Tim Pawlenty's Foreign-Policy Speech Refutes Itself

Its core flaw: a belief that America has been wrong in the past, is wrong in the present, and alone knows what's best for the future

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In Tim Pawlenty's speech before the Council on Foreign Relations, the former Minnesota governor criticized America's decades old policy of cozying up to dictators in the Middle East, castigated America's behavior abroad during the Obama Administration -- it's allegedly wrong on Israel, Egypt, Libya, Tunisia, Syria, Saudi Arabia, Palestine, and Afghanistan -- and followed up with this non-sequitir: "America is exceptional, and we have the moral clarity to lead the world."

It's an incoherent position: it cannot be that America wrongly propped up Middle Eastern and North African dictators over many decades, that its current policy is terribly wrongheaded, and that our elected leaders are uniquely possessed of the moral clarity to get things right in those regions. Pawlenty implicitly admits as much. "America already has one political party devoted to decline, retrenchment, and withdrawal," he notes. "It does not need a second one." In other words, he thinks that all Democrats and some Republicans have wrongheaded views about America's role in the world. It sure seems like what Pawlenty actually believes is that if elected, he would possess the moral clarity to lead the world.  

Say that he's right. It's theoretically possible that Pres. Pawlenty would be the best leader the world has ever had. Even if that were true, however, his worldview would be obviously flawed for this reason: the U.S. is inevitably going to elect Democrats to the presidency, and other times it's going to elect Republicans with whom Pawlenty disagrees. Indeed, recent polls cast doubt on the likelihood that T-Paw is going to be elected in 2012. You'd think a guy who describes our current foreign policy as ineffective and incoherent -- someone who says our Middle East policy has been flawed for 60 years -- would argue for a more limited American role (you know, as a hedge in case voters don't wind up stocking the White House with right-thinking Republicans for the rest of time).

But nope.

After what he describes as 60 years of failure in the region, Pawlenty continues to insist that more active engagement in North Africa and the Middle East is the right way forward. It's a foreign policy outlook he shares with Senators John McCain and Lindsey Graham, as my colleague Jeffrey Goldberg noted in a recent column. And with other conservatives who imagine that professing a belief in American exceptionalism is a coherent foreign policy posture.

I've got a question for those hawks.

On the one hand, you assert that America is an exceptional nation, institutionally and morally superior to all others. It is for this reason that our global interventions and international supremacy are both necessary and justified. At the same time, many of you favor a muscular executive who is empowered to unilaterally wage war without first getting the approval of Congress.

Even if we accept that America is exceptional -- that its people and its institutions are uniquely suited to moral global leadership -- why would it follow that the particular person who occupies the White House possesses those same qualities? Wouldn't it be possible for a man unworthy of the presidency to take office, and lead exceptional America astray in ways that are unwise and immoral?

Isn't it your contention that President Obama is doing just that thing?

If you believe that even unwise presidents who pursue immoral policies are empowered to wage war before receiving Congressional approval, and that they're appropriately scene as predominating on foreign policy matters generally, then how is the exceptionalism of America generally relevant to the question of whether America is fit to lead the world? After all, in your view, it's the occupant of that one office, rather than the people and their elected representatives, that shapes foreign policy. Furthermore, you think the American people erred when it last selected that person.
 
Doesn't it follow, Mr. Pawlenty and other hawks who agree with him, that your rhetoric fails on its own terms?

Image credit: Mike Segar/ Reuters 


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Conor Friedersdorf is a staff writer at The Atlantic, where he focuses on politics and national affairs. He lives in Venice, California, and is the founding editor of The Best of Journalism, a newsletter devoted to exceptional nonfiction.

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