A two-term governor of Minnesota, Tim Pawlenty’s foreign policy experience consists mostly of his trips to Iraq and Afghanistan to visit Minnesota National Guard troops. Up to this point, he's run on his record in Minnesota, where he wielded vetoes to cut the size of government despite a Democratically controlled legislature. And he did it with unflappable niceness.
But in a Republican field without a John McCain (or a Colin Powell or David Petraeus waiting in the wings), Pawlenty sees some unclaimed territory on the party plank. In his first major speech about war and security at the Council on Foreign Relations on Tuesday, Pawlenty articulated a robust, hawkish foreign policy driven by “moral clarity” — and took swings at President Obama and his fellow Republicans in the process.
Pawlenty reserved his most pointed jabs for the president. Pawlenty called him “timid, slow, and too often without a clear understanding of our interests.” In particular, Pawlenty charged that the Obama administration failed to seize strategic opportunities after the Arab Spring protests and for treating “Israel, our great friend, as a problem.”
"Today the president doesn't really have a policy toward the peace process. He has an attitude," Pawlenty zinged.
Pawlenty also let loose on fellow Republicans, for suggesting that budget concerns should temper America’s aggressiveness abroad.
“America already has one political party devoted to decline, retrenchment, and withdrawal," Pawlenty said. "It does not need a second one."
It was the first major foreign policy speech of the 2012 campaign, and Pawlenty tacked hard to the right of the GOP field. But this year, that’s not as far right as in previous years.
Frontrunner Mitt Romney, for example, said in his first debate of the primary cycle that “it’s time for us to bring our troops home as soon as we possibly can,” according to the advice of generals. (He followed that up a week later, though, by criticizing Obama for creating an “arbitrary timetable” for withdrawal.)
Jon Huntsman, the former Ambassador to China — which gives him the edge on foreign policy experience in the Republican field — has gone further.
“The deployments are mighty expensive,” Huntsman said in New Hampshire last month. “Does that mean that we’re going to have to look at the map at some point and reset our level of engagement and our deployments in some corners of the world. Absolutely it does.”
Following Obama’s speech last week that outlined the withdrawal of 30,000 troops from Afghanistan by September 2012, agreement among Republicans that Obama will handle the Afghanistan withdrawal correctly has slipped to 25 percent from 37 percent in March, according to a Pew/Washington Post poll released on Monday. (The overall approval rate for Obama’s withdrawal plan is unchanged – 44 percent – since March.)
Pawlenty’s tough talk in the speech on Tuesday shows he’s betting there’s an unmet appetite for old-fashioned Republican hawkishness, grounded in a deep faith in American exceptionalism.
"Sometimes strength means military intervention. Sometimes it means diplomatic pressure,” Pawlenty said. “It always means moral clarity in word and deed.”
But with his choice of words, there’s another Republican legacy Pawlenty needs to contend with: George W. Bush. Bush used the same phrase to defend his foreign policy decisions in his final speech as president:
If America does not lead the cause of freedom, that cause will not be led. As we address these challenges - and others we cannot foresee tonight - America must maintain our moral clarity. I have often spoken to you about good and evil. This has made some uncomfortable. But good and evil are present in this world, and between the two there can be no compromise.
But Pawlenty did not embrace any comparisons to George W. Bush when he was asked about commonalities with those presidents after his remarks.
“I would like to believe I’ll have my own foreign policy, that it will reflect upon the best of the foreign policy success of our country and Republicans,” Pawlenty said. “I think there are positive examples within both of [the George W. Bush and George H. W. Bush] administrations on foreign policy successes – some challenges as well, obviously.”
“These are complex issues in complex parts of the world with lots of nuance,” Pawlenty continued. “To suggest a cookie-cutter doctrine for the region, I think is an, under-utilization of our abilities, our capability and our thoughtfulness.”
That’s a different tone than he struck in his prepared speech, where the only Republican president Pawlenty cited was Ronald Reagan.
Pawlenty’s speech came at a key strategic moment for his campaign. He not only trailed Romney and Bachmann in the Des Moines Register’s first poll of Republican caucus goers released over the weekend, but also Herman Cain, Ron Paul and Newt Gingrich.
And so while he prepared his foreign policy debut, Pawlenty's campaign was active on another front. It started running a radio ad in Iowa this week touting his experience in the Minnesota statehouse — “results, not rhetoric,” in his words — while included inferred swipes at fellow Minnesotan Michelle Bachmann and Mitt Romney.