Pawlenty: US lacks 'clear-eyed leadership' in the Middle East

NEW YORK — Republican presidential candidate Tim Pawlenty sought to claim the mantle as his party’s foreign policy hawk Tuesday, accusing President Obama and his GOP rivals of being weak-kneed in their posture toward the Middle East.

Pawlenty, the former Minnesota governor, delivered what was billed as a major foreign policy address at the Council on Foreign Relations in New York City.

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In his remarks, he attacked Obama for having “failed to formulate and carry out an effective and coherent strategy” in response to the spate of pro-democracy uprisings in the Arab world and for harboring an “anti-Israel attitude” in demanding concessions from the Jewish state in exchange for peace with the Palestinians.

Most of Pawlenty’s speech targeted Obama’s policies, but he didn’t hesitate to warn other Republicans about being drawn toward isolationist policies.

“Parts of the Republican Party now seem to be trying to outbid the Democrats in appealing to isolationist sentiments,” he said.  “This is no time for uncertain leadership in either party.  The stakes are simply too high, and the opportunity is simply too great.”

At a time when most Republican presidential candidates have yet to define their foreign policy visions, Pawlenty laid out his rubric for fostering democratic movements and reform in the Middle East.

Polls show he is largely unknown to much of the voting public, but the speech was a chance for him to burnish his foreign policy credentials and help prove he's a multifaceted candidate who is electable.

Though Pawlenty didn’t mention him by name, he used rhetorical themes reminiscent of President George W. Bush, saying the U.S. needs to demonstrate “decisive, clear-eyed leadership” to aid democratic movements because “our enemies in the war on terror, just like our opponents in the Cold War, respect and respond to strength.”

He also praised President Reagan for seeking victory against the Soviet Union “while others sought to co-exist.”

But Pawlenty said his foreign policy stance would not require military intervention in every situation where U.S. interests are threatened and noted that his vision would not exactly resemble Bush’s or any other president’s.

“I would like to believe I would have my own foreign policy,” he said during a question-and-answer session following the speech. “[There is] no cookie-cutter approach.”

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Regardless, Pawlenty appears willing to stake out a position as one of the most hawkish candidates in the field of GOP presidential contenders.

The Minnesotan, who has faced questions about his willingness to go after other Republicans, did not mention any other candidates by name. But he said that members of his party cannot afford to forgo their traditionally bold, muscular foreign policy. 

While it’s OK to question the Obama administration’s military tactics in Libya or the pace of the Afghan withdrawal, he said, “what is wrong, is for the Republican Party to shrink from the challenges of American leadership in the world.

“History repeatedly warns us that in the long run, weakness in foreign policy costs us and our children much more than we’ll save in a budget line item."

His speech follows Obama’s address last month on the Middle East; it had a nearly-identical structure, progressing from a discussion on democracy in the Arab world to the Israeli-Palestinian conflict.

His choice of location was the Council on Foreign Relations, the nonpartisan, members-only think tank with a membership that ranges from academics and business professionals to actress Angelina Jolie.

The audience reaction was subdued, with applause coming at the beginning and end of Pawlenty's remarks.

On specific issues, Pawlenty said the U.S. should firmly and tangibly support pro-democracy movements across the Middle East, from Tunisia to Syria, and definitively call for the ouster of autocrats, including Libyan leader Moammar Gadhafi and Syrian President Bashar Assad.

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Both rulers have presided over violent crackdowns against anti-government demonstrations in their respective countries.

Pawlenty said the administration had fumbled in its dealings with Gadhafi and Assad. In one of his strongest critiques, Pawlenty bashed Secretary of State Hillary Clinton for saying the U.S. had tried to give Assad the chance to present an “alternative vision for himself” before hardening its stance against him.

“Does anyone outside a therapist’s office have any idea what that means?” he said. “This is what passes for moral clarity in the Obama administration.”

In regards to Gadhafi, Pawlenty said that if the Obama administration was more decisive and forceful in its demand that the Libyan leader resign, “he would be gone.”

He said the administration should be less concerned about the aftermath of upheavals in Middle Eastern countries ruled by autocrats, some of which have been friendly to the United States.

People didn’t ask, “What happens after Hitler?” during World War II, Pawlenty said. “[He was] awful and he needed to go.”

Pawlenty also accused Obama of backing away from the United States' chief ally in the region, Israel, while attempting to "engage" with hostile regimes like Iran and Syria.

"Nowhere has President Obama’s lack of judgment been more stunning than in his dealings with Israel," he said. "It breaks my heart that President Obama treats Israel, our great friend, as a problem, rather than as an ally."

The Democratic National Committee (DNC) responded to Pawlenty's speech by circulating a post from liberal blogger Steve Benen, who criticized the former governor for giving a foreign policy speech without focusing on the conflicts in Afghanistan and Iraq.

"The bulk of the address — billed as the candidate’s 'major foreign policy speech' — was focused on the Middle East, but it only made one passing reference to Iraq. Perhaps more important, Pawlenty also only made one passing reference to the war in Afghanistan," Benen wrote on his Washington Monthly blog. "What kind of presidential candidate gives a big speech on foreign policy and the future of the Middle East but forgets to talk about two ongoing wars?"

Updated at 2:57pm