(Seth Wenig/AP)

— Former Minnesota governor Tim Pawlenty, June 28, 2011

Speaking before the Council on Foreign Relations last week, GOP presidential hopeful Tim Pawlenty delivered a detailed and blistering critique of President Obama’s foreign policy, but interestingly, one of his main targets was Secretary of State Hillary Rodham Clinton.

Generally, secretaries of State are seen as above politics, but of course Clinton was a senator and a first lady before she became a diplomat. She is also known for her style of blunt speaking, and Pawlenty makes adroit use of some of her more provocative quotes to make his case against the president.

In the speech, Pawlenty plays off Obama’s theme of re-engaging with the world after the perceived unilateralist approach of former George W. Bush. (In truth, the Bush team tried to re-engage in the second term, but the effort was hampered by the lingering distrust overseas of actions taken by Bush during his first term.) There’s room for criticism here. Even a sympathetic account of Obama’s “engagement” efforts has found a gap between the administration’s rhetoric and its results.

In this column, we will take a detailed look at the fairness of Pawlenty’s critique of Secretary Clinton, and whether he quoted her correctly and in context. We will leave for another day his criticism of Obama’s handling of Israel, which is a common theme among Republican candidates. We will probably address this question by looking at all the candidates’s quotes on this issue. Reader thoughts are welcome, especially via the email address factchecker@washpost.com.

“‘Engagement’ meant that in 2009, when the Iranian ayatollahs stole an election, and the people of that country rose up in protest, President Obama held his tongue. His silence validated the mullahs, despite the blood on their hands and the nuclear centrifuges in their tunnels. While protesters were killed and tortured, Secretary Clinton said the Administration was ‘waiting to see the outcome of the internal Iranian processes.’ She and the president waited long enough to see the Green Movement crushed.”

In this section, Pawlenty takes Obama and Clinton to task for not responding effectively to the challenge posed by Iran’s Green Movement. Clinton did indeed say that the administration was “waiting to see the outcome of the internal Iranian processes.”

In fact, the full quote appears even a bit more damning in retrospect: “We are obviously waiting to see the outcome of the internal Iranian processes, but our intent is to pursue whatever opportunities might exist in the future with Iran.”

But the administration’s actions must be seen in context. Obama and Clinton came into office believing they had a chance to engage with Iran on the nuclear issue. Some experts, of course, thought that was a fool’s errand, and certainly events over the past two years have bolstered skeptics. (However, a case can be made that the uprising in 2009 also made it much more difficult for the Iranian government to engage with the United States, since that might have been perceived internally as a sign of weakness.)

At the time, Obama and Clinton wanted to preserve the possibility of talks on the nuclear issue, which strategically was of more importance to the United States. Moreover, the administration was wary of appearing to intervene in domestic Iranian politics so the Green Movement would not be tainted as being led by American spies. An article that highlighted Clinton’s quote included comments from Iranians, such as Shirin Ebadi, an Iranian human rights activist who won the Nobel Peace Prize in 2003, that Obama’s response to the uprising was appropriate.

Pawlenty, meanwhile, gives little hint of what he would have done if he had been president during the uprising.

“‘Engagement’ meant that in his first year in office, President Obama cut democracy funding for Egyptian civil society by 74 percent. As one American democracy organization noted, this was ‘perceived by Egyptian democracy activists as signaling a lack of support.’ They perceived correctly. It was a lack of support.
“‘Engagement’ meant that when crisis erupted in Cairo this year, as tens of thousands of protesters gathered in Tahrir Square, Secretary Clinton declared, ‘the Egyptian Government is stable.’ Two weeks later, Mubarak was gone. When Secretary Clinton visited Cairo after Mubarak’s fall, democratic activist groups refused to meet with her. And who can blame them? The forces we now need to succeed in Egypt -- the pro-democracy, secular political parties -- these are the very people President Obama cut off, and Secretary Clinton dismissed.”

Obama did cut funding for civil society programs in Egypt by more than 70 percent in his first year in office, as The Fact Checker documented in February. The quote about a perceived lack of support comes from an extensive analysis of the administration’s spending patterns by the Project on Middle East Democracy. Not only did the administration cut funding, but to win favor with Egyptian leader Hosni Mubarak it agreed to provide USAID funding only to organizations approved by the Egyptian government — a reversal of the policy under the Bush administration.

Clinton did declare the “Egyptian government is stable” on Jan. 25 just as the protests began to build critical momentum. Again, her full quote looks even worse in retrospect: “Our assessment is that the Egyptian government is stable and is looking for ways to respond to the legitimate needs and interests of the Egyptian people.” Oops.

Shortly after becoming secretary, in fact, Clinton had airily dismissed a critical State Department human rights report on Egypt and praised Mubarak to the hilt. “I really consider President and Mrs. Mubarak to be friends of my family,” she told Egyptian television. “So I hope to see him often here in Egypt and in the United States.”

But Pawlenty exaggerates when he asserts that “democracy activist groups” refused to meet with Clinton. A youth group put out a statement saying it would not meet with her, but she did hold a round table discussion with about 25 youth movement representatives and then also held another two-hour session with scores of democracy activists, where she got an earful about her earlier comments and support for Mubarak. Pawlenty leaves the impression that no one wanted to meet with her.

“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.”

Pawlenty seizes on two other Clinton quotes about Syrian leader Assad to build a critique of the administration’s policy toward Syria: “Many of the members of Congress of both parties who have gone to Syria in recent months have said they believe he’s a reformer.” And “what we have tried to do with him is to give him an alternative vision of himself and Syria’s future.”

Note that in the first instance Clinton did not say that the administration thought he was a reformer; she claimed that lawmakers of “both parties’ came back from Syria saying Assad was a reformer. Still, the phrase was radioactive and she quickly tried to distance herself. We gave her Three Pinnochios at the time for claiming there was bipartisan support for this notion.

But Pawlenty delves in silliness by claiming that an offhand phrase by Clinton — “alternative vision” — constituted an announcement of a “plan” by Obama. Democracy activists’ main critique of Obama has been that he has been too silent on the uprising in Syria and has not explained his objectives there.

The Pinocchio Test

There are few numbers in foreign policy, making it a bit more difficult to fact check than statements on domestic policy. The effectiveness of a president’s foreign policy is often a matter of opinion, and one would expect Pawlenty to be critical.

In this section attacking Clinton — and by extension Obama — Pawlenty gets some things right, such as the cuts in democracy funding, but exaggerates or takes out of context other quotes by the secretary of State. For that, he earns a Pinocchio.

The bigger lesson here may be for Clinton, as Pawlenty’s speech shows how sometimes undisciplined language by a diplomat can be used as ammunition by your boss’s opponents.

One Pinocchio

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