Former Minnesota governor and 2012 Republican candidate Tim Pawlenty delivered a strong foreign policy speech at the Council on Foreign Relations yesterday.

Pawlenty focused on the Middle East, but the overarching premise of the talk was that America is the vanguard of liberty and commerce in the world and cannot shirk her global responsibility to maintain security and promote a democratic peace. Music to my ears!

The most important section of the speech, and the clearest contrast with President Obama’s policy, was the section on Syria. Here’s Pawlenty:

We have a clear interest in seeing an end to Assad’s murderous regime. 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.    

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.

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.

I doubt the Republican nomination will be decided on the basis of foreign policy. But with Obama adopting a lead-from-behind approach and Rep. Dennis Kucinich, Democrat of Ohio, showing up in Syria this week and speaking kindly of Assad, there’s definitely an opportunity for Republicans to get tough on the gangster government in Damascus.