Pawlenty the Hawk
He’s betting that voters, however fatigued with intervention, won’t accept decline.


Colin Dueck

In the past month, Republican voters and politicians have continued their gradual turn against America’s existing military interventions and “nation-building” abroad. When President Obama announced the start of U.S. troop withdrawals from Afghanistan, some leading Republicans, such as former Utah governor Jon Huntsman, suggested that American troops were not leaving Afghanistan quickly enough. In the case of Libya, House Republicans are fed up with Obama’s handling of the intervention and may yet defund U.S. military operations there. At the June GOP presidential candidates’ debate in New Hampshire, several participants, including Rep. Michele Bachmann (R., Minn.), offered outspoken opposition to the Libyan operation, and frontrunner Mitt Romney appeared to straddle the issue of Afghanistan, warning of the danger of fighting another country’s “war of independence.”

In Congress, the focus on the deficit is overwhelming, and numerous Republicans, under the combined pressure of fiscal concerns and tea-party sentiment, no longer consider U.S. defense spending to be sacrosanct. Moreover, both the Pentagon and the Afghanistan war are losing leaders of immense credibility in Robert Gates and Gen. David Petraeus.

A turning point has arrived, and conservative sentiment could move in several different directions. With the moment ripe for some clear alternatives, former Minnesota governor Tim Pawlenty seized the moment last week to lay out his own approach to foreign policy in a major speech at New York’s Council on Foreign Relations. His speech focused on U.S. policy toward the Middle East but also touched on broader themes. Here are some of the main things Pawlenty said:

— The Obama administration’s approach toward the Arab Spring has been “timid,” “slow,” and indecisive.

● Republicans must not shrink from promoting American leadership internationally: “In the long run, weakness in foreign policy costs us and our children much more than we’ll save in a budget line item.”

● There is a danger that democratic revolutions in “formerly fake republics” such as Tunisia, Egypt, and Libya will be hijacked by radical Islamists. Washington should therefore help with the transition process in concrete ways, including non-military ones.

● On Libya: “Stop leading from behind and commit America’s strength to removing Qaddafi, recognizing the TNC as the government of Libya, and unfreezing assets so the TNC can afford security and essential services as it marches toward Tripoli.”

● The U.S. should support a “step by step” democratization process in traditional Arab monarchies, including Saudi Arabia.

● Obama’s “engagement” of Syria and Iran, both “enemies of the United States,” has failed: “They are not reformers and never will be.”

● On the Assad government’s violent crackdown on protesters: “I called for Assad’s departure on March 29; I call for it again today. We should recall our ambassador from Damascus; and I call for that again today.”

● America should ratchet up its pressure on Iran’s regime and its nuclear program.

● Israel should have America’s unequivocal support.

The Q & A after the address was in some ways the best and most reassuring part. In answering a series of tough questions, Pawlenty showed himself to be calm, fluent, and well-informed. He was particularly strong on the issue of counterterrorism, saying that Americans face a continuing struggle with al-Qaeda and similar groups in spite of bin Laden’s death: “The organizations still exist; their mindset still exists; their design and plans still exist,” and “we need to steel ourselves for that future.”

With this speech, Pawlenty claimed to be the leading foreign-policy hawk and conservative internationalist in the presidential race. It may not be the most obvious move politically, but it is a gutsy one, and it shows seriousness on difficult issues that any credible candidate will have to face.