Republican presidential candidate Tim Pawlenty is calling on Republicans to resist "isolationist sentiments" he said would endanger U.S. interests around the world.
In a speech laying out his foreign policy positions, the former Minnesota governor's remarks on Tuesday were aimed squarely at his chief GOP rival Mitt Romney and others in the party who have advocated a swift drawdown of U.S. military forces in Afghanistan and elsewhere.
"America already has one political party devoted to decline, retrenchment and withdrawal. It does not need a second one," Pawlenty said in an address to the Council on Foreign Relations in New York.
Pawlenty devoted most of the speech to the Middle East and the citizen uprisings throughout the region.
He launched a scathing attack on President Barack Obama, saying Obama had not followed a coherent strategy to respond to the events in places like Egypt, Libya and Syria. He said Obama had been too slow to speak out on behalf of pro-democracy demonstrators, had coddled dictators like Syria's Bashar Assad, and had empowered the mullahs in Iran.
Pawlenty was especially critical of Obama's handling of the Israel-Palestinian peace process, saying he showed a "stunning" lack of judgment there.
"The president doesn't really have a policy toward the peace process. He has an attitude. And let's be frank about what that attitude is: he thinks Israel is the problem," Pawlenty said, pledging he would stand strongly with Israel in the peace process if elected president next year.
His remarks were also directed at Republicans, many of whom are feeling heat from tea party activists questioning the long and costly military commitments the U.S. has made around the world.
Romney, who is leading the GOP presidential field, surprised many observers at a debate in New Hampshire last month when he said he wanted troops to be withdrawn from Afghanistan as soon as possible. "We've learned that our troops shouldn't go off and try and fight a war of independence for another nation," the former Massachusetts governor said. "Only the Afghanis can win Afghanistan's independence from the Taliban."
And last week, House Republicans voted to deny Obama the authority to wage war against Libya but fell short in an effort to cut off funds for the operation.
Pawlenty said he understood Republicans' reluctance to back Obama's policy and said he didn't want troops in Afghanistan any longer than necessary. But he warned Republicans not to "shrink from the challenges of American leadership" around the globe.
"Our enemies in the war on terror, just like our opponents in the cold war, respect and respond to strength," Pawlenty said. "Sometimes strength means military intervention. Sometimes it means diplomatic pressure. It always means moral clarity in word and deed."
Pawlenty has struggled to gain traction in the GOP presidential field against Romney and Minnesota Rep. Michele Bachmann, who formally announced her candidacy Monday. While he and his advisers have spent the last two years laying the groundwork for a presidential campaign, they've failed to gain the traction they had anticipated. Instead, they are trailing badly in polls and struggling to raise the millions it will take to win the GOP nomination, let alone compete with Obama.
Thursday is the end of a fundraising quarter that many observers will use as a marker for how serious campaigns are and Pawlenty's team is working in overdrive to finish the April-to-June period with strong numbers. While some campaigns are expected to report tens of millions of dollars during that period, Pawlenty's advisers are suggesting a rather modest sum, most likely under $5 million. Many of Pawlenty's top advisers are working without pay and his most recent advertising purchases in Iowa have been meager.
Pawlenty's decision to wade into foreign policy came as polls show that economic issues are the top priority for voters. An AP-Gfk poll released last week found that the economy, unemployment and gasoline prices are their top concerns, with terrorism, Afghanistan and relations with other countries far lower on the list.
Pawlenty laid out several goals he said he would pursue as president. He said the U.S. should assist fledgling democracies like Egypt; press monarchies like Saudi Arabia and Jordan on democratic reform; work to oust Assad and boost sanctions on Iran.
A spokesman for the Obama re-election campaign declined to comment on Pawlenty's speech. But Peter Juul, a policy analyst at the liberal Center for American Progress Action Fund, said the speech exposed the "incoherence" among Republicans on foreign policy issues.
"It's part of a broader indication of the dysfunction that conservatives are facing when it comes to talking, thinking and acting on foreign policy," Juul said, adding that Pawlenty appeared to be embracing the aggressive foreign policy posture of former President George W. Bush.
Associated Press writer Philip Elliott in Washington contributed to this report.