Posted by on June 28, 2011 in Blog

In a speech this morning at the Council on Foreign Relations, Republican presidential candidate Tim Pawlenty laid out his campaign’s Middle East platform, accusing his Republican opponents of “isolationism” and attacking President Obama’s sluggish response to the Arab Spring. Promising to “speak plainly” about the “the opportunities and dangers we face in the Middle East,” Pawlenty offered a wide-ranging and often contradictory vision, sharply criticizing nearly every aspect of President Obama’s Middle East policy from his insistence on regime “engagement” to his purported policy of “blaming Israel first.”

According to Pawlenty, Obama “failed to formulate and carry out an effective and coherent strategy.” He accused Obama of equivocating in his support for the Arab Spring, cutting aid to civil society programs in Egypt and elsewhere, remaining silent during protests in Iran, and treating Israel “as a problem, rather an ally.”

The presidential hopeful warned that “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.” He promised what he termed a more “truthful” approach with greater support for the forces of change, though he failed to specify what such changes would actually entail.

In his analysis, Pawlenty divided the Middle East into four distinct categories with distinct policy approaches. The first, labeled “The three countries in various stages of transition to democracy” included the four states of Tunisia, Egypt, Libya, and Iraq. For these states, Pawlenty urged greater investment to “help promote freedom and democracy” and to “redirect foreign aid from building goodwill to building good allies.”

The second category, the “Arab monarchies”, apparently “understand that they must reform” and therefore can be spared the regime-changing fate that awaits the other Arab states. Pawlenty also complained, rather bizarrely, that we have not sufficiently ingratiated ourselves to Saudi Arabia, and that America must ensure that we do not further lose our “Saudi support.”

The third category, the “states that are directly hostile to America” included only Syria and Iran, regimes which “are not reformers and will never be.” Pawlenty stated that “Bashir [sic] al-Assad must go,” both for the sake of the Syrian people and to hasten the “fall of the mullahs.”  He called for more stringent sanctions, more communication with dissidents, and more “internet for the Iranians.”

The last category, unsurprisingly, was Israel, which Pawlenty showered with praise as a “bastion of democracy,” complaining that “it breaks my heart that the president of our country treats Israel…as a problem.” He further went on to claim that “peace will only come if people in the region believe clearly that we stand firmly behind Israel”, despite that the fact that such perceptions are probably already widely-held across the Arab world.

Overall, though the speech was an ambitious foray into a highly complex field, it was clear that Pawlenty was more interested in putting down his opponents than formulating real alternatives of his own; the speech was heavy on rhetoric but Pawlenty consistently fumbled when asked to elaborate on specifics. Though he is probably correct in assuming that the Arab world has had little hope in the Obama administration’s initiatives, his understanding of the underlying reasons were superficial at best, and often expressly counterproductive. Obama’s handling of the Arab Spring has undoubtedly been a case of “too little, too late” but Pawlenty’s politicized solutions only harken back to Bush-era policies that were equally damaging to our credibility and our international image.

But, the fact that these issues are open for debate is undoubtedly a welcome development. Pawlenty properly identified “how pivotal this moment is in Middle East history,” and is correct to assume that “opportunity still exists amid the turmoil,” but to successfully seize that opportunity, we need to stop telling the Arab world what they need, and start listening.

comments powered by Disqus