Tim Pawlenty’s Foreign Policy Speech And The Neocon Distortion Of Ronald Reagan’s Legacy

Tim Pawlenty's foreign policy speech shows him siding with the hawks, and joining in the neocon distortion of Reagan's legacy.

In a speech this morning before the Council on Foreign Relations, Tim Pawlenty made it clear where he stands in the ongoing foreign policy debate among the Republican candidates for President:

Tim Pawlenty laid out a tough, hawkish vision of foreign policy Tuesday, slamming President Barack Obama as failing on Middle East policy and accusing fellow Republicans of a retreat of their own.

With the wheels of his campaign spinning as he remains at the bottom of Iowa polls and struggling with fundraising, the former Minnesota governor used his half-hour speech at the Council on Foreign Relations in New York City to position himself as the true hawk in a muddled Republican 2012 primary field.

Pawlenty sharply rapped the president as wavering on supporting Israel, bumbling and unclear on his goals for the Mideast, and suggested he didn’t move fast enough to spur on the “Arab spring” democratic insurgencies.

“What is wrong is for the Republican Party to shrink from the challenges of American leadership in the world,” he said. “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,” he added. “It does not need a second one.”

“We cannot underestimate how pivotal this moment is in Middle Eastern history,” Pawlenty said. “We need decisive, clear-eyed leadership that is responsive to this historical moment of change in ways that are consistent with our deepest principles and safeguards our vital interests.”

Pawlenty stood apart from the GOP field last week in his response to Obama’s call for a faster troop draw-down in Afghanistan. He moved to the right of Obama, while much of the rest of the field reflected a strain of what Sen. John McCain has branded “isolationism,” calling for a fast withdrawal.

Indeed, Pawlenty’s foreign policy speech hewed, in many ways, more closely to the tenets of George W. Bush than what his primary rivals have said so far.

“Parts of the Republican Party now seem to be trying to out-bid the Democrats in appealing to isolationist sentiments,” Pawlenty said. “This is no time for uncertain leadership in either party. The stakes are simply too high, and the opportunity is simply too great.”

He added, “America already has one political party devoted to decline, retrenchment, and withdrawal. It does not need a second one.”

Pawlenty also used unusually strong language to denounce the President’s Middle East policy, accusing him of abandoning Israel:

“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,” he said.

“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.”

Pawlenty added, “It breaks my heart that President Obama treats Israel, our great friend, as a problem, rather than as an ally. The President seems to genuinely believe the Israeli-Palestinian conflict lies at the heart of every problem in the Middle East. He said it Cairo in 2009 and again this year. President Obama could not be more wrong.”

He dismissed the idea that Israeli settlements in the West Bank were a cause of the unrest.

The protestors rallying in Libya, Egypt and elsewhere are “not about Israelis and Palestinians. They’re about oppressed people yearning for freedom and prosperity,” he said. “Whether those countries become prosperous and free is not about how many apartments Israel builds in Jerusalem.”

I’m not aware of anyone who has ever said that there was any connection between the Arab Spring and Israeli settlements in the West Bank. Anyone who did suggest that would likely be laughed off the stage. Where there is an undeniable connection, however, is between those settlements and the question of the releationship between Israel and the Palestinian Authority and the question of a final resolution of the 60-odd year old conflict between Israel and the Palestinians. If and when that resolution comes, it will have to include some resolution of the settlements issue, and the United States has pointed out to Israel many times in the past that continuing to build settlements in disputed areas is a problem. The Israelis have chosen to ignore that, and building the settlements has done nothing to make peace more likely. I wonder why.

Daniel Drezner live-tweeted the speech this morning, and then posted his reaction:

My final assessment: Pawlenty successfully skirted a Trumpie nomination — he exaggerated Obama’s cozying up to Iran, but that’s pretty much GOP boilerplate at this point. Pawlenty was also quite outspoken in attacking “isolationists’ within the GOP as well.

The occasionally overheated piece of rhetoric aside, this was a reasonably coherent speech that placed way too much faith in the ability of more sanctions to force out regimes in Iran and Syria.

Daniel Larison argues that Pawlenty misreads the lessons of history when it comes to both engagement with potential adversaries and dealing with popular uprisings:

As for the lessons of history, it would have been useful if Pawlenty could define what he means by weakness or given an example of one of the many times that History has warned us of this. The things that Pawlenty would deride as signs of weakness (i.e., not supporting popular uprisings abroad, diplomatic engagement, reduction in military spending) have not had the effect that he claims. For some hawks during the Cold War, not supporting the Hungarian uprising in 1956 counted as weakness, but it would have been a disaster for the entire world had the U.S. intervened. In the ’70s, hawks concluded that detente was a terrible mistake, but it essentially cost the U.S. nothing in the short or long run. The cuts in military spending from their 1980s levels did not lead to greater costs for the U.S. down the road. Virtually every grim warning of the dangers of “appeasement” at least since the start of the Cold War has proved to be little more than groundless alarmism, the fear of “appeasement” has plunged the U.S. into unnecessary and damaging conflicts, and many of the efforts at engagement have yielded important gains for the U.S.

One need go back any further to see how misguided the hawkish view of history and diplomacy really is than the Cold War itself. Here’s what Pawlenty said about that in his speech today:

In the 1980s, we were up against a violent, totalitarian ideology bent on subjugating the people and principles of the West.  While others sought to co-exist, President Reagan instead sought victory.  So must we, today.  For America is exceptional, and we have the moral clarity to lead the world.

What this statement forgets is that, at the same time that President Reagan was rebuilding the American military from the hasty cutbacks that had been made during the immediate aftermath of the Vietnam War and projecting a tough image toward the Soviets, he was also actively seeking someone to negotiate with on issues like arms control and lowering tensions in a still divided Europe. In the first four years of Reagan’s Presidency, the Soviet Union when through three leaders — Leonid Brezhnev, Yuri Andropov, and Constanin Chenenko. Not only were all these men old, hardline Communists, they were also all men who were seemingly constantly ill. As Reagan joked when asked why he didn’t dialog with the Soviets before Gorbachev, he retorted, “They keep dying on me.”

In 1985, though, Mikhail Gorbachev came to power. Margaret Thatcher had already said about him, “I like Mr. Gorbachev. We can do business together,” and Reagan quickly came to believe the same thing. The men met in a series of summits over the next three years as Gorbachev struggled to hold his country’s economy and empire together. For this, Reagan was actually denounced by the hawkish right, some of whom even openly began to wonder about senility. When he negotiated a series of ground-breaking arms control treaties with Gorbachev, and capped it off with an historic visit to Moscow and trip through Red Square, the pages of magazines like National Review were replete with lamentations of what some were calling Reagan’s naivete.  It wasn’t until one year later, when the collapse of the Soviet Empire, and then the Soviet Union itself, began that Reagan was proven right and, all of a sudden, once again lauded as a hero.

In other words, the version of 80’s history that Pawlenty and many other Republican hawks like to tell themselves isn’t really all that true. Yes, Reagan built up our defenses, and yes he talked tough when necessary. At the same time, though, he was actively looking to resume arms control negotiations with the Soviets, he wanted to ultimately reduce the number of nuclear weapons in the world, when American troops were attacked by terrorists in Lebanon, and he withdrew and disengaged rather than getting us involved in a Lebanese Civil War. Most importantly, though, Reagan recognized something that Pawlenty doesn’t, that there’s nothing wrong with talking to your enemy and, in fact, that’s exactly who you should be talking to because the only alternative is that you end up fighting them.


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Doug Mataconis
About Doug Mataconis
Doug Mataconis held a B.A. in Political Science from Rutgers University and J.D. from George Mason University School of Law. He joined the staff of OTB in May 2010 and contributed a staggering 16,483 posts before his retirement in January 2020. He passed far too young in July 2021.


  1. Tim Anderson says:

    I didn’t find the discussion where he (Reagan) cut and run following the Beirut barracks attack. Damn liberal ink.

  2. James Joyner says:

    Additionally, it’s worth noting two points about Reagan’s foreign policy:

    1. Our wars in Afghanistan, Iraq, and Libya all violate the Reagan Doctrine, which was to give locals who wanted freedom weapons and material support but let them do their own fighting and dying.

    2. Reagan had no compunction about bugging out when the war was going south and the costs were exceeding America’s interests. See: Lebanon.

  3. Hey Norm says:

    And oh yeah…oil prices dived and killed the soviet economy. A little luck never hurts.

  4. Tim,

    The marines were pulled out, although we kept a naval presence in the area and shelled parts of the Bekaa Valley several months later (although we apparently ended up hitting Druze targets, and they had nothing to do with the attack)

  5. anjin-san says:

    Maybe pawlenty can get a job running some pizza parlors for Cain. They will both be watching the inagraution on TV…

  6. Tano says:

    , Reagan recognized something that Pawlenty doesn’t, that there’s nothing wrong with talking to your enemy

    It isn’t just Pawlenty. This view has become commonplace on the Right, spurred no doubt by the constant refrain we hear from the Likudniks about how they can’t possibly be expected to negotiate with people who wish them ill. For some strange reason, this attitude has been respected and accepted by large numbers of people on the right, and even in the middle. Its almost a mainstream position by now…

  7. michael reynolds says:

    Reagan is no longer a historical figure, he’s Jesus to some of these people. He’s a religious icon and as such can be invoked to bless or condemn whatever they happen to favor or oppose.

  8. So, according to T-Paw, Obama should have supported the protesters in Egypt who caused a new Egyptian government to form that may be incredibly hostile to Israel and may want to repudiate the Israeli-Egyptian peace treaty? But Obama also needs to stop abandoning Israel?

    One word: Huh?

  9. @Timothy

    There is no logic there.

    I’ve had this same conversation with others on the right throughout the whole Arab Spring uprising. First, they were saying that Obama wasn’t standing with the people of Egypt and was being too cozy with Mubarak because he wasn’t putting enough pressure on him. Then, when the Obama Administration started using back channels to put pressure on Mubarak to step down, they said he was abandoning an ally and abandoning israel because Mubarak had kept the piece with Israel. When i explained to them that, by mid-February, it was too late to stand by Mubarak because he’d lost all credibility with his people, they just kept saying “Muslim Brotherhood” over and over and over again.

  10. ponce says:

    which was to give locals who wanted freedom weapons and material support but let them do their own fighting and dying.

    Except when it came to shooting down civilian airliners.