“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. “Well, times have changed, but the nature of the challenge has not.”
The party is currently grappling with the fiscal costs of intervention, as two costly wars have contributed greatly to the country’s massive budget deficits, with the Tea Party movement pressuring Republicans to reduce the federal budget without additional revenues.
In a debate earlier this month, fissures emerged among the 2012 field, with hints of isolationism from some of the top contenders, who called for a hastened exit to the U.S. military presence in Afghanistan. This morning, Pawlenty — whose campaign has struggled to gain traction in the early polls — seemed to be staking himself as the proud hawk among a dovish field.
“Parts of the Republican Party now seem to be trying to out-bid the Democrats in appealing to isolationist sentiments,” said Pawlenty. “This is no time for uncertain leadership in either party. The stakes are simply too high, and the opportunity is simply too great.”
“History repeatedly warns us that weakness in foreign policy costs us and our children much more than we’ll ever save in a budget line item,” he said. “America already has one political party devoted to decline, retrenchment and withdrawal. It doesn’t need a second one.”
“Decline, retrenchment and withdrawal–really?” asked former Newsweek editor Jon Meacham, at the outset of the question-and-answer session.
Pawlenty defended the characterization, reiterating his claim that President Obama has failed to deliver the kind of “moral clarity” needed during a turbulent time for the Middle East.
Pawlenty said the President had been “timid, slow, and too often without a clear understanding of our interests or a clear commitment to our principles.”
He reserved special criticism for the president’s policies toward Israel.
“Nowhere has President Obama’s lack of judgment been more stunning than in his dealings with Israel,” Pawlenty. “It breaks my heart that the president of this country treats Israel – our great friend – as a problem rather than as an ally.”
Pawlenty said Obama “thinks the answer is always more pressure on Israel.”
The former Minnesota governor also called on the administration to oust Colonel Muammar el-Qaddafi from Libya, though did not offer specifics when pressed as to how exactly he would accomplish that.
“I’m not suggesting you need boots on the ground, but I believe it is a fair statement to say if the United States and its allies wants Qaddafi to go, he would be gone,” he said. “I think you say to Qaddafi essentially, ‘You have X number of days to get your affairs in order, you can go the easy way or the hard, but you’re going to go.”
In a break with the Republican leadership in the House, Pawlenty did agree with Obama on one point: that the War Powers Act does not preclude the United States’ continued involvement in Libya.
“I would reserve as executive prerogative the argument that the War Powers Act does not apply,” he said. “However, in the case that it might, and as a courtesy and out of respect for the Congress, I would have more fully consulted with them. Because I think the case could have been made — presented — as a courtesy to the Congress, not necessarily as a legal obligation.”
“I think a strong case can be made on the merits that what we did in Libya was the correct course,” he said, citing his own call for a no-fly zone in March, and postulating that had we “seized the moment,” Qaddafi could have been “nudged out” at that time.
After the speech, Pawlenty paused to sign an 8×10 of his official portrait for a fan waiting on the sidewalk, with aides rushing him past reporters and into a waiting SUV.
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