While Minnesota Governor Tim Pawlenty said that he’d rather not have his foreign policy views associated with neoconservative Senators John McCain and Lindsey Graham, his speech on the Middle East yesterday clearly showed that he’s trying to carve out a neoconservative space for himself in the GOP primary field populated largely by non-interventionists.

Which is a way of saying that the speech contained a lot of high-flown language about freedom larded over a fairly simplistic analysis of regional trends, with a big dollop of contempt for "engagement."

Pawlenty arranged countries in the region into four categories: Those that are moving toward democracy (Egypt, Tunisia, Iraq), entrenched monarchies (Saudi Arabia, Morocco, Libya, Jordan), anti-U.S. regimes (Syria and Iran), and Israel.

Here’s Pawlenty’s take on Syria:

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.

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.

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.

The ultimate goal of the Arab Spring is to help the U.S. defeat Iran? Something tells me that Arabs won’t be falling over themselves to sign up.

It’s good that Pawlenty recognizes that the only way to achieve a positive outcome in Syria is to "work with Turkey and the Arab nations and the Europeans." Do you know what another word is for "working with other countries to achieve common interests"? Engagement. Interestingly, this is the only place in the speech where Pawlenty mentioned Turkey, a pretty startling oversight given Turkey’s significantly increased role in regional affairs, and the extent to which many see Turkey as a model Muslim democracy.

As for the idea that a weakened Assad regime would weaken Hamas, this is quite true, and has in fact already happened. As I noted when news of the Hamas-Fatah unity deal broke, one of the factors behind Hamas’ shift was the ongoing popular uprisings against their Syrian sponsor. But who has Hamas turned to instead? Egypt. This is a good thing, as I think it’s clear that a Hamas closer to Egypt is a Hamas farther from Iran, but it’s also important to note that, just as with Turkey, it’s precisely because Egypt is moving toward greater democratic accountability that it’s playing a more conciliatory role with Hamas. This understanding was, of course, nowhere to be found in Pawlenty’s analysis.

Given that Pawlenty thinks the major focus of U.S. policy in the Middle East should be the unseating of the Iranian regime, it’s unsurprising that his contempt for President Obama’s engagement policy was most pronounced in regard to the Islamic Republic. Pawlenty trotted out the tired, nonsensical argument that, if only Obama had spoken out more vigorously in June 2009, the Green Movement could have toppled the government. I’d note that I’ve never heard this theory expressed by an actual Iranian — Shirin Ebadi even seemed a bit offended when I raised the question with her last year, insisting that “The Green movement is the Iranian peoples’ movement,” and not the instrument of outside powers — yet it seems to have hardened into a tenet of neoconservative faith.

While the engagement policy obviously hasn’t achieved an agreement over Iran’s nuclear program that was its top goal, it’s important to recognize that Obama’s approach, both in terms of negotiations with the Iranian regime and in its greater involvement at the United Nations and with other international partners, has left Iran more isolated internationally, and under pressure domestically, than when Obama came into office, when Iran was at a peak of regional influence, thanks largely to America’s "showing strength" by invading Iraq. But recognizing this would require acknowledging that there’s much more to pursuing America’s security interests than speaking loudly and shaking a big stick, and Pawlenty just doesn’t seem interested.



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