Tim Pawlenty: America Never Leads From Behind

Presidential candidate Tim Pawlenty delivered a speech to the Council of Foreign Relations today, which included a stinging indictment of President Obama’s “murky” foreign policy of “engagement.”  Courtesy of Jim Geraghty at National Review, here’s an excerpt:

“Engagement” meant that in 2009, when the Iranian ayatollahs stole an election, and the people of that country rose up in protest, President Obama held his tongue.  His silence validated the mullahs, despite the blood on their hands and the nuclear centrifuges in their tunnels.  

While protesters were killed and tortured, Secretary Clinton said the Administration was “waiting to see the outcome of the internal Iranian processes.”  She and the president waited long enough to see the Green Movement crushed.

“Engagement” meant that in his first year in office, President Obama cut democracy funding for Egyptian civil society by 74 percent.  As one American democracy organization noted, this was “perceived by Egyptian democracy activists as signaling a lack of support.”  They perceived correctly.  It was a lack of support.  

“Engagement” meant that when crisis erupted in Cairo this year, as tens of thousands of protesters gathered in Tahrir Square, Secretary Clinton declared, “the Egyptian Government is stable.”  Two weeks later, Mubarak was gone.  When Secretary Clinton visited Cairo after Mubarak’s fall, democratic activist groups refused to meet with her.  And who can blame them?

The forces we now need to succeed in Egypt — the pro-democracy, secular political parties — these are the very people President Obama cut off, and Secretary Clinton dismissed.  

The Obama “engagement” policy in Syria led the Administration to call Bashar al Assad a “reformer.”  Even as Assad’s regime was shooting hundreds of protesters dead in the street, President Obama announced his plan to give Assad “an alternative vision of himself.”  Does anyone outside a therapist’s office have any idea what that means?  This is what passes for moral clarity in the Obama Administration.  

By contrast, I called for Assad’s departure on March 29; I call for it again today.  We should recall our ambassador from Damascus; and I call for that again today.  The leader of the United States should never leave those willing to sacrifice their lives in the cause of freedom wondering where America stands.  As President, I will not.

We need a president who fully understands that America never “leads from behind.” 

One of the big problems with American foreign policy before the “Arab Spring” is that we didn’t use our influence with “our” ugly dictators to improve their behavior.  We paid a lot of money for Hosni Mubarak, and when years of rule stretched into decades of corruption, we discovered that he was out of warranty and could no longer be returned for a refund, or replacement.

Obama and Clinton’s “engagement” means we’re making essentially the same mistake, except this time with new regimes of unknown character, and existing regimes that hate our guts.  We command no respect through fear, or even consistency, in the Middle East, and it’s not in our national character to “dominate” anyone.  That leaves us running through the capitals of squalid dictatorships, waving bundles of cash and asking if anyone would like to be our friend.

We should be brandishing our principles instead.  Pawlenty is right to point out that “engagement” requires either corrupting or concealing them.  It should have taken minutes for Tehran to understand that it had earned the utter contempt of the United States, and free world we are supposed to be leading, with its bloody crackdown against democracy.  The Obama Administration still has not called on blood-splattered dictator Bashar Assad to step down. 

Obama’s Middle East policy seems like a muddled disaster, until you consider its most important, but never openly stated, principle: avoid confrontation with Iran or its proxies at all costs.  Not a single move that would anger Iran has been made, with the possible exception of the Administration keeping its tongue firmly bitten when the monarchy of Bahrain brutally cracked down on pro-Iranian dissidents. 

In every other respect, Iran appears to be the country Obama wants to “engage.”  As we saw during the shamefully muted response to the Green Movement crackdown, the effort requires us to be less American, to the dismay of all those who look to the United States as the implacable enemy of oppression.  Sometimes there’s not much we can do to a tyrant, except raise out voice against him.  The silence when we fail to do so is deafening.