The most compelling theme in Pawlenty’s address — one that might set the agenda for Republican foreign-policy debates moving forward — was that of leadership versus retreat: Will America lead internationally, and will the president lead Americans in doing so, or will the United States and its president retreat from commitments overseas?
President Obama tends to dodge or finesse this question. He has had a few strong moments — most notably, hunting down Osama bin Laden — but the overall impression is of a president who would really rather not talk about foreign-policy challenges at all. At heart, Obama appears to believe that international rivalries can be accommodated by conciliatory gestures on the part of the United States, and by his own autobiographical example. He prefers to split every difference and to steer clear of political fights and stark national-security choices in order to focus on reelection and his liberal domestic reforms. Whether this will work politically is unclear, but it is not working internationally, and Pawlenty was right to say so.
Calls for U.S. military retrenchment — whether from the left or the right — ignore the fact that the United States has already retrenched considerably under Obama. The overall shift from national-security to domestic social expenditures has been visible in the budget for years. On defense spending, most of the low-hanging fruit has already been plucked. What remains are cuts that would render untenable some of America’s vital strategic commitments in locations such as the Taiwan Strait. The true danger now is an overcorrection based upon an unrealistically pessimistic estimate of American power.
Discussion of public opinion on foreign-policy issues tends to operate on the assumption that the public has detailed foreign-policy preferences, which politicians then must follow. Actually, the relationship between public opinion and political leaders on foreign-policy issues is a two-way street. To be sure, politicians are sensitive to popular feeling. Yet the public also looks for cues on issues about which there is popular ambivalence. Presidents in particular have considerable leeway to make specific foreign-policy decisions, when they choose to exercise it — especially since, frankly, for most Americans, a rather obscure issue such as Libya is probably not going to be the main voting concern in 2012. In the case of Afghanistan, what we have seen over the past month is not simply a shift in popular preferences. Political leaders from President Obama on down have actively, perhaps unintentionally, contributed to a sense of fatigue by talking up popular dissatisfaction.
Leaders, especially presidents, do not simply ask people what kind of foreign policy they want. They tell them what needs to be done. They lead; that is what leaders do. Obama has rarely provided this, but somebody has to. It is not easy right now for a Republican presidential candidate to run on a platform of staunch international and military engagement overseas. But that is what Pawlenty is doing.
Pawlenty sounded notes in his speech that deliberately recalled Ronald Reagan: the call for strong U.S. leadership, the rejection of strategic disengagement, and a belief in democracy promotion overseas. The challenge with the Arab Spring, as Pawlenty recognized explicitly, is to navigate these momentous developments in a way that does not lead unintentionally to the rise of radical Islamists in key nations such as Egypt. Pawlenty made it clear, especially in Q & A, that he believes democratization “doesn’t happen overnight,” and that there are multiple non-military levers to encourage gradual democratization. Reagan, for his part, believed in democracy promotion but was usually quite careful not to push U.S. allies too hard. Instead, he and his advisers used a combination of friendly security assurances, technical assistance, subtle diplomacy, and occasional pointed pressure to nudge allies in a more democratic direction without causing them to become U.S. enemies.
In relation to America’s bitter adversaries, of course Reagan emphasized democracy and human rights energetically, both as strategic pressure points and moral imperatives. In the case of today’s Iran, the existing theocratic regime is obviously deeply hostile and uninterested in serious negotiations over its nuclear-weapons program, so even from a realpolitik perspective the United States has nothing to lose and plenty to gain by taking a clear stance in support of democracy and human rights inside Iran. On this point, as on others, Pawlenty’s declared position is truly more realistic than Obama’s.