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The Daily Need

Tim Pawlenty, neocon?

Former Minnesota Governor Tim Pawlenty. Photo: Flickr/Gage Skidmore

Republican presidential hopeful Tim Pawlenty was once seen as the most viable alternative to GOP front-runner Mitt Romney. Now that there are other, more well-known candidates vying for that mantle, Pawlenty is struggling to remain relevant in these early days of the primary season. And he’s trying to burnish his public image, in part, by adopting what is easily the most hawkish foreign policy platform in the campaign, promising an aggressive use of U.S. economic and military power to confront America’s enemies and promote democracy around the world.

Pawlenty, a former governor of Minnesota, is the only candidate in the race who has spent considerable time talking about America’s wars. Romney, who is focusing exclusively on the economy, has said only that “Our troops shouldn’t go off and try to fight a war of independence for another nation.” Minnesota Rep. Michelle Bachmann, whose candidacy is seen as especially threatening to Pawlenty, has criticized President Obama for “leading from behind” in Libya but condemned the military operation there as superfluous. Pawlenty, by contrast, has accused Obama of being too timid in the Arab world, calling openly for regime change not only in Libya but in Iran and Syria as well.

In an interview with the Washington Post last week, Pawlenty expanded on those views, promising an aggressive stance toward countries like Iran that projects “clarity and strength — and the vigilance to back it up.” Surprisingly, he enthusiastically aligned himself with the foreign policy views of Sen. John McCain, who similarly advocated for robust approach toward Iraq, Iran and Afghanistan in the 2008 campaign. There would seem to be little appetite among war-weary Americans for a quasi-revival of neoconservatism. But Pawlenty went even further than McCain, embracing Bush-era policies on torture, detainee trials and the military prison at Guantanamo Bay:

“[McCain] supports closing down Guantanamo; I don’t. He’s against enhanced interrogation techniques; I’m in favor of them under limited and controlled circumstances” … As for trying captured terrorists, Pawlenty says that “the proper place for [an enemy combatant] to be processed and questioned and prosecuted is not our civilian courts.”

Pawlenty’s expansive view of presidential powers isn’t out of line with those of his fellow candidates or recent inhabitants of the Oval Office (including President Obama). But they would seem to go against the strain of isolationism emerging within the Republican Party, especially among supporters of the Tea Party, which is typically skeptical of federal authority even in the realm of war-making. It was conservative lawmakers affiliated with the Tea Party who attempted to de-fund the war in Libya last month and questioned whether Obama had the authority to wage such a military operation without congressional approval, despite support for the mission from McCain and other GOP elders.

Pawlenty’s tough rhetoric might be more about trying to seem presidential to a Republican primary electorate that barely knows him than actually staking out a feasible foreign policy. It’s unclear, though, how much appetite there is among Republican primary voters, let alone the general electorate, for a resurrection of the same policies that begot the war in Iraq. Military interventions are costly and draining, and if polls are any indication, Americans care little about the turmoil in the Arab world. They are primarily concerned with the economic plight here at home — and Pawlenty’s rivals know that.