NEW YORK — Former Minnesota governor Tim Pawlenty attempted to separate himself from his fellow Republican presidential hopefuls Tuesday in a speech that laid out an active and aggressive foreign policy vision.
Pawlenty, speaking at the Council on Foreign Relations, criticized some in his party who have tended toward a more isolationist stance, particularly when it comes to the war in Afghanistan.
“America already has one political party devoted to decline, retrenchment and withdrawal,” he said. “It does not need a second one.”
Although Pawlenty named no names, the targets of his comments were clear: former governors Mitt Romney of Massachusetts and Jon Huntsman Jr. of Utah.
Huntsman, in particular, has come out in favor of a more rapid withdrawal from Afghanistan than the one that President Obama announced last week.
Romney caused some to wonder whether he was advocating a more isolationist stance two weeks ago when he said in a presidential debate that the Afghanistan war shows that the United States “cannot fight another nation’s war of independence.” His campaign has since rejected the idea that he has moved toward isolationism.
Pawlenty is wasting no time, however, in trying to cast himself as the leading foreign policy hawk among the top-tier presidential candidates. Even putting aside his stance on Afghanistan, he is going further than many of his Republican rivals have been prepared to go.
In his speech Tuesday, Pawlenty struck an aggressive tone about the U.S. role in the international community.
He suggested that the United States should push for regime change in several countries in the Middle East and North Africa, including Libya and Syria, and that it should urge allies such as Saudi Arabia to improve their treatment of religious minorities and women.
He criticized the Obama administration for not doing enough to be on the right side of political change in Egypt and Iran. Egypt, like Saudi Arabia, has been a U.S. ally.
The remarks were the latest round in Pawlenty’s attempt to separate himself from his rivals by staking out aggressive policy positions.
While Romney is the GOP race’s front-runner, and both he and Huntsman have significant personal wealth to bring to the contest, Pawlenty is struggling to raise money and rise in the polls in the all-important states with early primaries.
Pawlenty has laid out ambitious domestic policy goals, including huge tax cuts and a rarely achieved aim of 5 percent annual economic growth over the next decade.
He appears to be trying to shape the policy debate in the Republican field, outlining high-minded proposals and daring his opponents to jump on board.
To some extent, his approach has worked. His criticism of Romney and Huntsman on foreign policy has fed a simmering debate about the GOP’s supposed isolationism.
Romney made clear immediately after the debate two weeks ago that he hadn’t shifted his stance on Afghanistan in any significant way and remained committed to the mission. He later specified that forces in Afghanistan should be withdrawn with the approval of the generals and when the Afghan military is ready to take over. Romney has repeatedly said he opposes a timetable for withdrawal, and he has been one of Obama’s toughest critics on foreign policy.
Huntsman’s campaign, too, is working to explain that his position on Afghanistan does not imply a unwillingness to act internationally, but rather that he prefers a different approach. A spokesman said the candidate favors a move away from ground wars and toward more targeted special forces and intelligence officers, who are capable of covering more ground with a smaller footprint.
“Jon Huntsman is the only candidate who has the foreign policy experience to know the threat and to understand the best way for America to protect our core national security interests,” Huntsman spokesman Tim Miller said in response to Pawlenty.