WASHINGTON — Tim Pawlenty set a forceful foreign policy agenda Tuesday, becoming the first Republican candidate to outline how to deal with the democratic uprisings in the Middle East. By doing so, Pawlenty is seeking to take up the mantle as the hawk of the Republican presidential field, which includes candidates like Jon Huntsman, who has called for a swift drawdown of troops in Iraq, and Michele Bachmann and Ron Paul, who have been outspoken critics of the offensive in Libya.
During a question and answer session after his speech, Pawlenty was asked whether his foreign policy would be closer to that of George H.W. Bush or George W. Bush. Pawlenty was coy, saying that he wanted to set his own course rather than mimic something else.
Andrew Exum, a fellow at the Washington-based Center for a New American Security, said Pawlenty’s speech was reminiscent of the second Bush’s early years, before being bogged down in Afghanistan and Iraq.
But Pawlenty, though clearly differentiating himself from Obama, did leave out some specifics.
“Pawlenty made a series of strong statements in support of the burgeoning democracies in Egypt, Libya and Tunisia without really saying how the United States would really support these countries with limited and reduced resources for spending abroad,” Exum said. “Saudi Arabia, for example, is spending four times as much money in Egypt as the United States.”
Max Boot, a fellow at the Council on Foreign Relations, said Pawlenty was not only moving away from Obama foreign policy, but also clearly setting himself apart from the rest of the Republican field, which Boot contended, has been forming policy based more on public opinion than anything else.
“He was a welcome exception to that trend,” he said.
Minutes before Pawlenty’s speech, the Huntsman campaign put up a blog post highlighting Huntsman’s vision for the War on Terror. He called it an “asymmetrical war” where the emphasis is on intelligence gathering and moving quickly to quash threats.
“That’s not 1,000 boots on the ground,” Huntsman said. “It’s a different construct, it’s a different mindset, it’s a different set of priorities out of the Defense Department.”
“The Middle East is changing before our eyes — but our government has not kept up,” he said. “The next president must do better. Today, in our own Republican Party, some look back and conclude our projection of strength and defense of freedom was a product of different times and different challenges. While times have changed, the nature of the challenge has not.”
In assessing Obama’s foreign policy approach, Pawlenty repeated a phrase from his presidential rival Bachmann: Obama has “led from behind,” pointing to his hesitancy to address democratic uprisings in Iran, Egypt and Syria.
“What is wrong is for the Republican Party to shrink from the challenges of American leadership in the world,” Pawlenty said. “America already has one political party devoted to decline, retrenchment, and withdrawal. It does not need a second one.”
Reactions to Pawlenty’s speech were quick, and mixed.
Jonathan Tobin, writing in Commentary Magazine, said: “Though his campaign has faltered recently, [Pawlenty] can still lay claim to having the most serious approach to foreign policy of any of the Republican presidential contenders.”
Washington Post columnist Marc Thiessen compared Pawlenty to conservative hero Ronald Reagan, saying that his speech “represents the clearest vision yet presented by any GOP candidate for a conservative internationalism in the mold of Ronald Reagan. Let’s see if any of the other Republican contenders now step forward to challenge Pawlenty for the Reagan mantle.”
Atlantic editor Conor Friedersdorf said Pawlenty’s speech “refutes itself,” saying, “it’s an incoherent position: it cannot be that America wrongly propped up Middle Eastern and North African dictators over many decades, that its current policy is terribly wrongheaded, and that our elected leaders are uniquely possessed of the moral clarity to get things right in those regions.”
Washington Examiner columnist Timothy Carney took issue with Pawlenty’s characterization of Democrats as the party of “retrenchment.”
“Seriously? The Democratic Party, a majority of whose senators voted to preemptively invade Iraq, is ‘devoted to … retrenchment?’ The Democratic Party, whose president sent us unblinkingly to manage a civil war in Libya, is devoted to withdrawal?” he wrote. “It’s a standard Republican talking point that the Democrats — and particularly Obama — want American greatness to diminish. But to drag anti-interventionist Republicans into this little smear is rare.”