as a credible commander in chief.

He has also apparently made the interesting judgment that Republican voters are not so isolationist that they won’t continue to support a fulsome American foreign policy. That may not endear him to some segments of the Tea Party. But it’s also quite possible that the Tea Party’s isolationism has been overstated. If so, Pawlenty’s speech today may help him re-energize his campaigns.

And now that he’s tackled the Middle East, he just needs to find a good solution to… Michele Bachmann.