Pawlenty's Reagan-esque foreign policy won't work for the Middle East

And the new right-wing internationalism doesn’t hang together very well. “Moral clarity” dictates absolute judgments rather than nuanced ones. Pawlenty presented his own true-North convictions in very stark terms: Arab Spring totally good, Iran totally evil, Israel totally right. This presented some problems. For example, Pawlenty accused Obama of destroying the relationship with Saudi Arabia by failing to stand up to Iran, the Saudis’ Shiite rival. “Engagement” has only emboldened the mullahs; the United States must work with the Saudis to bring about the fall of the regime. But since the United States also needs to unequivocally support “freedom’s rise” in the Arab world, a President Pawlenty would tell the Saudis that “they need to reform and open their society.” Candidate Pawlenty tried to square that circle with the implausible claim that America could gain “a position of trust” with the ruling family by standing up to Iran. The plain truth is that if the United States needs Saudi Arabia to counterbalance Iran — and of course to stabilize global oil supply — it will keep the conversation about reform polite and ineffectual.

The actual true North of Republican foreign policy is Israel. Here Pawlenty would not be outbid by the right, or perhaps he simply assumed that his establishment audience would share his views. He accused Obama of harboring an “anti-Israel attitude,” and of blaming Israel for “every problem in the Middle East.” A President Pawlenty would “never undermine Israel’s negotiating position.” He would bring peace to the Middle East by “cultivating and empowering moderate forces within the Palestinian society,” identity unspecified.

Leaving aside the absurdity of that last proposition, Israel’s ability to insist on maximalist terms for peace is plainly endangered by “freedom’s rise,” which is likely to sweep anti-American and anti-Israel forces into power. A questioner — me, actually — pointed out that one reason Obama had hesitated to call for Mubarak to step down was that Israel viewed the autocrat as an indispensable ally and interlocutor, and feared the alternative. Did Pawlenty have reason to believe that a democratic Egypt would not pose a danger to “our great friend”? Pawlenty responded by saying that since Mubarak-style autocracy was no longer sustainable, American policymakers should push for orderly change now rather than a cataclysm down the road. That’s a perfectly fair answer — but not if you are prepared to protect Israel from any and all forms of pressure.