“Have you seen him speak before?” Asked one relatively young attendee at Tim Pawlenty’s Tuesday morning address to the Council on Foreign Relations. “Yeah, he’s no Sarah Palin,” his friend replied with a sneer that suggested either a begrudging acknowledgment of Palin’s charisma or a rueful admission that the bar for foreign policy expertise in the Republican primary is not very high.
As Pawlenty’s speech demonstrated, he certainly lacks Palin’s winking charm. His one intended laugh line—“President Obama announced his plan to give Assad ‘an alternative vision of himself.’ Does anyone outside a therapist’s office have any idea what that means?”—was delivered with such earnestness and poor timing that it barely elicited a single chuckle from the audience.
But what Pawlenty does not share with Palin on matters of style he largely does on matters of substance. He demonstrates a much firmer grasp of general world history, politics and geography than Palin, but Pawlenty’s foreign policy ideology has much in common with hers, (at least before she took a sudden turn towards pragmatism.) And like Palin, one suspects that Pawlenty’s foreign policy positions are determined more by domestic politics than foreign affairs. An evangelical Christian, he has a set of foreign policy talking points designed for the religious right: forcefully advocate freedom, stare down the Islamists in Iran and never criticize our dear friend Israel.
For the past few months Pawlenty has assiduously burnished his hawkish credentials. At a March campaign stop he said, “My basic perspective on foreign policy…is…you’re dealing with thugs and bullies, they understand strength, they don’t respect weakness.” Last week Pawlenty told Bill O’Reilly of FOX News that Obama’s decision to start gradually withdrawing troops from Afghanistan is “a grave mistake.”
But, while Pawlenty contends with Michele Bachmann for social conservatives on his right flank, he is also positioning himself to be an alternative to Mitt Romney for establishment Republicans. Speaking at the Council on Foreign Relations, a bastion of the Establishment, is crucial to that goal. So while Pawlenty painted in broadly neoconservative strokes about first principles, his programmatic advice on specific countries was often more cautious, and it varied based on conditions. By tempering idealism in principle with pragmatism in practice Pawlenty laid out a vision that might just be called a more hawkish Obama-ism. Or, as Pawlenty would say, the “Pawbama doctrine.”
The theme of Pawlenty’s speech, which focused entirely on the Middle East, was that the Obama administration has abandoned the US role as a leader in the global struggle for freedom. Pawlenty asserted that the Obama administration “waited long enough to see the Green Movement [in Iran] crushed,” and that Obama “abandoned the promotion of democracy just as Arabs were about to seize it.” Left unexplained is how US support for democratic movements in the Middle East, where the United States is dreadfully unpopular, would help rather than hinder their local effectiveness. Pawlenty had a long list of demands that the United States should issue to Middle Eastern countries—that they institute free speech, press and religion, independent judiciaries and women’s rights—but rarely did he have a clear answer as to what leverage the United States has to issue these demands and why using it would work. Twice Pawlenty demanded that Washington show its disapproval for human rights abuses by the Syrian regime by withdrawing our ambassador from Damascus. How this would force Bashar Al-Assad from power, which Pawlenty says is the only acceptable outcome in Syria, is unclear. The United States hasn’t had an ambassador in Tehran for thirty years, and yet, remarkably enough, the Iranian theocracy remains intact. The gaping holes in Pawlenty’s foreign policy were especially evident when he was asked by an audience member how he would apply his pro-freedom agenda to North Korea and he had no concrete answer.
The only country in which Pawlenty offered a credible scenario for how his ideals would be put into action is Libya, where Pawlenty favors stepping up military pressure—or threats thereof—to force Muammar Qaddafi from power. Indeed, Pawlenty offers an unreconstructed return to the foreign policy of George W. Bush. On Libya, as Bush did in Iraq, Pawlenty argues that UN, Arab League and European Union approval or cooperation were unnecessary and that waiting for them constituted “dithering.” Nor does Pawlenty believe that Congressional approval was necessary to launch the US action in Libya. Instead, Pawlenty maintains that because Qaddafi is a terrorist who killed Americans forcibly removing him from power is the sensible approach, speciously analogizing the question of what happens next in Libya to someone asking at the start of World War II what would replace Adolf Hitler in Germany.
Pawlenty’s barbs were aimed as much at some Republicans as at Obama. He lamented that “parts of the Republican Party now seem to be trying to out-bid the Democrats in appealing to isolationist sentiments.” Pawlenty didn’t name these malefactors, but he didn’t have to. He’s clearly referring to Jon Huntsman, who has called for swifter withdrawal from Afghanistan than Obama is implementing. The Huntsman campaign, having caught Pawlenty’s camp previewing the theme of his speech on Monday, issued a response Tuesday morning before the speech was even delivered. Naturally, Huntsman warded off any suggestions of weaknesses by claiming Reagan would have done the same, saying, “America can best project strength in the world when we are strong at home and able to take on our enemies where they are, not when we are expending resources fighting expensive ground wars for which there is no defined exit strategy. Ronald Reagan understood that.” Pawlenty offered a scathing attack on this thinking in his speech, saying, “America already has one political party devoted to decline, retrenchment, and withdrawal. It does not need a second one.”
Pawlenty also cited Reagan whenever possible. Of course, as Thomas Friedman reminded us in Sunday’s New York Times, Reagan withdrew from Beirut because he saw that the United States would be stronger if it stayed out of a messy civil war, and that the Soviet Union was being weakened by its presence in Afghanistan. This is a lesson from Reagan’s presidency that Pawlenty—who would undermine civilian control of the military by letting the generals decide on the pace of withdrawal from Afghanistan, and who contends that the United States will be perceived as weak if it minds its own business—seems not to have learned.