Barack Obama is more distrustful of American power than any president since Jimmy Carter. At the same time, weariness with foreign policy has infected many Republicans, too. Ron Paul is only the most extreme (and consistent) example. Today Tim Pawlenty delivered a speech to the Council on Foreign Relations in which he attempted to stake out a position as the inheritor of Ronald Reagan’s foreign policy mantle. It was a good speech that grappled honestly with difficult issues. The complete text is here; these are some highlights:
I want to speak plainly this morning about the opportunities and the dangers we face today in the Middle East. The revolutions now roiling that region offer the promise of a more democratic, more open, and a more prosperous Arab world. From Morocco to the Arabian Gulf, the escape from the dead hand of oppression is now a real possibility.
Now is not the time to retreat from freedom’s rise.
Yet at the same time, we know these revolutions can bring to power forces that are neither democratic nor forward-looking. Just as the people of Egypt, Tunisia, Libya, Syria and elsewhere see a chance for a better life of genuine freedom, the leaders of radical Islam see a chance to ride political turmoil into power.
The United States has a vital stake in the future of this region. We have been presented with a challenge as great as any we have faced in recent decades. And we must get it right. The question is, are we up to the challenge?
My answer is, of course we are. If we are clear about our interests and guided by our principles, we can help steer events in the right direction. Our nation has done this in the past — at the end of World War II, in the last decade of the Cold War, and in the more recent war on terror … and we can do it again.
But President Obama has failed to formulate and carry out an effective and coherent strategy in response to these events. He has been timid, slow, and too often without a clear understanding of our interests or a clear commitment to our principles.
And parts of the Republican Party now seem to be trying to out-bid the Democrats in appealing to isolationist sentiments. This is no time for uncertain leadership in either party. The stakes are simply too high, and the opportunity is simply too great.
The Obama “engagement” policy in Syria led the Administration to call Bashar al Assad a “reformer.” Even as Assad’s regime was shooting hundreds of protesters dead in the street, 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? This is what passes for moral clarity in the Obama Administration.
By contrast, I called for Assad’s departure on March 29; I call for it again today. We should recall our ambassador from Damascus; and I call for that again today. The leader of the United States should never leave those willing to sacrifice their lives in the cause of freedom wondering where America stands. As President, I will not.
Elections that produce anti-democratic regimes undermine both freedom and stability. We must do more than monitor polling places. We must redirect foreign aid away from efforts to merely build good will, and toward efforts to build good allies — genuine democracies governed by free people according to the rule of law. And we must insist that our international partners get off the sidelines and do the same.
We should have no illusions about the difficulty of the transitions faced by Libya, Tunisia, and especially Egypt. … Beyond Libya, America should always promote the universal principles that undergird freedom. We should press new friends to end discrimination against women, to establish independent courts, and freedom of speech and the press. We must insist on religious freedoms for all, including the region’s minorities–whether Christian, Shia, Sunni, or Bahai.
By sticking to Bashar al Assad so long, the Obama Administration has not only frustrated Syrians who are fighting for freedom–it has demonstrated strategic blindness. The governments of Iran and Syria are enemies of the United States. They are not reformers and never will be. They support each other. To weaken or replace one, is to weaken or replace the other.
The fall of the Assad mafia in Damascus would weaken Hamas, which is headquartered there. It would weaken Hezbollah, which gets its arms from Iran, through Syria. And it would weaken the Iranian regime itself.
To take advantage of this moment, we should press every diplomatic and economic channel to bring the Assad reign of terror to an end. We need more forceful sanctions to persuade Syria’s Sunni business elite that Assad is too expensive to keep backing. We need to work with Turkey and the Arab nations and the Europeans, to further isolate the regime. And we need to encourage opponents of the regime by making our own position very clear, right now: Bashar al-Assad must go.
When he does, the mullahs of Iran will find themselves isolated and vulnerable. Syria is Iran’s only Arab ally. If we peel that away, I believe it will hasten the fall of the mullahs. And that is the ultimate goal we must pursue. It’s the singular opportunity offered to the world by the brave men and women of the Arab Spring.
Today the president doesn’t really have a policy toward the peace process. He has an attitude. And let’s be frank about what that attitude is: he thinks Israel is the problem. And he thinks the answer is always more pressure on Israel.
I reject that anti-Israel attitude. I reject it because Israel is a close and reliable democratic ally. And I reject it because I know the people of Israel want peace.
It is not wrong for Republicans to question the conduct of President Obama’s military leadership in Libya. There is much to question. And it is not wrong for Republicans to debate the timing of our military drawdown in Afghanistan– though my belief is that General Petreaus’ voice ought to carry the most weight on that question.
What is wrong, 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.
America already has one political party devoted to decline, retrenchment, and withdrawal. It does not need a second one.
Our enemies in the War on Terror, just like our opponents in the Cold War, respect and respond to strength. Sometimes strength means military intervention. Sometimes it means diplomatic pressure. It always means moral clarity in word and deed.
That is the legacy of Republican foreign policy at its best, and the banner our next Republican President must carry around the world.