The Republican candidates for president have been careful to present a unified front on most issues, especially taxes and government spending. But fissures have begun to show in the party’s views on foreign policy, a rift that widened Tuesday as Minnesota Gov. Tim Pawlenty assailed his rivals for “trying to outbid the Democrats in appealing to isolationist sentiments.”
In a wide-ranging speech at the Council on Foreign Relations in New York, Pawlenty staked out what is easily the most hawkish foreign policy platform in the race, calling for regime change in Libya, Syria and Iran, attacking President Obama’s “anti-Israel” attitude and casting the recent “Arab Spring” as a chance to shape formerly autocratic regimes into democracies that are friendlier to American interests.
Pawlenty also seemed to split from Republicans in Congress when he said in a question-and-answer session after the speech that, while he would have consulted members of the House and Senate on the military action in Libya “as a courtesy,” he would not have felt compelled to seek congressional approval for the bombing campaign “as a legal obligation” under the War Powers Act. The Obama administration has taken a similar view, while large numbers of House Republicans, especially those affiliated with the Tea Party, have voted to end U.S. involvement in the NATO-led operation against Moammar Gadhafi.
Pawlenty conceded that it was appropriate for Republicans to question President Obama’s conduct of the military operation in Libya, or the drawdown of U.S. forces in Afghanistan. “What is wrong,” he said, “is for the Republican Party to shrink from the challenges of American leadership in the world. History repeatedly warns us that in the long run, weakness in foreign policy costs us and our children much more than we’ll save in a budget line item.”
He added: “America already has one political party devoted to decline, retrenchment, and withdrawal. It does not need a second one.”
The speech seemed aimed, at least in part, at some of the GOP primary’s newest entrants, particularly former Utah Gov. Jon Huntsman and Minnesota Rep. Michelle Bachmann, both of whom have called for a scaled-back American role in foreign conflicts such as the one in Libya. Bachmann has been especially critical of the bombing campaign there, calling the decision to attack Gadhafi’s regime “absolutely wrong” in a Republican presidential debate earlier this month.
Massachusetts Gov. Mitt Romney has also been critical of American military adventurism, despite supporting the war in Iraq. He declared in the same presidential debate, “Our troops shouldn’t go off and try to fight a war of independence for another nation.”
On Tuesday, the contrast between Pawlenty and his rivals could not be clearer. When asked, for example, if his foreign policy would more closely resemble that of George W. Bush — who openly sought to promote democracy throughout the Middle East — or that of the first president Bush, who was more restrained, Pawlenty declined to distance himself from the neoconservative vision that defined the second Bush administration and provided the basis for the Iraq war, calling that country a “shining example” of an Arab country transitioning toward democracy.
Whether that hurts Pawlenty among Tea Party activists, who have grown increasingly skeptical of U.S. military commitments, remains to be seen. Mainstream Republicans and independents are also war-weary, polls show.
Still, Pawlenty articulated on Tuesday the first clear vision of what his foreign policy as president might look like: robust and interventionist, staunchly pro-Israel and actively promoting, through sanctions and monetary aid, the spread of democracy throughout the Middle East, in the hope of cultivating more American-friendly governments in that region.
“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,” Pawlenty said. “While times have changed, the nature of the challenge has not.”